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.