Clarice Lispector (1920–1977) was an acclaimed Brazilian writer of short stories, novels and crônicas. In Discovering the World, a collection of crônicas, her translator Giovanni Pontiero calls the work ‘a miscellaneous collection of aphorisms, diary entries, reminiscences, travel notes, essays, loosely defined as “chronicles”: a genre peculiar to Brazil which allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes’. The form is short and concise. Each section is usually titled, and ranges from a handful of lines to three and a half pages.
The following essay takes the form of a collection of crônicas.
If the recent past has shown us anything, it is that plans are not the concrete things they once were. Travel has changed now, maybe forever. I’m certain that I am not the only writer in this collection whose chosen destination-as-subject had to be revised. Covid-19 rose up; a tsunami of cancellations, grief and fear. Travel bans seem insignificant when people are having their lungs artificially inflated by machines. When the numbers – the numbers – kept climbing, and every day new records were set with no sense of triumph. I was asked to write about Lourdes: a sort of sequel to one of the first essays I ever published (coincidentally, in Granta). To return and walk its streets through an adult’s eyes, not as a girl on crutches bewitched by religion and the idea of a miracle in the ice-cold baths beneath the grotto. Returning to that hallowed, tiny town up in the Pyrenees seemed cyclical, magical, a gift of closure and exploration. But it was not to be. The flights I searched for were never booked. The hotel – the one with the nice view and decent pool – remained unvisited. No drinks were had on its fine-looking terrace. There would be no negotiating the hills I’d called ‘vertiginous’ in that first essay, walking the looping processional track of the basilica; no immersion in the waters I once felt might be curative.
The journey could now only be taken in the mind, comprised of existing memories. And yet, the symmetry is clear: the destination I decided on is also mired in Catholicism and statues. Warm, non-European and a vast ocean away from Lourdes and Ireland. I couldn’t have known it then, but there were many connections – other statues, a different kind of mysticism – waiting for me below the equator.
Cruzando o Atlântico
In 2018, on a brisk Sunday in November, I take the first of three consecutive flights that lead me to Brazil. On the second leg, from London to São Paulo, I settle in to read Clarice Lispector’s short stories and crônicas. The plane moves through the night, propulsive. Hot, and oblivious to the sleepers around me, I am already moving into her world; a maelstrom of language, a kind of disorientation that suits the sluggish night journey.
From São Paulo, we fly down the coast, frills of waves on the sandbanks beneath. A lone island appears, like a stone on a blanket. Ilha do Bom Abrigo, where African slaves were secretly shipped before being transferred to the mainland. The island is home to the jararacuçu, one of the most feared snakes in South America, which grows to over two metres long. In a single bite it can inject enough venom to kill sixteen people. I later discover they are native to Florianópolis, where we land twenty-four hours after leaving Dublin. Our host suggests we eat lunch at the airport. Everyone is feeling that green-at-the-gills trippiness that long plane journeys induce, while our host explains various dishes and orders for us. Listening to her conversation with the waiter, I’m not sure why I had assumed Portuguese would sound like Spanish (both are West Iberian Romance languages). There are echoes and intonations, certainly, even similar words – agua/água – but there is something vaguely Slavic about the sound. I think immediately of Lispector, who was born in western Ukraine in 1920. Her family arrived in Brazil when she was still a baby. In his introduction to Água Viva, Lispector’s final novel, biographer Benjamin Moser wrote: ‘Paradoxically, the better one’s Portuguese, the more difficult it is to read Clarice Lispector.’
I had been invited to Brazil to give two talks, one at a university in Florianópolis, ninety minutes by air to the south of Rio de Janeiro, the other at a cultural centre in Rio itself. The former was to students studying Irish literature, specifically an anthology I’d edited of short stories by Irish women. I wondered what the students of UFSC would make of our literature; if they’d find connections between their country and mine. I planned to discuss the work of several of the women in the collection, women who were writing in a Catholic, patriarchal world, into – and against – religion, gender and what feminist theorist Hélène Cixous called the ‘masculine libidinal economy’. Many of them negotiated with Cixous’s concept of écriture féminine – writing outside of the masculine sphere, writing of otherness and of a distinctly female (often experimental) experience, rooted in the body. Cixous has also written substantially about Lispector, describing her as ‘a woman who says things as closely as possible to a feminine economy, that is to say, one of the greatest generosity possible, of the greatest virtue, of the greatest spending’. Cixous is one of the reasons Lispector’s work is becoming more widely translated from Portuguese.
‘Freedom is not enough’
Florianópolis is an island connected to the mainland of Santa Catarina state by three bridges, including the Hercílio Luz Bridge, which is older than San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Until the late nineteenth century, the city was called Nossa Senhora do Desterro – Our Lady of Banishment. Now locals refer to it as Floripa. The hotel path is lined with palm trees, tall against the insistent blue of the sky. Behind the hotel lies a hill patchworked with houses in no discernible pattern. It is primavera – spring – and the pool is empty, and it feels disorienting to have left winter behind in Dublin. Everything back home is dead or sleeping, each bud and bee, but here, in the distance, summer is readying, stitching itself into an ostentatious costume of colours and textures.
Everyone is tired and retires to their rooms and we are told that the location of tonight’s dinner will be worth the trip. Alone, I tune in to the surroundings, something sweet-smelling on the air, the sound of a bird’s intermittent song, a kind of welcome. Whenever I arrive somewhere this far from home, or where I don’t speak the language, a jolt of placelessness moves through me. A kind of suspension of time and mood. I feel and don’t feel. The urge is usually to walk, to orient myself and figure out where I am on the map, how far I am from the sea or the hills. There’s a surfeit of both here. A tiny balcony abuts the room, dropping down to a grass gully. I lie down on the cool sheets but cannot sleep.
Clarice Lispector feared that writing so frequently and publicly (the crônicas appeared weekly in the Jornal do Brasil) would affect her work. ‘I am apprehensive. Writing too much and too often can contaminate the word.’
Flor das cinco chagas
As the sun sets on the first night, we drive for what seems like a long time, but is only a few kilometres. Time feels different, expanded. Up hills and round slivers of roads, looking out over the island. The sun fades, the light shifts incrementally. The restaurant is at Ponta das Almas beside Lagoa da Conceição in the northern part of the island. As if being surrounded by water is not enough, there is also a large subtropical lagoon, connected to the ocean by a narrow channel. At the end of a wooden jetty is the clean white line of a sailboat. Insects swarm, so we move inside and sample Brazil’s national drink, a caipirinha, made with cachaça, sugar and lime. It is a delicious jolt, tart and refreshing, lime stinging the roof of my mouth. Salads of unfamiliar fruit arrive: carambola, açai, pitanga, the dark flesh glistening. Brazil accounts for over half the world’s production of maracujá – passion fruit. When missionaries first arrived here in the sixteenth century, they were determined to convert the Indigenous peoples to Christianity. As part of their teaching (and possibly to bridge a language barrier), they used the five-petalled passion-fruit flower. In Portuguese, the name is ‘flor das cinco chagas’, or ‘flower of the five wounds’, which represent Christ’s wounds received during the Crucifixion. Like Ireland, Brazil is a predominantly Catholic country. Its influence seeps into buildings, place names, fruit. At the end of the night, I hover by a large fish tank, watching two jellyfish, all albumen, gyrating in the neon blue. In Portuguese, the word for jellyfish is água-viva, an echo of Lispector’s many-tentacled novel of the same name, translucent and mysterious.
‘Fuck the System’
After an early breakfast of pasta de guayaba (guava-paste pastries), we leave for the university. The campus is large and bustles with students. Toilet doors are full of political graffiti, anti-fascist declarations, the evergreen ‘fuck the system’, and of course Jair Bolsonaro. The conference theme is (Con)Figurations of Families in Irish Literature with a panel focused on the anthology of Irish women. The concept of a national literature is a complex one: what are the parameters of a nation when conveyed in writing? The shorthand, the signifiers of what that nationality is. Examine the literary output of any country and its borders, and social mores are embedded within. The stories we discussed were, on one hand, intrinsically Irish, but they contained themes that seemed resonant with Brazil: social change, the dominance of the Church, emigration, the ghosts of colonialism. The students are attentive and interested and the day goes quickly.
Afterwards, a young man wants to talk about the Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen, whose story ‘The Demon Lover’ has made a huge impression on him. Set in post-war London, it’s an atmospheric, sinister piece of work. There are multiple (and conflicting) interpretations: is it a ghost story? About a woman having a breakdown? Do the hallucinatory events in decimated, smoggy London occur at all? The student is considering further research on Bowen and wants to read more of her work. I encourage him to look at her novels, and to keep up his studies, though I know that many of these students have economic obligations to their families.
A persistent topic with everyone I encounter is President Bolsonaro. This student is gay and his parents are afraid for him; they have encouraged him to go back into the closet and not amplify his sexuality. Bowen herself was queer, and closeted in religious Ireland, and this fear of chastisement echoes across the Atlantic. Another female student was kicked out of her parents’ home when they realised she was queer. Several students speak of the toxic impact of the presidency on their generation: the increase in hate crimes, homophobes emboldened. Worse, their parents are increasingly attuned to Bolsonaro’s rhetoric. A proud homophobe, the president once declared he’d rather have a dead son than a gay son. And like another recent leader in a continent just to the north, a lot of people believe and support his views. Over lunch our host talks about a fear of censorship in the arts. It’s a frank, if disheartening, round of conversations.
In 1964, there was a military coup in Rio. While most of the middle classes celebrated, Lispector was ‘crestfallen’. In a column that year, she wrote about what she called ‘the social thing’: how to represent inequality as a writer. ‘In Recife the slums were the first truth for me. Long before I felt “art”, I felt the terrible deep beauty of the struggle. But the problem is that I have a dumb way of approaching the social fact: I wanted to “do” something to fight social injustice (as if writing weren’t doing). What I can’t figure out is how to use writing for that, as much as this incapacity wounds and humiliates me.’
Sea wrapped, star draped
The next day, we visit Santo Antônio de Lisboa, named for St Anthony of Padua, who was born in 1195 in Lisbon – then part of Spain – but died aged thirty-five in Italy.
He has many patronages, locating lost things is one, and another is Brazil. He is celebrated here on 12 June, known as Dia dos Namorados – the Day of the Lovers – which is marked by couples in a similar way to Valentine’s Day. Near the beach is the Church of Our Lady of Needs, built in the mid-eighteenth century. Behind the belfry is a well-tended cemetery and a mortuary chapel, Nossa Senhora de Lourdes – Our Lady of Lourdes – who has been usurped as the subject of this essay. Inside is a raised pulpit in pale blue wood and a Black Madonna. I’m not looking for guidance or signs, because I am no longer religious, but I have always associated churches as a place to offer an intention, or light a candle. My thoughts drift to my first book: my advance copies are due any day and I am nervous. And then I see it: a statue of the Virgin Mary, an echo of Lourdes. That same sonorous, holy blue, the upturned face of sorrow in both statues. This one sheltering in the shade of a tiny church, far from her weather-beaten sister, outside year round. Whenever she shows up – at Irish roadside grottos, or here under the Brazilian sun – I still, oddly, find comfort in her. A writer friend diligently photographs ‘Marys’, so I take a photo for her of this Mary in her dark blue cloak covered in gold stars. Sea wrapped and star draped. Stella Maris, Star of the Sea. A week later, back in Dublin, an advance copy of my book arrives in the same blue shade, with a gold star and foil rays. Prophetic, allegorical.
Statues always remind me of my grandmother, diligently praying, or ‘’ating the statues’, as it was described in her working-class area. She and Lispector were both born in 1920. One grew up in a Dublin tenement, the other in Recife. For my grandmother, statues were a tangible connection to God; a physical manifestation of her faith. Lispector prescribed the idea that God existed nowhere and everywhere; in her deepest thoughts and outside in the green expanse of the earth.
While working on this essay, a translator of Lispector who has heard I’m writing about her sends me an email. The subject line reads ‘Nossa Senhora’.
The Hour of the Star
While Ireland and Brazil are both predominantly Catholic, both have become more secularist in recent years. Lispector was brought up in Judaism but abandoned it, yet God and the divine permeate her writing. The protagonist in A Breath of Life asks, ‘Is God a word?’ Rodrigo in The Hour of the Star declares, ‘God is the world.’ In his biography of Lispector, Moser describes her collective work as ‘the greatest spiritual autobiography of the twentieth century’. She was interested in the works of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, particularly Ethics, which she included a section of in Near to the Wild Heart. Spinoza believed in the idea of ‘Deus sive natura’, or that God and nature are interchangeable. This pantheistic element of nature and God lingers in Lispector’s work. Lispector owned Annunciation, a painting of a pregnant Virgin Mary and an archangel by the Italian artist Angelo Savelli. In a crônica from December 1968, she writes: ‘All human beings experience an annunciation . . . That mission is by no means impossible: each of us is responsible for the entire world.’ There is an ecological, environmental echo in these words, one that crosses the mind of any long-haul traveller. While Lispector may have resisted organised religion as she made her enquiries into the divine, she also went to fortune tellers and consulted astrologers. In 1975, she was invited to speak at the First World Congress of Sorcery in Colombia, and read her story ‘The Egg and the Chicken’ for an audience of witches and warlocks (Lispector was often referred to as ‘the great witch of Brazilian literature’). Once, in an interview, she told a journalist: ‘I am a mystic. I have no religion.’
The nameless mountain
K and J, two sisters who are both researching Irish literature and film at UFSC, accompany us to Santo Antônio. They are funny and patient with my fast-talking English. K is an enthusiastic guide, keen to know more about Ireland and any connections between our homelands. Their father once worked as a policeman in Santo Antônio, and was based in a station near Praça Roldão da Rocha Pires. This was the first street to be paved in the state of Santa Catarina, in anticipation of a visit to the town by Emperor Dom Pedro II in 1845. They tell me that when they were children, people said that the emperor’s daughter Princess Isabel also visited Roldão Square. She was an important figure in Brazilian colonial history, abolishing slavery in 1888 by signing the Lei Áurea, or the Golden Law.
Despite the bridges, the island feels isolated from the mainland. A mountain range runs along the opposite bay, and when I ask the name no one knows. ‘It doesn’t have a name,’ says J, and I like the idea of this nameless mountain, looming over the land. We drive to the district Jurerê Internacional, favoured by some of Brazil’s most famous footballers. Ronaldinho and Ronaldo (nicknamed O Fenômeno in Brazil) have homes here, and Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino started his career in Figueirense in Florianópolis. The pristine houses and affluent location reek of luxury, far from the favelas of Rio. On the narrow path down to the beach, a massive four-foot Teju lizard emerges from the bushes. I jump, and yield to let him pass. He plods slowly into the greenery. On the strand, the sea is pale blue above a floor of sand, cooling our feet. The Teju brings to mind Lispector’s many fictionalised animals: chickens, cockroaches, dogs. In a crônica from March 1971,she writes: ‘Not to have been born an animal seems to be one of my secret regrets. Their call comes to me from some remote past and I can only respond with profound disquiet. Their call summons me.’
Avenida das Rendeiras
In the crônicas, Lispector returned several times to angels and the Annunciation. Not as a means of biblical scholarship, but as an exploration of grace. In ‘State of Grace’ in 1968, she describes the inspiration that comes from making art as a ‘special grace’, with an ‘almost mathematical light’. Its source is not religion, but the light of other people, places and things. A state of grace, Lispector writes, should be short-lived, episodic. I have a sense of this on my final night in Florianópolis; the grateful feeling of being in a place I know I may never return to, already receding into memory. On the last night we are in a restaurant on Avenida das Rendeiras that only serves red wine. Surrounded by others, eating camarão na moranga, a creamy local stew of shrimp and cheese served inside a hollowed-out pumpkin, I feel that sense of grace, of the short-lived and ephemeral.
‘Anything was possible; people of every sort . . .’
On the advice of the Irish Consul, we fly to the domestic airport in Rio de Janeiro. The road from the international airport is considered dangerous for tourists. There have been kidnappings and hijackings. Florianópolis is not a realistic introduction to Brazil, and is no preparation for the poverty in Rio. The road in from the airport is clustered with tiny buildings roofed only with corrugated metal. We pass people living under the bridges and young men straddle the roadsides selling wares in large packs shrouded in plastic to keep them dry. The favelas are all over the city: Pavão up behind the Copacabana, Babilônia above Leme; Providência is considered to be the oldest favela, and Rocinha the most populous, with 100,000 inhabitants. Whenever I arrive somewhere new my first instinct has always been to get out and train my inner compass to the city, to wander, but I’m advised to stick to the seafront and avoid the backstreets. The hotel overlooks Copacabana so I head out into the dull afternoon, along the swirling grey and cream calçada portuguesa between the road and the famous beach.
Instantly it feels like Lispector’s world, the one that shows up so frequently in the crônicas. In ‘Forgiving God’ she walks along Avenida Copacabana, imagining herself to be ‘the Mother of God who was both earth and the world’. It’s a quasi-religious experience – only the reverie is interrupted when she steps on a dead rat. Several of her short stories (including this one) began as crônicas. A little further down the seafront is the pristine art deco facade of the Copacabana Palace hotel, the setting for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’s 1933 Flying Down to Rio. In Lispector’s story ‘Beauty and the Beast, or the Enormous Wound’, the wife of a rich Rio banker leaves the hotel’s salon and is awaiting her driver. A beggar asks for money, and the woman’s initial revulsion turns into a philosophical reckoning: ‘on a physical level they were equal . . . on Avenida Copacabana, anything was possible: people of every sort. At least a different sort from hers.’ The story captures what still divides Rio: a gaping chasm between wealth and poverty. It’s midweek and overcast, but there are still sellers and hustlers along the strip. Just off the avenida, two homeless women huddle asleep on the ground, oblivious to pedestrians.
Changing direction, I walk towards Leme, where Lispector moved in 1959 as a separated mother of two. Leme means ‘rudder’ – the region is named for the large rock headland that resembles that part of a ship. Clarice felt at home here, at the end of Copacabana. On a wall along Caminho dos Pescadores (Fisherman’s Way), sculptor Edgar Duvivier’s bronze statue of Lispector sits against the backdrop of the beach, with her faithful dog Ulisses. Read even a little about Lispector’s life, and there will be many references to her as an aloof hermit who avoided socialising, but she liked walking, and browsing the markets with her sons, though it is still a stretch to think of her as a flâneuse. But the city is the beating heart in so much of the work. If the narrative is elusive, working outside of chronology, the places in her work are a dropped pin: Catete, Leme, Cosme Velho, Botafogo. In 2020, a photo of the statue appears online with Clarice and Ulisses wearing face masks.
The moral of the garden
After Floripa’s lagoon, there is another unexpected body of water in central Rio. Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas is close to Rio’s Botanical Gardens, where Lispector liked to walk. It appears often in her work, and afforded her the kind of solace that her character Ana initially finds in the short story ‘Love’: ‘The vastness seemed to calm her, the silence regulated her breathing. She was falling asleep inside herself.’ Ana escapes the demands of her domestic life, but time passes quickly and the space around her becomes something strange and sinister, a rottenness in each plant and creature. In Água Viva, the unnamed narrator is similarly overwhelmed. ‘In the Botanical Gardens, I get worn out. With my glance, I must look after thousands of plants and trees and especially the giant water lily.’
The weather in Rio is cooler than Florianópolis. More unsettled and overcast, the sky all marbled grey. Before that evening’s event, I head to the rooftop bar to take in the view, looking down over the sea. I absently search for ‘Copacabana’ and ‘shark attack’ on my phone, and discover there have been several, some fatal. One result has a more sensationalist headline about Recife, where Clarice Lispector grew up. In the twenty years until 2012, a twenty-kilometre stretch of Recife’s beaches had fifty-six shark attacks, twenty-one fatal, the highest shark attack rate in the world. In the hotel pool, two men are photographing each other, teeth flashing, jumping upwards in the water. Over and over they repeat this in a bid for the perfect, curated shot. It starts to rain and it’s hard not to admire their commitment to this odd choreography. To the right, the waves of the Copacabana darken, forming a crescent all the way to Ipanema, where the event will be held.
The Ipanema venue is Casa de Cultura Laura Alvim, named after the daughter of a famous doctor in the city. It overlooks Ipanema Beach, and a woman at the event says that Laura was the inspiration for Antônio Carlos Jobim’s ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, even though Laura was fifty in 1964, when the song was released.
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