In 1949, Clarice Lispector found herself in a bit of a funk, despite the effusive acclaim surrounding her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, six years earlier. After the difficulty she’d faced getting her second novel, The Chandelier, published in 1946, her attempt to find a publisher for her third novel, The Besieged City, was proving no easier. The publisher of The Chandelier had rejected it, and so had many of Rio de Janeiro’s prestigious publishing houses. How was it that an author who had revolutionized Portuguese writing several years earlier, whose debut novel was praised as “the greatest novel a woman has ever written in the Portuguese language” suddenly couldn’t get her name in print? The Besieged City’s translation into English would be even more arduous—it is only arriving now, in 2019, seventy years after its initial publication and forty-two years after its author’s death.
The Besieged City follows Lucrécia, an independent young woman living with her mother in Switzerland in the twenties. Lucrécia dates several young men, marries the older Mateus, travels through the countryside, is widowed, and, in the book’s final lines, is saved from spinsterhood by a miraculous marriage proposal from one of her old flames, Perseu. The final pages are what sets The Besieged City apart from Lispector’s other works: it has a happy ending of deus-ex-machina scale. Yet much of the novel is deeply inscrutable. Told by a removed and roving narrator in fleeting, epigrammatic vignettes, it can be difficult to inhabit Lucrécia’s emotions or motivations as she navigates the repressive world of early-twentieth-century romance: “She batted her eyelids disturbed, though she didn’t know what form she’d choose to have; but whatever a man sees is a reality. Without realizing it the girl took the form that the man had perceived in her. That’s how things were built. She turned all modest toward Perseu—like an elongated person—reaching out, removing a bit of lint from his jacket.” Throughout much of The Besieged City, Lispector’s characteristic experimental, associative stream-of-consciousness style can make even the simplest interactions feel alienating, disjointed, and baffling. Even the act of Lucrécia picking lint off a man’s sleeve becomes strained and peculiar. Such experimentations and departures do not lessen the novel’s greatness, just as they didn’t for James Joyce, or for Lispector’s frequent critical parallel, Virginia Woolf.
Lispector wrote The Besieged City while living in Bern, Switzerland, during her husband’s European postwar tour as a part of the Brazilian diplomatic corps. Lispector referred to it as her most difficult book to write and said of the novel, “I was chasing after something and there was nobody to tell me what it was.” She found Switzerland dreadful and dull. According to the biography, Why This World, by Benjamin Moser, Lispector referred to the country as a “cemetery of sensations” and said that Bern “lacks a demon.” In the novel, the fictional Swiss city of São Geraldo (the titular “Besieged City”) grows from a sleepy village into an industrialized town. When Lispector did eventually return to Rio in 1949, and found a publisher for the novel, it sold terribly and was, by and large, ignored by critics. One of her early champions, Sérgio Milliet, panned the novel, claiming that “the author succumbs beneath the weight of her own richness.” Though Lispector would find more success writing for newspapers and publishing short stories—particularly the story collection Family Ties—the perceived failures of The Chandelier and The Besieged City may have weighed heavily on the author. It would be twelve more years until the publication of her next novel, The Apple in the Dark.
The Besieged City’s challenging prose certainly contributed to its long-delayed appearance in English. Yet underneath Lispector’s inventive, modernist style is a poignant and radical depiction of a young woman navigating a patriarchal society. Given its bellicose title, its European interwar setting (even in neutral Switzerland), and its publication several years after the end of World War II, readers might have expected a book about war. But instead of reading about the great deeds of men on the battlefield, one of the presupposed “important topics” of literature, they would read about the strained self-image and wandering vision of Lucrécia: “She’d see herself the way an animal would see a house: no thought going beyond the house. This was the intimacy without contact that horses had; and the city’s houses were entirely seen only by them.” Horses are at once beautiful, powerful, beloved, and crucial to the success of the city, but they are also the tools of the men who ride them. Lucrécia watches the horses being ridden through the street, and refers to her own hands as “hooves.” In Roman myth, the men of Rome used the suicide of Lucretia, who took her own life after being raped by the despotic king Tarquin, as their justification for overthrowing the monarchy and sparking the Roman Republic. In both the Roman myth and The Besieged City, men use women as vessels suited to their own warlike purposes—one Lucretia is the rally flag and the other Lucrécia is the steed.
In her 1984 treatise, How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ details the ways in which, for centuries, male gatekeepers disenfranchised writing by women. Though Clarice Lispector is absent from Russ’s English-language focus, she might have made a case study. In step one, Russ writes that books written by women were often assumed to be written by men instead, and given Lispector’s atypical Brazilian name, not only was this the case but it was also postulated that she had not existed at all; even the effusive praise for her debut novel caveated it as “for a woman.” Later on, Russ argues that critics have dismissed women’s experience as a subject matter entirely: “If women’s experience is defined as inferior to, less important than, or ‘narrower’ than men’s experience, women’s writing is automatically denigrated. If women’s experience is simply not seen, the effect will be the same. She wrote it but look what she wrote about becomes She wrote it, but it’s unintelligible/badly constructed/thin/spasmodic/uninteresting.” Would The Besieged City have been dismissed if it had followed the promise of its warlike title? If it had described Perseu’s life as a soldier in the aftermath of war-torn Europe, instead of Lucrécia’s?
The Besieged City’s debut translation into English is the newest entry in the decade-long project of New Directions to translate or retranslate all of Lispector’s work, led by Lispector’s biographer, Benjamin Moser. The Besieged City arrives to us today as an artifact and a time capsule, a bittersweet revelation of a missed moment in a modernist movement that has long since passed. What sort of influence might it have had on English-language letters if the translation had come along sooner? In its titular moment, Lucrécia considers the suffocating presence of São Geraldo itself:
There was the city.
Its possibilities were terrifying. But it never revealed them!
Only every once in a while a glass would shatter.
If at least the girl were outside its walls. What a painstaking work of patience it would be to encircle it. To waste her life trying geometrically to lay siege to it with calculations and resourcefulness in order to one day, even when she was decrepit, find the breach.
If at least she were outside its walls.
But there was no way to besiege it. Lucrécia Neves was inside the city.
Lucrécia is keenly, nihilistically aware of her role within the city. She is held apart from the rights and privileges of society while also being bound by its rules and norms. These norms require her to waste her life, perhaps in vain, trying to achieve a position of power, to become anything other than a beast of burden. Lispector’s attempts to assail Brazil’s literary parapets are akin to Lucrécia’s own modest desire to find her own breach in the city’s walls. For Lispector, the space for The Besieged City may finally come, four decades after her own death. In the novel’s final pages, on receiving the news of the miraculous last-minute marriage proposal, Lispector writes simply that, “The siege of São Geraldo had been lifted.” A lifted siege is not a successful one—it is one in which the assault has failed and the attackers have given up hope of ever taking the city. In this brief line we see the cracks in Clarice Lispector’s happy ending.
Mike Broida’s work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, and The Times Literary Supplement, among others. He is currently living on a Fulbright grant in Portugal.