“I can feel the charlatan in me, haunting me,” Clarice Lispector wrote in one of the crônicas, or newspaper columns, she composed each week from 1967 to 1973 for the Jornal do Brasil. She was writing in Leme, a neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro named for a vast rock that resembled the rudder of a ship. “I am almost sickened by my basic honesty,” she continued. Later in the column, she suggested that “bad taste” and bad writing were similar, and that bad writing essentially meant telling the simple, unadorned, too-sincere truth. In writing, she declared, “the dividing line between bad taste and truth is almost imperceptible. In writing, moreover, there is an accepted standard of good taste which is actually much worse than bad taste. Just to amuse myself, I sometimes walk that thin line between the two”—between, that is, being a “charlatan,” as that column was titled, and writing the bland truth.
A uniquely Brazilian form, crônicas offered readers free-form writing from writers of all kinds, including poets and novelists. Lispector’s adoring editor at the paper, Alberto Dines, simply published almost everything exactly as she submitted it. Although many of her crônicas appeared autobiographical, many also seemed to bend the truth; Lispector, who rarely kept even her birthday consistent, felt most comfortable writing about herself when she was allowed to invent and embellish.
In her crônicas, she spoke more directly about her life than usual, yet those seeming revelations were overlaid with the metaphysical ponderings, digressions, and questions about reality that characterized her fiction, like The Passion According to G. H., and many of her short stories—as well as the works of hers that defied characterization. “I am not going to be autobiographical,” she wrote in Água Viva, a genre-defying semiautobiographical text partly stitched together from her newspaper columns. “I want to be ‘bio.’ ” In a note to her friend and editor Olga Borelli about the text, she wrote, “I must find another way of writing. Very close to the truth (which?), but not personal.”
If she played with the superficial truth, it was in service, she believed, of exposing one deeper, of passing readers a brief-lit lantern for the moonless dark of ourselves, even if that light revealed, sometimes, more contradiction, more chaos, more flittering soul-storm. Her crônicas blurred lines between genre—some are like little Zen koans, some lyrical reminiscences, while others, like “Return to Nature,” are harder to categorize, reading like parables or flash fiction. At times, they also muddied demarcations between nonfiction and fiction, resurrecting the oldest question of form: Where does nonfiction truly end and fiction begin, and what do we do with texts where we do not know the answer?
That she started the crônicas at all seemed a miracle. A year before she began them, she had nearly died when her two fatal addictions came together: cigarettes and sleeping pills. She had fallen asleep with a lit cigarette in hand after taking a soporific on the evening she was supposed to have attended a friend’s book launch; at three thirty-five in the morning the following day, a neighbor noticed smoke billowing out of her apartment. She awoke in a familiar yet phantasmagoric hell: her room, acrid and ablaze. Instead of fleeing, she tried to save her papers and, in her maelstrom panic, attempted to put out the fire with her bare hands. Paulo, her son, saved her by dragging her to a nearby apartment; as she walked, she left bloody footprints. “The fire I suffered a while back partially destroyed my right hand,” she reflected later. “My legs were marked forever … I spent three days in hell, where—so they say—bad people go after death. I don’t consider myself bad,” she added, “and I experienced it while still alive.” Pandemonium, as for Milton, had taken on a new, hellish meaning.
She lived with the stagnant sadness of swamps; her old life had become an ignis fatuus, fluttering and flaming just out of reach. Typing became arduous. Her apartment, from where she could hear the hiss of waves and the thwack of tennis balls, seemed oppressive. The crônicas, however, gave her a new task to focus on and conquer, even though she had misgivings about becoming a cronista. The idea of writing for money appalled her. “I’m … new to writing for money,” she revealed in an early column. “I worked in the press before as a professional, without signing my name. Signing, however, automatically makes it more personal. And I feel a bit like I’m selling my soul.” A friend consoled her. “Writing is selling one’s soul a little bit,” he told her.
Her readers purchased her soul with relish. The columns granted her a vast new range of fans, particularly the Brazilian middle-class targeted by the Jornal. She was famous, now, in a new way. One corybantic fan, who had seen Lispector’s apartment ablaze on that fateful night, even appeared at her door with an octopus and proceeded to cook the cephalopod right then and there as a token of her appreciation. “Being a columnist,” Lispector reflected later, “has a mystery that I don’t understand: it’s that columnists, at least in Rio, are very loved … I feel so close to my readers.” She had joined a tradition in which some of Brazil’s most renowned writers had partaken, from Machado de Assis to Carlos Drummond de Andrade.
But she had also joined as a woman, making her one of the few female cronistas of the time.
“Let us assume that I never tell lies, which does not happen to be true,” she said in “Mistaken Assumptions,” a poignant epiphoric list always ending in “which does not happen to be true.” (It begins, “Let us assume that I am a strong person, which does not happen to be true,” then includes darker, more lugubrious declarations, like “Let us assume that among my defects there are also many good qualities, which does not happen to be true.”) It is difficult to know how to read this; is she lying about lying? It appeared as a companion to “Correct Assumptions,” in which Lispector asks readers to assume the “telephone system has broken down throughout the city, which happens to be true”—like the other column, nearly all the sentences end in epistrophe. She writes that somehow, she received a call, a crossed line from another call not intended for her, but the “may God bless you” she hears at the end of the conversation is “also intended for me … I shall make no more assumptions. But simply say Yes to the world.” Are any of these events and assumptions “true” in a biographical sense? Lispector avoids clarifying that question: what mattered more to her was the revelation, the sudden symbolic blessing. Perhaps this is the point: that one can sometimes lie and tell the truth simultaneously.
Her relation to veracity, at its core, resembles Hunter S. Thompson’s celebrated and controversial brand of Gonzo journalism, which was blunt, vulgar, stylistically literary, and—most notably—unconcerned with the possibility of being unreliable. “Gonzo” was first applied to his 1970 “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” a putative account of a Kentucky Derby (written in the middle of Lispector’s career as a cronista), in which Thompson freely used expletives and drank himself into oblivion (because he had forgotten to bring “any strange illegal drugs, so we would have to get by on booze”), to such a degree that it becomes unclear what is accurate in a piece marketed as nonfiction. “We were both half-crazy from too much whiskey, sun fatigue, culture shock, lack of sleep and general dissolution … The rest of the day blurs into madness,” Thompson writes near the end, putting into question what, if anything, of that blur had truly occurred. William Kennedy scarcely took it as reportage at all, arguing that Thompson had “used all of his fictional talent to describe and anatomize those characters and just make it all up. I’m sure some of it was real.” This was nonfiction that pushed at the edges of the genre, eking out a space in which nonfiction, suddenly, was not clearly the truth. “It was like falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool full of mermaids,” Thompson wrote of abandoning the stricter style of a standard newspaper like the New York Times.
Lispector was not composing Thompsonian Gonzo, but Kennedy’s reflection could as equally have applied to her.
In 2017, in America, Lispector’s confessional, ludic columns might find a harsher home, simply because they resist a blunt, factual clarity. Newspapers and magazines find themselves under a heightened scrutiny from the general public, with a sector of the American population dismissing all reports from certain sources as “fake news.” There is a pressing sense that we need definitive, well-sourced reporting to combat propaganda—including that of the current administration.
Partly because of this, some critics have declared that the confessional, as well as the personal essay more generally, no longer should define writing in the era of Trump. “The personal is no longer political in quite the same way that it was,” Jia Tolentino wrote in The New Yorker. “Many profiles of Trump voters positioned personal stories as explanations for a terrible collective act; meanwhile, Clinton’s purported reliance on identity politics has been heavily criticized. Individual perspectives do not, at the moment, seem like a trustworthy way to get to the bottom of a subject.” I strongly disagree. But even such contemporary essays are often expected to be simple expositions of true experience; what of Lispector, who winks at us about lying?
Nonfiction itself is a curious, occasionally spurious label. Nonfiction is supposed to be true; however, our memories are fallible, and when we reconstruct a highly personal past we have to hope we remember it correctly, hope our memories have not rotted away, even as many people fail to accurately recall events minutes after they occur, much less long-faded dialogue, much less much of anything, if we are honest. This disquieting, but very real, permeability between fiction and nonfiction is a trivial truth we often sweep aside. To be sure, we should be able to trust and celebrate great nonfiction, be it journalism, exemplary scholarship, or lyrical memoir. But “truth” remains a mistier category than we may like—all the more in Lispector’s protean columns.
How we define the world in nonfiction is influenced by our assumptions about what it contains—our “background books,” as Umberto Eco put it—which was why Marco Polo, upon encountering rhinos in Sumatra, declared them unicorns, if somewhat ungainly specimens thereof. He was wrong, yet from his more limited perspective of “truth,” he was right. The larger point is both simple and serious: although there are right and wrong answers about reality, some texts we label “nonfiction,” from travel narratives to memoirs to newspaper columns, remain, ultimately, impossible to fully categorize as either nonfiction or fiction. My rumbustious Caribbean upbringing echoed the marvelous worlds of García Márquez, because, as he said in a 1981 Paris Review interview, “Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination”; to critics outside that world, however, this was not realism but, rather, a magic-inflected variant thereof. I do not believe in magic, but cultural norms shift how we define our day-to-day realities, and, with that, our definitions of nonfiction.
We need truth, not “truthiness,” in 2017, but a healthy era should have ample room for aesthetic ambiguity as well. Art always contains ambiguity’s shadows. If we demand only the purest truths and the purest fictions, art deliquesces away, leaving dogma behind. When I read a great many straightforward articles, I eventually find myself yearning for Lispector’s brand of playful uncertainty. I feel a deep, oceanic longing for her art, something like saudades, that perfect Portuguese term for a nostalgic yearning—or, as Lispector defined it in her lyrical crônica “Saudade,” a “hunger” so intense that “it wants to absorb an entire other person.”
Lispector thrived in ambiguity. In one of her earliest crônicas, Lispector writes that “everything alive is searching for someone or something.” She sought a special way of revealing truth, even if that method meant softening the edges of nonfiction and fiction. She sought something deep, expansive, and, at times, unsettling, a tugging and ripping at the cartographic corners of truth, which sometimes resulted in a more beautiful fabric, if one that no longer depicted a true map of the world. Rather, she created a map best followed with our eyes closed, walking into a nowhere place bright and strange as starbloom.
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer at Literary Hub, and her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Tin House, the New York Times, Guernica, The Cut, and elsewhere.