What I loved: Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

My favourite books hook me with their first lines: Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, for example, or Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, or Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The best deliver an uninterrupted flow of intriguing sentences, beginning to end. Clarice Lispector’s Hour of the Star does this in a brutal, disconcerting way, while conveying its story through a scrim of self-consciousness. It is bizarre and unsettling, but full of gems; it is bleak but funny, and it begins with these fantastic lines: ‘All the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It was ever so. I don’t know why, but I do know that the universe never began.’

It’s an unusual way to begin the story of Macabéa, a poor, uneducated girl from Brazil’s northeast living in the slums of downtown Rio, but the tale’s bitter narrator, Rodrigo S.M., inserts himself and his inner dialogue into the narrative so frequently that the tale is as much about him as it is about Macabéa. Rodrigo S.M. grapples with his need to write her poverty, to make clear the wretchedness of her existence, but ‘… it is not easy to write. It is as hard as breaking rocks. Sparks and splinters fly like shattered steel.’ As he writes, the desolation of his own life becomes evident, while Macabéa is revealed – despite her poverty, malnourishment and meagre intellect – to be ultimately happy.

Rodrigo S.M. narrates a tale that is cerebral, perplexing, fractured – but the stark writing glimmers, and Macabéa is one of the all-time great, loveable creations in literature: she’s dirty, underfed, lives on hot dogs and Coca-Cola and listens to the radio for the ads, but Rodrigo’s sad account of her life is full of humour and light. Much of this light comes via the ‘dim’ dialogues between Macabéa and her boyfriend, Olímpico.

Revered within Brazil as one of the country’s greatest novelists, Clarice Lispector’s reputation has not really spread beyond the country’s borders, though this has started to change. A new biography, Why This World by Benjamin Moser, was widely reviewed when it was published in 2009, and New Directions then commissioned new translations of five of her novels, which were overseen by Moser. These new translations are now available as Penguin Modern Classics.

Lispector’s writing is self-conscious and non-narrative, and it is genuinely rewarding. Sentence by sentence, it sparkles. Feel free to ignore Rodrigo S.M.’s warning at the beginning of his tale: ‘So don’t expect stars in what’s coming: nothing will twinkle, this is opaque material and by its very nature despised by everyone. That’s because this story lacks a cantabile melody. Its rhythm is sometimes discordant.’ Expect stars – it’s the Hour of the Star, after all.

Ed Moreno works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

Hour of the Star

Hour of the Star

Clarice Lispector, Benjamin Moser

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