Clarice Lispector. Photo 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 final installment in a series.
March 13, 1971
Sometimes a shiver runs through me when I come into physical contact with animals, or even at the mere sight of them. I seem to have a certain fear and horror of those living beings that, though not human, share our instincts, although theirs are freer and less biddable. An animal never substitutes one thing for another, never sublimates as we are forced to do. And it moves, this living thing! It moves independently, by virtue of that nameless thing that is Life.
I remarked to someone that animals do not smile, and she told me that Bergson comments on this in his essay about laughter. While a dog does, I’m sure, sometimes laugh — its smile expressed by its eyes brightening, its half-open mouth panting, and its tail wagging — a cat never laughs. It does, however, know how to play. I have a lot of experience with cats. When I was small, I had a cat of a rather common sort, striped in various shades of gray, and cunning in that feline, distrustful, aggressive way cats are. My cat was continually having litters, and every time the same tragedy would unfold: I would want to keep all the kittens and turn the house into a cattery. Behind my back, the offspring were given away to goodness knows who, which made the problem still more acute because I wouldn’t stop complaining about the absent kittens. And then, one day while I was at school, they gave my cat away. I was so shocked I took to my bed with a fever. To console me they gave me a present of a cat made out of rags, which to me was ridiculous: how could an object that was dead and floppy and a “thing” ever replace the elasticity of a living cat?
Speaking of living cats, a friend of mine wants nothing more to do with cats. He got fed up with them for good after having a female cat that periodically went mad: her instincts were so strong, so imperative, that when she was in heat, after uttering long, plangent meows that echoed through the whole neighborhood, she would suddenly become half-hysterical and throw herself off the roof, injuring herself in the process. A servant to whom I told the story crossed herself and exclaimed, “Get thee behind me.”
Of the slow and dusty turtle carrying its stony shell, I would rather not say anything. This animal, which comes to us from the era of the dinosaurs, does not interest me: it is too stupid, it doesn’t engage with anyone, not even with itself. The act of lovemaking between two turtles must surely have neither warmth nor life. While not an expert, I venture to predict that a few millennia from now the species will come to an end.
Regarding chickens and their relationships with each other, with people, and above all with their gestation period, I have said all there is to say. I have also spoken about monkeys.
As an adult, I owned a mongrel that I bought from an ordinary woman I happened to meet in the hurly-burly of a Naples backstreet, because I sensed that he had been born to be mine, which, happily, he also sensed, immediately following me without a thought for his former owner — not even a backward glance—as he wagged his tail and licked me. But it’s a very long story, my life with that dog who had the face of a mischievous mulatto Brazilian despite being a born and bred Neapolitan, and to whom I gave the rather recherché name of Dilermando on account of his pretentious charm and his air of being some garrulous raconteur from the turn of the century. I could have many things to say about Dilermando. Our relationship was so close, his sensibility so akin to mine, that he anticipated and felt my difficulties. Whenever I was writing on the typewriter, he would position himself half-lying, half-sitting by my side, sphinxlike, dozing. If I stopped typing because I’d encountered an obstacle and become disheartened, he would immediately open his eyes, raise his head, and look at me with one ear cocked, waiting. Once I had resolved the problem and carried on typing, he would settle back into his somnolent state populated by goodness knows what dreams — because dogs do dream, I’ve seen it. No human being ever gave me the feeling of being loved so totally, the way I felt loved unreservedly by that dog.
After my sons were born and had grown a little, we gave them a very large and beautiful dog, who patiently let them take turns climbing onto his back and who, without anyone charging him with the task, kept guard over the house and street, waking up all the neighbors at night with his warning barks. I gave my sons little yellow chicks that followed close behind us, tripping us up, as if we were the mother hen; those tiny little things needed their mother just as humans do. I also gave them two rabbits, some ducks, and marmosets. The relationships between man and beast are unique, irreplaceable. Owning an animal is a vital experience. And anyone who has not lived with an animal lacks a certain intuition about the living world. Anyone who recoils at the sight of an animal clearly feels afraid of themselves.
But sometimes I do shudder on seeing an animal. Yes, at times I feel the mute ancestral cry within me when I am with them: it seems I no longer know which of us is the animal, me or the beast, and I get thoroughly confused; I become almost afraid of facing up to my own stifled instincts that, demanding as they are, I am obliged to assume when confronted by the animal. What else can we miserable creatures do? I once knew a woman who humanized animals, talking to them and lending them her own characteristics. But I don’t humanize animals, I think that’s offensive — we should respect their own natures. Instead I animalize myself. It isn’t difficult, it comes easily; just don’t fight it, just surrender.
But if I go deeper, I arrive very pensively at the conclusion that there is nothing more difficult than total surrender. This difficulty is one of our human afflictions.
Holding a little bird in the half-closed palm of your hand is terrible. Petrified, it beats its wings fast and frenetically; suddenly you have in your half-closed fist thousands of delicate wings thrashing and fluttering, and suddenly it all becomes unbearable and you open your hand to free the bird, or hand it back to its owner so that they can return it to the greater relative freedom of a cage. In short, I want to see birds flying or perched in trees—but far from my hands. Perhaps some day, in more sustained contact with Augusto Rodrigues’s birds at Largo do Boticário, I might become close to them, and enjoy their featherlight presence. (The phrase “enjoy their featherlight presence” gives me the sensation of having written a complete sentence by describing something exactly as it is. It’s a funny feeling; I don’t know whether I’m right or wrong, but that’s another problem.)
It would never occur to me to own an owl, but a little friend of mine found an owl chick on the ground in the Santa Teresa forest, all alone and without its mother. She took it home, kept it warm, fed it, whispered to it, and ended up discovering that it liked raw meat. Once it was strong enough, she expected it to fly off immediately, but it delayed going in search of its own destiny and rejoining its own kind: that strange bird had become attached to my little friend. Very reluctant to leave, it would fly a little way off and then come straight back. Until one day, as if after a long battle with itself, it seized its freedom and flew off into the depths of the world.
April 3, 1971
De Natura Florum
And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom He had formed.
Nectar : Sweet juice that many flowers contain and which insects seek avidly.
Pistil : Female organ of a flower. Generally occupies its center and contains the beginnings of the seed.
Pollen : Fertilizing powder, produced in the stamens and contained in the anthers.
Stamen : Male organ of a flower, made up of the style and the anther in its lower part surrounding the pistil, which, as set out above, is the flower’s female organ.
Fertilization : Union of two elements of reproduction (male and female), from which comes the fertile fruit.
Rose : The feminine flower; she gives herself so wholly and so generously that, for her, there remains only the joy of having given herself. Her perfume has a feminine mystery about it; if inhaled deeply, it touches the depths of the heart and leaves the body entirely perfumed. The way she opens out into a woman is exquisitely beautiful. Her petals taste good in the mouth: just try. Red roses, or the Black Prince variety, are enormously sensual. Yellow ones are alarmingly cheerful. White ones are peace. Pink ones are generally fleshier and their color is just perfect. Orange roses are sexually attractive.
Carnation : Has an aggressiveness that comes from a certain degree of irritation. The edges of its petals are sharp and snub-nosed. The carnation’s scent is somehow mortal. Red carnations bellow with violent beauty. White ones recall the little coffin of a dead child; their scent then turns pungent.
Sunflower: The great child of the Sun, so much so that it is born with the instinct to turn its enormous head toward its mother. Does it matter whether the Sun is the father or the mother? I don’t know. Is the sunflower female or male? Male, I think. But one thing is certain: the sunflower is Russian, probably Ukrainian.
Violet : Introverted, profoundly introspective. It doesn’t hide itself, as some would say, out of modesty. It hides in order to understand its own secret. Its scent is a glory but demands that we go in search of it: its scent says what cannot be said. A bunch of violets means, Love others as you love yourself.
Sempervivum : An ever-dead. Its aridity tends toward eternity. Its Greek name means golden sun.
Daisy : A cheerful little flower. Simple: it has only one layer of petals. Its yellow center is a childish plaything.
Palm : Has no scent. Shows itself off haughtily — for it is haughty — in form and color. It is frankly masculine.
Orchid : Beautiful, exquise, and unfriendly. Unspontaneous. In need of a glass dome. Yet it is a magnificent woman, this cannot be denied. It can also not be denied that it is noble; it is an epiphyte—that is, it is born on another plant without taking nutrition from it. I’m lying: I adore orchids.
Tulip: It’s only a tulip when in a large field covered by them, as in Holland. A single tulip simply isn’t.
Cornflower : Only grows among wheat. In its humility, it has the audacity to display itself in various forms and colors. The cornflower is biblical. In Spain it is used to decorate the Christmas crib, along with the sheaves of wheat from which it is inseparable.
Angelica: Has the scent of a chapel. It brings mystic ecstasy. It recalls the Host. Many wish to eat it and fill their mouths with its intense, sacred scent.
Jasmine : For lovers—they walk hand in hand swinging their arms, and exchange soft kisses, I would say, to the odorous murmur of jasmine.
Bird-of-paradise : Preeminently masculine. It has an aggressiveness grown out of love and healthy pride. It appears to have a coxcomb and, like the cockerel, it crows, but it doesn’t wait for dawn — when seen, it gives its visual cry of greeting to the world, for the world is in a constant state of sunrise.
Azaleia : Some people use other spellings, but I prefer this one. It is spiritual and bright: it is a happy flower and brings happiness. It is humbly beautiful. People who are called Azaleia — like my friend Azaleia — take on the qualities of the flower: it is a pure delight to be around them. I received from Azaleia many white azaleias that scented the whole room.
Night-blooming jasmine: Has the scent of the full moon. It is phantasmagorical and a little frightening—it only comes out at night, with its intoxicating smell, mysterious, silent. It belongs also to deserted street corners and darkness, to the gardens of houses with their lights turned off and their shutters closed. It is dangerous.
Cactus flower: The cactus flower is succulent, sometimes large, scented, and brightly colored: red, yellow, and white. It is a succulent revenge on behalf of all desert plants: it is splendor arising from despotic sterility.
Edelweiss : Found only at high altitudes, although never above eleven thousand feet. This Queen of the Alps, as it is also called, is the symbol of man’s conquest. It is white and woolly. Rarely attainable, it is a human aspiration.
Geranium : Flower of window boxes in Switzerland, São Paulo, and Grajaú. It has a sarcophyllum, i.e., a succulent, highly scented leaf.
Giant water lily : There are enormous ones in Rio’s botanical garden, almost seven feet in diameter. Aquatic and drop-dead gorgeous. They are the great Brazil, constantly evolving: on the first day white, then pink or even reddish. They spread a vast sense of tranquility. At once majestic and simple. Despite living on the water, they provide shade.
July 11, 1970
I think Saturday is the rose of the week; on Saturday afternoon, the apartment is made of curtains blowing in the wind and someone emptying out a bucket of water on the terrace: Saturday in the wind is the rose of the week. Saturday morning is a garden, a bee flying past, and the wind: a beesting, my face swollen, blood and honey, the sting lost inside me: other bees will come sniffing around, and next Saturday morning I’ll go and see if the garden is full of bees. In my childhood Saturday gardens the ants would file across the flagstones. It was a Saturday when I saw a man sitting in the shade on the sidewalk eating dried meat and cassava broth out of a gourd: it was Saturday afternoon and we had already been swimming. At two o’clock in the afternoon, the bell announced to the wind that it was time for the movie matinee: and to the wind, Saturday was the rose of our rather dull week. If it rained, only I knew it was Saturday: a rather damp rose. In Rio de Janeiro, just when you think the weary week is about to expire, it opens out into a rose with a great metallic clatter: on the Avenida Atlântica a car screeches to a halt and, suddenly, before the startled wind can begin blowing again, I feel that it is Saturday afternoon. It was Saturday, but it’s not the same. I say nothing then, apparently resigned: but the truth is that I’ve picked up my things and gone straight to Sunday morning. Sunday morning is also the rose of the week. Although Saturday is much more so. I’ll never know why.
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson. Adapted 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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