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New Directions’ Lispector Collection is a Winner

Clarice Lispector is an often overlooked figure in Western literary circles. Or at least she was – her popularity in the English speaking world is on the rise, mainly due to translations of her work published by New Directions in 2012.

New Directions continues to show exemplary taste in producing high quality translations of South American literature. Last year’s translations of four of Lispector’s books further prove this point, and finally bring Brazil’s greatest author to a wider audience.

The set of four includes The Passion According to G.H., which Lispector said, “best corresponds to her demands as a writer.” It is a mystical monologue that recalls both Joyce and Kafka, and it could be considered her masterpiece. The title character is a cross between Molly Bloom and Gregor Samsa, with the effusiveness of the former and the existential seriousness of the latter.

The entirety of the novel is an introspective but expansive contemplation on the nature of heaven, hell, and human existence. Venturing into the maid’s room, G.H. is surprised to find it clean, almost bare, save for a bed, a dresser, and a mysterious drawing on one of the walls. Also in the room is a cockroach, the sight of which sparks her musical soliloquy.

The cockroach is perhaps a symbol of Lispector’s debt to Kafka, but it’s only one of the many connections between the two writers. Benjamin Moser, author of Why This World, a biography of Lispector from Oxford University Press, even dubbed her as Kafka’s rightful literary heir, and the most important Jewish writer since the man from Prague shook the world. The Passion According to G.H. exhibits a number of Kafka’s characteristic traits, most notably a high-minded experimentalism.

Lispector does not, however, have Kafka’s bleak sense of fatalism, at least not in this novel. G.H., despite her anxieties, has a positive attitude. She is having a weird day for sure, but it’s not the soul-crushing, mind-bending, deadly affair that Samsa or Joseph K. experience. Even in the midst of her crisis (which is perhaps too strong a word for what occurs) G.H. makes plans to go out dancing that night, and there’s little doubt that she fulfills those plans after the narrative concludes.

The concept of the infinite plays a large role in both Lispector and Kafka’s writing, although they treat it differently. Lispector’s approach is linguistic, metaphysical, and abstract. The infinite in G.H. is that of the interpretive possibilities of language and religion. She exposes the multiple and contradictory meanings behind words, and in doing so she also stumbles upon the divergent truths of reality itself. G.H. stands as a solitary, gnostic figure, whose singular experience reveals something to the reader about the universe.

Kafka, on the other hand, usually works within a social framework, more densely populated than GH. Overcome by the largeness of society and bureaucracy, Kafka’s characters experience the bottomless depths of paranoia and despair. Whether it’s the core family unit of The Metamorphosis or the larger institutional levels on which The Trial works, Kafka seems to need more people, both functionally and symbolically, to construct his labyrinths. If G.H. is geared towards understanding what it means to be human and conscious, Kafka’s works gear towards the same ideas within society.

The Passion According to G.H. is evocative of Kafka minus turns of plot and tricks of suspense, at his most pared down and parabolic. What Lispector’s game turns out to be is almost purely linguistic and spiritual, a rare, revelatory exaltation of the human spirit, and a triumph of a literary genius that readers everywhere should happily get acquainted with.

Readers can visit the publisher’s website here, or buy the book from Amazon here.

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