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I write to you because I don’t understand myself

November 17, 2023

Lauren Russler

“I write in acrobatics and pirouettes in the air—I write because I so deeply want to speak.” – Clarice Lispector, “Água Viva”

There is something exceptionally special about a book borrowed.

In uncovering words underlined and pages dog-eared by the lender, the borrower unlocks a secret shared language. Proximity is irrelevant—a parent’s book from college with annotations faded over three decades holds as much potential for connection as a book passed on from a friend days or weeks after they close its back cover.

Clarice Lispector came to me in the latter fashion. In borrowing “Água Viva,” I have gained access to both Lispector’s words and their impact on my lender. Select sentences are emphasized by thinly penciled underlines. Asterisks and exclamation points and small but significant notes decorate the margins.

How perfect that so many of the sentences my friend and I now share are themselves commentaries on language.

Here, for example, Lispector finds her words better characterized as an attempt at performance. Before the em dash, she writes as a dancer spinning across the stage, fitting for the form of “Água Viva.” Published in 1973, the novel has no named narrator and no clear plot. Its title is intentionally left in the original Portuguese, but “Água Viva” may refer to running water or to the translation of the term for “jellyfish.” “Água Viva” is an 88-page reflection on a desire to write—a coming to terms with the self as a writer. Lispector’s dance of choice is rightly ballet: Her words are equal parts graceful and dramatic. She performs linguistic glissades. But blink and you may miss them, she warns: “I am obscure to myself. I let myself happen. I unfold only in the now.”

After the em dash, Lispector longs to speak. She seeks tools of volume, cadence and tone that the novel, on paper, may lack. But “Água Viva” has a mind of its own. It speaks for itself. As Benjamin Moser writes in “Why this World,” his 2009 biography of Lispector, her words give the impression “of having been spontaneously committed to paper.” Lispector often wrote frantically; Moser’s research unearthed essays and stories scribbled on the backs of checks and cigarette boxes.

Much like the secrets of a book passed down, Lispector’s scribblings are informal and impulsive—and consequently more intimate. She often writes in a whisper, admitting in the book, “I write to you because I don’t understand myself.”

Paradoxically, Lispector’s whispering runs counter to her staggering success and devoted audience. She was born in Ukraine in 1920 to a Jewish family but fled to Brazil in her childhood as pogroms spread across the Soviet Union. She was just 22 when her first novel, “Near to the Wild Heart,” was published to broad critical acclaim.

Alongside her novels, Lispector printed weekly crônicas—informal columns common in Portuguese-language tradition—in leading Brazilian papers. Her crônicas reflect often upon her status as a writer. Publishing stories of nonfiction worried Lispector. She came to question if her words gave too much away.

“When I look at what I’ve written, I realize that I’ve revealed a certain part of me,” she wrote in September of 1968. But she soothed her anxieties by calling upon a quote from Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa: “Speaking is the simplest way of making ourselves unknown.”

There exists a sort of cult of Clarice Lispector which inspires, as translator Katrina Dodson writes in the Paris Review, “a kind of mutual possession.” Lispector’s readers attempt desperately to understand her. But the more she writes—the more her words glide and twirl and speak—the more she makes herself unknown.

In reading Lispector on loan, my possession is two-fold. A mutual-mutual possession ensues. My small world consists only of Lispector and my lender. We seek to possess each other, to know each other, but the experience of reading her sentences is fleeting. They pirouette away, and we grow only more obscure. Such is the power of a book borrowed.


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