Un-Reading Clarice Lispector’s “The Chandelier”

Dull, I claimed, because when I was reading her texts I often had the urge to skip pages ahead. Clarice Lispector finished writing The Chandelier (O Lustre) in 1944, at the end of World War II, in Naples, where she was living with her husband, a diplomat. Many of my friends told stories of how they discovered Lispector and how her books revolutionized their entire view of literature. Un-reading The Chandelier is taking the time to see the chandelier, reading for those rare moments when a common object casts a particular light, illuminating that very same whirlwind of dusts that, at the beginning of the book, were dancing with hallucinatory slowness. “Self-centered,” “hermetic,” and “dull,” were the words I often used to explain why I did not like her work. Try reading the text in a playful tone, and follow the punctuation marks of your breath. Perhaps then the chandelier would become a metaphor for her experience of time? The Chandelier is now being published for the first time as part of a translation project of Lispector’s works by New Directions, led by Benjamin Moser. As a child playing games, Virginia used to lie down, immobile, and look at the glowing chandelier like a great spider until. She looks out the window and sees, in the lowered dark glass, “mixed with the reflection of the seats and the people the chandelier.” It was then that she was able to capture the luminous raving transparency of the lit chandelier for the first time: “[A]fter all [she] had lived, even intact through the events, from which she’d had the occasional instant full of meaning — the pure sensation was coming and going with a touch of wonder and really she’d never know how to think whatever she was experiencing.”
The chandelier is, in this sense, the looking-glass and refracted light that allows us to illuminate Virginia. The Chandelier is not a book to be read at a fast pace, but rather one to be slowly sipped and savored, a few pages at a time — one that forces us to find other modes of reading, of approaching literature, committed to finding the pleasures of the text. “I am at its core,” “I am at the living and soft center,” “I am at the center of everything that screams and teems,” she claims in Água Viva, the book in which she distills her poetics. Those who know that the approach, of whatever it may be, happens gradually and painstakingly — even passing through the opposite of what it approaches.” This is the act of un-reading Clarice Lispector. In the first part of The Chandelier, we follow Virginia, the flowing girl, and her idyllic but troubled childhood in Quiet Farm, near the town of Upper Marsh. Then change the subject of that sentence to a third-person plural. I cannot help but praise and recognize the translators of The Chandelier, Magdalena Edwards and Benjamin Moser, both of them well acquainted with Lispector’s work. The Chandelier has no plot or defined structure and is written in a third-person stream-of-consciousness style that focuses on sensation and perception. Lispector’s second novel consolidated her style, following some of the characteristics of her prior book as well as setting the tone of most of her subsequent titles. I don’t regret complaining all those years about Lispector’s work. Once again, I expected the worst: another dull, self-centered, hermetic novel. Follow this method every day until you finish the novel. I attempted her novels and short stories many times, but I couldn’t overcome my frustration. After giving it some thought, I came up with a “reading regime.” I called it the “Un-reading Clarice Lispector” method. For many years, these were the excuses I had made up to dodge the “Clarice Lispector affair.” Until now. I struggled with the first pages, trying to understand what was happening in the initial scene. Finally, underline a single sentence you believe is the essence of the passage. The chandelier is the narrator of the novel, the voice that illuminates consciousness and captures the flow of life in a bolt of lightning. She seems, however, to have developed a certain sense of confidence, which gives her a solidity she didn’t possess at the beginning of the novel. The reader must endure long and repetitive interior monologues where the author admits her doubts and (re)affirms her “self”; characters serve only as vessels for conveying her experience and thoughts. Her prose is certainly hermetic; there is no easy way to follow the waves of her odd syntax. Finally, when Virginia is riding the train back to the city after visiting Quiet Farm, she remembers the old chandelier and wonders if her father had put it away or if she just hadn’t had time to seek it with her eyes. Her games are the only way for her to imagine an outside world. The plot is what matters the least. Lispector imposes a reading rhythm that is very difficult to follow and that, to top it all off, has a melancholic undertone. So I finished it. Her prose never blew my mind. The exercise had precise measures to counter my three presuppositions about Lispector’s work. It is a rather plain and simple chandelier that stood on top of the parlor of the empty mansion of Quiet Farm. The center of the narrative is not the telling of events, but rather the images and sensations that the main character, Virginia, experiences, “thinking all over herself without words, recopying existence itself.” Lispector works on language and its relationship to the body. The Chandelier, Lispector’s second novel, has now, for the first time, been translated into English. In a state of sub-understanding, she admits her desire to see more than a lamp in the extinguished and dusty chandelier. In her return, she seeks clues to better understand her childhood but comes to find the same untimely space and “vague air of complicity and fear that she had breathed.” The novel ends with Virginia’s return to the city and an unexpected accident. It is, however, particularly dense in how its scenes are constructed as very long interior monologues with a prism-like unity, which we will not encounter again in her work. I imagined her style as that of a beautiful but tortured woman with the need to set down her feelings. If not, why is she the subject matter of all her books? In it, one day, she was able to foresee in a flash of light how terrible and joyful her life was going to be. Little seems to happen, and it is very difficult to describe what the novel is truly about. Magdalena Edwards has also published essays on Lispector where she analyzes the translation and the trajectory of her work, as well as her influence in the English-speaking world. New Directions has been retranslating her books over the past few years as well as commissioning new introductions from contemporary writers. Living in solitude but according to her own truth, Virginia has a very complex interior life that is sometimes also disturbed by what happens outside of her. She is the youngest of three siblings and she devotes herself to her older brother Daniel with whom she creates the “Society of Shadows.” Virginia’s sub-understanding as conveyed by the narrative voice follows the same two guiding principles of the Society: Solitude and Truth. The term that better describes this process of thought-experience, lurking under words, appears toward the second half of the novel: “sub-understanding.” This process, as my un-reading regime does, works with the unconscious universe made up by language and not through the paradigm of reason. Every morning, read from five to 10 pages. The Chandelier is indeed an odd and non-poetic name for such an intricate novel. One of the questions lurking behind The Chandelier is the reason for the title of the book. ¤
Christina Soto van der Plas is an assistant professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of California, Riverside. I could picture the image, I could recognize the words, and yet there was something that escaped my comprehension. She has published in academic volumes on Latin American literature, psychoanalysis, and critical theory. But I would be happy if it were only read by people whose souls are already formed. In a note to “Possible Readers” in The Passion According to G.H., Lispector writes: “This book is like any other book. Translating this book must certainly have been a great challenge; it requires an ear in tune with the oddness of Lispector’s phrasing. The Chandelier is also paradigmatic in how Lispector finds other ways narrating not through descriptions but through impressions and adjectives unusually stacked as single brushstrokes forming a landscape. The second part of the novel begins after Virginia has grown up, Daniel has gotten married, and they both now live in an unnamed city. Five hours later, go back and read those same pages out loud, not paying attention to the meaning of each word. Virginia has the need to flow, but time seems to be stuck in Quiet Farm and her small family universe. The results of my reading exercise were astounding, and I found out three things: first, Lispector is un-readable in terms of meaning and interpretation; second, Lispector is in fact not writing about her own life, but rather about an experience that can potentially belong to all of us; third, Lispector has a dark and deep sense of humor. As an object, the chandelier appears only a few times at key moments in the story, but it does not function as a symbol or motif. When I first opened it, I browsed through feeling overwhelmed by the sight of long paragraphs with no breaks, except for a few uncomfortable dialogues interrupting the flow of the narrative. Following the death of her grandmother, and leaving her life on hold, Virginia goes back to visit her family in Quiet Farm. Lispector’s second novel had to wait a long time to finally be translated into English. The book was not published until 1946, three years after her successful first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, which won a prestigious prize that launched her literary career. Her narrators constantly comment on the inability of the characters to act or relate to others, usually in absurd scenes. MARCH 27, 2018
I MUST CONFESS that for a long time I did not enjoy reading Clarice Lispector’s work. I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about — why is she considered the most important Brazilian writer of the 20th century? So I had to try something different. In his biography of Lispector, Benjamin Moser tells an anecdote of how none of her friends liked the title because they thought it was “too poor for a person as rich as her,” to which Lispector responded that the she would keep the title even though they were right. It is daring, dense, intricate, and difficult, and it is without a doubt Lispector’s most challenging book. Moser is one of the most knowledgeable critics of the Brazilian author, as his remarkable Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector shows. “She’d be flowing all her life,” is the first line of The Chandelier. Later on in the city we find Virginia falling asleep in a last instant of illuminated consciousness, trying to remember her childhood. The river rolled and the girl could not speak, “a dead instant extended things lengthily” and a “cone of brightness was lighting a whirlwind of dusts that were dancing with hallucinatory slowness.” The flow of life is that of the instant extending itself indefinitely, or at least for the duration of a lifetime. In the city, the action revolves around Virginia’s relationship with her lover Vicente. Since there is no possible translation of the intricate twists and turns of her prose, what Moser and Edwards did was to create their own version of the novel, following the tone and rhythm more than the actual meaning of words — an un-reading.