"Clarice Lispector's Archive"

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Student Research Reports, Summer 2010


Casa de Rui Barbosa. (Photo by Adam Joseph Shellhorse.)

Casa de Rui Barbosa. (Photo by Adam Joseph Shellhorse.)

"Clarice Lispector's Archive"

Clarice Lispector’s final and highly acclaimed literary work A hora da estrela (1977)—composed while the author was battling cancer and which would cause her untimely death in December of 1977— is an avant-garde novel that powerfully examines the impasse of representing the subaltern from the sphere of experimental literature.  By the subaltern, I refer with Clarice’s example in protagonist and migrant Macabéa, to social subjects that stand epistemologically and politically outside, on the margins, and in the cracks of state, institutional and literary representation.  In exploring this social and political dilemma and the problem of writing proper, the novel forges a fragmentary narrative perspective that interpellates the reader to reflect on the fissures and limits of literary culture and its modes of knowledge.  Accordingly, if the novel begins by recounting the confession and literary credo of alienated writer-narrator, Rodrigo S.M., who yearns to bridge the gulf between writers and subalterns through the very novel and story that the reader is reading—it also foregrounds the modes by which Rodrigo weaves together the fragmentary story of Macabéa, a subaltern migrant who has journeyed from an impoverished region in the Brazilian Northeast to Rio de Janeiro in hopes of acquiring a better livelihood and work.  Far from paternalistic or a “speaking for” the subaltern through literature, it could be said that Rodrigo’s narrative becomes more a theoretical space for his own self-conscious reflections on the nature of writing, ethics, and politics which posit and challenge the reader to consider the subaltern Macabéa as a limit and impasse to his writing and thinking procedures.

In researching Clarice Lispector’s oeuvre at the Fundação Casa de Rui Barbosa this summer in Rio de Janeiro, I was concerned with this two-pronged problematic concerning literary form, epistemology and politics.  On the one hand, I set myself the task of contextualizing and examining Clarice’s lifelong concern with constructing avant-garde narratives and how she positioned herself with regard to the towering legacy of the Brazilian avant-gardes such as the Modernistas of the 1920s, the Brazilian Concrete poets of the 1950s and 60s, and other leading experimental novelists such as Osman Lins and João Guimarães Rosa.  On the other hand, I sought to discover the origins of Clarice’s preoccupation with the subaltern and the politics of literature, and to track this problem in her journalistic writings and in her letter correspondence with writers such as Fernando Sabino, Rubem Braga and João Cabral de Melo Neto.

In conducting the research, I found Clarice’s original typescript on the legacy and ongoing force of the avant-garde problematic in Brazilian literature, entitled “De uma conferência no Texas” which was a lecture she gave at the University of Texas in Austin in 1963.  What I find particularly illuminating about this rare document is that in addition to delimiting the will to experimental form proper to the avant-garde and the Brazilian gesture of anthropophagia or cannibalization of European ideas and artistic techniques, Clarice proposes that an authentic vanguard gesture, like her narrator Rodrigo S.M.’s literary reflections on politics and the limits of form with respect to the subaltern in A hora da estrela, resides in its mode of propelling the reader or spectator to a higher level of self-reflexivity or “autoconhecimento.”

With respect to tracking the problem of literature and the subaltern, I found several rare typescripts such as “Literature and Justice” [Literatura e Justiça] and “What I would have liked to be” [O que eu queria ter sido].  In addition to providing me with precious autobiographical sketches, especially of Clarice’s infancy in the city of Recife, these texts not only provide evidence of Clarice’s longstanding concern with social justice and the plight of the poor, but also point to Clarice’s acute awareness of the limits of literary and political discourse, and the sheer difficulty she had in constructing a literature of social commitment that at the same time served her avant-garde premise of providing the reader with an experimental mode of “autoconhecimento” or self-reflexivity.

To thoroughly examine a writer’s archive, letter correspondence, and never published manuscripts, I have found, allows the critic an incredibly sharp and useful view of the writer’s life, of her personal opinions, and of striking texts that were purposefully not published, or published under a pseudonym.  Clarice’s archive contains poems and paintings that were never published or placed on exhibit, and many articles that she wrote under the pseudonym Helen Parker that provided practical advice for Brazilian women concerning such topics as fashion and the importance of reading.  In reading her correspondence with some of the leading Brazilian writers of the 1950s and 60s such as João Cabral de Melo Neto, I was able to read these leading writers’ impressions of Clarice’s style and concern with form.

In conclusion, thanks to the generous assistance of Lispector’s son, Paulo Gurgel Valente, who granted me permission to make photocopies of Clarice’s typescripts, and the knowledgeable staff at Fundação Casa de Rui Barbosa, who allowed me to freely navigate Clarice’s well organized archive, my research provided insight and rare documentation that is currently helping me expand my completed dissertation at Berkeley into a book project that encompasses one of Brazil’s leading woman writers that negotiated the problem of the avant-garde and the ongoing impasse of subalternity in Latin America.   

(Photo by Adam Joseph Shellhorse.)
(Photo by Adam Joseph Shellhorse.)

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