We’re moving on from Korea to Brazil on our Women in Translation Month travels, and while today’s book is very different from the last one, they do have something in common. Both novels have a rather claustrophobic feel, but this tension has different roots. You see, whereas our Korean friend was constrained by his body, this is a story of the pressures of the mind – or perhaps I should say the soul…
Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. (translated by Idra Novey, published by Penguin Modern Classics) is certainly not a book for those in search of a meaty plot. After an initial confused monologue in which the narrator hints at an experience from the previous day that has shattered her world view, the novel looks back twenty-four hours, with the woman (known only as G.H., after the initials on her suitcases) enjoying a leisurely breakfast. With no demands on her time, she decides to clean the room her maid (who has just quit) has lived in for the past six months, slowly walking through her flat and opening the door to the room, expecting to see a dark squalid mess.
However, what awaits her in this little-visited part of her realm shocks her. As she walks into the room, she encounters a sun-drenched (sun-scorched) rectangle of light, one she barely recognises, and her sense of disorientation is heightened by the discovery of some crude drawings on the wall. Eventually, her eyes land on the old, battered wardrobe, warped by the constant sun, and coming to her senses, she decides to start cleaning it. Yet when the door swings open, she’s unprepared for what she finds, and even less ready to cope with how her mind reacts to the new situation.
In physical terms, there’s very little more to The Passion According to G.H. than what I’ve described. The rest of the novel is spent with the narrator in a sort of catatonic state, either standing or cowering behind the door of the wardrobe, in which she’s discovered a massive cockroach. Sounds compelling, right? Rich woman goes into maid’s room, sees an insect and has a nervous breakdown… Of course, there’s far more to the novel than this. The encounter in the maid’s room is merely a catalyst for the woman to take a moment out from her daily existence; as time slows down to a crawl, the narrator begins to think, the focus on the cockroach centring her and allowing her to reflect on the way she lives her life, and whether it has any meaning.
In contrast with the mundane surroundings, there’s an epic nature to what’s happening inside her head, with hallucinations and visions of ancient times (and a post-historic future) as her mind races. It all comes together to form an epiphany of sorts brought on by the encounter, a realisation that up until now she’s been living in numbness, content to wait for something to happen at some unspecified future point:
For the first time in my life it was fully about now. This was the greatest brutality I had ever received.
For the present has no hope, and the present has no future: the future will be exactly once again present.
I was so scared that I got even quieter inside myself. Because it was seeming to me that I would finally have to feel.
p.78 (Penguin Modern Classics, 2014)
Her comfort in what she dubs the ‘pre-climax’, the pleasant feeling that all the important things in life are yet to come, is now shattered. There’s no future and nothing to look forward to as there is only the now, meaning that all our energy and focus must go on living life a day at a time.
If it sounds as if there’s a religious tinge to her musings, there’s much to support that view. From the early parts of the novel, mentions of ‘hell’, ‘salvation, ‘glory’, ‘oratorio’ and ‘crossing the desert’ point in this direction, and as the story progresses, the religious references become more overt, with G.H. pondering the existence of God, or the God, as she sometimes puts it. Yet her thoughts never seem to involve the idea of serving the Lord in the hope of a better future life, but are rather more concerned with finding him now, and making the most of each day we’re allowed on earth, It’s a tad simplistic to summarise it all with the phrase carpe diem, but it does fit for the most part…
The Passion According to G.H. is marked by its rather episodic nature. After a lengthy introductory piece luring us in, we get the breezy false start of the breakfast scene before the main ‘story’ begins. This consists of short chapters, four or five pages at a time, the last sentence of each one becoming the first sentence of the next section, and thus dragging us onward. For the most part, there’s a fevered, confessional nature to the work, and the narrator speaks to the reader as if to a friend (or a therapist). It’s not always easy to take in what she’s talking about, but while each section takes time to digest, the nature of the structure urges you to keep reading anyway.
Even so, it’s maddeningly slow-going at times, occasionally cheekily so, as the writer takes her time:
Having decided to begin with the maid’s room, I crossed the kitchen that leads to the service area. At the end of the service area is the hallway to the maid’s room. First, though, I leaned against the wall in the hallway to finish a cigarette. (p.26)
Of course, Lispector paces the story perfectly, allowing us to feel the narrator’s pain and confusion, and this is enhanced by the use of language. There’s a sense of deliberate awkwardness, with words and ideas repeated within sentences, along with slightly awkward syntax and structural choices. Novey has done an excellent job in bringing across the pace and awkwardness of the text, and in her brief Translator’s Note, she discusses a few of her dilemmas, wishing she’d had the opportunity to ask the writer about some of these choices…
While it’s not the easiest of works to get your head around, it all makes for an absorbing, enthralling reading experience, but one question remains: are we reading The Passion According to G.H. or the gospel according to C.L.? Is Lispector revealing some hidden truth of existence?
Listen, there’s something called human sainthood, and which is not that of the saints. I’m afraid that not even the God understands that human sainthood is more dangerous than divine sainthood, that the sainthood of the laity is more painful. (p.135)
No, I don’t know what it means either. I suppose I’ll have to read it again at some point…