Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Hour of the Star

Anyway whatever was going to happen, would happen. And for the time being nothing was happening, the two of them didn’t know how to invent happenings. --The Hour of the Star

This passage, from the middle of The Hour of the Star (trans. Benjamin Moser, 2011), Clarice Lispector’s final novel, places us at the beginning of a relationship that does not have much in the way of “happenings” even as the plot somehow inevitably does move forward. It is a moment when Lispector is at her most poignantly Steinian, with the repetition of the word “happenings” helping to make concrete what is otherwise usually an unremarkable and general word. This modernist obsession with the word as a solid entity and as fact is present from the first page, when the narrator begins a half-mad opening monologue on the nature of the world, art, and his motivations for writing his story. If his protagonist, Macabéa, and her boyfriend Olímpico don’t know how to make anything happen, neither does he, really: just as Macabéa is compelled to live her life but can never get around to anything that might be called living, the narrator is compelled to write his story of a “northeastern girl” despite not really having a direction. It is a story he must write but that he does not yet know.

What I found most amazing about The Hour of the Star was how Lispector pulls off a feat of balancing between a tongue-in-cheek relationship to the narrator and his protagonist and taking them quite seriously. The idea of not knowing where the plot is going and “just following the character” is taken to the extreme of following a character that has no volition at all to follow. The narrator avoids making Macabéa turn to prostitution out of fear of a cliché in the story of a girl going to the big city and finding it rough, and because a prostitute might have too much personality, or make the story too maudlin. As a result he ends up with a character even more abject. The story is at once a naturalist novel and a parody of its conventions: Sister Carrie made brief by a character that has none of the drive that gives Carrie a plot. But somehow along with the laughter comes a strikingly true howl of horror at a life wasted. In her introduction, Lispector writes that “This story takes place during a state of emergency and a public calamity.” The novel is nothing like the conventional historical or political novel that phrase might evoke, but it should keep us alive to the idea that the personal bears history in it and that Macabéa’s life bears the marks of a variety of public calamities. Her state of emergency is such that she cannot recognize it: when her only friend, inasmuch as she is a friend, notices her sad face, Macabéa is shocked because she has always thought of herself as happy. But her happiness is purely a thought inspired by radio advertisements; the surface of her face tells a greater truth than what is “inside.”

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