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Monday, 4 February 2008

But Silence . . .

Seventeen pages into Clarice Lispector’s ‘The Hour of the Star’ it is stated that "This book is a silence: an interrogation." – which makes perfect sense to me as I want Literature to ask me questions, I don’t want it to reveal itself to me, to be as polished and smooth as a pebble on a Devon beach. I want it to leave me guessing. Most of all I want it to possess voice.

‘The Hour of the Star’ was first published in Brazil as ‘A Hora da Estrela’ in 1977, the year of Clarice Lispector's death. It is the book that Lispector famously created the male voice of Rodrigo S. M. to narrate the story of a young girl from the Northeast, Macabéa, who has recently arrived in downtown Rio de Janeiro. It is an unremitting, supercilious voice that aims for the jugular:

"I do not intend to write anything complicated, although I am obliged to use the words that sustain you. The story - I have decided with an allusion of free will - should have some seven characters, and obviously I am one of the more important."

Rodrigo S. M’s tale states just why ‘The Hour of the Star’ had to be written, in spite of his ambivalence towards Macabéa’s plight – and it is made all the more interesting because of Lispector's overt usage of a male voice to separate herself from the story (although Lispector can be found lurking throughout, of course). Rodrigo S. M's voice is prevailing, even when, as stated by the book's translator Giovanni Pontiero in Carcarnet's 1992 edition:

"The aphorisms woven into the text are beguiling, and more beguiling still is the manner in which the author works from a reduction and even an absence of anything concrete."

It is the voice throughout that gives this novel its credibility, for, and in spite of its "beguiling” “aphorisms" it is at once believable. When Macabéa asks "Who am I?" we understand this instinctively. And when Rodrigo S. M. states:

". . . For this is not simply a narrative, but above all primary life that breathes, breathes, breathes . . . What I am writing is something more than mere invention; it is my duty to relate to everything about this girl among thousands of others like her. It is my duty, however unrewarding, to confront her with her own existence."

We are at once jarred by such barbed clarity (especially when Macabéa’s fellaheen existence is ruthlessly juxtaposed with Rodrigo S. M.'s bourgeois haughtiness). Voice, it seems, speaks to the reader - it is never flowery or forced:

"Like every writer, I am clearly tempted to use succulent terms: I have at my command magnificent adjectives, robust nouns, and verbs so agile that they glide through the atmosphere as they move into action. For surely words are actions? Yet I have no intention of adorning the word, for were I to touch the girl's bread, that bread would turn to gold - and the girl (she is nineteen years old) the girl would be unable to bite into it, and consequently die of hunger. So I must express myself simply in order to capture her delicate and shadowy existence."

Original voice is never cliché. In the recent translation of Jean Paulhan’s ‘Les Fleur de Tarbes’ Paulhan informs:

“However banal a commonplace expression may be, it is always possible that it was invented by the person uttering it; if this is the case, it is even accompanied by a strong feeling of newness.”

It is essential that voice should be natural; it should be immediate; it should address the reader directly; without being obvious or familiar, for surely it is the voices that we have never heard before, yet recognise immediately, that stir us the most. Voice should be alien without alienating the reader and it should always be compelling, otherwise we fall into the trap of disgust, or worse still: whimsy. So, voice isn’t necessarily something, as much as we recognise it, the reader should feel comfortable with; it should jolt the reader, not dazzle.

Although, there is a lot more to ‘The Hour of the Star’: human beings such as Macabéa have no real voice of their own. They are meaningless entities who exist on the peripheries. Without extravagant voices such as Rodrigo S. M’s, used so adroitly by Lispector, a voice as silent as Macabéa’s could never be heard. It seems Clarice Lispector understands the power of voice in the novel.

But silence? What is this silence within ‘The Hour of the Star’? In Rodrigo S.M’s narration? In Clarice Lispector’s writing itself? Clarice Lispector once proclaimed ‘The Hour of the Star’ as a book made without words. Lispector’s silence is Macabéa’s sorrow, and just because we never hear it, this doesn’t mean that it’s not there throughout. It is Macabéa’s bona fide voice; and this silence in ‘The Hour of the Star’ is the power of Clarice Lispector as a writer: knowing just what to leave out.

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