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Lispector Week: Kim Adrian on The Passion According to G.H.
In honor of the upcoming New Directions release of Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories, we decided to hand The Open Bar keys over to the Brazilian legend. Tune in all week for previously unpublished and newly translated stories, as well as reviews and thoughts on her work.
Today, Kim Adrian unpacks The Passion According to G.H.
Clarice Lispector’s novel The Passion According to G.H. chronicles—in maddening detail—one woman’s existential and alimentary encounter with a cockroach. Driven by a consuming curiosity and a “hellish love,” this woman—a sheltered, upper-middle-class lady living in Rio de Janeiro and known only as G.H.—kills the roach, then eats part of it, and in so doing enters a state of “primary, divine glory.” Lipsector (who, although born in the Ukraine, lived most of her life in Brazil and wrote in Portuguese) was a philosopher as much as a writer. She considered herself an existentialist, and The Passion According to G.H. belongs to the same tradition as Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea in that its true subject is neither G.H. nor the roach, but the slippery, painful juncture between individual consciousness and reality. In Lispector’s arrangement, that juncture is represented by the unholy “Eucharist” of the cockroach’s living plasma.
We first find G.H., who lives alone in a large, lavishly furnished penthouse apartment, lounging around in her bathrobe, aimlessly rolling “little, round balls out of the heart of the bread” as she muses distractedly on her latest romantic liaison. Eventually bored by these benign acts of “nonbeing,” she decides to clean the room of her recently quitted maid. But to her surprise, she finds this room perfectly tidy. Tidy, although not exactly immaculate: a healthy, gleaming cockroach soon makes its appearance, ambling slowly out of the dark depths of a wooden wardrobe and toward the light. In a fit of murderous repulsion, G.H. pinches the bug between the wardrobe’s door and door frame, only to acquire, by infinitesimal degrees, an irresistible appetite for the pulpy white goo that slowly emerges from the bug’s broken carapace.
Lispector’s method of storytelling consists mostly of relentless iterations of just a few images and themes—the obscene but jewellike opulence of the roach, for instance, is visited and revisited on almost every page, as is the barren desolation of the bedchamber in which the story takes place. All of this repetition creates a kind of manic echo, no doubt meant to reflect the struggle of G.H. as she psychically disengages from her everyday life and identity; but it also drives the reader—this reader, anyway—crazy, and not, I think, in the intended way. In fact, my frustration grew as I read, outlasting the novel’s final lines, so that when I finally shut the book’s covers, I found myself in need of a tall gin and tonic and some seriously lite entertainment.
Yet over the course of the next few days, my thoughts—working on one of those mute under-channels—returned again and again to Lispector’s novel, and my understanding of the book emerged as quietly and unexpectedly as the story’s central metaphor emerges from its dark hiding place.
That metaphor, Lispector’s roach, is nearly as touching, repulsive, and comic an insect as Kafka’s—although this roach is very much a real roach. Lispector’s most beautiful writing, at least as rendered by translator Ronald W. Sousa, concerns the physical properties of this primordial insect. Largish (my impression: about two inches long) it is
an auburn color. And all covered with cilia…The antennae were quiet…dry, dusty filaments…But its eyes were black and radiant. The eyes of a girl about to be married. Each eye itself looked like a cockroach. Each fringed, dark, live, dusted eye.
However fabulous the cockroach, the maid’s room in which it resides is so plain, so bleached and bare, as to remind G.H. of a “portrait of an empty stomach” or of a scene “after a flood.” In this austere setting, G.H. conducts her “Sabbath orgy,” submitting to “human martyrdom itself,” accompanied by the mute but nevertheless deafening strains of a “silent oratorio.” Religious terms like these surface in nearly every paragraph, so that when G.H. says she feels “curiosity…consuming” her as she studies the half-squashed cockroach, we think naturally of Eve. But Eve, of course, was looking for knowledge, while G.H. is looking for something else. And she finds this something—which she calls variously “God,” a “plasma,” the “real,” the “neutral,” and the “now”—in “that stuff…coming out of the cockroach’s belly.”
Give Lispector credit for one thing: she’s not afraid of being ridiculous. How many times had I groaned by this point in my reading? A dozen, at least. There’s just something unbearably ludicrous about the idea of a woman breaking into a cold sweat as she fixates, on hands and knees, on the death throes of a doomed cockroach while saying things like “Plumb me, plumb me, for it is cold, it is cold to lose your lobstershells. Warm me with your plumbing, comprehend me, for I do not comprehend myself. I am just in love with the cockroach. And it is a Hellish love.”
Yet over time, I’ve come to admire and even love this novel. In fact, as soon as I slammed the book shut, my understanding of G.H.’s story began to take on an almost-corporeal reality. Trying to put this into words is a slippery thing. What I was beginning to appreciate was that I could not consider Lispector’s philosophical concerns for any length of time without losing my grasp on those concerns, yet I could somehow feel them, sense the substance of them in my own mind, in those deep pools of thought where language doesn’t quite reach, and which words can’t express.
In her novel, Lispector too struggles with meaning that words can’t express, and for this reason she roots her existential explorations in the body, specifically in the mouth—in the acts of eating and speaking. In fact, the true locus of the novel’s drama isn’t really the maid’s bedchamber or the wooden wardrobe (the roach’s hideaway and death trap), but G.H.’s mouth, where the battle between the linguistic assignment of meaning and meaning itself is played out not just figuratively, but physically.
Lispector writes that the “condiment of the word” masks exactly those qualities G.H. confronts when she hears the roach: the true, the neutral, the real, the now. These qualities Lispector compares to “the taste of a potato tuber, mixed with the earth,” a taste not unlike the “soft cement” inside a cockroach.
The logic of this culinary metaphor would suggest, of course, that writing or reading something like a novel is an act as silly, pointless, and essentially stupid as scarfing down whole jars of mustard without meat, or sticks of butter without bread. Books are just words, after all—just “condiments,” linguistic offerings of no real sustenance. And yet it is through words that Lispector attempts, in the story of G.H., to impart the “insipid” flavor of “eternity.” In her use of language to express her deepest, most serious and desperate doubts about language, Lispector has written a novel in which every word—like a mythical tail-eating snake—quietly consumes itself.
Clarice Lispector was born in 1920 to a Jewish family in western Ukraine. As a result of the anti-Semitic violence they endured, the family fled to Brazil in 1922, and Clarice Lispector grew up in Recife. Following the death of her mother when Clarice was nine, she moved to Rio de Janeiro with her father and two sisters, and she went on to study law. With her husband, who worked for the foreign service, she lived in Italy, Switzerland, England, and the United States, until they separated and she returned to Rio in 1959; she died there in 1977. Since her death, Clarice Lispector has earned universal recognition as Brazil’s greatest modern writer.
Kim Adrian is a writer currently at work on a book about the secret life of socks for Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons Series, due out in the fall of 2016. She recently completed THE TWENTY-SEVENTH LETTER OF THE ALPHABET, a memoir about finding the courage to fail at an impossible task: saving my mentally ill mother from her worst enemy―herself. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Tin House, Agni, the Gettysburg Review, Crazyhorse, the New England Review, the Raritan Review, and elsewhere.
♦This essay first ran in our Off the Grid issue.