Clarice Lispector. 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, which collects these columns and others Lispector wrote throughout her career, will be published in English by New Directions this September. As Lispector’s 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, the second in a series.
October 26, 1968
Z.M. felt life was slipping through her fingers. In her humility, she forgot that she herself was a source of life and creation. She went out very little, turned down any invitations. She wasn’t the kind of woman to notice when a man was interested in her unless he actually said so — then she would be surprised and welcome his interest.
One afternoon — it was springtime, the first day of spring — she went to visit a female friend of hers who asked her bluntly: How could a grown woman like her be so very humble? How could she fail to notice that several men were in love with her? How could she not see that, out of respect for herself, she really ought to have an affair? She also said that she had once seen her enter a room full of acquaintances, none of whom were anywhere near as bright as her. And yet she had seen her almost creep in, as if she barely existed, like a doe with its head bowed. “You should walk with your head held high. You’re bound to suffer because you’re different, cosmically different, so just accept that the bourgeois life is not for you, and enter a room with your head held high.” “Go all alone into a room full of people?” “Yes. You don’t need to go with someone else, you’re fine on your own.”
She remembered that, later that same day, there was to be a kind of cocktail party for the primary school teachers during their vacation. She remembered the new attitude she was supposed to adopt, and so didn’t arrange to go with one of her colleagues — she would risk going all alone. She put on a fairly new dress, but her courage failed her. Then — and she understood this only afterward — she put on so much eye makeup and so much lipstick that her face looked like a mask. She was superimposing another person on herself: and that other person was amazingly uninhibited, vain. That other person was everything she was not. But when it was time to leave her apartment, she wavered: Was she not asking too much of herself? All dressed up, with a painted mask on her face — ah, persona, why not make use of you and finally be! — she sank timorously into the armchair in her all too familiar living room and her heart begged her not to go. She seemed to sense that she was going to be badly bruised, and she was no masochist. Finally, she stubbed out her cigarette of courage, got up, and left.
She felt that the torments of the timid had never been adequately described. As the taxi drove along, she was dying ever so slightly.
And then suddenly there she was, standing before a vast room filled with possibly very many people, although they seemed very few in the enormous space in which the cocktail party — that modern ritual — was being held.
How long did she last with her head held unnaturally high? The mask made her feel uncomfortable, and besides, she knew she was prettier without makeup. But without makeup her soul would be laid bare. And she couldn’t risk or allow herself such a luxury.
She spoke and smiled to one person, spoke and smiled to another. But as happens at all cocktail parties, it was impossible to have a conversation, and eventually she found herself alone again.
She spotted a man who had once been her lover. And she thought: However much love that man might have received in his life, I was the one who gave him my whole soul and my whole body. They looked at each other, scrutinized each other, and he was doubtless rather shocked by that painted mask. She didn’t know what to do except ask him if they were still friends — if that were possible. He said, yes, of course, they would always be friends.
After a while she felt she could no longer hold up her head. But how to cross the vast space from there to the door? Alone, like a fugitive? Then she half confessed her problem to one of her fellow teachers, who kindly led her across the huge expanse that lay between her and the door.
And in the dark of the spring night she was an unhappy woman. Yes, she was different. Yes, she was also timid. Yes, she was oversensitive. Yes, she had met an old flame. The darkness and the smell of spring in the air. The heart of the world was beating in her breast. She had always been conscious of the smells of nature. She finally found a taxi and sat down in it almost shedding tears of relief, remembering that the same thing had happened to her in Paris, although that had been even worse. She fled home like a fugitive from the world. There was no hiding the fact: she didn’t know how to live. In the safety of her home, she looked at herself in the mirror as she was washing her hands and saw the persona buckled onto her face: the persona bore the fixed smile of a clown. Then she washed her face and felt relieved to have her soul bare again. Then she took a sleeping pill. Before sleep came, she lay wide awake and promised herself never to run that same risk again unprotected. The pill was beginning to calm her down. And the immense night of dreams began.
May 3, 1969
It was a ladies’ lunch. Both the hostess and the guests seemed genuinely pleased that everything was going so well. As if there were always a risk of revealing that this reality of dumbwaiters, flowers, and elegance was all a bit above them — not for reasons of social class, but just that: above them. Perhaps above the fact that they were merely women and not ladies. While all of them had a right to be there, they nevertheless seemed to live in dread of the moment when someone would commit a gaffe—a reality-revealing moment.
The lunch was exquisite, a million miles from any idea of hours spent laboring in the kitchen: before the guests arrived all the scaffolding had been removed.
Although there was one tiny detail which, for the good of the enterprise—namely, lunch—could not be ignored. The detail that one lady was obliged to ignore was the fact that whenever the waiter was serving her neighbor at the table, he always very lightly brushed against her hair, which gave her the kind of fright that always presages disaster. There were two waiters. The one serving that lady remained invisible to her throughout the meal. And it’s unlikely that he ever saw her face. With no chance of them actually meeting, their only relationship was established through those occasional encounters with her hair. And he knew that. Through her hair he gradually began to feel that he was loathed and he, too, began to feel angry.
It’s likely that each of the guests felt a brief flicker of anger during that lavish lunch. Each must have felt, at least for a moment, the urgent, pressing anxiety of a coiffure about to collapse, thus propelling the lunch into disaster.
The hostess wielded her authority lightly, which rather suited her. Sometimes, though, she forgot she was being observed and adopted some slightly surprising expressions, for example an air of weary irritation and disappointment. Or, as occurred at one point — what vague, anxious thought was going through her mind just then? — she looked blankly at the guest to her right, who was speaking to her, saying: “Isn’t the countryside there magnificent?” And the hostess, in a sweet, dreamy, yearning voice, said somewhat impatiently:
“Yes … yes, it is, isn’t it?”
The person who enjoyed herself most was Senhora X, the guest of honor, who was always inundated with invitations and for whom a lunch party was simply lunch. With delicate, tranquil gestures, she happily devoured the French food, plunging the spoon into her mouth, then studying it curiously—a remnant of childhood.
Among all the other guests, though, there was a feigned air of nonchalance. Perhaps if they had feigned less they would have appeared more nonchalant. No one would have dared, though. Each was a little afraid of herself, as if fearing that she might make the most awful blunder if she dropped her guard just a little. No: they were all determined to make this a perfect lunch.
There was no chance to relax and be themselves, to allow an occasional moment of silence. That was quite impossible. As soon as a subject happened, quite naturally, to come up, it was pounced on by everyone and the discussion went on until it ran out of steam and faded into a mere ellipsis. Since they all approached the topic from the same angle — for they all knew about the same things — which meant there was no chance of a divergence of opinion, each topic again opened up the possibility of silence.
Senhora Z, a large, healthy woman, fifty years old and newly married, was wearing a corsage pinned to her bodice. She had the easy, excited laugh of someone who has married late. The others all seemed determined to find her ridiculous. And this somewhat relieved the tension. However, she was a little too obviously ridiculous, thus failing to offer us a key to her personality — if only she would give us a chance to find out what that key was. But she didn’t: she talked and talked.
The worst thing was that one of the guests spoke only French. This proved problematic for Senhora Y. Her only possible revenge came when the foreigner said one of those phrases that only needed to be parroted back, with just a slight change in intonation. “Il n’est pas mal,” said the foreigner. Then Senhora Y, confident that she would be saying the right thing, would repeat the words very loudly, in a voice full of the surprise and pleasure of someone who has actually had a thought and made a discovery: “Ah, il n’est pas mal, il n’est pas mal.” For, as another guest said in French, even though she wasn’t a foreigner and in response to something else entirely: “C’est le ton qui fait la chanson.”
As for Senhora K, all dressed in gray, she was always ready to hear and to respond. She felt comfortable in her dullness. She had learned that her best weapon was discretion and was positively profligate in her use of it. “No one’s going to get me to behave any differently,” said her smiling, maternal eyes. She had even found a way of signaling her discretion, as in that story about spies who wore special badges. Thus, she deliberately wore what you might call discreet clothes. Her jewelry was frankly discreet. Besides, discreet people form a kind of clan. They recognize each other at a glance and, by praising each other, praise themselves.
The conversation opened with talk of dogs. The final conversation over the liqueurs — perhaps because things do tend to come full circle — was also about dogs. Our sweet hostess had a dog called José. Something that no one in the discreet clan would have. Any dog of theirs would be called Rex, and even then, in a very discreet moment, they would say: “It was my son who named him that.” In the clan of the discreet, it’s considered normal to speak of children as if they were the adorable tyrants of the household. “My son thinks my dress is horrible.” “My daughter bought tickets for a concert, but I don’t think I’ll go, she can go with her father.” Generally speaking, any member of the discreet clan is invited because of her husband, a wealthy businessman, or her late father, doubtless a famous lawyer.
They leave the table. Those who carefully fold their napkins before getting up do so because that is what they were taught to do. Those who casually throw them down have a theory about casually throwing down napkins.
The coffee helps settle the copious, exquisite meal, but the liqueur mingles with the earlier wines, making the guests feel somehow breathlessly vague. Those who smoke, smoke; those who don’t smoke, don’t. They all smoke. The hostess beams and beams, wearily. Finally, they all say their goodbyes. With the rest of the afternoon ruined. Some go home with half an afternoon still to kill. Others take advantage of being all dressed up to make another visit. Possibly, who knows, to pay their respects. That’s the way of the world, we eat, we die.
Generally speaking, the lunch was perfect. You must come to us next time. No, please don’t.
Memory of a Difficult Summer
Insomnia made the dimly lit city levitate. Not a single door was shut and every window gave out its own hot light. Insects swarmed around the streetlights. Along the riverbank the tables, the few weary conversations, children asleep on laps. The wide-awake levity of the night would not let us go to our beds; we walked as slowly as nomads. We were part of the streetlights’ yellow vigil, and the winged insects, and the rounded, waiting hills, and the vigil of an entire celestial vault. We were part of the great waiting that, in and of itself, is what the whole universe does. Just as those other enormous insects had once drunk slowly from the waters of that river.
But within that great absolute waiting, which was the only possible way of being, I called for a truce. That summer night in August was made of the finest fabric of waiting, forever unbreakable. I wanted the night to begin at last to twitch slightly, to begin to die, so that I, too, could sleep. But I knew that the summer night neither fades nor dawns, it simply sweats in the warm fever of daybreak. And I’ve always been the one who has gone to bed, the one who has begun to die, while the night hangs there like a lidless eye. It is beneath the world’s great wide-open eye that I have prepared myself for sleep, wrapping my grain of insomnia, my allotted diamond, in a thousand layers of bandages like a mummy. I was standing on the corner and knew nothing would ever die. This is an eternal world. And I knew that I’m the one who must die.
But I didn’t want to die alone, I wanted a place that resembled the one I needed, I wanted them to welcome my inevitable demise. My deaths are not brought on by sadness — they are one of the ways in which the world inhales and exhales, the succession of lives is the breath of infinite waiting, and I myself, who am also the world, need the rhythm of those deaths. But if I, as world, agree to my death, then I, like the other thing I absolutely am, need the hands of mercy to receive my dead body. I, who am also the hope of redemption by waiting, need the mercy of love to save me and the spirit of my blood. Blood that is so black in the black dust of my sandals, and my head encircled by mosquitoes as if it were a fruit. Where could I seek refuge and rid myself of the pulsating summer night that had shackled me to its vastness? My little diamond had become so much bigger than me, and I could see that the stars, too, are hard and bright, and I needed to be the fruit that rots and falls. I needed the abyss.
Then I saw, standing before me, the Cathedral of Bern.
But the cathedral was also hot and wide awake. Full of wasps.
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 (1920–1977) was born to a Jewish family in western Ukraine. As a result of the anti-Semitic violence they endured, the family fled to Brazil in 1922. Lispector grew up in Recife and moved to Rio de Janeiro at the age of nine, following the death of her mother. She is the author of nine novels as well as of a number of short stories, children’s books, and newspaper columns.
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