Review: Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to GH
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Because during those seconds, eyes shut, I was becoming aware of myself as one becomes aware of a taste: all of me tasted of steel and verdigris, I was all acid like metal on the tongue, like a crushed green plant, my whole taste rose to my mouth. What had I done to myself? With my heart thumping, my temples pulsing, this is what I’d done to myself. I had killed. I had killed!
In the passage above, the terrified protagonist of The Passion According to GH refers to her killing of a cockroach. Yes, you read that right, a cockroach. She then realizes that she has only managed to crush the lower half of the insect, and that a whitish mass is beginning to ooze from the wound.
This book, first published in Brazil in 1964, did not demand much attention at the time. Slowly though, it began to make the rounds among more intellectual readers and now it has become one of the most popular and beloved of Lispector’s works.
It’s a hard book to read. Clarice has always been considered something of a hermetic author. Many readers simply do not get it. Anyone who claims to get this particular novel probably has their own interpretation for the series of allegories and metaphors in the story. We say “story,” but, like most of Clarice Lispector’s books and short stories, it does not involve a plot and the typical development of a character arc. It’s more about an internal journey. It’s a book that reaches the reader’s senses rather than their mind.
Narrated in the first person, the book takes the form of a long stream of consciousness, through which the character analyzes her own life and arrives at a surprising revelation. Instead of conveying a single meaning or relying on a specific understanding of its beautifully written passages, the book creates specific atmospheres that will involve the reader in idiosyncratic ways. Reading Clarice Lispector is a unique experience. A well-known Brazilian writer, Guimarães Rosa, claimed that he read her not for the literary experience, but for guidance in life.
Among the themes of the book, we can identify the search for the essence of human nature; the perception of the neutrality of any kind of life (characterized as mere random living matter); the attempt to grasp a concept of god and the belief that the divinity cannot be anthropomorphized (Lispector is heavily influenced by the philosophy of Spinoza); she also discusses the arbitrary and materialistic nature of the universe; the blurred lines between normality and madness; the impossibility of avoiding [MM1] loneliness; and the duality of a wild animal essence and human nature in women. The reader may recognize echoes of Kafka in her stories (both authors share the same ethnic background after all, although explicit Jewish motifs rarely appear in the works of either).
The Passion can also be read politically. The transformation the main character undergoes and the birth of her new awareness take place in the maid’s room. The roach is first identified as a formless disgusting animal, hardly visible as we struggle to ignore it, but then it’s progressively compared to a mulatto woman (the maid that quit her job at the house the day before) and finally to GH herself, an educated white socialite belonging to the Brazilian upper middle class.
Any novel written by Clarice Lispector benefits greatly from a second or third reading. Once we get to the end, it’s always tempting to go back and read over it again to fit all of the loose pieces of the puzzle together. Things always make a lot more sense on a second reading. Then again, the interpretations tend to be personal and not commonly shared by her readers, but isn’t that true of any work of art?
Lispector herself claims that the best art is expressionless. It should not try to replicate reality. This is why she uses language as a way of approaching the meanings she’s searching, but she knows it will only convey an approximate sense of the reality. Language is not enough to get to the core of things.
Lispector is either loved or hated by many readers. Initial hatred or boredom with her oeuvre can turn into passion, though, if you give her a second chance (try another book or reread the story more than once).
Reading Lispector in English does not rob readers of much. Her use of Portuguese is unique in the way she creates original images and juxtaposes words, but she never sounds local. The language is standard, elegant and formal, which makes it easy for a translator to deal with the challenge.