When Clarice Lispector was writing the novella The Hour of the Star (A Hora da Estrela) – although ‘assembling’ is probably a better word apparently – she was dying. Shortly after The Hour of the Star was published, Lispector was admitted to hospital where it was discovered that she had inoperable ovarian cancer. She was not told the diagnosis and died on 9th December 1977, the eve of her 57th birthday. One has to wonder a) if she had been aware that this was going to be her last book would she still have written it the same way or b) perhaps she was more aware that her remaining time was running out faster than expected considering how portentous some of the writing is: the book’s narrator says at one point that Death is his favourite character.
In February 1977, Lispector gave her only televised interview, with Júlio Lerner of TV Cultura in São Paulo. In it, she mentioned a book she had just completed with “thirteen names, thirteen titles,” though she refused to name them. The book was actually only published just over a month before her death. According to her, the book is "the story of a girl who was so poor that all she ate was hot dogs." That is overly simplistic and yet the plot of this book is anything but complicated. How Lispector chooses to tell this tale is, however, quite complex and requires careful rereading; rereading is recommended but at 75 pages that shouldn’t take you too long.
Macabéa (after the Maccabees) is a poor girl from the provincial Northeast of Brazil. She is the invention of a male author, Rodrigo S.M., who is the book’s narrator although he is no mere storyteller. He frequently interrupts his narrative with talk of his own life and the difficulties he’s having writing this piece, in fact it takes him quite a few pages even to get round to his story. We learn how long this tale has been gestating:
[F]or the past two and a half years I have slowly started discovering the whys and the wherefores.
and we learn where the inspiration came from too:
In a street in Rio de Janeiro I caught a glimpse of perdition on the face of a girl from the Northeast.
Like many authors though he thinks about Macabéa less as a tale to tell, more as something he has to write, to rid himself of. “I did not invent this girl,” he says. “She forced her being upon me.” If that is the case then this is the only time in her life the girl forced herself on anyone.
From the age of two she had lived “with her maiden aunt, a sanctimonious spinster, and the girl’s only surviving relative in the whole wide world” who wouldn’t even allow her a pet animal since “an animal in the house would simply mean one more mouth to feed, [something] the girl resigned herself [to], convinced that she was only fit for breeding fleas and that she didn’t deserve a dog’s affection.” Her parents died of typhoid fever. She can’t remember the details. Remembering is actively discouraged by her aunt and if she did recall some incident from her past then the aunt would reward her with a rap on the head.
If she had thought hard, she might have concluded that she had sprouted from the soil of Alagoas inside a mushroom that soon rotted.
Her aunt was also fond of thrashing the girl:
She would thrash the girl not only because she derived some sensuous pleasure from thrashing her – the old girl found the idea of sexual intercourse so disgusting that she never married – but also because she considered it her duty to see that the girl did not finish up like many another girl in Maceió standing on street corners with a lit cigarette waiting to pick up a man.
The girl soon forgot these thrashings. If you wait patiently, the pain soon passes. … The girl didn’t dare ask why she was always being punished. One doesn’t have to know everything and not knowing became an important factor in her life.
Her aunt finds her a job in Rio de Janeiro – in the industrialised, metropolitan South of the country – and then dies leaving the girl on her own, lodging in a bedsitter with four other girls – Maria de Penha, Maria Aparecida, Maria José and plain Maria – who worked as shop assistants, members of the lumpenproletariat who will never aspire to anything and yet still seem sophisticated to Macabéa. Macabéa, surprisingly, works as a typist – just about:
[S]he was barely literate and had only received three years of primary schooling. She was so backward that when she typed she was obliged to copy out every word slowly, letter by letter. Her aunt had given her a crash course in typing.
Her employer, Raimundo Silveira, pays her what she is worth, less than minimum wage, and she subsists on hot dogs, the odd mortadella sandwich, coffee (even though it gave her heartburn) and soft drinks, preferably Coca Cola. Mortadella is a large Italian sausage very popular in Brazil.
Macabéa is uneducated but she is not retarded – that is stated explicitly. It is how she faces her limitations that is of interest. In one respect she does aspire to be more than what she sees in the mirror, a plain, flat-chested girl: she takes pride in the fact that her job title is ‘typist’, she aspires to look like Marilyn Monroe – we watch her small attempts to beautify herself by painting her fingernails, buying lipstick at a store, and reading fashion magazines. She is pleased when she acquires a boyfriend and is delighted when the fortuneteller at the end of the book tells her all the good things she can expect life to present her with but she does little to actually better herself:
As for the girl, she exists in an impersonal limbo, untouched by what is worst or best. She merely exists, inhaling and exhaling, inhaling and exhaling. Why should there be anything more? Her existence is sparse.
Her life becomes so monotonous that in the afternoon she couldn’t tell you what did that morning.
She believed in everything that existed and in everything non-existent as well. But she didn’t know how to embellish reality. For her, reality was too enormous to grasp. Besides the word reality meant nothing to her.
She prayed but without God. She did not know Him, therefore He did not exist.
But what does the girl really see when she looks in the mirror? Rodrigo tells us:
I see the girl from the Northeast looking in the mirror and – the ruffle of a drum – in the mirror there appears my own face, weary and unshaven. We have reversed roles so completely.
This is something that all writers must go through. Where do our characters end and we begin or vice versa? As Rodrigo writes Macabéa he discovers her and we are privy to this discovery:
I have just discovered that reality made little sense to the girl. She felt more at ease with the unreality of everyday life. She lived in slo-o-ow motion, a hare le-e-eaping through the a-a-air over hi-i-ill and da-a-ale, obscurity was her earth, obscurity was the inner core of nature.
She is a misfit even in this world. I swear that nothing can be done for her. Believe me I would help her if I could.
If the girl only knew that my own happiness stems from the deepest sorrow and that sorrow is an abortive form of happiness. Certainly, she was a contented creature despite the neurosis. The neurosis of battle.
Why do I write? Can I explain? I simply don’t know. In fact, I sometimes think that I am not me. I seem to belong to a remote planet, I am such a stranger unto myself. Can this be me? I am horrified by this encounter with myself.
The only thing that can be said about me is that I am breathing.
Macabéa is not Raimundo’s only employee. There is also Glória who can do shorthand and everything:
Glória was terribly smug: in her own estimation, she thought of herself as being really something. Conscious of her mulatta sex appeal, she painted in a beauty spot above her lips, to add a touch of glamour to the bleached hairs around her mouth. Glória was a cunning vixen but none the less good-hearted.
Glória wiggled her bottom in an inviting way and she smoked mentholated cigarettes to keep her breath fresh… She was very self-confident, having achieved most of her modest ambitions in life. There was a defiant note in Glória’s attitude as if to say: ‘Nobody bosses me around.’
Is it any wonder that Macabéa’s boyfriend, Olímpico, ditches her when he catches sight of Glória? But how did someone like Macabéa ever acquire a boyfriend in the first place?
In a downpour of rain, she met (bang) the first boyfriend of any kind she had ever known, her heart beating furiously as if she had swallowed a little bird that continued to flutter inside her. The boy and the girl stared at each other in the rain and recognised each other as native North-easterners, creatures of the same species with that unmistakable aura. She stared at him, drying her wet face with her hands. The girl only had to see the youth in order to transform him immediately into her guava preserve with cheese [a luxury from her childhood].
He . . .
He approached her and spoke with that singsong intonation of the North-easterner that went straight to her heart. He said
― Excuse me missy, but would you care to come for a walk?
It takes three dates (during every one of which it rains) before she asks him his name. He tells her it is Olímpico de Jesus Moreira Chaves which was a lie; “his real surname was simply Jesus, a clear indication that he was illegitimate.” Although poor like her Olímpico is ambitious:
He never once referred to himself as a worker but always as a metallurgist.
― One day, I’ll be a rich man. [He was] convinced that he was a demon of power: the strength bleeding in his young limbs.
In the Northeast, he had saved week after week to earn enough money to have a perfectly sound canine replaced with a false tooth in glittering gold. A gold tooth gave him some standing in society. Moreover, to have actually killed someone had made him a MAN in capital letters. Olímpico felt no remorse, he was what people in the Northeast would call a ‘brazen thug’.
Macabéa was undeniably a primitive creature while Olímpico de Jesus saw himself as a man about town, the type of man for whom all doors open.
Olímpico concerned himself with important things but Macabéa only noticed unimportant things such as herself.
Needless to say their relationship is short-lived and painful to read on many levels. Just as her aunt abused her physically so her boyfriend abuses her verbally. Much of it would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.
It’s at this point in the story we see Rodrigo start to soften in his writing when talking about Macabéa:
Oh, if only I could seize Macabéa, give her a good scrubbing and a plate of hot soup, kiss her on the forehead and tuck her up in bed. So that she might wake up to discover the great luxury of living.
At the start of the book he only referred to her as “the girl from the Northeast,” then “Macabéa” but, towards the end of her story, she has become Maca. Perhaps, by this point, he realises that things are not going to end well for his creation:
Yes, I adore Macabéa, my darling Maca. I adore her ugliness and her total anonymity for she belongs to no one. I adore her for her weak lungs and her under-nourished body.
In much the same way that Beckett gave a voice to the disenfranchised, to those of the edges of society, so does Lispector through her mouthpiece, Rodrigo S.M.:
There are thousands of girls like this girl from the Northeast to be found in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, living in bedsitters or toiling behind counters for all they are worth. They aren’t even aware of the fact that they are superfluous and that nobody cares a damn about their existence. Few of them ever complain and as far as I know they never protest for there is no one to listen.
What I am writing is something more than mere invention; it is my duty to relate everything about this girl among thousands of others like her. It is my duty, however unrewarding, to confront her with her own existence.
For one has a right to shout.
So, I am shouting.
So, yes, this is a book about class but it is also a work of metafiction about the difficulties involved in writing honestly. To relegate Rodrigo S.M. to the role of narrator is to miss much of the point here. When the book was filmed his role was dispensed with completely in much the same way that, when One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was adapted as a film the narration by, and perspective of, Chief Bromden was lost.
The book is light on descriptions. In fact her whole universe can be summarised in the following short sentence:
Acre Street for living, Lavradio Street for working, the dock for excursions on Sundays.
It’s an exaggeration to say that because she goes to the pictures, to the doctor and to a fortune-teller in Olaria but I suppose these are exceptions rather than her norm. She even gets a taxi to go and see Madame Carlota, the fortune-teller: such extravagance!
Interestingly, the description of Acre Street resembles closely the zona district bordered by docks in Recife, a Northeastern Mecca for thousands of migrants from the sertão, and the city where Lispector spent her early childhood. According to Giovanni Pontiero, who translated A Hora da Estrela into English, Lispector became obsessively nostalgic for Recife in the months before her death, returning to the city to visit friends and once familiar landmarks. Back in Rio, she began frequenting the São Cristóvão marketplace to observe the Northeasterners who sold foods and handicrafts there. All this was apparently in preparation for A Hora da Estrela.
The Hour of the Star, in fact, manages to compress most of Lispector’s obsessions into one tiny thumbnail of a book. Macabéa, a driftless immigrant from the northeast, shuttles to and from her job as a typist, her boarding house, and a soulless love affair in Rio, while slowly gaining inklings of her own freedom and ultimately finding redemption.
It took me a while to work out where the title comes from, The Hour of the Star. It is actually something that the fortune-teller says to her:
For in the hour of death you become a celebrated film star, it is a moment of glory for everyone, when the choral music scales the top notes…
Can death defeat someone who has already been defeated by life? Lispector portrays this as the moment where final self-realisation and self-illumination can take place – it is this hour that Lispector has been heading towards all along: death is the ultimate starring role. In his afterword to his translation Giovanni Pontiero notes:
What Macabéa perceives, Lispector has always known, namely that: ‘Death is an encounter with self.’ A brief, ecstatic moment of transition as corporeal form is miraculously transformed into ‘vigorous air’. The promise of sudden release is inviting, but life demands the greater courage.
This is a writers’ novel if ever there was one but it’s one where the author shows rather than tells. “This book is a silence: an interrogation,” it asks its readers questions but doesn’t necessarily provide answers. If you enjoy a book that makes you think and doesn’t take 1000 pages to do it then this is the one for you. Clarice Lispector once proclaimed The Hour of the Star as a book made without words. That’s clearly untrue and so she must mean something else. I think the words that are missing from this book are the answers to some very important questions.
Clarice Lispector, is recognized as one of Latin America´s greatest writers and is only now being discovered by English readers, surprising given that “Clarice’s beauty, genius, and eccentricity intrigued Brazil virtually from her adolescence.”
Born into a Jewish family amidst the horrors of post-World War I Ukraine, Chaka Lispector was to escape to Brazil in 1922 and be re-named Clarice. She was to spend many if her early years living a humble existence in Northeast Brazil. First in Maceió, Alagoas, then three years later in the Jewish neighbourhood of Boa Vista in Recife, Pernambuco, where a monument to her exists today.
Whilst in Recife, her mother died (1930) at the age of forty-two, when Clarice was nine years old. Her father continued to struggle economically, but Clarice was still able to attend the Colégio Hebreo-Idisch-Brasileiro, which taught Hebrew and Yiddish in addition to the usual subjects. In 1932, she gained admission to the Ginásio Pernambucano, the most prestigious secondary school in the state at the time. A year later, she “consciously claimed the desire to write.”
In 1935, Pedro Lispector decided to move his family to the then-capital, Rio de Janeiro, where he hoped to find greater prosperity for them. There Clarice became a law student seeking justice for prisoners and then a journalist.
In 1943, around the time of her marriage to a diplomat, she published her first book, the critically acclaimed Near to the Wild Heart. Success in her career was not reflected in her challenging family and personal life. She had a long-time love for the homosexual poet Lúcio Cardoso among others, and one of her sons was diagnosed as schizophrenic fostering a growing sense of isolation in her.
Several of Lispector’s works relate to her time in Northeast Brazil. Perhaps most famous of them was The Hour of the Star. Macabéa’s story is one of the most famous in Brazilian literature although Lispector is probably better known for her short collection, Family Ties, which has been called “the best book of stories ever published in Brazil.” She has been described as, “that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf” although what attracted me to her in the first place was a quote by the French literary critic and philosopher Hélène Cixous who said:
I discovered an immense writer, the equivalent for me of Kafka, with something more: This was a woman, writing as a woman. I discovered Kafka and it was a woman.
Lorrie Moore, ‘The Brazilian Sphinx’, The New York Review of Books, 24th September 2009
Benjamin Moser, ‘Why You Should Know Clarice Lispector’, More Intelligent Life, September 2009
Dennis Cooper, ‘Spotlight on ... Clarice Lispector The Hour of the Star (1977)’, DC’s, 10th February 2010
Claire Williams, ‘Macabéa In Wonderland: Linguistic Adventures In Clarice Lispector’s A Hora Da Estrela’, Ellipsis, Vol. 3, pp.21-38
 Anderson Tepper, ‘Dizzy with Life’, Tablet, 30th January 2008
 Fernando Sabino in a personal letter to Lispector reprinted in Fernando Sabino and Clarice Lispector, Cartas perto do coração; p.124
 Gregory Rabassa quoted in Benjamin Moser, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector Clarice Lispector