Clarice Lispector: The Hour of the Star

Probably full of literary merit — but decidedly not my jam.

I wasn’t planning to write a review of this book, but since I already voiced off in a PM, I might as well copy my thoughts into a post after all.

Long story short, I’m finding, once again, that a combination of art- and purposefully deconstructed speech and a virtually plotless description of drab lives — or A drab life — just isn’t my kind of thing. Fortunately it’s a short book — picked deliberately because I had a premonition Lispector and I wouldn’t get along — but all the time while I was listening all I could think was, “OMG, and this is what they preferred to Barbara Pym in the 1970s …”

There were moments when I thought, if only my Portuguese were sufficiently up to snuff for me to be able to read this in the original; maybe I’d be able to pick up on some note or subtext that just got lost in translation.  But if the translator’s afterword is to be believed, the reverse seems to be true — according to him, while people with only a limited understanding of Portuguese may actually be able to make some rudimentary sense of the book, it’s a seven-times-sealed box to the average Portuguese mother tongue speaker.  This has to be the first time I’m hearing that it’s actually harmful rather than helpful to be fluent in a given language in order to be able to understand a book written in it.

(The translator, who also wrote a biography of Lispector, goes on to describe that the original passages from her works that he quoted in his biography did not pass the muster of several copy editors in the Portuguese edition of that biography … they all insisted on “amending” what they believed to be his own (flawed) sentence structure and punctuation.  So, he tells us, much to Lispector’s fury also did the French translator of Lispector’s very first book, in an attempt to make the book more palatable to French readers.)

And if Lispector’s prose is, though no doubt highly artistic, also so construed and littered with sentences devoid of any meaning as to make it impossible to follow (especially in the first roughly 1/3 of this book), the audio narration made it even worse. Note to self: If encountering Melissa Broder ever again, run, don’t walk away. Obnoxiously squaky, reading as if by rote, and with no sense of intonation — and also clearly zero feeling for the text she was reading (which is partly down to Lispector herself … but not entirely).  I was seriously tempted to DNF and quite honestly only finished listening to it in order to be able to check off Brazil on my world reading map chart — though I do hope I’ll find a better representative of Brazilian literature after all.  (Hopefully even a woman writer: I’m currently looking at Dora Doralina by Rachel de Queiroz, which MR reviewed a while ago IIRC, as well as Lygia Fagundes Telles, and, on BT’s recommendation, Patrícia Rehder Galvão.  Further recs most definitely welcome.)


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Patrick O’Brian: The Final, Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey

I love O’Brian’s Aubrey / Maturin series and raced through the whole 20 books at breakneck speed earlier this year, but by God, this particular  publication (I won’t even call it a “book”, because it isn’t) has to be one of the most blatant exercises in the exploitation of an author’s literary legacy under the sun.  Patrick O’Brian died when he wasn’t even halfway into this story — but instead of letting things rest, because this really is not anywhere near a completed novel, his publisher went and released the puny few initial chapters as a “book” in its own right.

My sincere advice to all newbie readers of the series: Spare yourselves the trouble of looking into this one; it’s not worth it — not for all the enjoyment of O’Brian’s writing.  Blue at the Mizzen, O’Brian’s last completed Aubrey / Maturin novel, has a very satisfying conclusion — content yourselves with that and just take it as read that “they lived happily ever after.”  Or, well, maybe not entirely happily as far as Stephen Maturin is concerned.  But then, he probably wouldn’t know what to do with himself if ever he were entirely happy; he’s just not that kind of person.  And Jack Aubrey couldn’t possibly be any happier than he is at the end of Blue at the Mizzen.

Anna Maria Ortese: L’Iguana

The Iguana - Henry Martin, Anna Maria OrteseHumanity’s fall from grace between reality, dream and lunacy.

Born in Rome in the year 1914, Anna Maria Ortese grew up in southern Italy (primarily Naples) and in Lybia, the fifth of nine children of a soldier’s family often short on money. Like many poor girls of her generation, Ortese left school at age thirteen, initially with the idea of studying (and then, teaching) music in mind; until the discovery of literary romanticism, particularly the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Katherine Mansfield, and her need for creative self-expression made her turn to writing. She eventually studied with Massimo Bontempelli, proponent of the “magical realism” she herself would soon make her own as well, and in 1937 published her first collection of short stories, entitled “Angelici Dolori.” Yet, although her work has garnered her native Italy’s most prestigious literary prizes (most notably, the 1953 Premio Viareggio for the collection of stories “Il Mare Non Bagna Napoli” – published in English under the title “The Bay Is Not Naples” – and the 1967 Premio Strega for the novel “Poveri e Semplici”), few of her books have been translated into English; and even in Italy, she has remained controversial despite all literary acclaim.

“The Iguana” is generally considered Ortese’s masterpiece, winner of the 1986 Premio Fiuggi upon its republication, 21 years after its original release. It tells the story of the Milanese count Daddo (Aleardo di Grees), who goes on a somewhat lackluster voyage of discovery and, off the Portuguese coast, comes upon an uncharted island named (as his captain tells him) Ocaña, and inhabited by three impoverished noblemen – the brothers Avaredo-Guzman – and their servant Estrellita. While attempting to strike up a friendship with the dreamy don Ilario de Guzman, don Aleardo also finds himself strangely attracted to the humble Estrellita, who, he discovers much to his shock and surprise, is not a human being but an iguana in human clothes. Initially a mere observer of the goings-on on the island, Daddo’s interest in don Ilario and Estrellita draws him, vortex-like, more and more into a participatory role; and as the narrative shifts between dreamlike sequences, reality and a growing sense of lunacy, drawn in, like don Aleardo, is also the reader.

Unfortunately I am not fluent enough in Italian to be able to read the book in its original version; I am told that it is written almost entirely in the imperfect tense (imperfetto) which, inter alia, describes events in an undefined or remote past, and thus probably contributes even more to the novel’s unreal, almost otherworldly feeling. Yet, even in translated form, it is abundantly clear that “The Iguana” deserves every bit of praise it has received (the leading Italian Newspaper “Corriere della Sera” even hailed it as “one of the very few books destined to redeem the honor of Italian literature since the Second World War”); it is a wonderfully-written voyage into, as Ortese herself described her literary aim, “the regions of the soul where everything is possible;” in turn reflecting the author’s sarcasm, optimism, sadness and, again and again, glimmers of hope as to the present and future of human society. – And yet, when invited by don Aleardo to shake off the burdens that seem to hold him captive and to reclaim his freedom, don Ilario asks, in return, whether freedom can ever come from outside the individual, can ever be “anything other than the fruit of a violence we have to inflict upon all our desires for a life that’s secure and comfortable” and be reconciled with the ideal of a life divested of all responsibility; and when don Aleardo suggests that not every responsibility must necessarily be freely assumed (and therefore, one that a person may not be at liberty to relieve himself of), don Ilario replies cryptically that he would gladly rid himself of every responsibility except one: which one, however, he does not specify, thus leaving the puzzled don Aleardo himself to discover the heavy burden weighing on the young marquis’s shoulders – his (and humanity’s) symbolic fall from grace.

Fiercely independent and unwilling to bow to popularism and to her editors’ demands, Anna Maria Ortese always placed the purity of her writing above financial success, again and again taking the risk that she would have to depend on sources outside her writing for her daily survival. Feeling as much a stranger to Italian society as her books abstract themselves from typical Italian settings, she died, in 1998, in Rapallo, where she had lived for the last two decades of her life. She has left behind a body of work of over 20 books, justly deserving to be named alongside such masters of modern Italian literature as Elsa Morante, Italo Calvino and Alberto Moravia. Would that, in the annals of literature’s all-time greatest authors, she will receive the lasting recognition that her work deserves, and her books still be read for a long time to come …