Clarice Lispector, “Near to the Wild Heart”

Clarice Lispector

My South American selection for my Around the World Reading Challenge is Clarice Lispector’s 1943 novel Near to the Wild Heart.  (It was originally written in Portuguese and entitled Perto do Coracao Selvagem.)  Clarice Lispector has been hailed by critics as “something exceptional” and possessed of a “bewildering verbal richness,” and her style has much in common with famous modernists such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.

Near to the Wild Heart was written when Lispector was only 23 years old.  The novel caused a sensation when it published because it was so different from anything Brazilians were accustomed to reading. The novel attempts to convey the inner life of a young woman named Joana, from her childhood until her early adulthood.

Lispector’s style is striking.  There is very little plot to speak of.  Instead, we are presented with snippets of Joanna’s impressions of the world.  Sometimes her thoughts are beautifully imagistic, as when she confronts her grief from her father’s death by staring at the sea.

“She climbed down from the rocks, walked weakly across the solitary beach until she received the water at her feet.  Squatting, her legs wobbly, she drank a little sea.  She rested there like that.  Sometimes she half-closed her eyes, right at sea level and swayed, so sharp was the sight—just the long green line, uniting he eyes with the water infinitely.  The sun burst through the clouds and the little sparkles scintillating on the waters were tiny fires flaring up and dying out.  The sea, beyond its waves, looked at her from affair, quiet, with no crying no bosom.  Big, big. Big, she smiled.  And suddenly, just like that, unexpectedly, she felt something strong inside her, a funny thing that made her shake a little.” (32)

At other times, though, her thoughts tend towards the abstract; at times the novel reads almost like philosophy or aesthetic theory.

“Music was of the same category as thought, both vibrated in the same movement and kind.  Of the same quality as a thought so intimate that when heard, it revealed itself.  As a thought so intimate that when she heard someone repeat the slightest nuances of its sounds, Joana was surprised at how she had been invaded and scattered.  She didn’t feel its harmony any more when it became popular—then it was no longer hers.  . . . Joana didn’t identify profoundly with all sounds.  Only with the pure ones, where what she loved was neither tragic nor comic.” (37)

I think that ultimately Near to the Wild Heart is about what it means to be human—or perhaps, even more basic, what it means to be alive.  Joana desires to feel fully alive, fully vital, which, I think for her means to reduce the distance between her core being and her thoughts, which seem to be an impediment to true life.  When her teacher asks her what is good and what is bad, Joana replies, “Good is living….Bad is not living” (43).  When she says “not living,” she does not mean death; she means not being fully alive, being deadened to existence.

Because Joana’s views of good and bad are unconventional, she has a tendency to alienate the people around her.  When she is still under the guardianship of her aunt, for example, she steals something, just because she can.  Her aunt is horrified at the theft, but also at Joana’s strangeness.  She calls her a “viper” and sends her away to boarding school because she finds her company unsettling.

Although Joana’s life is far from conventionally happy, she does seem to find satisfactions of a sort.  By the end of the novel, she feels something rising in her, something that feels like the life force she so cherishes.  What she wants most is that,

“the long gestation of her childhood would end and from her painful immaturity her own being would  burst forth, free at last, at last! . . . And one day it will come, yes, one day the capacity as red and affirmative as it is clear and soft will come in me. . . a day will come on which all my movement will be creation, birth, I will break all the noes that exist in me, I will prove to myself that there is nothing to fear, that everything I am will always be where there is a woman with my beginning, I will build inside me what I am one day, with one gesture of mine my waves will rise up powerful, pure water drowning doubt….” (158)

And one day she will “rise as strong and beautiful as a young horse” (158).

Near to the Wild Heart is undoubtedly an unusual book, one that is fascinating in its own way.  However, although I am a big fan of literary modernism, I cannot say that I loved this book.  I’m not sure whether or not I want to read another work by Lispector.  For me, at least, there is a coldness to Lispector’s explorations of her character’s inner life that leaves me…well, cold.  Perhaps this is because Lispector seems more interested in what it means to be alive than what it means to be human.   Joana’s goal, after all, is to be as vital as a horse.   I guess I am like Joana’s aunt in that I find the character off-putting and not somebody I want to spend a lot of time probing.

With this post, I have now completed my own 2015 Around the World Reading Challenge, with three days to spare.  Yay, me!

“The Secret River,” Kate Grenville

“He might as well have swung at the end of the rope they had measured for him. This was a place, like death, from which men did not return.”

My Australian reading selection for my Around the World Reading Challenge was a real treat:  Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, first published in 2006.

TheSecretRiver

The subject of The Secret River is Australia’s colonial past as a dumping ground for English convicts.  William Thornhill, the main character, is transported to New South Wales in 1806 as his punishment for theft.  Originally, he was sentenced to hang, but he was granted a reprieve and sent to New South Wales for life instead, along with his wife and children.

In 1806, New South Wales is still not much more than a howling wilderness for someone used to the teeming streets of London.  Grenville begins the novel with Thornhill’s first impression of his new home, and his sense of isolation is palpable:

“Now, standing in the great sighing lung of this other place and feeling the dirt chill under his feet, he knew that life was gone.  He might as well have swung at the end of the rope they had measured for him.  This was a place, like death, from which men did not return.  It was a sharp stab like a splinter under a nail: the pain of loss.  He would die here under these alien stars, his bones rot in this cold earth.” (11)

I found this beginning captivating and could not help but read on.  I was not disappointed.  One of Grenville’s gifts as a writer is her ability to recreate times and places in vivid detail.  After the opening chapter in New South Wales, Grenville takes us back to Thornhill’s childhood in the slums of London.  William grew up poor—so poor that he was cold and hungry all the time.  Grenville gives Dickens a run for his money in her ability to recreate the stink and squalor of London.  Not surprisingly, Thornhill turns to thievery as a way to make a living.  Eventually he gets caught, which gets him sent to Australia.

Thornhill’s initial despair at finding himself in such desolate surroundings begins to shift.  He realizes that in this new country, he could escape the taint of class and become someone new—a landowner, one of the gentry.  He sets his sights on a piece of land that seems to promise him this new life and claims it for his own.  He moves his wife and brood of children to this unprotected space with high hopes.

As it turn out, however, this land is far from vacant: aboriginal people have been living there for thousands of years, and they have no intention of moving.  This tension between English settlers and the aboriginal peoples forms the basis for the rest of the narrative.

I highly recommend this book, which was based on the life of one of Grenville’s ancestors.  Grenville is a superb writer who makes history come alive. The characters are complex and realistic, and her portrayal of class and racial tensions is astute.

Her novel makes me want to read more literature from Australia and New Zealand.  Can anyone recommend others to me?

Tipping My Hat to Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters. Photograph: Murdo Macleod Murdo Macleod/Murdo Macleod
Sarah Waters. Photograph: Murdo Macleod Murdo Macleod/Murdo Macleod

Sometimes I go through periods when I can’t find anything to read in my leisure time that is really captivating. That happened to me a few weeks ago.  Nothing seemed to “click.”  Desperate for something to grab my attention, I even turned to a best-selling thriller with no literary merit whatsoever. This thriller was appalling in its lazy, clichéd writing style and the way it wallowed in violence against women, seemingly because it sells books.  I regret reading it, but that’s what literary desperation will do to you.

Then Sarah Waters came in to my life and I was saved!  Waters is a Welsh writer well-known for her novels set in Victorian England and featuring lesbian protagonist, such as Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet.  I had never read her before, but after reading The Paying Guests and The Night Watch, I plan to read all of her works.

Paying Guests

The Paying Guests is about a young woman named Frances who lives in genteel poverty with her mother in post-World War I London.  I often associate the 1920s with a frenzied atmosphere of parties and pleasure-seeking—the so-called “Jazz Age.”  However, the tone is quite different in Waters’ novel, with its focus on reduced circumstances and austerity.  Frances has lost her brothers and her father in the war (the father due to illness), and with the death of her debt-ridden father, the family’s economically comfortable lifestyle was gone forever.

In order to help pay the bills, Frances and her mother take in two boarders the “Paying Guests” of the title. Len and Lily Barber are a young married couple trying to create lives independent from their families.  Frances becomes fascinated with this couple and her relationship with them changes her life forever.

I don’t want to give too much away in this post.  Part of the pleasure for me in reading this novel came from watching unexpected relationships develop.  I’ll just say that there is love, sex, secrets, and violence—the novel is certainly not lacking in plot developments.

What I most enjoy about Waters, though, are two things: her portrayal of complex characters with nuanced psychological observations, and her minute attention to period detail.  In particular, I admire Waters’ subtle portrayals of the way characters negotiate class and gender expectations and boundaries. Waters is an academic by training who does extensive historical research before writing her novels, and it shows.   I truly felt like I was in that house with Frances, desperately trying to make it—and herself–look clean and respectable with almost no money.  I also think Waters is superb at showing the after-effects of World War I on individual characters and on London as a whole.  Her characters are exhausted, but because of the seismic shocks that shattered English society, they also have the opportunity to reinvent themselves in ways they could not do before.

Night Watch

The second novel by Sarah Waters that I read is called The Night Watch.  This was written earlier than The Paying Guests, and was also about the effects of war on English society.  This war, however, is World War II.  The Night Watch focuses on the stories of four main characters– Kay, Helen, Viv, and Duncan—during and after World War II.  The complex characters and minute attention to period detail that I enjoyed so much in The Paying Guests are in this novel as well.  We learn about the love affairs of these characters (three of whom are gay) as well as their attempts to find meaning and identity while their city is being destroyed by war.

The structure of The Night Watch is unusual.  It is set in three different periods:  1947, 1944, and 1941.  Rather than starting with 1941 and moving forward, Waters starts the novel in 1947 and moves backward.  Readers are introduced to the main characters after the war is over.  We do not yet know their stories, but we know that they are emotionally wounded, living lives that are pale imitations of what they had once hoped for.  As the novel progresses, we learn more about the characters’ back stories and what brought them to their sad present circumstances.

I appreciate what Waters is trying to do with this backward technique.  However, because of it, I was not quite as engaged with the characters as I had been with The Paying Guests.  The combination of several different characters with the lack of “grounding” made it harder to connect with them.  Some reviewers have noted that a second reading of the The Night Watch is required to really appreciate the power of this work.  That makes sense to me, and I will probably do that.

Overall, I recommend Sarah Waters to anyone who is interested in finely drawn characters (many of whom are marginalized because of their sexuality), richly imagined period detail, and honest portrayals of erotic attraction.

(This post is my European entry in my Around the World Reading Challenge.)

 

How to be a Concord New Englander in 10 Easy Steps

Central Concord
Central Concord

Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town
Sarah Payne Stuart
Nonfiction, Penguin 2014

Perfectly MiserableSarah Payne Stuart

A few months ago, I spent a day visiting Concord, Massachusetts. Concord was settled by Puritans in 1635 and “is America’s oldest continuously inhabited inland town” (Stuart 10).   While there, I developed a serious “crush” on the town.  I was infatuated by its idyllic charm, its beautiful old homes, its literary legacy, and its hundreds years of American history seeping out of every crevice.  I wondered what it would have been like to grow up in Concord; surely it would have been wonderful, right?

I was delighted, then, to discover not long afterwards Sarah Payne Stuart’s Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town.  Her nonfiction book is in part a memoir of her growing up in Concord, leaving it as a young adult, and then coming back to raise her own children. The most important element of her decision to both leave and return to Concord has to do with Stuart’s complicated relationship to her mother.  The book is also about some of the famous previous inhabitants of Concord–especially Louisa May Alcott and her family. Mostly, though, her book is about Concord and the quirks of the proud Concord residents.

I am not sure how well all the different strands of Stuart’s book work together; at times it seemed as if she was trying to juggle too many different topics.  I enjoyed reading about all of them, though, and I enjoyed Stuart’s sharp, witty writing style. I think my favorite parts of the book, though, are her many pithy insights on what it means to be a New Englander.

So, dear readers, if you are like me and plan to be reincarnated as a Concord resident, here are the rules you need to learn:

  1. You have to be convinced that you are a wretched sinner, but also, simultaneously, better than everybody else.    As Stuart writes, New Englanders live with  “the creeping certainty that you are a bad person.”   At the same time, you are secretly convinced that you are better than other people.  In this way, you “are like your Puritan forefathers who loathed themselves on the one hand, and thought they were above everyone else on the other” (9).
  2.  You have to have impossibly high expectations of others, and, especially of yourself. “New England is an unforgiving place.  Like the adored but disapproving mothers who populate it, it grips its children in the vise of its impossible expectations” (10).
  3.  Although you may not like these impossibly high expectations, you are not allowed to complain about them. Stuart notes that, “The Puritans bottled up their complaints and made ‘griping’ a punishable offense” (10). Concord still lives by these rules, if not legally, then psychologically.
  4.  If you are woman living there today, you should be an industrious, no-frills, no-nonsense type of woman, preferably one dressed in L. L. Bean.  Concord is populated by “matrons of steel. . . no-nonsense women of indiscernible ages out walking their dogs, slickered and zippered against the promising weather, huffing disapproval as they go.”  Stuart also notes that “This is the first town I have lived in as an adult where most of the women, rich and otherwise, don’t work for a living. They are nicer, less pretentious than at the tony private pre-school of my friends in Cambridge. . . And yet I am far more frightened of the bustling, competent Concord mothers who have become the leaders of the elementary school, rising like cream to the top of the parent groups, as they had once risen in their professions (77).
  5.  You must be industrious at all times, even if you have nothing to do. “One of the goals of the Concord matron of my mother’s generation was to stand monument to the fact that, though never idle, she did not work for money—to prove in my father’s parlance, that she was a lady.  A feeling of accomplishment was important for a lady, as long as what you accomplished was ephemeral, like running a booth at the church fair or finishing a spring clean of a house.” (17)
  6.  You must be nice to everybody. “My parents were, in terms of their tribe, “well-bred,” as only a New Englander or a Southerner could be—meaning they were nice to everyone and especially nice to the cleaning lady.
  7.  You should be artistic, but not in a professional way. You should not expect to sell your work to anybody who does not know you.  “Since the days of May Alcott, the ladies of Concord have been sketching and painting with the clear-sighted purpose of finishing the picture to put it in a show in order to sell it to one another.  Almost every one of my mother’s peers was an artist.” (19)
  8.  You should make sure you never have too much fun because it is not lady-like. For example, Stuart’s mother gave up amateur acting because “the high she felt when she acted interfered with the person she felt she should be—a New England lady who kept herself in check.” (20)
  9.  You can drink alcohol in excess—but only for an hour a day.    Happy hour was “the one time they were allowed to relax with impunity, and…only the Protestant could drink so deeply and limit it to an hour (31).
  10.  You must be really messed up about money. This is probably the most important criterion for being a true Concord resident.  Stuart devotes a significant amount of space to explaining how Puritanism affected New Englanders’ relationship to money, even today.  There are so many contradictions in this ethos that I had a hard time understanding it, to be honest.  Here are a few of her quotations to illustrate:
    • “For New England Protestants, appearances are everything: they must look like they have money (and therefore clearly belong to God’s Elect), and yet they must seem to care nothing for it.  At the root of the tangled New England neurosis is a deep respect for the money it loathes.
    • The anxiety that Puritanism produced about money still shakes my hometown. By the time I was growing up, moralistic conflict about money had pretty much taken the place of religion.  I don’t remember if my parents ever used God in a sentence when I was little, but I certainly heard plenty about the value of a dollar on the one hand, and money as the root of all evil on the other.  As a result, I don’t know whether I’m coming or going. . . I don’t know whether I want people to think I’m rich or I’m poor; frugal, extravagant, or generous.  I feel miserable when I spend money and sad when I don’t.  (109)
    •  Money and one’s attitude toward it is so intrinsic to the New Englander’s identity that it is nearly impossible for him or her to have objectivity toward it. As moths to the flame, old-moneyed Yankees are drawn to bemoaning their lack of money even in front of, say, the person who cleans their house.  Having money was nobody’s business, in this complicated culture, but not having it (as long, of course, as you actually did have it) was a subject suitable for any audience.   So, if I understand correctly, a good New Englander will have inherited wealth, which makes him or her feel superior to the rest of the crowd. However, he or she will feel guilty both for having this inheritance and for this feeling of superiority over others, so he or she will try to hide the wealth from others. The one exception to this rule is that the Concordian needs to buy as big and beautiful a house as possible—but then to keep it as threadbare as possible on the inside.
      •  A large house wasn’t just permissible in the Protestant ethic, it was a sign of election.” (22)
      • So the one luxury the old money permit themselves is a well-proportioned house in the right part of town, big enough to allow its owners to complain that they can’t afford to live there. The bedroom floors are ice cold with a strip of thin, fraying carpet for one’s feet to land upon from the tall, creaky inherited bed (with its original mattress); the towels are balding with hanging threads; the ceilings are high, and the temperatures low in the winter and stifling in the summer; the food is plentiful, but plain and predictable, a rotation of meals handed down from generation to generation.  But the houses—one gasps at the sight of their pillars and the breadths of their front halls.”  (22)

OK, I need to stop right here.  My Concord fantasy is now over.  While I still think the town is charming, I would find it really hard to live by some of these rules.  Being nice to other people is great.  Not selling any of my artistic or literary output works well for me since nobody seems inclined to buy them anyway.  However, as much as I like L.L. Bean, I find these stern, industrious Concord matrons scary.  I do not believe in being busy just for the sake of being busy. (I work because I need the money and I enjoy my profession.)  And the money part is just too complicated for my simple Midwestern brain.  If I had a lot of money, I would spend it.  If I had a big, old, house and money in the bank, I would certainly furnish it and decorate it to my heart’s content.

I guess I’m just not a Puritan at heart, much less a lady.

One of the many Concord houses I lusted after.
One of the many Concord houses I lusted after.

P.S.  This is my first North American entry for my Reading Around the World Challenge, 2015.  I chose it because it is not only written by an American author, but also because it is about a uniquely American subject.

“Hiding in Plain Sight” by Nuruddin Farah

I wanted to like Nuruddin Farah’s most recent novel Hiding in Plain Sight.  I really did.  Farah, the prolific and distinguished Somali writer, is often spoken of as a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature.  (For more background on his life and work, click here.

photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian
photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

I read his novel Knots several years ago and was struck by his feminism.  In that novel, the protagonist Cambara, a Somali woman who lives in Canada, returns to Somalia to take care of some business.  She and the other female characters struck me as the only ones in the novel with any sense.  The women took care of all the things that needed to be done, while the men were busy fighting each other and chewing khat.  If I had not known who the author was, I would have thought it was a woman.  Farah’s new novel Hiding in Plain Sight also has a woman as a main character.  Not only that, but the novel also portrays homosexuality as something which should not be condemned or punished. For any number of reasons, then, I was excited to read the book.

The novel opens with a focus on Aar, a sensitive Somali expat who is stationed in the UN office in Somalia briefly as a logistics officer.  Tragically, he dies when terrorists bomb the building he is in.  (This death happens in the beginning of the book, so I am not giving anything away here.)  The novel then switches perspective to Aar’s sister Bella.  The remainder of Hiding focuses on Bella and her attempts to deal not only with her grief but also to forge a new family with Aar’s children.  At the same time, she has to deal with Aar’s ex-wife Valerie, who abandoned him and his children ten years earlier to live with her female lover, Padmini.

One of the themes of the novel is the issue of sexual freedom.  Farah’s philosophy about sexuality seems to be summed up in this quotation:

“In Bella’s mind, freedom are a package, so the freedoms denied daily to millions of citizens in Africa or the Middle East are bound up with the lack of democracy in these parts of the world.  The choices individuals make in their private lives are just as important as the choices they make at the ballot box.  Public displays of affection, whether between a man and a woman or two men or two women, are but expressions of democratic behavior.  No one, not even the president of the country, should have the power and the authority to define love—including whom to love.”  (35)

Farah’s openness to sexual freedom is a laudable goal.  If that is his goal, though, I wonder why he chose to make Valerie (the lesbian mother of Aar’s children) such a nightmarish character.  She is selfish to the extreme, she has no understanding of the concept of gratitude, she is an alcoholic, and her emotions are completely erratic. I know that everybody is flawed, and there is no reason to paint a lesbian character as a saint.  Still, Valerie’s flaws were so extreme and her good qualities so few that I find her hard to accept as a believable character.

And while I do appreciate a male author who writes about strong female characters in a positive way, it seemed to me that Bella, the main character, was more of an idea (a strong, independent woman) than a believable, complex character.   She struck me as person without any emotional attachments or vulnerabilities, except for her attachment to her brother. I suppose Farah could be suggesting that she was TOO attached to her brother, which was why she found every other man lacking in comparison.  That could explain her inability (or unwillingness) to connect emotionally with anybody else, I suppose.  That changes, though, when she becomes attached to Aar’s children and wants to serve as their surrogate mother.

I imagine that at least part of Farah’s goal was to educate non-Somali readers about his war-torn country, especially in terms of its prevailing attitudes toward sexuality.  I think he was successful in that goal.  However, I think Hiding in Plain Sight worked better as an educational tool than as a successful novel.  The novel was written mainly from Bella’s perspective.  Ideally, readers would be able to get inside her head and see things the way she does.  However, often her thoughts do not sound at all realistic because Farah is using them to educate his readers rather than to portray a character.  For example, on page 135 of my edition, Bella thinks,

She knows that Aar, unlike most Somalis raised in the urban centers in the south of the country, had no issue with male homosexuality and couldn’t be bothered about lesbianism.  As for herself. . . she acknowledges that maybe she is not quite as advanced in her attitudes as she likes to think.  But with her three lovers, she knows that she cannot afford to throw stones at anyone in a similar position.  Many Somalis would think there was something wrong with her, would see her as worse than a whore, because no cash exchanged hands.”  (135)

If this were really a reflection of what Bella was thinking, she would not need to provide so much background explanation. The novel contains far too much of this type of didactic internal thoughts for more tastes.

Often the dialogue suffers from a similar weakness.  People in casual conversation, when they are not talking about food, often launch into mini-lectures on Important Subjects that also do not seem realistic.

For example, in one scene, Salif (a teenage boy) is upset with his mother Valerie, who abandoned them for ten years and now suddenly wants to be back in their lives.  His frustration is understandable, but the formality of his word choice strikes me as unbelievable:

“And let me add this, for what it’s worth, Mum.  You haven’t asked us anything about Dad, what he was like as a father to us after you left.   All you have done is create confusion in my head about the circumstances of his burial, urging me to act without even bothering to ascertain the legal and logistical implications.”  (138)

“Ascertain the legal and logistical implications?”  Really?  Does any teenage boy talk like that in casual conversation?

Overall, I would give the novel an “A” for good intentions, but a “C” for execution.  I could not get past the wooden writing style and unrealistic characters enough to get engaged in the story.

Having said that, I am not ready to give up on Nuruddin Farah.  I do plan to read some more of his earlier work.  If you have read his work, which book would you recommend?

******

This post is my first entry in my own Around the World Reading Challenge.  This is my African entry.

It is also my fifth and final entry in the African Reading Challenge for 2014 hosted by kinna at Kinna Reads.  (It is late, I know.  Sorry!)  http://kinnareads.com/2014/01/14/2014-africa-reading-challenge/