My first thought as I read Stefan Tobler’s translation of Água Viva for the first time was that I wanted to memorize it. All of it. A few moments later, I came to a passage in which Lispector acknowledges the mosaic quality of the work: “I know that after you read me it's hard to reproduce my song by ear, it's not possible to sing it without having learned it by heart. And how can you learn something by heart if it has no story?”
She has a point. I did, with this book, something I rarely do: I sat down to read it knowing nothing except that Lispector was an author to read. I did not know (though was pleasantly surprised) that there would be no chapters, no group of characters, no plot, and that instead the book would be a delicately glistening spiderweb of thoughts, an interior monologue at its most experimental. Addressed as a letter never sent to an undefined “you,” Lispector takes on the persona of a painter and, for 88 pages, reflects on the nature of life. Novel, essay, long prose poem, collection of short prose poems, Água Viva is not easily definable, but it fascinates nonetheless. Lispector’s work, somehow encompassing both contemporary Facebook walls and literary theory, has not lost its edge in the years since it was first published, and New Directions’ recent quartet of retranslations proves as much.
Painting and writing metaphors, unsurprisingly, appear throughout the text, but music makes appearances as well. "What beautiful music I can hear in the depths of me,” Lispector writes. “It is made of geometric lines crisscrossing in the air. It is chamber music. Chamber music has no melody. It is a way of expressing the silence. I'm sending you chamber writing." The lyricism of Tobler’s translation reflects this musical quality and—in the absence of plot—is the main thing that makes this book impossible to put down. Certain musical variations return with frequency: extracting the essence—the “it”-ness— of each instant through writing, the continuity of man and nature, the imminence of death, the choice to revel in existence rather than dwell on mortality. Lispector is a refreshing break from the pessimism that typically pervades the academic canon. She admits to fear and uncertainty, but she chooses to wrap both arms and legs around each passing moment and find joy in existing anyway. She writes each instant in order to write the Instant—a Kabbalistic instant-become-flesh, a Platonic Form concretized. And she does it with such exuberance that the reader cannot help but feel the same joy, if only in the instant of reading.
And yet, in spite of these returning themes, in the sense that it is angular, edged, it is indeed geometric prose. Lispector’s Portuguese in Água Viva is not standard; as her biographer Benjamin Moser states in the introduction, she was well aware that her disregard for conventional grammar often gave her translators and foreign publishers headaches. Lispector’s vast body of stories, children’s books, journalism, translations, and novels spans over four decades, and Água Viva (published in 1973, the last quarter of this prolific career) was perhaps her most stylistically unique contribution to Brazilian literature. Born in Ukraine and fluent in French and English as well as Portuguese, Lispector had a speech (especially with her rather un-Latin “r”) that sometimes caused strangers to think she was French. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that her written Portuguese is also marked; she takes a language that she knows inside out and remakes it according to her own identity—makes it her own. Tobler respects this claiming of the language. When religion is mentioned, God is awkwardly and impersonally “the God,” and one-word sentences coexist alongside long, twisting verbless ones.
Lispector’s tiny nuggets of prose remain, as gems, alone; no attempt is made to weave them together in any cohesive way. Lispector writes “... dissonance is harmonious to me,” and by the end of Água Viva, it has become so for her readers as well. The title, brilliantly left untranslated, retains its double meaning. It is both “living water”—echoing the text’s limpid, joyful flow—and the Portuguese word for “jellyfish.” Like the creature from which her book takes its name, Lispector’s text is hypnotic and translucent—not entirely without its sting, but beautiful from every angle.
Addie Leak is in her final year of the University of Iowa's MFA in Literary Translation. Her first language love is French. She has translated subtitles for Martinican Fabienne Kanor's film Husbands of the Night; Khaled Khalifa's pleas for raised consciousness about Syria in the Huffington Post (Feb 2012); and the Congolese short story "Me and My Hair" by Bibish Marie-Louise Mumbu, forthcoming in 91st Meridian.
Clarice Lispector, translated by Stefan Tobler
New Directions, June 2012 (reissue)
$14.95, paperback; ISBN: 0811219909