I would launch my Clarice Lispector tour with the least accessible entry into her already difficult oeuvre. A Breath of Life isn’t a typical Lispector novel (if there is such a thing), in fact, the book isn’t really by Lispector in the strict sense at all. Instead, left unfinished upon her death, the book was posthumously pieced together and published from fragments, by her friend and confidant Olga Borelli.
Knowing that, it’s nearly impossible to read the book without seeing Lispector’s illness and impending demise as the through-line; Lispector, growing increasingly sure her cancer would soon defeat her, pens her confessions, her sorrows; the last thoughts and ramblings she does, and, perhaps at the same time doesn’t, want to leave with the world.
Set up with a simple conceit, A Breath of Life portends to document a conversation between the “Author” and his creation, a woman, he has named Angela Pralini, stand-ins for, at the same time, a thinly veiled invocation of a god-creation relationship and, perhaps, Lispector’s dueling inner voices.
Although Clarice wrote that the “I in this book is not I,” it’s impossible to read the author out of the Author, although not difficult at all to find Lispector in both the creator and his creation’s rambling, elusive prose.
Almost any adjective I could use to describe Clarice’s writing would be clichéd. Urgent. Visceral. Transcendent. Sometimes it’s lucid, sometimes inane, shifting, even from line-to-line, from statements that will take your breath away in their gut-wrenching truth to seemingly innocuous observations on elevators or jewels.
Over the course of the brief novel (or more accurately, prose-poem), Lispector seems to be exorcising a violently confused inner monologue by placing it in dialogue with itself. “Is it my fault I don’t have access to myself?” The Author asks early on…”Not a single act of mine is I. Angela shall be the act that represents me.” Implying the possibility of reading the characters as binaries, each serving as an illustration of one half of Lispector’s turbulent mind, one representing the aspects of herself she desires to be rid of, the other those which she aspires to, which she wishes to be wholly.
There’s a sense of the everyman in Angela. She’s everything the author is not. She doesn’t fear or desire death. She feels empathy. Is not afraid to be honest with herself. Lives in the moment. Sees and accepts things for what they are.
The Author, on the other hand, is cruel and afraid. He chillily puts down Angela at every opportunity at the same time as he describes wanting to “lodge myself temporarily within her way of being.” His persistent references to writing; its difficulty equivalent to its necessity, his complaints of “being invaded by the words of others,” of experiencing “the vortex which is placing oneself in a creative state,” painfully evoke the ghost of Lispector, for whom writing was, as it is for so many exquisite writers, a blessing and a curse. Some of the book’s most incisive passages deal with Lispector’s life’s work and a pervasive fear of rejection which manifests itself as an inferiority complex. It is, as so many good books, in many ways, a book about writing.
It’s a difficult read. Passages don’t complement or even acknowledge each other and it’s, naturally, unclear whether that was intentional, or simply a result of the book’s posthumous organization, lending it’s reading a schizoid air.
As the novel moves forward the Author begins to lose ground to his creation as both question God: “to all of our questions God responds with greater questions,” the dialogue between Author and Angela mirroring the growing theme of God’s impotence in the face of his superior creation.
It’s not an uplifting read, to say the least. For all of it’s brilliance, in the words of Lispector herself, “reality kills transcendence,” and it’s as if Lispector set out to illustrate that for us one recitation at a time.
But, as many have said before me and many will continue to say, no-one else writes like Lispector. Beautiful, brutal, and with so much fullness.
Once you begin the journey with her prose though, you’ll be hard-pressed to tear yourself away.