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.
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)
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.