The Great Clarice Lispector Revival

Johnny Lorenz on translating the late Brazilian author's most challenging novel "The Besieged City"

Clarice Lispector. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

We are currently living through the Great Lispectorean Revival. A midcentury cultural icon in Brazil, the genre-breaking novelist and short story writer Clarice Lispector has only found international acclaim over the last ten years. It began in 2009, when Benjamin Moser published Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, and crescendoed in 2015 with her newly translated Complete Stories. In the intervening years, New Directions has published most of Lispector’s novels in English for the first time.

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Their latest, The Besieged City, was her third novel, written during Lispector’s depressing three-year stint in Switzerland. “What saved me from the monotony of Bern,” she wrote in a newspaper column, “was writing one of my least liked books, The Besieged City, which, however, people come to like when they read it a second time; my gratitude to that book is enormous: the effort of writing it kept me busy, saved me from the appalling silence of Bern, and when I finished the last chapter I went to the hospital to give birth to a boy.”

Even now, it’s easy to see why The Besieged City was poorly received in 1949. It’s almost a hyperobject—you can read whole chapters and still feel like the book refuses to reveal itself. On the surface, it’s the story of a woman named Lucrécia Neves living in a small town, São Geraldo, which quickly becomes an industrialized city. “Its hermeticism has the texture of the hermeticism of dreams,” wrote the Portuguese critic João Gaspar Simões wrote. “May someone find the key.”

I recently spoke with Johnny Lorenz—the son of Brazilian immigrants to the United States, an associate professor at Montclair State University, and the translator of The Besieged City—to help me better understand Clarice Lispector’s least-understood novel.

Adam Morgan: When and how were you first drawn to Lispector’s work? Did you ever struggle to make sense of it?

Johnny Lorenz: When I first read Lispector in college, I wasn’t ready for her. In fact, in her novel The Passion According to G.H., the text suggests it should be approached only by readers whose souls are already formed, readers who are ready for this intellectual and spiritual journey. That was not me. These days, maybe I’m not fully formed, intellectually or spiritually… but I’m ready. 

With Lispector, you have to be able to get beyond your expectations as to what a novel “should” do, how it should operate. Her books are less committed to “character development” or “climax” or that sort of thing. A Breath of Life, the first book by Lispector that I translated, defines writing as this: ? (a question mark). For Lispector, writing is a brutal and feverish inquiry.

AM: When did you first encounter The Besieged City? What were your first impressions?

JL: After I had translated A Breath of Life, Benjamin Moser asked me to translate another one: The Besieged City. I didn’t know this book — it’s one of her forgotten books, one of her overlooked books. I started reading it, and, foolishly, I thought to myself: it’s a courtship novel! There’s a love story! No reason to get anxious about this. And of course, I had already translated one book — a very challenging book — by Clarice (can we call her “Clarice,” please? Brazilian readers refer to her by her first name.) So, this book would be much easier to translate!  

Of course, I was wrong. The Besieged City was so, so difficult.

AM: Did that impression change during the process of translation?

JL: Let me continue, then, the point I started making above. In the previous novel I had translated, A Breath of Life, there is no real “plot.” A narrator invents a character, and then the two of them — the creator and the creation — engage in a dialogue. I guess it would be more accurate to say that they engage in a sort of collaborative monologue, because most of the time it’s unclear if these two voices are really engaged in a conversation — how could they be, if one of them is not “real”? Wild stuff. Very “meta,” as they say. Very self-referential.  

With Lispector, you have to be able to get beyond your expectations as to what a novel “should” do, how it should operate.

Now, The Besieged City begins with a young woman out on a date, going to dances, flirting with other suitors, taking tea with her mother, etc. There was much more physical action in this book and more conventional tropes. As I read on, however, and as I read more carefully, I realized that the syntax itself was even weirder than the syntax of A Breath of Life. The way Lispector uses verbs and even prepositions, the original and therefore very odd manner in which her sentences move, the contagious abstraction—it can be exciting for the reader, but it can be tricky, tricky stuff for the translator. If translators often strive for elegance, what do you do with a text that finds such elegance rather cliche, or too limiting? In the first pages of A Breath of Life, the narrator explains that this is not a book for people who want to “like” a book, whose experience of reading can be reduced to liking or not liking. Lispector is reinventing the language — constantly. She is not really interested in recognizably poetic/romantic experiences or the recycling of comforting fictions.  

AM: Were you more concerned with approximating Clarice’s exact vocabulary and syntax, or with preserving the tone and feel of each line, paragraph, chapter? Do those concerns naturally follow one another in translation, or is there a balancing act?

JL: Sticking close to Clarice’s syntax is crucial—and when it moves in a weird way, the translator must not attempt to prettify or embellish. On the other hand, you can’t invent your own weirdness. You must get off the road and walk into the woods with Clarice—but in those woods, you must walk to a very precise spot.

AM: What were your greatest fears when tackling this book? What were your biggest challenges during the translation process?

JL: There are passages where— as a translator —you feel like you’re groping in the dark. You’re going a little bit crazy. You’re not sure. You talk to others about it—the generous friends and colleagues who speak both languages. The ones who appreciate Clarice. You work some more. You avoid working on it for a while. You come back again. And again. Then you stop looking for the light; you focus on recreating the correct darkness.

AM: How did working on The Besieged City impact your interior life? Did it make its way into your dreams?

JL: After spending months and months on the nuances of her language, translating and revising, deleting and recreating, I sometimes found myself uncertain about my own words, about “normal” speech. All of a sudden, regarding the most banal statements, even just looking at my own emails, I wondered: does this make any sense? What is really being said here? What am I saying?

AM: Clarice said that writing The Besieged City “saved me from the silence of Bern.” What do you think she meant by that? And do you think São Geraldo was inspired by a particular real-life city?

JL: I think she was experiencing various kinds of tedium: the tedium of pregnancy, the tedium of an elegant marriage in an elegant city. São Geraldo is a particular kind of Brazilian “suburb,” but not the sort of suburb we speak of in the US. Not Montclair, New Jersey, where I live. Not that sort of thing. São Geraldo is a town on the periphery, a gritty location, a town that cannot help but compare itself to the larger metropolis in the distance, with its restaurants and theaters.   

AM: Why do you think The Besieged City was so poorly received when it was first published? Do you think it’s true, as she said, that “people come to like when they read it a second time”?

JL: I think The Besieged City is not unlike her other books in this sense: sometimes you’re just not ready for Clarice. Maybe a second read helps. Maybe not.   

AM: How do you think, or hope, it’ll be received differently in 2019?

JL: The only real difference I can think of is this: Clarice’s reputation has been firmly established. Perhaps there is—for certain readers—more trust that this writer knows exactly what she’s doing. She takes risks—it’s the only way she knows to write. If the (frustrated) reader can try to be patient and be open to what she’s doing, that reader will discover that Clarice Lispector achieves startling effects, unlike anything else the reader will have experienced before.

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