The Hour of the Star, by Clarice Lispector and translated by Ben Moser
On its face (and according to the back cover) The Hour of the Star is the story of an ordinary country girl named Macabéa who’s come to Rio for a better life but who finds herself eking out a living in a tiny corner of the city’s vast indifference. That’s a story told in many countries over many centuries; the places change but the experience remains much the same whether in 1970s Brazil, Medieval York or contemporary Shanghai.
What’s different here is that Macabéa’s story isn’t narrated by her or an omniscient Lispector, but by a struggling writer named Rodrigo S.M. who has created Macabéa based on a stranger seen in a crowd. The book opens not with Macabéa, but with Rodrigo’s author’s foreword:
This story takes place during a state of emergency and a public calamity. It’s an unfinished book because it’s still waiting for an answer. An answer I hope someone in the world can give me. You? It’s a story in Technicolor to add a little luxury which, by God, I need too. Amen for all of us.
That picture by the way undersells the cover, which in physical form is almost dayglo. It works surprisingly well, and somehow fits Lispector’s style.
Macabéa is poor, working class and uneducated. She’s a virgin with little experience of the world and what she has seen she doesn’t question.
Like the northeastern girl, there are thousands of girls scattered throughout the tenement slums, vacancies in beds in a room, behind the shop counters working to the point of exhaustion. They don’t even realise how easily substitutable they are and that they could just as soon drop off the face of the earth. Few protest and as far as I know they never complain since they don’t know to whom. Does this whom exist?
Rodrigo by contrast has enough money that he can afford to be a writer. He’s middle class, well-educated, an intellectual. Macabéa is his creation and he wants to tell her tale without adornment, but his own story keeps breaking into the text as he explains his motivations and frustrations. He’s writing about himself at least as much as he is Macabéa, and he’s finding that even the simplest life is too complex to be easily captured on a page.
Macabéa’s life is a straightforward one. She’s not pretty or smart, and she has no particular talents. She works as a typist, though she’s bad at her job and is kept on from pity. She adores her boyfriend mostly just for him having noticed her, but doesn’t herself notice that he’s a self-obsessed asshole. She loves the movies. She’s so ordinary we’re halfway through the book before Rodrigo stops referring to her only as the northeastern girl and actually starts using her name (he wants to make her archetypal, but falters on her particularity).
Rodrigo meanwhile is struggling to find the words to describe her. His book within the book has thirteen different titles – he can’t settle on a single one. He writes about writing, or more to the point about trying to write, the sheer physicality of it, the exertion it involves, the challenge and difficulty. He compares himself to a manual labourer and proclaims “I am not an intellectual, I write with my body.” Perhaps he protests too much, self-identifying with the poor and the hopeless as if their struggle is his struggle even though their labour involves real sweat and bruises whereas his are only metaphorical.
The irony Rodrigo faces is that Macabéa, a girl he created and who he designed to be without talent or distinction, is still too large and too alive to be neatly pinned down. Somehow she escapes him, so that even as he writes her story he no longer knows entirely what that story is or where it’s going.
Just as well that what I’m about to write is already somehow written within me. What I have to do is copy myself out with the delicacy of a white butterfly. The idea of the white butterfly comes because, if the girl gets married, she’ll marry thin and light, and, as a virgin, in white. Maybe she won’t get married? The fact is I hold a destiny in my hands yet don’t feel powerful enough to invent freely. I follow a hidden, fatal line. I have to seek a truth that is beyond me. Why should I write about a young girl whose poverty isn’t even adorned? Maybe because within her there’s a seclusion and also because in the poverty of the body and spirit I touch holiness. I who want to feel the breath of my beyond. To be more than I am, since I am so little.
To an extent The Hour of the Star is about the struggle between an artist and their art. The art comes from the artist but can only have any lasting value if it takes on a reality of its own and can exist beyond its creator. The art becomes a kind of child, potentially carrying a small part of its creator into a future beyond their own death (mortality is a theme here too with Macabéa living in the moment, too innocent to be unhappy with her situation, while Rodrigo is all too aware of his own brevity).
Here Macabéa slowly asserts her own identity as the novel progresses. She’s becoming independent of Rodrigo, except of course that there is no escape because she is part of him, of his fiction. Macabéa is constrained both by her poverty and her author, with the irony being that Rodrigo is no more free as they are both Lispector’s creations.
It risks sounding tricksy or tediously postmodern, but it’s none of those things. Instead it’s strangely exhilarating. Both stories, Macabéa’s and Rodrigo’s, are worth following and while in a sense nothing much happens I found myself wanting something better for Macabéa than all that was on offer for her, and wondering too whether Rodrigo would manage to contain his own narrative and find some kind of truth that was capable of being expressed yet not trite.
The Hour of the Star comes in at around 80 pages, and in that space it addresses issues of class, poverty, gender, the creative process and more. The prose style is often disconcerting and it’s a novel which absolutely demands concentration and engagement, but it more than pays back what you put into it. This is one of my highlight reads of the year, and I sincerely hope it won’t be my last Lispector (not least because that would imply some form of horrible accident or premature death, both of which I’d prefer to avoid other things being equal).
A note on the translation
In his translator’s afterword, Benjamin Moser talks of how other translators have historically sought to correct or smooth Lispector’s prose. That seeing how it read oddly in English they tried to improve it, clean it up, ignoring the point that it reads oddly in Portuguese too and that this is quite intentional.
I knew Moser’s views before buying this edition and I’m aware that translators seeking to tidy a text is often a real problem, particularly with older translations where that was seen sometimes as something of a goal for translators to achieve. I was curious though how much difference it made and how Moser’s translation read against others. Since several others do remain in print, I therefore spent about an hour in Foyle’s comparing the same passage in different translations.
The advantage I had is that while I don’t speak Portuguese myself, I do read some Italian and a little Spanish and I could therefore look at an excerpt of the original text on my phone while looking at the different translated versions of that same passage in the shop. The result was fairly clear (eventually) – Moser’s text did seem closer to the original and to preserve more of its flavour.
Obviously each reader has to take their own view and different translations have different merits. For me though, going forward with Lispector’s other works, if there’s a Moser translation available that’ll be the one that I’ll read and if you’ve not read Star it’s Moser’s translation that I recommend.
Grant of 1streading wrote an excellent review of this here which focuses on different aspects of the novel and makes an interesting counterpoint to my take. This is a novel with enough going on that any review can only pick out a strand or two to focus on. There’s also a fascinating review at The Millions, here.