The Passion According to G.H.
Clarice Lispector, translated by Idra Novey. New Directions, 2012.
Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector
Benjamin Moser. Oxford University Press, 2009.
The Portuguese word saudade appears three times in Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s 1964 novel The Passion According to G.H. There is no English-language equivalent for saudade, and its meaning is interpreted in two different translations of the novel — the 1988 version by Ronald Sousa and the new edition by Idra Novey, released by New Directions in May — as follows:
“I shall have to bid a nostalgic good-bye to beauty”
“I’ll have to bid farewell with longing to beauty”
“A suffering with a great sense of loss”
“A suffering of great longing”
“I long to go back to hell”
“I miss Hell”
Several years ago I had dinner with a group of non-English-speaking Brazilians at a Cuban restaurant populated by men in hats drinking alone, each at their own small table, listening to old mambo music and looking into their cups. “They have saudade for Cuba,” observed one of my Brazilian friends, and everyone nodded. They were disappointed to learn that the concept is not articulable in English. “If Americans were ever forced to leave their country,” offered our party’s eldest from a pensive slump at the head of the table, “they would have a word for saudade.”
The English translations are not wrong, they’re just incomplete. saudade is indulgent, cinematic, a satisfying wallow; it’s like tonguing a canker sore to explore the pain and make sure it’s not gone. The Passion According to G.H. — the story of a philosophical and spiritual crisis brought on by the guts of a dying cockroach — is all saudade, a woman spelunking in her own existential ache.
G.H., roach-killer, is a reasonably successful sculptor, financially independent and located in a sort of neutral place — competent but not excellent, accomplished but not extraordinarily so, a person others refer to as “someone who does sculptures which wouldn’t be bad if they were less amateurish.” On the day in question, she finishes a leisurely breakfast alone and spends a pleasant idle stretch rolling the soft insides of a loaf of bread into little balls with her fingers. As she rolls she contemplates the satisfaction of cleaning the room once occupied by her recently former maid. She expects filth and stacks of old newspapers, but when she enters, she finds the room spotless, hot, bare, and loathsome. The maid has left a simple charcoal drawing on the wall, which G.H. interprets as an expression of her hatred. From the depths of a parched wardrobe, a cockroach ambles into view. G.H. despises cockroaches.
She can’t leave the room. She wants to. She keeps recalling a recent newspaper headline, “Lost in the Firey Hell of a Canyon a Woman Struggles for Life.” She slams the door of the wardrobe on the roach, but not hard enough. It looks at her, trapped and broken but not quite dead. It occurs to G.H. that she is disgusted with herself, not for nearly bisecting the roach, but because she has, she says, thus far lived a life of “not-being.” “I always kept a quotation mark to my left and another to my right,” she says. “An inexistent life possessed me entirely and kept me busy like an invention.” She is nothing more than the initials engraved on her luggage. This empty comfort is what G.H. is talking about when she says “I’ll have to bid farewell with longing (saudade) to beauty.” Because “loving the ritual of life more than one’s own self– that was hell,” which is what she means when she says, “I miss (saudade) Hell.”
G.H. discovers that she has never really looked at a roach, and contemplating this one, she understands another great saudade of human existence:
The mystery of human destiny is that we are fatal, but we have the freedom to carry out our fatefulness: it depends on us to carry out our fatal destiny. While inhuman beings, like the roach, carry out their own complete cycle, without ever erring because they don’t choose. But it depends on me to freely become what I fatally am. I am the mistress of my fatality, and if I decide not to carry it out, I’ll remain outside my specifically living nature.
So what is G.H.’s “specifically living nature,” which she tortures herself by avoiding and tortures herself to find? She never really says. But the terror underlying her tale is like a sheet of ice beneath the carpet, a murky, self-loathing dread of sitting around rolling bread balls while time slides comfortably away, and a horror with allowing herself to be undefined. And then there is euphoria that comes with shutting oneself away and staring down the roach while “white matter” spurts from its crushed shell — this, in fact, is the only way to become something beyond the empty mark of one’s initials.
G.H.’s crisis so acutely captures how I feel about writing that the whole thing, to me, is like a frighteningly internalized Room of One’s Own. Maybe in 1928, when Virginia Woolf was writing, a quiet room and a little financial security were the primary concerns, but once those are in place your main obstacle is yourself, your doubts, and the daily machinations of your petty, lovely life. G.H. is cursed with too much comfort, too much choice. With a whole apartment to herself, her “room of one ’s own” is her maid’s. “The plays of Shakespeare are not by you,” Woolf wrote. “What is your excuse?” She was kidding, but only sort of. G.H. has no excuse. She longs to be distracted by the telephone, which she has taken off the hook, and complains, in the midst of a thicket of philosophical tangents, that if she had known what was going to happen that day in the maid’s room she would have brought some cigarettes. When the book’s conclusion is in sight, she wraps herself in parentheses and says:
(I know one thing: if I reach the end of this story, I’ll go, not tomorrow, but this very day, out to eat and dance at the “Top-Bambino,” I furiously need to have some fun and diverge myself. Yes, I’ll definitely wear my new blue dress that flatters me and gives me color, I’ll call Carlos, Josefina, Antônio, I don’t really remember which of the two of them I noticed wanted me or if both wanted me, I’ll eat “crevettes a la whatever,” and I know because I’ll eat crevettes, tonight, tonight will be my normal life resumed, the life of my common joy, for the rest of my days I’ll need my light, sweet and good-humored vulgarity, I need to forget, like everyone.)
A double saudade — one lament for the life before and another for its inevitable return, on one side a desperate need to shut the door and articulate something important and on the other a positive mania to return to the vapidity of life as usual the second it is done. “It’s such a high unstable equilibrium that I know I won’t be knowing about that equilibrium for very long,” says G.H., “the grace of passion is short.”
In other words, a writer’s struggle, the author’s experience fitted onto a fictional character. True, G.H. was poor once — the roach horrifies her, in part, because it brings back a childhood memory of lifting a mattress to find a black swarm of bedbugs — but so was Clarice Lispector. As an adult Lispector, like G.H. was well off, the wife of a diplomat with whom she traveled and lived in three countries before divorcing him and returning to Brazil in 1959. She had two sons and all the obligations of the matriarch of a family of stature. Her husband didn’t think much of her work. Surely G.H.’s fight to articulate herself is Lispector’s struggle to write books, maybe even this book. But this is not so obvious to every reader. A recent essay likens G.H.’s fear of an unarticulated self to the feelings of gay couples unable to wed, and another notes that it is a precise expression of the conflicting desire to be known yet anonymous in the age of Twitter and Facebook. Benjamin Moser, who oversaw the new translation of G.H. and wrote the excellent Lispector biography Why This World, reads G.H. as the story of a Jewish mystical crisis, asking and answering “all the essentially Jewish questions: about the beauty and absurdity of a world in which God is dead, and the mad people who are determined to seek Him out anyway.”
We are all correct. Remember that this is the passion according to G.H., or in Portuguese, segundo G.H., which comes from the Latin secundus, or “follows,” and is similar to saying “as interpreted by.” But G.H. herself offers very little interpretation. She specifies only passion, the map of an emotional state, into which we intuitively build the architecture of our own obsessions. And G.H. obliges everyone’s interpretation. It says yes to us all.
This malleability is the book’s most striking and brilliant feature, and is a function of Lispector’s insistence on the inadequacy of words. “The unsayable can only be given to me through the failure of my language,” says G.H. “Only when the construction fails, can I obtain what it could not achieve.” Lispector’s writing is elastic and refuses to point at any one thing, it gathers into puddles of unspecified shape. You must swim through vague digressive paragraphs clinging intermittently to the buoys of G.H.’s philosophical aphorisms. She tries your patience. But the resulting “story” forms itself around whatever questions it is asked. We find that it is touchingly personal. It is about the fears that plague us; it names the saudade we feel.
The temptation is to use Lispector’s biography to prove the truth our own understanding, to fill her words with the shape of the woman herself, confirming of the meaning of G.H. segundo us. Those of us who love Lispector’s books are deeply in Moser’s debt for the sheer amount of detail in Why This World. The only thing wrong with the book is that it’s too much fun, and it has enticed nearly every Lispector critic since its publication to spend a great deal of time pinning the facts of her life to her work. But the facts distract us from the prose itself, and sometimes they are no help at all. In real life, Lispector disliked being compared to Virginia Woolf. She said she had never read any Woolf until after she had published her first novel, and besides, “I don’t want to forgive her for committing suicide,” Lispector wrote. “The terrible duty is to go to the end.” Lispector’s end came in 1977, of ovarian cancer, and even this simple fact is interpreted by her fans as a literary event of great yet varied metaphorical significance. Moser says Lispector’s death was “spookily appropriate,” given “a lifetime of writing about eggs and the mystery of birth.” (I don’t deny it. “That roach had had children and I had not,” muses G.H., who herself has had an abortion.) Lorrie Moore disagrees with Moser. “[H]er illness seems less significant as a figuration,” she wrote in the New York Review of Books, “than it does as a disease that disproportionately afflicts Ashkenazy Jewish women. In other words, despite everything, a Jewish death.” But I must point out that the fact of Lispector’s death was foretold by G.H., who says: “One day we shall regret those who died of cancer without using the cure that is there. Clearly we still do not need to not die of cancer. Everything is here.” In a characteristically weird way, Lispector died of what she didn’t need to not die of, a cancer that was an omission of desire for life, or at least for a different death. Moser tells us that Lispector, in a taxi on the way to the hospital where she died, told a friend that “everyone chooses they way they die.” But I don’t need to know this. I knew G.H. first, and she shouldn’t have to live according to Lispector’s life. Lispector can die according to G.H.