Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector (review)

I’ve been meaning to read Clarice Lispector ever since the new translations of her work appeared in 2012. With this in mind, what better place to start than her debut novel, Near to the Wild Heart, first published in 1943 when Lispector was just twenty-three years old? The book’s title and epigraph come from James Joyce’s novel, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, but Lispector only discovered Joyce once she had finished writing Near. Nevertheless, the book’s epigraph and style led certain critics to compare Lispector’s work to that of Joyce, Virginia Woolf and other modernist writers.

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The focus of Near to the Wild Heart is Joana, a young woman who finds herself in a loveless marriage with her husband, Otávio. The novel is divided into two parts: the first section delves into key moments from Joana’s childhood while the second considers the nature of her marriage. That said, reflections on Joana and Otávio’s relationship are threaded through the novel thereby acting as a kind of spine to the story. We are introduced to Otávio in the second chapter. As soon as he leaves the house for the day, Joana is transformed; she focuses on herself and returns to the thread of her early years.

Joana’s childhood is a difficult one, and when her parents die she is sent to live with her aunt and uncle. From a young age, Joana demonstrates a capacity for free thinking and for dazzling those who come into contact with her. Joana’s aunt, however, remains fearful of the young girl whom she likens to a ‘little demon.’

“…She’s a viper. She’s a cold viper, Alberto, there’s no love or gratitude in her. There’s no point liking her, no point doing the right thing by her…” (pg. 43)

Otávio also recognises the steeliness in Joana’s character. But there is something magnetic about her too, something he finds attractive even if he can’t figure out why:

There was a hard, crystalline quality in her that attracted and repulsed him at the same time, he noticed. […] She wasn’t pretty, too thin. Even her sensuality must have been different to his, excessively luminous. (pg. 82)

Otávio doesn’t seem particularly interested in building a life with Joana. In a way Otávio sees a union with her as a means of living above himself and his past, he hopes she will teach him not to be afraid.

From an early stage in the narrative, it is clear that Joana is isolated in her marriage to Otávio (perhaps even isolated from life in general). She struggles to establish a connection with her husband:

Though Otávio wasn’t particularly stimulating. With him the next best thing was to connect with what had already happened. Even so, under his “spare me, spare me” gaze, she would open her hand from time to time and let a little bird dart out. Sometimes, however, perhaps due to the nature of what she said, no bridge was created between them, and on the contrary an interval was born. (pg. 25)

Ultimately, his presence, even the knowledge of his existence feels like a barrier to her freedom.

While Near does touch on key events in Joana’s life, it is not a plot-driven novel. Instead, the focus is on introspection; Joana’s inner feelings are brought to the surface. She seems to experience life with a rare intensity of emotion – there are times when her mood switches from a deep sense of happiness to one of pain and suffering. Also, there is a sense that she is trying to look within to find some meaning in her life – perhaps she hopes it will help her understand the essence of life itself:

I try to push away everything that is a life form. I try to isolate myself in order to find life in itself. […] The minute I close the door behind me, I let go of things instantly. Everything that was distances itself from me, diving deafly into my faraway waters. I hear it, the fall. Happy and flat I wait for myself, I wait for myself to slowly rise up and truly appear before my eyes. Instead of obtaining myself by fleeing, I find myself forsaken, alone, tossed into a dimensionless cubicle, where light and shadows are quiet ghosts. In my interior I find the silence I seek. But in it I become so lost from any memory of a human being and of myself, that I make this impression into the certainty of physical solitude. (pg. 61)

The novel’s style is impressionistic and Lispector uses a combination of descriptive passages and stream-of-consciousness to convey a feel for Joanna’s existence. The last quote should give you a feel for the ‘stream’ style – ‘stream’ is not usually my favourite style, but it works very well here. This next one is a snippet from one of the descriptive sections – Joana recalls the time immediately following the death of her father:

She lay belly-down in the sand, hand covering her face, leaving only a tiny crack for air. It grew dark dark and circles and red blotches, full, tremulous spots slowly began to appear, growing and shrinking. The grains of sand nipped her skin, buried themselves in it. Even with her eyes closed she felt that on the beach the waves were sucked back by the sea quickly quickly, also with closed eyelids. Then they meekly returned, palms splayed body loose. It was good to hear their sound. (pg. 32)

The novel also contains a number of philosophical passages: Joana’s meditations on the nature of eternity, a sense of immortality vs. the certainty of knowing that you will die.

All in all, I found Near to the Wild Heart an intriguing but challenging novel. The writing is excellent – dazzling and poetic at times. It’s a book that demands concentration, possibly one to reread at some point as I’m sure I missed so much on my first reading. A novel I admired rather than enjoyed.

Even though I spent the best part of 200 pages in Joana’s company, I found it hard to get a grip on her (which is probably why this post reads like a series of fragments). Joana can appear cold, confident and autonomous, but I’m not convinced this is the full picture. She is misunderstood by others and unfairly judged to a certain extent.

Ultimately, I was left with an image of a life lived in intense fragments, each section disconnected from the next. A woman struggling to form connections in her life:

Her life was made up of complete little lives, of whole, closed circles, which isolated themselves from one another. (pg 91)

I carry on always ingratiating myself, opening and closing circles of life, tossing them aside, withered, full of past. Why so independent, why don’t they merge into just one block, providing me with ballast? Fact was they were too whole. Moments so intense, red, condensed in themselves that they didn’t need past or future in order to exist. (pg. 92)

Several other bloggers have reviewed this book: Grant at 1streading, Stu at Winstonsdad’s, Tony Malone and Tony Messenger.

Near to the Wild Heart (tr. Alison Entrekin) is published in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 20/20 in my #TBR20.

43 thoughts on “Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector (review)

  1. MarinaSofia

    I haven’t read this latest translation and I read it at an age when I was very impressionable, full of Virginia Woolf wonderment. You’ve made me want to reread it and see how it compares now.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I can imagine this book making a startling impression if read at a young age!

      The two translations would make for an interesting comparison. I don’t know for sure as I’m not familiar with the earlier versions, but I get the impression that Entrekin’s translations are closer to Lispector’s original text. I think she has endeavoured to preserve the spirit of Lispector in all its idiosyncratic glory.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I had heard of Lispector (albeit vaguely) but didn’t know much about her work until these fresh translations appeared a couple of years ago. It’s probably fair to say that they’ve generated a bit of a revival of interest in CL.

      It’s interesting you’ve picked up on the prose as Lispector would make a striking comparison with Woolf.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    I have been reading a little bit of James Joyce lately so stream of consciousness/modernistic writing is a subject that I have been thinking about. I generally like books that incorporate these styles if only for the fact that it presents something different.

    As you allude to these works often do lend themselves to reading.

    Both the character description and the philosophical musing that you mention are also reasons that I think I will like this book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Your interest in Joyce came to mind as I was putting this post together! And look, the title and epigraph come from Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. I think you’d find this an interesting read, Brian. It would make a great comparison with the Joyce.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Annabel! I’ve tried to be fair and honest here as I don’t think this book (and possibly Lispector in general) will be to everyone’s taste. There’s little point in embarking on a novel that doesn’t grab you – life’s too short!

      Reply
  3. poppypeacockpens

    Lispector is another author on my must explore pile… Given this great, frank review & insight I suspect I too will find it more challenging than enjoyable but nevertheless well worth taking the time to read. However, as I have enjoyed recent novels with a great deal of introspection maybe I will be pleasantly surprised?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s an intriguing one, Poppy. Given your enjoyment of novels featuring introspection, then I’d say it’s worth giving Lispector a try. This one is short, and as you say, you might be pleasantly surprised! There is a sense of freedom to her prose style so she might be of interest to you from a writing perspective?

      Reply
  4. gertloveday

    Very pleased to see a review of Lispector – although I know she’s a real person, somewhere in my mind I can’t get rid of the idea that she’s a creation of another writer, like John Shade in ‘Pale Fire.’ So she’s been on my ‘should read’ list for a while. I can’t say, though, that the bits you quote appeal to me – sounds as if she’s one of those writers you either love or stand aloof from.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Glad to hear she’s on your horizon. Her style will divide people for sure (that’s kind of what I was getting at with my comment about admiring the quality of the writing even if I couldn’t bring myself to love the book). I’m not convinced I truly engaged with this one!

      As for Pale Fire, now there’s another novel I ought to read at some stage…

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Intriguing review – I have a Lispector on my shelf (not this one) that I’ve picked up and put down again several times because it wasn’t the right time for something challenging. Sounds like this is a similar kind of read!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Sounds like it, Karen…she’s challenging alright! As ever, I’d be keen to hear what you think of Lispector whenever you feel in the right frame of mind to try her work.

      Reply
  6. litlove

    Lispector is one of those authors I toy with – will I read her or not? I remember Stefanie at So Many Books loving her, and I came across her first as a go-to girl of Helene Cixous’. I’m intrigued (but ought to get to Jean Rhys first!). Lovely review as ever, Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Victoria – I preferred Rhys to Lispector if I’m perfectly honest! She’s definitely worth a look (and intriguing is a good word for this novel), but I’m not convinced I really connected with her. It might sound a little odd, but it felt as though I was viewing everything through a glass window, some kind of barrier that kept me at a distance from Lispector’s characters and their lives. Maybe I’ll reread it at some stage…

      Reply
  7. 1streading

    Great review – I remember this being a fairly challenging read (thanks for the link) – and that was in the context of the year I spent only reading experimental fiction! – but it hasn’t stopped me reading her again. There’s something very vital about her writing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Grant. You’re very welcome – always a pleasure to link to your reviews. I agree, there’s a real sense of energy in her writing, flashes of brilliance at times, but I just found the narrative itself hard to hold on to. I have another Lispector, The Hour of the Star, so I’ll check out your reviews.

      A year of only reading experimental fiction…you’re very brave! (I think I would struggle to last a month with that challenge.)

      Reply
  8. Cathy746books

    I hadn’t heard of this author before, but this sounds excellent. The quote that begins ‘I try to push away everything….’ is incredibly powerful.

    Reply
  9. hastanton

    Well this sounds like exactly the sort of book for me to read post Woolf course! How timely your review is ….I have some Waterstones vouchers so I’m going to get this today !! Thanks for the review .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Helen. Lispector would make a great comparison with all the Woolf novels you’ve been reading for your course! I’d love to hear what you make of her.

      Reply
  10. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  11. Max Cairnduff

    Well, I’m delighted this is on my #TBR20 list, as it sounds just as good as I was hoping it would be. Delighted to see your review. I’m really looking forward to this one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, terrific! I’ll be fascinated to read your take on it, Max. It was the final book in my #TBR20 – Lispector and Rhys are proving popular choices in our #TBR20s.

      I have another Lispector, The Hour of the Star, but I might leave it for a few months just to put a bit of space between the two.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, I would be very curious to hear your thoughts on this book (and Lispector in general) if you decide to go for it. At times the writing sparkles, but I found it a difficult book to get to grips with.

      Last year I read another dazzling debut by a twenty-three-year-old, Nada by Carmen Laforet, which I much preferred to Near to the Wild Heart. Nada had a wonderfully dark and twisted atmosphere, almost gothic at times.

      Reply
  12. Scott W.

    I’m not sure i would like this. Reading the quotations, I kept thinking of Anna Kavan’s Ice, another stream-of-consciousness novel about a woman’s isolation and fragmentation. But Lispector’s highly self-conscious, self-concentrated sounding lines – Everything that was distances itself from me, diving deafly into my faraway waters. I hear it, the fall…I wait for myself, I wait for myself to slowly rise up and truly appear before my eyes. – could not contrast more strongly with the extremity and emotional power of Kavan’s character’s dissociation. This is of course an irresponsibly facile comparison given that I’m just going on your few lines from Lispector, but it still makes me wonder…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Wow, that is a fascinating contrast! I LOVED Kavan’s Ice when I read it two or three years ago and hope to revisit it at some stage as it feels like a novel with so much to offer.

      The Lispector is intense…but you’re right, it’s a different type of intensity. There is something self-conscious and mannered about the voice and, as you’ll have gathered from my post, I struggled to connect with Joana’s character. Lispector is worth considering, and I have another to try (The Hour of the Star), but Near to the Wild Heart is not going to be to everyone’s taste. (I much preferred the Kavan.)

      Reply
  13. Caroline

    I have a collection of her shorter fiction. Somehow -judging from your review and from others I’ve read – I think I’ll appreciate her but won’t love her. That’s a bit how you felt, no?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yep, definitely. I admired the quality of the writing (there is a free-spirited wildness to it), but couldn’t bring myself to love the book. It’s quite an emotionally draining read. I’ll be very interested to know what you think whenever you get a chance to try her work.

      Reply
  14. Emma

    Very interesting review
    If I bought this, I’d stay on the shelf for ages because I’d never feel ready to engage in such a challenging read. This is a perfect candidate for the 2020 #TBR40. (by 2020, 40 will be a necessity because I figure 20 won’t be enough)

    When I was reading I couldn’t help thinking about Maria from Play it as it Lays. Do you think the two characters have something in common?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. Well, I had to include something by Lispector in my #TBR20 as I did that silly thing of buying three (yes, three!) books by an author I’d never read. At first I though there were only two Lispectors in my TBR, but then I found another one hiding at the back of one of my shelves. A good reason to do another #TBR20! I’m glad I read Near to the Wild Heart, as it’s good to challenge oneself now and again, but I wanted to like it more than I did.

      Maria! Yes, absolutely. I have a half-written post on Play It As It Lays (well, it’s closer to a series of notes at this stage), and there is something of a connection between Maria and Joana. Both characters are isolated and disconnected from other people, almost as though they are operating in their own worlds at times…their stories have a similar sense of fragmentation.

      I’ll DM/email you later today with a possible date for posting our Play It As It Lays reviews/billets. I’m conscious of the fact that I need to put it together fairly soon.

      Reply
  15. Tredynas Days

    I’ve been meaning to read her for ages – I must have a sort of TBR reserve list behind the top 20! Finally got round to reading over the last two days a copy of Diderot’s The Nun that I bought new in penguin classics and which now looks like something from a charity shop it’s so old. there are layers of protozoic slime on the bottom copies of my reserve TBR pile…Thanks for an interesting review

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, and thanks for following. Lispector is an interesting writer, and there’s something very exhilarating about her prose style. I’m glad to have read it even if it did challenge me!

      I dread to think how long some of my books have been languishing in the TBR pile…a few of them go back thirty years or more. I haven’t read anything by Diderot, but The Nun sounds very powerful. I hope you might review it – I’ll certainly keep an eye on your blog.

      Reply
  16. Pingback: Finishing my #TBR20 – a few reflections | JacquiWine's Journal

  17. gertloveday

    Jacqui, I thought of this rv when I saw this recent article article in the NYRB, Colm Toibin on Clarice Lispector:

    “While some stories appear whimsical and read like exercises, and others muse at length and almost absent-mindedly, almost abstractly, on habit and motive, or something that happened, others have an exquisite sharpness, the fruit of a most original and daring mind. In the best stories, something deeply strange is fully visualized by Lispector, as though it had come in a waking dream and it needed to be given urgent substance.”

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/12/17

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, many thanks for this. I shall save it for my coffee break later today. Funnily enough, I have the Penguin edition of Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, which includes an introduction by Toibin. He is clearly a fan of her work – interesting to note as their styles are very different!

      Reply

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