Barbara Burns interviews Adriana X. Jacobs and Claire Williams, co-editors of After Clarice: Reading Lispector’s Legacy in the Twenty-First Century, which appeared recently in Legenda’s Transcript series.
BB. Adriana, Claire, congratulations on a substantial and remarkable volume about the Ukrainian-born Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, a woman from a poor immigrant background who enjoyed a sensational rise to fame in the 1940s and became something of a cult figure on the cultural scene. What were the qualities of her work that enabled her to succeed at a time when so many women writers struggled?
CW. Thanks very much! We’re really proud of this book, which has been years in the making and kept us going during periods of lockdown in the pandemic. Lispector’s writing was unlike anything Brazilian readers had come across before. Her first novel, Close to the Wild Heart, came out in December 1943, when the world was preoccupied with the Second World War (Brazil joined, on the side of the Allies, in 1942), but it shocked and impressed readers so much that reviews of it were coming out in the press every month for a year after its release. The novel didn’t so much tell a story as present disjointed moments of being in a young woman’s life, her sensations and thought processes, in language that flowed like streams of consciousness. The protagonist, Joana, is struggling to understand who and what she is, through her relationships with other people and the ways her body senses the world around her, not to mention questioning moral and social codes.
Lispector next came to readers’ attention most emphatically with her strange short stories (Family Ties, 1960) and the novel The Passion According to G.H. (1964). But it was her Saturday newspaper column in the Jornal do Brasil (1967-73) which introduced a new audience to her eclectic musings on life, encouraging them to try her longer fiction.
BB. It sounds as if Lispector was particularly gifted at drawing her readers in and creating the sense of a bond with them.
CW. I think what appeals about her writing is the confidence with which she establishes a relationship of intimacy with readers. We understand what her characters are going through; it feels as though she knows us. It’s also ambiguous, open, questioning, challenging; different readers are drawn to different aspects of it, bring their own cultural and emotional baggage to it, interpret it in their own ways. The Hour of the Star, for example, can be read in multiple ways, as a migrant girl’s misadventures, a narrative experiment, a case study in poverty, a satire of male authorship, a portrait of 1970s Rio. The book opens with a list of titles that echoes this multiplicity of meanings. This also speaks to her appeal to readers around the world.
BB. Your book on Lispector is somewhat unusual in being a hybrid volume containing not only academic articles, but also contributions by artists, writers and translators. Can you tell us about the benefits of this blended approach?
CW. The book’s origins lie in a conference we co-organised in 2017, on Lispector’s legacy, marking 40 years since her death. When we sent round a call for papers, we already knew we wanted to hear about the impact of her work on other writers, musicians, artists, actors, filmmakers. The quality and variety of papers encouraged us to put a volume together. We didn’t want to produce just another collection of academic essays, but rather to embrace different genres and styles so as to reflect the many ways readers engage with and are inspired by her work. Likewise, we were keen to include contributions from scholars from around the world, established voices like those of Nádia Battella Gotlib or Marta Peixoto, and new ones like Julie Côté or Júlia Braga Neves. We’re so pleased to be able to republish a short story by Hélia Correia, both in Portuguese and in Annie McDermott’s English translation, and essays by novelists Martin MacInnes and Paloma Vidal alongside more conventionally academic chapters.
The volume opens with Teresa Montero’s guide to Lispector’s neighbourhood in Rio, Kiran Leonard’s song lyrics, a survey of Lispector in English translation, a chapter on memes and even a piece from beyond the grave: the never-before-published ‘Afterword’ to Giovanni Pontiero’s ‘lost’ translation of The Besieged City. Both in our introduction and in our arrangement of the chapters, we were careful to emphasize what made each contribution unique and distinct, while also working to create a dialogue between the chapters.
BB. Adriana, you work in modern Hebrew literature, and Claire, your field is Brazilian literature. What brought the two of you together for this project, and how did your different academic backgrounds enrich your perspective?
CW. I’ve been reading and writing about Lispector for thirty years now. I first became aware of her when I was an undergraduate at Durham, during a course on French Women Writers. The lecturer introduced Cixous’s proposition that Lispector’s writing was the best example she knew of écriture féminine or feminine writing, which intrigued me, so I dived into The Hour of the Star. I love metafictional writing which creates the illusion of being written as I am reading it, as if the writer knows I’m there, and The Hour of the Star does that, as well as being simultaneously funny and tragic. It’s so short, yet it has multiple layers and dimensions.
I read more of Lispector’s work and became hooked because of the way she described sensations, emotions and experiences. It seemed she was always one step ahead of me: she had put into words something I had felt but hadn’t known how to describe. Plus, she isn’t afraid to twist and bend language to make it do what she wants. I still find something new and thought-provoking every time I read her work: a turn of phrase, a metaphor, a neologism…
When Adriana and I met, and discovered our shared passion for Lispector, organising a conference, and then the book, was an obvious way to celebrate that and to try to commemorate the writer in new ways. Although there have been patches of turbulence in seeing the book to completion, collaborating with Adriana was a joy. I have learned so much from her about translation studies, and poetry, not to mention parenting tips and TV series recommendations.
AXJ. When I was an undergraduate (in the US), I took a course in my freshman year on ‘The World Novel’ and Lispector’s The Hour of the Star (trans. by Giovanni Pontiero) was on the syllabus. I became enamoured, really, with Clarice’s work, and soon thereafter with Hélène Cixous’s writings on Lispector. Both inspired me, in my creative and scholarly writing, to step out of my comfort zones. In my professional life, I have felt a great deal of pressure to ‘specialize’, and while Hebrew literature is the focus of my teaching and research, it is not the only area that interests me. In fact, my thinking about Hebrew literature is deeply indebted to writers and scholars working in other languages and literary traditions. Editing this volume with Claire presented an opportunity to celebrate how Clarice continues to inspire me. I also want to second what Claire wrote about the pleasure of working together. I don’t think it is an accident that those who love Clarice’s writing tend to forge strong connections with each other. This bond helped us navigate together the challenges of conference organizing and volume editing, not to mention a global pandemic! Claire also introduced me to some excellent contemporary Brazilian music, which brightened many hours in those days of lockdowns and social distancing.
BB. Your study also explores Lispector’s status as a Jewish writer. Is there a Jewish diasporic sensibility to be detected in her work, or a sense of cultural displacement and struggle?
AXJ. In my chapter, ‘Clarice Hebraica’, I discuss what happens when Lispector is translated into Hebrew, the language of her birthname Chaya. While Lispector did not hide the fact that she was Jewish, she resisted a Jewish reading of her work and biography and left few explicit Jewish references in her work. This has resulted in some fascinating, and at times wild, forensic readings intent on locating Jewishness in her stories and novels. But what I was interested in exploring was how translation into Hebrew draws her into a Jewish cultural orbit, and in my reading of the Hebrew translation of A hora da estrela, I consider how translation into Hebrew reveals and creates Jewish sites in her work. For example, the way she writes about mercy and compassion in this book is profoundly Jewish and draws from Jewish teachings on rachamim, the Hebrew word for mercy/compassion. In her chapter, Yael Segalovitz, who has translated Lispector into Hebrew, writes about the short story collection The Via Crucis of the Body and Lispector’s reworking of Jewish texts, including the Hebrew Bible. And in the first section of the volume, Dafna Hornike’s study on ‘Holy Land Imagery’ in the novel The Passion According to G.H. shows how Lispector represented this part of the Middle East despite never having visited the region. But it was important to me that we not bundle these chapters together into a ‘Jewish Lispector’ section because these readings are in conversation with a wide range of interpretations and framings of her work.
BB. Lispector is one of the most widely translated Portuguese-language authors, but is notoriously difficult to translate. What is it about her writing style and use of language that makes this the case?
CW. I think it’s to do with the ambiguity I mentioned before. She writes in a way that isn’t necessarily complicated, or that uses rarefied vocabulary, but that sounds odd – in Portuguese for sure, so it has to in English (and other languages). She’s adept at wrongfooting the reader. This might be through tinkering with grammar: writing sentences without a verb, turning verbs into nouns, adding prefixes, or taking the story in a totally unexpected direction. She’s very good at surprising last lines!
An exercise I do with my students is to compare three translations of ‘The Smallest Woman in the World’ and discuss which is best. We usually decide that we’d like to use bits of each to create our final version! But the point of the exercise is to show how different translations of the same text can be.
AXJ. I grew up in a Spanish-speaking household, but my mother also had a lot of Brazilian friends with whom she could practise her Portuguese. There’s an affinity between these languages, so I learned how to keep up with their conversations, but I’m hardly proficient enough to read Clarice’s work in the original. I wouldn’t have the relationship I have with her work without the work of translators. Since I first encountered Miriam Tivon’s Hebrew translation of The Hour of the Star, I have been collecting (slowly) translations of this book. The most recent is a Japanese translation by Nobuhiro Fukushima. As a literary translator (from Hebrew to English), I’ve encountered my share of challenges in translation and found a way to navigate them, so I tend to be sceptical of the ‘difficulty’ discourse. Our volume gathers several essays by her translators (Vidal, Pontiero, Segalovitz, Min Xuefei, Katrina Dodson, Idra Novey), and what stands out in those pieces is that they are less invested on enumerating the difficulties of translation and more interested in highlighting its creative and transformative potential. I think this potential is what draws translators to her work.
BB. How well is Lispector’s work known in the UK?
AXJ. Lispector’s work is highly regarded and widely available on this side of the pond. Stefan Tobler’s translation of Água Viva was shortlisted for the 2015 Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize, which I mention here because Tobler is also one of the founding publishers of the UK-based press And Other Stories. And recently, the UK edition of Lispector’s collected crónicas came out in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation, under the title Too Much of Life. Our volume includes UK-based scholars, like us, as well as writers and translators, like Annie McDermott, who graciously gave us permission to reprint her translation of Hélia Correia’s short story ‘Capture’, which is inspired by a Lispector short story. We were also thrilled that we could publish Martin MacInnes’s essay on Lispector and the influence of her writing on his post-humanist fiction. His 2016 novel Infinite Ground opens with a Lispector epigraph that powerfully sets the stage for the events that unfold in the book. Anyone new to Lispector can’t go wrong with her Complete Stories, translated into English by Katrina Dodson.
BB. Finally, how would you sum up what this collaborative volume has achieved and what you hope its legacy might be?
CW. I think that this volume has shown that Lispector’s writing speaks to a lot of readers in different ways, shapes and forms, but always intensely. It’s what my chapter ‘Spectres of Clarice’ is about: how her work has inspired other writers of fiction, often to the extent of including her in their texts (poems, short stories, novels) as a character or ideal interlocutor. Some of the chapters are ongoing projects, such as Cynthia Beatrice Costa and Luana Ferreira de Freitas’s list and analysis of translations into English, or my list of afterlives. Overall, it shows that academic readings, poetic interpretations, creative translations and other methods of appreciating literature can be complementary, not counterproductive.
AXJ. I’m very proud of the volume and how it combines a range of genres and approaches. Claire and I also wanted to respect that academic discourse and writing take on different forms in other languages and cultures; we tried, as much as possible, to avoid imposing the conventions that were familiar to us. It was also important for us to feature scholars at different stages of their work, and I’m especially proud that we achieved that. I have no doubt that Lispector’s work will continue to inspire new readers and new ways of thinking about literature and life, but I hope the legacy of our book is that it encourages scholars to continue to challenge the norms and conventions of academic publishing. On a personal note, working on this volume certainly did that for me. It reminded me that other ways of writing about literature are possible.