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Near to the Wild Heart

From our fourth issue, here’s Anderson Tepper on Clarice Lispector’s 1944 debut, Near to the Wild Heart.

When I was twenty-four, I would stand on the rooftops in Harlem and look up at Columbia University – just as I had stood on the hill at Columbia for four years, looking down at Harlem.  I would read Lorca’s Poet in New York, Julio Cortazar’s Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, and other books that took me closer to the edge.  But no book, no voice, vibrated more with me at the time than Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart.  I was nearer to the wild heart than ever, and this small, iridescent book was a revelation.

First published in 1944, when Lispector was nineteen, Near to the Wild Heart (the title was taken from Joyce: “He was alone.  He was unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life”) was brought out in 1990 by New Directions in an English translation by Giovanni Pontiero, with a striking Paul Klee watercolor on the cover.  But who was this mysterious Brazilian woman?  Her face on the inside jacket was aloof, brittle, piercing.  (The name itself, I liked to think, with its echo of the verb to see, hinted at her clairvoyant powers.)

I learned that she had been born in the Ukraine and moved to moved to Brazil at the age of two months.  Raised in Recife, in the northeast, and then in Rio, she became one of Brazil’s and Latin America’s greatest modern writers, especially championed internationally by feminists and academics (Grace Paley and Helene Cixous, among others).  And yet her writing also turned maddeningly “hermetic,” as the translator Gregory Rabassa said of her later novel, The Apple in the Dark. (The story collections Family Ties and Soulstorm, with their brief, crystal-like epiphanies, are more accessible.)  But if her later work could seem incomprehensible, the language of her first novel – like the gaze of Joana, the book’s central character – was “fragile” and “incandescent” yet so elastic, so untamed, so coltish that I was immediately drawn in.  I was galloping along breathlessly by the time Joana declares: “I need only fulfill myself and then nothing will impede my path until death-without-fear; from whatever struggle or truce, I shall arise as strong and comely as a young colt.”

Lispector wove a spell around the story of Joana’s growing self-discovery: from her childhood with her absentminded father to her years with her conservative aunt and uncle after her father dies, and then the solitary trauma of boarding school.  Later, after her marriage to Otavio (“a withered leaf,” “a man with folded arms”) collapses, her focus turns almost completely inward.  Little of the Rio air and sea are let in, yet you come to relish the small glimpses of the outside world, knowing that here is Brazil seen through the prism of a prophetic sensibility.  And as the floodgates of youthful wonder are opened, an imagination is revealed that is so rich, so self-entranced, that the walls of the stuffy middle-class Rio homes crumble and recede in comparison.  With not much else to do, Joana anticipates herself: “Happy and tranquil, I wait for myself, I wait for myself to rise and to emerge as I really am before my own eyes.”  And then she watches as she begins to appear to herself in myriad forms: “She fell silent once more, peering into herself.  She remembered: I am the tiny wave that has no other region except the sea, I tussle with myself, I glide, I fly, laughing, giving, sleeping, but alas, always within myself, always within myself.”  I recognized her emotional world of make-believe, her fragile, high-strung nerves (“let them make a harp from my nerves when I die”), her looking-glass vision so immediate and penetrating it was painful.

But for years I had forgotten, or at least set aside, Lispector’s books.  When New Directions came out with Selected Cronicas, a collection of her newspaper sketches, a few years ago, I was reminded once again of her and my earlier infatuation.  Yet while the long shadows of writers like Joyce and Woolf and Faulkner continue to hang over younger writers, little mention is made these days of Clarice Lispector.  For me, however, her spirit, amorphous and enraptured, is still very much present.

And now I’m far from Harlem, far from the rooftops I once danced on, wistfully watching the traffic crawl by below and the college on the hill shimmer above.  But I only have to say the name Lispector to begin to remember those times and that feeling, so blissfully alone and near to the wild heart.

Anderson Tepper has been on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair since 1998 and has written on books for a variety of publications, including The New York Times Book Review, The Nation, TLS, Washington Post, Village Voice, Salon, and Nextbook.

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