When the publisher offered me a copy of a biography of Clarice Lispector, Why This World by Benjamin Moser, I thought I should probably read a book by Lispector too since I had never read one but had always thought about doing so. No time like the present, right? So I chose, for no particular reason, The Hour of The Star which turns out to have been her next to last book and was translated by Moser, the guy who wrote the bio I am reading. What an odd, beautiful little book Hour of the Star turned out to be!
Published in 1977, the book has thirteen titles, not subtitles but thirteen different titles as though Lispector couldn’t decide what to call the book or, providing a list of possibilities, she leaves the reader to decide on what the best title is. Since the main character admires Marilyn Monroe and in the end gets to be a star ever so briefly, I like the first title. However, “Cheap Tearjerker” and “Discreet Exit Through the Back Door” are also pretty darn good.
The story is told by the “author” of the book, Rodrigo S. M. about Macabéa. Macabéa lives in the slums of Rio. She works as a typist and just manages to get by. She is poor, ugly, underfed, has no friends and yet still manages to be happy. At one point she has a boyfriend who is nearly as poor as she is. He keeps Macabéa as his girlfriend just so he has someone who will agree with him about how wonderful he is and how rich he will be one day. Of course he throws her over when someone better comes along. Macabéa isn’t all that upset by it since she was surprised at having a boyfriend to begin with.
Macabéa is a woman who doesn’t think about the future because the future is a luxury. She only ever wants to be herself. She thinks she would somehow be punished if she took too much pleasure in life. Macabéa is a woman, who upon seeing a rhinoceros at the zoo for the first time, wets herself because she thought it looked like “an error of God.” She is the sort of person who has an ecstasy because one day she found herself standing in front of a tree she realized she could not wrap her arms all the way around. Living as she does in a slum, she shares a room with four other women (all named Maria). One day Macabéa slightly hurts her back and is told that she should stay home sick from work, something she had never done before. And what a glorious day it is:
When the four tired Marias went to work, she had for the first time in her life the most precious thing of all: solitude. She had a room all to herself. She could hardly believe that all this space was hers. And not a word was heard. So she danced in an act of absolute courage, since her aunt couldn’t see her: f-r-e-e! She enjoyed everything, of this arduously obtained solitude, the radio as loud as it would go, the vastness of the room without the Marias. She got, as a favor, a little instant coffee from the landlady, and, as another favor, she asked her for some boiling water, drank it all licking herself and in front of the mirror so as not to miss any of herself. The encounter with herself was a good she had not yet known. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy in my entire life, she thought.
I love Macabéa. At first I was puzzled by how she couldn’t be depressed and so very unhappy and wanting something different. But she is a woman who had accepted what she has been given in life and appreciates everything. She is so utterly beautiful.
The book is also a meditation of sorts on writing. Rodrigo constantly breaks into the story, explains why he does one thing and not another, wonders what directions he should go in with the story, complains about Macabéa and how she won’t leave him alone (he talks about her like she is a real person), and wonders about writing and truth and facts in general. Here’s an example from early in the book:
I’m writing in this instant with a bit of previous modesty because I’m invading you with such an exterior and explicit narrative. Out of which however blood so pantingly full of life might ooze and instantly congeal in cubes of trembling jelly. Will this story someday become my own congealing?
And another example, the “author” talking of Macabéa:
I’m the only one who finds her charming. Only I, her author, love her. I suffer for her.
The writing is so rich it was hard to spend more than half an hour to 45 minutes at a time reading it. But the writing is so compact that I found reading it in short spurts made it difficult to keep track of the story. Since the book is so short, 80 pages, ideally I should have read it in one sitting during an afternoon. But the book asks to be read slowly and with full attention, and as I mentioned, it is incredibly rich, and I am afraid reading it in one afternoon would have led to a prose overdose. Another option would be to read it through over a couple of days and then immediately read it again in one afternoon. I think that would be possible to do. I did not attempt it though. The publisher that sent me the biography also sent be a couple copies of a few of her books (not Hour of the Star though, got that from the library but I plan to buy my own copy now) so perhaps, if they turn out to be as rich as this one I will try the read and then reread method.
Hour of the Star is a gorgeous book, a happy book, and a movingly tragic book (have some tissue handy, even as I am writing this I am getting a little teary). If all of Lispector’s other books are anything like this one, I am in for a huge treat. Also, she just might end up on my favorite authors list. Yeah, she’s that good.