The Hour of the Star
Like a Prayer
There has for a long time been books about what we might call the non-existent: Chekhov's The Story of a Nobody, Gogol's Diary of a Madman, Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground, even Madame Bovary; books that seem deliberately to be countering the Aristotelian notion that a character must be worthy of our attention due to the grandiosity of their station, the nobleness of their actions, or the ambition in their hopes. The non-existent is often loosely a character of realism, a figure whose concerns are frequently petty and irrelevant from a perspective beyond the character's (as in Notes from Underground), hypocritical and ineffective (as with the servant in Story of a Nobody) or insubstantially tragic, as Flaubert would explore in Madame Bovary, where Somerset Maugham perceptively argues that the book isn't tragic but merely unfortunate. In each instance the mythic expectation is removed and the prosaic replaces it. As Jacques Ranciere says in Film Fables, "the classical artist is not interested in myths or demystification, but in the very specific operation whereby a myth is turned into a fable, into a muthos in Aristotle's sense - a representation of men in action, an arrangement of incidents that has, as Aristotle says, a certain grandeur..."
The problem with moving from the elevation of character to the prosaic exploration of the self is that it seems to turn the burden of proof on to the author. It is as though a writer who wants realistically to explore the non-existent needs at the same time to justify why they happen to be doing so. Few writers have offered such self-justification as Clarice Lispector in The Hour of the Star, a book narrated by a male writer who hesitantly brings the young Macabea into existence, or into non-existence. As we are constantly told of the character's lack of good looks, simplicity of mind, mediocrity of employment, and her incompetence as a typist, so Lispector through her narrator creates for herself an authorial existence within the character's non-existence.
There is a danger in such an approach, but equally the possibility of intense fellow-feeling. Some might see it as the height of arrogance that the narrator constantly cuts in with a perspective beyond the means of the character, but couldn't it just as easily be seen as the height of if not modesty then of empathy? As the narrator says, "I am the only person who finds her charming. As the author, I alone love her. I suffer on her account". Here is a narrator not assuming that the reader will love or admire their creation, but that the author must invest compassion into the character because it cannot be representationally achieved: Lispector through her narrator refuses to allow the character to be representationally existent - refuses to give Macabea the qualities of beauty, charm and talent that would take her out of her miserable life in a slum district of Rio de Janeiro. There may be another character, Gloria, who possesses some of these qualities, but she remains a peripheral figure, as if her capacity for the existent means she can be of no fundamental interest to Lispector, because then she would write a book about a somebody rather than a nobody. But what fascinates Lispector is to write a book that elevates from the most non-existent of characters a shared emotional heritage with the Brazilian novelist. As the translator Giovanni Pontiero says in his Afterward, "while Clarice Lispector battles with concepts, Macabea tries to penetrate a web of superstitions and fantasies. Macabea's fears are instinctive and irrational, Clarice Lispector's apprehensions are the fruits of scrupulous introspection. Yet the roots of this spiritual crisis are basically the same. Their tragic perception of life are basically indistinguishable. Both writer and character find themselves on the margin of society, for both of them respond to an inner law that means nothing to the world".
If the existent function in the world of an outer law, a law of gifts and rewards, of beauty and the acknowledgement by others of that beauty, of talent and the acknowledgement of that talent, then the non-existent must rely on an inner-law that creates much more tentative and provisional space for their being. When Pontiero talks of an inner law that draws the writer and character together, it is because despite Lispector's wealth and comfort (she was married to a Brazilian diplomat) and Macabea's poverty, they live in a non-contractual world because whether they possess wealth and talent (as Lispector did) or lack it (as Macabea does), they are both useless members of society. Perhaps this is the case with anybody who lives through inner laws more than outer ones, as they refuse or are incapable of being functional figures in the social. Gloria wouldn't only not interest Lispector and her narrator because they would be making it easy on themselves creating a character with social qualities, but also because by making things hard on themselves through the character of Macabea they can search out instead some first principle of inner laws. When the narrator says, "I am having a hellish time with this story...the girl embodies a truth I was anxious to avoid. I don't know whom I can blame, but someone is to blame," the book hinges on the search for an inner expression of thought and feeling that cannot be framed by the social demands of character and ready emotion. If a wonderful novel like Tess of the d'Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure can put at the centre of the story a woman of beauty or a character of intelligence and show how society allows them to suffer despite this comeliness or talent, Macabea is someone for whom the representational qualities are removed and the writer is left trying to justify her importance despite their absence. As Helene Cixous proposes in her piece on Lispector inComing to Writing and Other Essays, "for at Clarice's school we have the most beautiful lessons: the lesson of ugliness". Society doesn't exploit such a character, since there is little there to be exploited. It is a bit like trying to make a film about a third world country colonised by the west but where the country has no resources worth exploiting: where can one find the story of exploitation that needs to be told if the land is barren and scrub-like? When the narrator says Macabea lacked the elusive qualities of charm and suffers on her account, this is very different from Hardy's approach. In Jude and Tess not only the author suffers on the characters' account; Hardy expects the viewer to suffer on their account also.
One might see that what interests Lispector is getting as far away from what we might call the manipulative and the qualitative as possible. In the manipulative resides Oscar Wilde's famous remark concerning Little Nell: that only someone with a heart of stone would cry so mechanical are Dickens' techniques. In the qualitative resides the notion that in Aristotle's words a character must be good. Macabea isn't a character known for her good deeds despite her meagre merits, and her death is presented to us as an indifferent event, as the author narrator allows a car to run Macabea over without much fanfare at the moment she believes she has fallen in love on the say so of a clairvoyant. Afterwards the narrator says in parenthesis "(I could turn the clock back and happily start again at the point when Macabea was standing on the pavement - but it isn't for me to say whether the fair-haired foreigner looked at her. The fact is that I've already gone too far and there is no turning back. Just as well that I did not, nor do I intend to speak of death. I will simply call it an accident.)" It isn't that Macabea is at all a bad character, but this is the opposite end of the Aristotelian spectrum of focusing on good characters, yet not at all inconsistent with it.
A bad character's death can often be an opportunity for cathartic release, and whether it is Richard III in Shakespeare's play, or Sikes in Dickens' Oliver Twist, their deaths are nothing if not significant. They are set-piece demises, deaths given their full dramatic force. Macabea's death is given almost no dramatic force at all, but Lispector, through her narrator, constantly attends to a search for a wider truth it contains. "What was the truth about my maca? It is enough to discover the truth that she no longer exists: the moment has passed. I ask myself what is she? Reply: she is not." It is not the death that is of importance, but the idea that a broader being encompasses her. Often in literature we have characters who are larger than life and their deaths are monumental partly because this evident life force moves from the enormity of its presence, to the enormity of its absence. Macabea's presence is so negligible that her absence is negligible also. She is a character smaller than life, and so there is no great drama in her death. What is important to understand is the nature of a Macabea in the world, that one grieves not over her death, but grieves instead over the nature of a certain type of life. Is this partly why Lispector creates so much space for procrastination in the process of introducing Macabea to us? As the narrator says, "she had been born with a legacy of misfortune, a creature from nowhere with the expression of someone who apologizes for occupying too much space". A few lines earlier we're informed: "Her eyes were enormous, round, bulging and inquisitive - she had the expression of someone with a broken wing - some deficiency of the thyroid gland - questioning eyes."
"Whom was she questioning? God?" the narrator wonders, and though he believes the answer is no, that doesn't mean it isn't a question the narrator muses over, a question that scientists would now call the 'genetic short straw'. But it is a question explored by Lispector here as closer to an act of ontological cruelty rather than part of a gene lottery. At one stage the narrator says: "when she [Macabea] was two years old, her parents died of typhoid fever in the backwoods of Alagoas, in that region where the devil is said to have lost his boots". It perhaps resembles philosopher Simone Weil's claim in Gravity and Grace that "the extreme affliction which overtakes human beings does not create human misery, it merely reveals it". By offering up an extreme example of the afflicted human, and the human afflicted from their very birth, Lispector shows a character much closer to the misery of being human than humanly miserable. The story doesn't chart the misfortunes that accompany the existentially unhappy human, the human whose lot becomes steadily more despairing, as Hardy explores so well, but the ontologically wretched, the figure whose very being in the world is a fait accompli: she is not the beautiful woman of literature used and abused; but instead the ugly figure ignored and irrelevant. It is as if the novella can do almost nothing with her narratively, so instead circles around the problem that she happens to be in a world based more on passion than compassion, based on qualities over essences. If one admires another not for the essential quality of being human, but for the peripheral qualities of beauty, talent and grace, then a character like Macabea is non-existent, because the existent lies in values external to their terms.
In other words what is it to be human? Some will say it is an organism that has forty six chromosomes, others will say that it is a creature with a brain, heart and other essential organs, with two arms and two legs and a developed consciousness. Of course it can be argued that surely someone with less than forty six chromosomes is still human, just as a person who loses consciousness is still a human being, and also someone who loses their arms and legs. Our point here isn't to get lost in the vagaries of analytic philosophical argument, but it is to say that in one's attempt to define what a human is, we might accept that there are essential qualities that a human no longer has based on the general model of what a human is seen to be. For example we would say that a person is missing a limb, but we wouldn't say they miss talent or beauty. They might lack a talent, or lack beauty, but this lack is based on inessential qualities of being human. One reason why people have such problems with plastic surgery based on issues of beauty rather than of disfigurement is because there is the assumption that the disfigured person has lost their nose, their lips or some other essential element, but the vain person wants merely to augment their looks. Our point here is to say no more than that beauty and talent are not essential human qualities like a leg, a heart and consciousness. Yet equally much of one's sense of identity is based on the inessential qualities, not least because they allow us to to differentiate ourselves from others.
But the consequence of this means that the secondary elements that make us individual mask the essential elements that make us human. Central to Lispector's novella, and indeed much of her work, is to see that this reversal of priorities allows for the creation of non-existence. Macabea is still as human as anybody else based on the essential qualities of humanness (and would be so even if she lacked a limb, a kidney or consciousness). But based on the inessential she becomes non-existent. It is for Lispector to find ways in which to recognize her existence from this non-existence.
In a collection of her essays, Selected Cronicas, Lispector quotes a passage she much admires from the historian Bernard Berenson: "A complete life may be one ending in so full an identification with the non-self that there is no self to die". Here one's inessential elements, the qualities that define one as an ego distinct from other egos, fade and all that is left is the human organism ready to pass away. 'The advantage' for the non-existent person, the figure without these secondary elements with which to build a strong ego, is that they are in Berenson's terms closer to the possibilities of the non-self. It is a figure Lispector draws on elsewhere, as in her story Preciousness, where the central character "was fifteen years old and she was not pretty. But inside her thinnesss existed the almost majestic vastness in which she stirred, as in a meditation". Near the end of the story the character says, " 'A person is nothing. No', she retorted in weak protest, 'don't say that,' she thought with kindness and melancholy. 'A person is something,' she said in kindness". Perhaps a person is something out of nothing, and it is the recognition from whence the person comes (their 'essence' as we've chosen earlier to define it), rather than what the person is capable of (their 'qualities'), that allows this girl to accept a person who might seem like a nothing is also a something. In The Hour of the Star Lispector wants to find something (the essential) out of nothing (the lack of qualities), and explores the life not because it is exceptional but because it is the opposite. "There are thousands of girls like this girl from the Northeast to be found in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, living in bedsitters and toiling behind counters for all they are worth...Few of them ever complain and as far as I know they never protest, for there is no one to listen".
What matters here is not then to individualize and dramatize one of these girls, but to hold in abeyance that desire, and, equally, hold in abeyance the Flaubertian wish to write well. As Maugham puts it, "Flaubert was aware that in setting out to write a book about commonplace people he ran the risk of writing a dull one. He desired to produce a work of art, and he felt that he could only surmount the difficulties presented by the sordid nature of his subject and the vulgarity of his characters by means of beauty and style." (Ten Novels and their Authors). Lispector has her narrator say: "I have at my command magnificent adjectives, robust nouns, and verbs so agile that they glide through the atmosphere as they move into action. For surely words are actions? Yet I have no intention of adorning the word, for were I to touch the girl's bread, that bread would turn to gold - and the girl (she is nineteen years old) would be unable to bite into it, and consequently die of hunger." There is irony here - the writer refuses to embellish and then offers a metaphor in which to deny the embellishment - but generally the narrator is intrusive rather than the writer. Where Flaubert demands the genius of the prose compensating for the medicority of Macabea, in a gesture not first and foremost of compassion but of literary passion, with Flaubert insisting on a brilliant detachment, Lispector eschews this aspect. Indeed Maugham interestingly sees a problem with Flaubert's approach, and one we can see Lispector confronts. "There is nothing heart-warming in this detachment. Though it may be a weakness in us, my impression is that, as readers, we find comfort in knowing that the author shares the emotions he has made us feel". In Madame BovaryMaugham believes one admires the language; we do not feel for the characters. Lispector asks if not quite the reverse, then something close to it, as if delilberately inverting the problem and saying what counts is to find fellow-feeling, evident in the narrator's claim that he alone loves his creation. The problem resides in how to register that love in such a way that it can be shared with readers who are used to certain narrative techniques linked to specific qualities within characters (as we find in Hardy), or to notions of style (as in Flaubert) or to melodramatic manipulation (as in Dickens).
Lispector instead wants to ask a radical literary question that inevitably segues into philosophical, theological problems, which is partly why we invoked Weil. When the narrator says, "it seems that I am changing my style of writing. Not being a professional writer, I please myself what I write about - and I must write about this girl from the Northeast otherwise I will choke", the writer is trying to define a place for literature other than in the literary. In an article on Lispector in the New York Times someone interviewed says, "She wanted to be thought of as a writer though she pretended she wasn't a professional," and one can understand this paradox from the angle of the writer who refuses professional conventions for the purposes of an 'amateur' feeling. When, early in The Hour of the Star, the narrator insists: "prayer was a means of confronting myself in silence away from the gaze of others. As I prayed I emptied my soul, and this emptiness is everything that I can ever hope to possess", might we think the novella is less a book than a certain type of prayer: an attempt to speak for a soul and not for the person surrounding it? When Weil says in Gravity and Grace, "The soul is the human being considered as having a value in itself", it is similar to Lispector's claim in Selected Cronicas that "after experiencing grace, the human condition is revealed in all its wretched poverty, thereby teaching us to love more, to forgive more, and show greater faith".
Fiction thus becomes a prayer, and the purpose isn't to create round or flat characters in E. M. Forster's famous definition, but the kernel of being. Characters that are flat are "in their purest form...constructed round a single idea or quality; when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve that makes them round". (Aspects of the Novel) Usually flat characters would have a very minor role; while round characters are frequently major narrative players: "all the principal characters in War and Peace, all the Dostoyevsky characters, and some of the Proust - for example, the old family servant, the Duchess of Guermantes, M de. Charlus and Saint-Loup; Madame Bovary..." A character like Macabea, though, seems to defy Forster's useful definitions. She is a flat character rounded out not by her personality and character, but by a spiritual imposition, by a realisation on the narrator's part that Macabea will not develop as a rounded character would be expected to do, but remain flat even though she will be the centre of this short book. The narrator knows this when he says "the typist lived in a kind of limbo, hovering between heaven and hell", and adds a little later: "The girl possessed what is known as an inner life without knowing that she possessed it. She was nourished by her own entity, as if she were feeding off her own entrails." She cannot develop because nothing very much happens to her, and she does not recognize her own inner experience.
Some might insist as we've proposed that such a work is the height of condescension; others that the height invoked suggests a certain type of elevation - that Lispector wants to raise this ordinary figure above the common herd not because she possesses special qualities but because she lacks them. Yet this notion of a lack is a very socio-specific thing, and it is the socio-specific this fine writer is so keen to avoid as she searches out the abstract possibilities in the spirit that the concrete merely furnishes. Do we often take the furnishing for the house, the soft interiors for the bricks and mortars of the core being? "As in all her writing, translator Giovanni Pontiero says in his Afterward, "the dimension of mystery is sacrosanct. Mystical forces are always present. There is always a note of divination, however serious or humorous, however formal or colloquial, in the prose." As Lispector insists in Selected Cronicas, she isn't at all interested in a book that wants to work the conventions of rounding out the characters and polishing up the prose: "however paradoxical it may sound, the greatest drawback about writing is that one has to use words. It is a problem. For I should prefer a more direct form of communication. That tacit understanding one often finds between people." Some books are all words, even if all books are all words. But other books contain spaces between the words, the hint of their limits. The Hour of the Star is one such book, just as Macabea is one such character.Macabea might be non-existent, but she contains within her the essential. It is as if she becomess a great figure in literature because she isn't at all a great figure in life.
© Tony McKibbin