Thursday, January 21, 2016

Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H. (1964)

Yes, well. I have claimed in the past to like books that give me entirely new aesthetic experiences, and you certainly cannot fault Brazilian author Clarice Lispector in that regard. The narrator, G.H. (wikipedia sez it's short for gĂȘnero humano, meaning "humankind" in Portuguese), is a well-off sculptor who apparently spends most of her time just swanning around, not really engaging. All that changes when she goes into the maid's room and sees a cockroach, which freaks her out. She smashes it between the door and the wall, and the sight of this dying insect precipitates a spiritual crisis in her. She spends the next hundred-odd pages contemplating the roach, the porousness of life and identity, and the divine, until she more or less breaks down altogether. that an okay summary? It's not exactly an easy book to follow.

I found that my feelings toward this book closely mirrored the way I feel when watching late Terrence Malick films. I was thinking various of the following, sometimes at the same time: "this is arresting," "this may be getting at profound truths," "this is faintly ludicrous," "I don't understand this very well," "this is going on longer than it really needs to."

It really is arresting, luminous in places, and it's hard NOT to believe that Lispector knew the universe better than ordinary mortals. And she really does write ecstatically--even in translation:

...I with a life that at last doesn't escape me because I finally see it outside of myself--I am the roach, I am my leg, I am my hair, I am the section of whitest light on the plaster of the wall--I am every hellish piece of me--life in me is so demanding that if they hacked me up, like a lizard, the pieces would keep trembling and squirming. I am the silence engraved on a wall, and the oldest butterfly flutters and finds me: the same as always. From birth to death is when I call myself human, and shall never actually die.

On the other hand, dude, it's a novel about a woman staring at a bug and begging for transcendence. There's no way that can be other than a little silly. Also, even at a mere hundred fifty pages, it feels longer than it needs to be. A little of this goes a long way.

It must be said, though: none of this, none of what I think, is really relevant. It is what it is. It is absolutely committed to being the most is that it can be, and Lispector does not care a tiny bit if it sometimes makes her look crazy or silly (another thing she has in common with Malick). It really is a book that defies evaluation. How many "stars" do you give it? What could it possibly matter? To be honest, the book doesn't really resonate with me as it does with some people--it's no surprise that Lispector appears to have the most devoted acolytes of just about any author. But nobody cares what I think, as indeed why should they?


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