by James Stewart
Thanks largely to the efforts of biographer Benjamin Moser, Clarice Lispector has enjoyed something of a publishing revival, with Penguin Classics about to publish their penultimate book of hers. As such, it seems fitting to review her first, Near to the Wild Heart, as an entry into the work of one of the most individual and elusive, yet underappreciated, writers to arise out of South America and perhaps the world.
‘Hurricane Clarice’, as she was sensationalised by Brazilian media immediately after this debut, was often said to have written ‘witchcraft’ rather than mere literature, largely due to the exotic and frequently experimental use of syntax and language that she employed, belying a naturalisation, as opposed to birth, into the Portuguese language. However, this apparent strangeness of prose style translates to be her greatest strength, allowing penetrating and often philosophical insights into the inner life of Joanna, her semi-autobiographical protagonist, as we follow incidents from her early life and upbringing, through to the collapse of her marriage to a faithless husband, Otávio.
The book is impressionistic, employing a unique stream of consciousness style that favours synaesthesia and the duality between emotional life and physical reality, often at times pitting the two against each other, creating a tension reminiscent of many feminist authors of the 1960s-1970s. Indeed many of her concerns (housework, relationships, female power) are relevant in the wider cultural landscape of feminism, making the book an interesting and profound take on the struggles of particularly female life, though it manages not to limit itself solely to gender in its discussion of the nature of power over life.
Readers of Woolf and Joyce will enjoy the innovation she brings to the modernist style in which she works, arguably outwriting both in fullness and richness of description, which is an undoubtable highlight of the book. Alison Entrekin’s translation is very able, managing to faithfully portray the fresh, exciting feel of the original, particularly with its linguistic innovation – often invoking and artistically interpreting Spinoza, which may interest students of philosophy, or those interested in issues of personal morality and duty.
However; Near to the Wild Heart is not a flawless novel and has many characteristics of a debut. It is somewhat uneven and has the occasional tendency to become mired in its own abstraction, contributing to a difficulty to find an ideal pace at which to read. However, overall, Lispector’s writing is thoroughly innovative and highly unique – one that I hope that will be subject to the academic attention that it, not having widely appeared in English for long, deserves. This debut shows definite promise and should help cultivate a reputation for her being one of the most intelligent and radical writers of the twentieth century, and acts as an inroad into her wider oeuvre.
Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector
Good For: Readers of Modernism, Intersectional Feminists, Philosophy Students
Review Author: James Stewart
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