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The Discovery of the World

By

First Person

Clarice Lispector at work. Courtesy of Paulo Gurgel Valente.

In 1967, the Jornal do Brasil asked Clarice Lispector to write a Saturday newspaper column on any topic she wished. For nearly seven years, she wrote weekly, covering a wide range of topics—humans and animals, bad dinner parties, the daily activities of her two sons—but the subject matter was often besides the point. These genre-defying missives are defined by a lyricism and strangeness that readers of her fiction will recognize, though they are a thing apart in their brevity and interiority. Too Much of Life: The Complete Crônicas will be published in English by New Directions this September. As her son, Paulo Gurgel Valente, has written, “Enjoy the columns, I know of nothing quite like them.” Today, the Review is publishing a selection of these crônicas.

 

July 6, 1968

The Discovery of the World

What I want to tell you is as delicate as life itself. And I want to use the delicacy that exists inside me along with the peasant coarseness that is my saving grace.

As a child and, later, as an adolescent, I was precocious in many things. In sensing an atmosphere, for example, in picking up on someone else’s personal atmosphere. On the other hand, far from being precocious, I was incredibly backward as regards other important things. Indeed, I continue to be backward in many areas. And there’s nothing I can do about it: it seems there is a childish side of me that will never grow up.

For example, until I turned thirteen, I was very backward in learning what Americans call “the facts of life.” The expression, “facts of life,” refers to the profound love relationship between a man and a woman out of which children are born. Or did I understand, but deliberately muddied my potential for understanding so that I could, without feeling too shocked at myself, continue innocently to dress myself up for the benefit of boys? Dressing myself up when I was eleven consisted in washing my face until my taut skin gleamed. I would feel ready then. Was my ignorance a sly, unconscious way of keeping myself innocent so that I could guiltlessly continue to think about boys? I believe it was. Because I always knew about things that I didn’t even know I knew.

My school friends knew everything and even told stories about it. I didn’t understand, but I pretended to understand so that they would not despise me and my ignorance.

Meanwhile, unaware of what the reality was, I continued, purely instinctively, to flirt with the boys I liked, and to think about them. My instinct preceded my intelligence.

Until one day, when I had already turned thirteen, as if only then did I feel mature enough to receive some shocking real-life news, I told my secret to a close friend: that I was ignorant and had only pretended to be in the know. She found this hard to believe because I had pretended so well. However, finally convinced that I was telling the truth, she took it upon herself, right there on the street corner, to explain the mystery of life to me. Except that she was equally young and didn’t know how to talk about it in a way that would not wound the sensitive soul I was at the time. I stood staring at her, open-mouthed, paralyzed, filled with a mixture of bewilderment, horror, indignation and mortally wounded innocence. Mentally I was stammering: but why? what for? The shock was so great — ​and for a few months really traumatizing — ​that right there on that street corner I swore out loud that I would never marry.

Some months later, though, I forgot my oath and continued my little romances.

Later, when more time had passed, instead of feeling shocked by the way a man and a woman come together, I thought it perfect. And extremely delicate too. I had, by then, been transformed into a young woman, tall, thoughtful, rebellious, with a large dose of wildness and more than a pinch of shyness.

And yet before I became fully reconciled to the way life works, I suffered a lot, something I could have avoided had a responsible adult taken it upon themselves to explain about love. That adult would have known how to approach a childish soul without tormenting her with that unpleasant surprise, without obliging her, all alone, to come to terms with it in order, once again, to accept life and its mysteries.

Because what is truly surprising is that, even when I did know all the facts, the mystery remained intact. Even though I know that a plant produces flowers, I am still surprised by nature’s secret paths. And if, today, I still retain my modesty, it is not because I see anything shameful in the facts — ​it is merely female modesty.

And life, I swear, is beautiful.

 

March 14, 1970

Quietly Weeping

. . . I suddenly noticed him, and he was such an extraordinarily handsome, virile man that I felt a rush of joy as if I had created him. Not that I wanted him for myself just as I don’t want the Moon on those nights when she’s as light and cool as a pearl. Just as I don’t want the little nine-year-old boy with the hair of an archangel, who I saw running after a ball. All I wanted was to look. The man glanced at me for a moment and smiled quietly: he knew how handsome he was, and I know he knew that I didn’t want him for myself, he smiled because he didn’t feel in the least threatened. (Exceptional beings are more subject to dangers than ordinary people.) I crossed the road and hailed a cab. The breeze lifted the hairs on the back of my neck, and it was autumn, but it seemed to speak of a new spring as if the weary summer deserved the coolness of newly sprung flowers. And yet it was autumn and the leaves on the almond trees were turning yellow. I was so happy that I huddled fearfully in one corner of the taxi because happiness hurts too. And all because I had seen a handsome man. I still didn’t want him for myself, but he had, in a way, given me so much with that comradely smile of his, a smile between two people who understand each other. By then, approaching the viaduct near the Museum of Modern Art, I no longer felt happy, and the autumn seemed like a threat aimed directly at me. I felt like quietly weeping.

 

April 17, 1971

As Fast as I Can Type

Goodness gracious, how love keeps death at bay! I don’t know quite what I mean by that: I rely on my incomprehension, which has given me an instinctive and intuitive life, whereas so-called comprehension is so limited. I have lost friends. I don’t understand death, but I’m not afraid of dying. It will be a rest: a cradle at last. I won’t hurry it though; I will live until the last bitter drop. I don’t like it when people say I have an affinity with Virginia Woolf (I only read her after writing my first book): the reason is that I do not want to forgive her for committing suicide. Our horrible duty is to keep going to the end. And not to rely on anyone. Live your own reality. Discover the truth. And in order to suffer less, numb yourself slightly. Because I can no longer carry the sorrows of the world. What to do, though, since I feel totally what other peoples are and feel? I live in their lives, but I’ve run out of strength. I’m going to live a little in my life. I’m going to waterproof myself a little more. — ​There are some things I will never say: not in books, much less in a newspaper. And which I will never tell anyone in the world. A man told me that in the Talmud it says there are things that can be said to many people, others to few people, and others to no one. To which I would add: there are certain things I don’t even want to tell myself. I feel I know some truths. But I don’t know if I would understand them mentally. And I need to mature a little more if I am to draw closer to those truths. Which I can already sense. But truths don’t have words. Truths or truth? No, don’t even think that I’m going to talk about God: it’s a secret of mine.

It has turned out to be a beautiful autumn day. The beach was filled with a fine wind, a freedom. And I was alone. And at such moments I don’t need anyone. I need to learn not to need anyone. It’s difficult, because I need to share what I feel with someone. The sea was calm. I was too. But on the lookout, suspicious. As if this calm couldn’t last. Something is always about to happen. The unforeseen fascinates me.

There were two people with whom I had such a strong connection that I ceased to exist, while still continuing to be. How can I explain that? We would gaze into each other’s eyes and say nothing, and I was the other person and the other person was me. It’s so difficult to speak, so difficult to say things that cannot be said, so silent. How to translate the profound silence of the meeting of two souls? It’s very hard to explain: we were gazing straight at each other, and we remained like that for several moments.

We were one single being. Those moments are my secret. There was what is called perfect communion. I call this an “acute state of happiness.” I am terrifically lucid and I seem to be reaching a loftier plane of humanity. They were the loftiest moments I have ever had. Except that afterward . . . Afterward, I realized that, for those two people, such moments were meaningless; they were thinking about someone else. I had been alone, all alone. That was a pain too deep for words. I will pause briefly to answer the door to the man who has come to fix the record player. I don’t know what mood I will be in when I return to the typewriter. I haven’t listened to music for quite some time as I am trying to desensitize myself. One day, though, I was taken unawares while watching the movie Five Easy Pieces. There was music on the soundtrack, and I cried. There’s nothing shameful about crying. What’s shameful is me saying in public that I cried. But then they pay me to write. Therefore, I write.

Right, I’m back. The day is still just as beautiful. But life is very expensive (I say this because of how much the man wanted for the repair). I need to work a lot to have the things I want or need. I don’t think I ever want to write books again. I am only going to write for this newspaper. I would like a job for just a few hours a day, let’s say two or three hours, and that it (the job) would involve me interviewing people. I have a knack for this, even though I might appear a little absent at times. But when I’m with a genuine person, I, too, become genuine. If you think I’m going to copy out what I’m writing or correct this text, you are mistaken. It will go as it is. I will only read it through again to correct any typos.

As for a person I’m thinking of at this moment and who uses punctuation completely different from me, I say that punctuation is the breath of the sentence. I think I have already said this. I write at the same pace as I breathe. Am I being hermetic? Because it seems that in a newspaper you have to be terribly explicit. Am I explicit? I couldn’t care less.

Now I’m going to pause and light a cigarette. Perhaps I’ll go back to the typewriter or perhaps I’ll stop right here.

I’m back. I’m now thinking about turtles. When I wrote about animals, I said, out of pure intuition, that the turtle was a dinosaurian animal. Only later did I come to read that it actually is. How weird! One day I will write about turtles. They interest me a lot. As a matter of fact, all living beings, apart from man, are a riot of amazingness. It seems that, if we were made by someone, there must have been a lot of surplus energetic matter out of which the animals were made. What use, dear God, is a turtle? The title of what I am now writing should not be “As fast as I can type.” It should be more or less this, in the form of a question: “What about turtles?” And whoever reads me would say: “It’s true, I haven’t thought about turtles for a long time.” Now I really will stop. Goodbye. Until next Saturday.

 

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson. From Too Much of Life: The Complete Crônicas, which will be published by New Directions in September. Originally published as Todas as Crônicas in 2018. Courtesy of Paulo Gurgel Valente.

Clarice Lispector was born in 1920 to a Jewish family in western Ukraine. As a result of the anti-Semitic violence they endured, the family fled to Brazil in 1922, and Clarice Lispector grew up in Recife. Following the death of her mother when Clarice was nine, she moved to Rio de Janeiro. She is the author of nine novels, as well as a number of short stories, children’s books, and newspaper columns.