Tag Archives: Clarice Lispector

Joy and Freedom: More Thoughts on Pilgrimage

It’s intimidating to try to write anything coherent or thoughtful about a book like Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. The magnitude and depth of the narrative and language is impossible to capture in any sort of post, no matter the length. But one thought that keeps coming to my mind as I read about Miriam’s journey is how greatly I admire her because as a woman living in the early twentieth century, she defies many of the expectations placed upon her because of gender. She isn’t looking for a husband, she doesn’t necessarily want children, she supports herself financially and she lives on her own. I’ve always been fiscally independent and haven’t relied on a spouse for monetary stability;  from a very young age I assumed that I would have my own career and I also think it’s an important example to set for my daughter whom I am raising with the same outlook. But I can’t imagine striving for what Miriam calls this kind of “freedom” in the early 20th century when all of the females around her, including her sisters, depend on marriage for personal, economic support.

Richardson’s protagonist does make several attempts to be successful at one of the few professions open to women in 1915, that of teaching.  After the German finishing school which is described in “Pointed Roofs”, Miriam also takes a position as an instructor in a small boarding school in North London, which she finds exhausting and depressing.  When Miriam resides in the country home of the Currie’s as their governess, her surroundings are more peaceful and her job is easier, but she still doesn’t feel that she is truly free.

It’s not until the fourth chapter in Miriam’s story, “The Tunnel”, that she feels true joy and happiness because of her free life in London.  She has a demanding job as a secretary in the office of a busy dentist, for which position she earns one pound a week.  This allows her to rent a room which, although is small and shabby, is entirely her own space; for the first time in her life she experiences bliss in the deliberate choice of living in solitude.  I find myself cheering for Miriam and eagerly reading each and every page of her story to see what decisions, as an independent woman, she will make next.

What makes Richardson’s text so brilliant is the layers of imagery that she builds in order to demonstrate Miriam’s challenge of traditional, gender roles.  For instance, Miriam decides to take up smoking cigarettes, which at the time is considered a distinctly masculine habit.  While rolling her father’s cigarettes she surreptitiously smokes one and thoroughly enjoys the little buzz that she feels.  When she is a governess at the Currie’s she boldly plays billiards and smokes with the men while the other ladies who are guests at the house sit quietly nearby and gossip.  And into the narrative of “The Tunnel” Richardson carries the image of Miriam as smoker to extend the idea that she is challenging traditional gender roles.  When she is trying on knickers and a new hat she is admiring her different look while she is smoking.  A line from Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva kept coming to mind in these various scenes with Miriam smoking as she takes new, additional steps in her life toward independence: “I want the vibration of happiness.  I want the impartiality of Mozart.  But I also want inconsistency.  Freedom? it’s my final refuge.  I forced myself to freedom and I bear it not like a talent but with heroism: I’m heroically free.  And I want the flow.”  The subtleties of language, nuances of words and flickering of images in the writing compels me to read Pilgrimage with a slowness and deliberation that few other books have warranted.

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Filed under British Literature, Classics

I’m Heroically Free: Água Viva by Clarice Lispector

I brought along a copy of Clarice Lispector’s  Água Viva with me on my beach vacation last week thinking that a book whose title can be translated as “living water” or “jellyfish” would be quite fitting.  I quickly realized that Lispector’s book, although a mere 86 pages, would take me some time to read and fully absorb.  I had to approach this text as I would a dense, meditative, philosophical volume of poetry, something to be digested slowly, one small piece at a time.

This book is nearly impossible to critique, but on a the most basic level it can be described as an unnamed narrator attempting to capture her thoughts about intense, philosophical topics such as time, life and death.  She tells us that up until this point she was engaged in painting but has put down her paint brush and taken up her pen and typewriter instead.  Throughout the text she is acutely aware of her process and oftentimes returns to discussions of painting and music and the similarities among all of these art forms.  She is also very fond of describing things in nature—flowers, a turtle, cats, a cave, oysters, the sea are all beautifully described as she experiences them.  The narrator seems to be addressing a lover but so much of the text reads like a personal meditation that the text could very well have been written as a meditation to the author herself.  But, as so often happens with this book, just when we think we grasp her meaning, she reaches for another topic which may or may not be connected.

I noticed during my first time reading through the text that the words free and freedom appeared quite a few times.  I kept this in mind as I read Água Viva  through a second time and had a very different experience than my first encounter.  I actually went back and counted and found she uses the words free or freedom sixty times in this short narrative. The title of her book, which evokes images of the ocean, is especially fitting because of the freedom and weightlessness we feel when swimming in the open sea.  In addition, the narrator’s unstructured writing frees her from the constraints of a traditional narrative and she often returns to a discussion of her process throughout her text:

A new era, this my own, and it announces me right away.  Am I brave enough? For now I am because I come from the suffering afar. I come from the hell of love but now I am free of you.  I come from afar—from a weighty ancestry.  I who come from the pain of living. And I no longer want it.  I want the vibration of happiness  I want the impartiality of Mozart.  But I also want inconsistency.  Freedom? it’s my final refuge.  I forced myself to freedom and I bear it not like a talent but with heroism: I’m heroically free.  And I want the flow.

But her interest in freedom goes much deeper than the form, or lack of form, that her writing takes.  The narrator’s existential crisis is being worked out on the pages before us in an attempt at self-knowledge that will make her free.  As I read through her text I was also reminded of the many factors in our lives that make us feel chained down, not free—clearly defined gender roles, time, space, love.  Love, in particular, seems to threaten her freedom on more than one occasion.  But she  always writes her way out of her restraints and embraces her freedom.  I will end with a few of the passages in which she contemplates this freedom:

To remake myself and remake you I return to my state of garden and shadow, cool reality, I barely exist and if I exist it’s with delicate caution.  Around the shadow is a heat of abundant sweat.  I’m alive.  But I feel that I have yet to reach my limits, borders with what? without borders, the adventure of dangerous freedome.  But I take risks, I live taking risks.

Yes, this is life seen by life.  But suddenly I forget how to capture whatever is happening, I don’t know how to capture whatever exists except by living here each thing that arises and no matter what it is: I am almost free of my errors.  I let the free horse run fiery.  I, who trot nervously and only reality delimits me.

And suddenly I feel that we shall soon part.  My frightened truth is that I was always yours alone and didn’t know it.  Now I know; I’m alone.  I and my freedom that I don’t know how to use.  Great responsibility of solitude.  Whoever isn’t lost doesn’t know freedom and love it.

 

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Filed under Literature in Translation, Portugese Literature