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a conversation with Idra Novey

Meet Clarice Lispector (1920-1977)

The Brazilian Jewish writer has her day at last!

Now, how shall I speak of a love that only has whatever one feels, and before which the word “love” is a dusty object? The hell I had gone through — how can I explain it to you? — had been the hell that comes from love. Ah, people put the idea of sin in sex. But how innocent and childish that sin is. The real hell is that of love. Love is the experience of a danger of greater sin — it is the experience of the mud and the degradation and the worst joy. Sex is the fright of a child. But how shall I speak for myself about the love that I now knew?

Translator Idra Novey tells us why we should know this woman.

Who was Clarice Lispector?
Like many visionary women writers of the twentieth century, Clarice Lispector’s work wasn’t given its proper due in her lifetime. Her probing, radical style and innovative approach to story are unlike anything found in the works of other twentieth century writers in any language. However, because Lispector was a woman and writing in Portuguese, it has taken years for her work to gain the recognition it deserves. Now, New Directions is releasing five new translations of her work: Near to the Wild Heart, A Breath of Life, Agua Viva, The Passion According to G. H., and The Hour of the Star. Barbara Epler, the editor-in-chief of New Directions and a visionary woman herself, hopes these new translations will finally establish Lispector’s place in the canon of must-read twentieth century authors like Borges, Kafka, Garcia Marquez, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, and Gertrude Stein.

You’re a poet. What drew you to translate Lispector’s fiction?
I first read Lispector as an undergraduate and was so riveted by her voice that I decided to learn Portuguese so I could read her work in the original. I already spoke Spanish, so the leap to Portuguese wasn’t very far. The Passion According to G.H. happens to be my favorite novel of hers, so I was particularly glad that it was the one New Directions asked me to translate. I often reread poetry, but one of the few prose writers I regularly return to is Lispector. Her sentences have the potency of poetry.

Translating G.H. (above) was a challenging pleasure. Even when I had to read a sentence 20 times before discovering the right words for it in English, being in the company of her thoughts each day was so transformative I didn’t care that my head occasionally ached afterward. The risks she takes in the questions she poses, and how she poses them, challenged me not just as a translator but also as a writer. The protagonist in G.H. finds a crude drawing of herself on the wall of the maid’s room who quit that morning and whose face G.H. struggles to recall. The drawing on the maid’s wall leads G.H. to question the convenient self-delusions she has allowed herself to believe about her life and who she is to others. It’s an intensely provocative, honest book. During the months I spent translating it, I finished writing a book of poems that I don’t think I would have written if I weren’t translating Lispector at the same time.

How did her lifetime of relocations influence her writing?
Lispector’s family moved to Brazil from Ukraine when she was as an infant, and she always strongly identified with Brazil as her home country. But like many Jewish immigrant writers, she was seen as an outsider whose work was recognized as Brazilian but also foreign. She fiercely loved her country and its language regardless. In 1944, she married a diplomat and spent much of the next 15 years abroad, longing for Brazil and the Portuguese language so intensely that she ultimately left her husband in order to return to Rio with her two sons. She has a wonderful collection of stories about those years abroad, The Foreign Legion. Once she was back in Rio, she never lived abroad again.

What is her legacy for Jewish feminist literature?
G.H. is about a woman who poses questions to God while staring at a half-dead cockroach she’s just smashed in the door of a wardrobe. At the beginning of the novel, Lispector includes a note for potential readers to warn them that she would be happy if the book was only read “by those who know the approach, of whatever it may be, is done gradually and painstakingly — passing through even the opposite of what it’s going to approach.” Perhaps Lispector’s legacy for Jewish feminist literature is this notion of being willing to approach what readers may not like to hear and what authors may not want to say, but must say. Lispector had no interest in writing palatable books. Her art was finding a way to reveal the profoundly unsaid. And she says it in every book, which is why her work continues to matter.

Idra Novey is the author of the recently released Exit, Civilian, a 2011 National Poetry Series selection, and The Next Country, a finalist for the Foreword Book of the Year Award in poetry. She has taught in the Bard College Prison Initiative, at NYU, and in Columbia University School of the Arts.