After the sensation that greeted the publication of her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart (1943), the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector was unsettled by the subdued reaction, three years later, to her second, The Chandelier. Some critics praised it only glancingly; another described it—along with Near to the Wild Heart—as “mutilated and incomplete.” But mostly there was a curious silence. In a letter to her sister Tania, Lispector wondered: Shouldn’t the critics who had been so dazzled by her first novel at least acknowledge the second, either by “destroying it or accepting it”?
In Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, the 2009 book that rejuvenated Anglophone interest in the Brazilian writer, Benjamin Moser ventures an explanation for this seeming indifference. The Chandelier, he writes, “stands out, in a strange and difficult body of work, as perhaps her strangest and most difficult book.” More than 70 years after The Chandelier’s initial publication, English readers can now judge this claim—and the novel—for themselves.
The Chandelier is the seventh English translation of Lispector’s work to appear from New Directions in as many years. After Why This World sparked new interest in Lispector, Moser—who held that earlier translations of her work didn’t do justice to her prose’s idiosyncrasies—joined with the publisher to translate her fiction anew. (The Chandelier was not among the earlier translations.) In 2011, Moser inaugurated the effort by producing his own version of Lispector’s final completed novel, The Hour of the Star. The next year, four more works appeared: Near to the Wild Heart (translated by Alison Entrekin), Água Viva (translated by Stefan Tobler), The Passion According to G.H. (translated by Idra Novey), and A Breath of Life (translated by Johnny Lorenz). These were followed by The Complete Stories (translated by Katrina Dodson) in 2015.
The arrival of The Chandelier, jointly translated by Moser and Magdalena Edwards, allows us access to a previously obscure phase in Lispector’s artistic development. Begun shortly before the publication of Near to the Wild Heart and completed before her 24th birthday, The Chandelier is the work of a young writer already well on her way to artistic maturity. So what is it about the novel that vexed critics into silence?
Like all of Lispector’s novels, The Chandelier opens mysteriously:
She’d be flowing all her life. But what had dominated her edges and attracted them toward a center, what had illuminated her against the world and given her intimate power was the secret. She’d never know how to think of it in clear terms afraid to invade and dissolve its image. Yet it had formed in her interior a far-off and living nucleus and had never lost the magic—it sustained her in her unsolvable vagueness like the single reality that for her should always be the lost one.
Before we learn the protagonist’s name, we are given an incantatory collection of concepts defining the expanses of her inner world: intimate power, the secret, a far-off and living nucleus, the single reality, the lost one. Immediately, Lispector plunges us into a semantic world just beyond the reach of comprehension. The protagonist’s name, we soon learn, is Virgínia, and she finds herself, with her brother Daniel, on a bridge leaning over a river near Quiet Farm, where they live with their family. In the river, they spot a hat they believe belonged to a drowned man. This becomes their secret.
The novel’s plot, such as it is, spans Virgínia’s life. After witnessing the hat in the river, she and Daniel form a club, the Society of Shadows. Under her brother’s thrall and desperate to please him, Virgínia carries out the rituals prescribed by the Society—meeting Daniel daily in the forest; spending long stretches of time alone, in silent thought—as though they were sacred rites. Sometime later, Virgínia, now an adult, moves to an unnamed city, where she begins a romance. Later, she moves in with two much older cousins and then into a building where she lives alone and strikes up a friendship with the doorman. The death of Virgínia’s grandmother beckons her to Quiet Farm. After reconnecting with her family, she takes a train back to the city and, while crossing the street, is struck by a car and killed.
This summary skips some plot points, but not many. Almost all of the novel’s central action occurs in Virgínia’s thinking, which Lispector’s prose follows meticulously, with only the occasional brief foray into another character’s mind. The Chandelier rivals The Passion According to G.H. and Água Viva for sheer meditative intensity, but it differs from them in its narrative scope. More than any of these other works, The Chandelier unites Lispector’s narrative and anti-narrative impulses: It traces the path of Virgínia’s life, yet the seductive flow of its prose takes primacy over the articulation of a conventional story line.
In that way, what most clearly sets Lispector’s second novel apart from the rest of her oeuvre is the length, intensity, and continuity of its lyrical, sensual, philosophical digressions. These often pages-long passages constitute Lispector’s most sustained attempts at capturing life stripped of the baggage of social activity and reduced to the naked simplicity of a succession of instants.
More than any legible worldly aim, this pursuit of pure contact with existence animates Virgínia. When, after invoking the Society of Shadows, Daniel commands her to spend a day in the basement simply thinking—“don’t bother with the family or the world”—Virgínia rejoices. In another memorable scene, at a party in the city surrounded by friends, Virgínia loses herself in the taste of anise liqueur as she tries to pinpoint its essence:
She drank the liquor with pleasure and melancholy—trying once again to think about her childhood and simply not knowing how to get near it, since she’d so forgotten it and since it seemed so vague and common to her—wanting to fasten the anise the way one looks at an immobile object but almost not possessing its taste because it was flowing, disappearing—and she only grasped the memory like the firefly that does nothing but disappear…. Defeated she was swallowing the now-old liquid, it was going down her throat and in a surprise she was noticing that it had been “anise” for a second while it ran down her throat or after? or before? Not “during,” not “while” but shorter: it was anise for a second like a touch of the point of a needle on the skin…
Virgínia longs, Lispector writes, “to find the nucleus made of a single instant.” It is this—the voluptuous drama of the immediate moment, rather than the human hubbub that surrounds her—that arrests her full attention.
Much of the novel proceeds in this way, with Lispector’s gorgeous, unsettling prose following Virgínia’s mind in its wanderings away from what’s happening in front of her, which are really wanderings into the experience of that instant. The reader comes to feel as if the moments of narrative action are themselves interruptions of the real drama: the flow of the world’s hidden vital force.
Virgínia has a few strange yet revealing habits. In an early scene, after she has “sharpened her being as you sharpen a pencil,” she uses a stick to scratch a line in the dirt—a fairly innocuous childhood act. But soon after, in a continuation of this compulsion, she begins “drawing straight lines without the help of a ruler, just with the weight of her hand, sometimes as if only with the spur of her thought.” She spends hour after hour so engaged. Each line is an image of the experience of life that Virgínia seeks: union with its humble moments. And the habit persists into her adulthood. On her train ride home after her grandmother’s death, a moment occurs that might be the perfection of Virgínia’s line-drawing:
As long as the long second lasted she was thinking and her lucidity was the raw brightness of the moonlight itself; but she didn’t know what she was thinking; she was thinking as a line departs from one point prolonging it; she was thinking like a bird that just flies, simple pure direction….
At its finest, The Chandelier’s prose becomes something close to this “simple pure direction.” Though it has its revelatory moments, The Chandelier is perhaps the least epiphanic of Lispector’s works. And whereas, late in her career, Lispector embraced minimalism, in The Chandelier she shamelessly invites language to accumulate. Each sentence dissolves into the flow of the whole; moments of bright clarity give way to the slow churn of thinking, feeling, and being—which, for Lispector, might well all be one.
At the core of Lispector’s lifelong project is the tension between language’s profound potential and its inability to reach the vital realm of the unspeakable. The Chandelier alludes to this conflict by means of Virgínia’s other unusual habit: fashioning figurines from clay. She is enamored of her material, the “white, supple, sticky, cold” clay she sources from the riverbank, the location of her primordial secret. The clay, she thinks, is “a clear and tender material from which she could shape a world.” And what a world it is:
She’d make children, horses, a mother with a child, a mother alone, a girl making things out of clay, a boy at rest, a happy girl, a girl seeing if it would rain, a flower, a comet with a tail sprinkled with washed and sparkling sand, a wilted flower beneath the sun, the cemetery of Upper Marsh, a girl looking…. Much more, much more. Little shapes that meant nothing but that were in fact mysterious and calm. Sometimes tall like a tall tree, but they weren’t trees, they weren’t anything…. Sometimes like a little running river, but they weren’t a river, they weren’t anything…. Sometimes a little object in an almost starry shape but tired like a person.
Virgínia supposes that “she could make anything that existed and anything that did not!” But she reaches her limit when she comes to the problem of representing the sky: “She couldn’t even start. She didn’t want clouds—which she could obtain at least crudely—but the sky, the sky itself, with its inexistence, loose color, lack of color.” Lispector’s impassioned, even fantastical description of Virgínia’s relationship with her precious clay evokes her own relationship with language. Words, for Lispector, are world-shaping to the point of allowing for the formation of seemingly impossible things. But when it comes to capturing the truly evanescent and unrepresentable, they are insufficient.
Nevertheless, Lispector attempts what Virgínia only imagines. In The Chandelier’s final pages, Lispector sets herself a challenge: capturing in language the experience of dying. Lispector dives without hesitation into Virgínia’s consciousness as the car strikes her. The result is a bewildering maelstrom of present experience and recollection that culminates thus:
Mists fraying and uncovering firm shapes, a mute sound bursting from the divined intimacy of things, silence pressing down on particles of earth in darkness and black ants slow and tall walking atop thick grains of earth, the wind running high far ahead, a limpid cube dangling in the air and light running parallel to every point, was present, thus it had been, thus it would be, and the wind, the wind, she who had been so steady.
In this final scene, Lispector exaggerates her own habit of repeating phrases—here, “suddenly! suddenly! suddenly!”; “like that, like that”; “the difficulty, the difficulty”—which can tend toward the melodramatic. But, ultimately, the scene is neither maudlin nor self-consciously comic: Lispector wants to depict the confusion and drama of dying itself, rather than to coax the reader into feeling emotional about Virgínia’s death in particular. What The Chandelier lacks in the narrative complexity and self-questioning that characterize Lispector’s later work, it makes up for in sincerity, ambition, and utter devotion to language’s possibilities. Lispector rides the flow of Virgínia’s life from her early riverside encounter with death to, in the book’s final pages, the end of her own existence. Much earlier, in a conversation with her lover, Virgínia argues that what’s “deep,” what’s truly profound, is “neither tragic nor comic, it was a tree, a fish, she herself—that was the impossible and serene sensation.” The Chandelier, like its protagonist, aims for neither tragedy nor comedy but for being itself—an impossible task. But Lispector—stunningly, even here, as she was just beginning to become herself—brings the impossible within reach.