'The Passion According to G.H.' by Clarice Lispector
'My destiny is to search and my destiny is to return empty-handed.'—Review #160
If you were expecting a review of ‘Second Place’ by Rachel Cusk this week, my apologies. I own a digital copy of Cusk’s novel and planned to read it while Donna and I went upstate for a few days to hike and read by a lake. But when we got there, reading on a screen amid trees and wild creatures felt off. Luckily, I also brought a paperback copy of ‘The Passion According to G.H.’ by Brazilian author Clarice Lispector.
Here’s the cover:
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The novel is narrated by G.H., a prominent sculptor, who intends to clean out her former maid’s room. She enters the room and discovers the maid had already emptied it of possessions, but as she inspects a wardrobe, she sees a roach causing her to panic like:
She slams the wardrobe’s door on the insect, trapping it and causing it to endure a slow death. This inspires an existential, metaphysical and spiritual crisis, which G.H. recounts for the rest of the book, including her mystical revelations about the meaning of life, death, love, art and God. And that’s basically the story: A woman tries to kill a bug and has profound insight into the nature of existence.1 But the book is far from simple. The writing is scary good, and I often felt like I was encountering Shakespeare, where I understood all the words but struggled to fully comprehend their meaning and nuance. To show you what I mean, here are some passages I underlined:
Like a woman who never had children but would have them three millennia later, I was already living today from the oil that would gush in three millennia.
Because the God does not promise. He is much greater than that: He is, and never stops being. We are the ones who cannot stand this always present light, and so we promise it for later, just in order not to feel it today, right this very minute. The present is the face today of the God. The horror is that we know that we see God in life itself. It is with our eyes fully open that we see God. And if I postpone the face of reality until after my death—it’s out of guile, because I prefer to be dead when it is time to see Him and that way I think I shall not really see Him, just as I only have the courage to really dream when I sleep.
Reading these again, I’m like:
But I loved it. ‘The Passion According to G.H.’ is beautiful and confounding, and is a book I want to read again. (Actually, I think I want to listen to an audiobook version of it. I want to hear Lispector’s translated sentences aloud.) If you’re up for a challenge, you should read this book.
How it begins:
——————I’m searching, I’m searching. I’m trying to understand. Trying to give what I’ve lived to somebody else and I don’t know to whom, but I don’t want to keep what I lived. I don’t know what to do with what I lived, I’m afraid of that profound disorder. I don’t trust what happened to me. Did something happen to me that I, because I didn’t know how to live it, lived as something else? That’s what I’d like to call disorganization, and I’d have the confidence to venture on, because I would know where to return afterward: to the previous organization. I’d rather call it disorganization because I don’t want to confirm myself in what I lived—in the confirmation of me I would lose the world as I had it, and I know I don’t have the fortitude for another.
If I confirm my self and consider myself truthful, I’ll be lost because I won’t know where to inlay my new way of being—if I go ahead with my fragmentary visions, the whole world will have to be transformed in order for me to fit within it.
I lost something that was essential to me, and that no longer is. I no longer need it, as if I’d lost a third leg that up till then made it impossible for me to walk but that turned me into a stable tripod. I lost that third leg. And I went back to being a person I never was. I went back to having something I never had: just two legs. I know I can only walk with two legs. But I feel the useless absence of that third leg and it scares me, it was the leg that made me something findable by myself, and without even having to look for myself.
‘The Passion According to G.H.’ (A paixão segundo G.H.) was originally published in 1964 by Rocco. The New Directions edition, translated from the Portuguese by Idra Novey, was published in 2012. 189 pages. $14.67 at Bookshop.org.
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Before you go:
Read this: Keeping with the theme of the meaning of life and death, I enjoyed this piece in The New York Times Magazine: ‘Meet the Nun Who Wants You to Remember You Will Die.’ Sister Aletheia, a former punk rock fan who now lives in a Boston convent, is reviving the ‘memento mori,’ or skull imagery meant to remind us that we will die and to make the most of life. I keep one at my work desk. This line stuck with me:
“We try to suppress the thought of death, or escape it, or run away from it because we think that’s where we’ll find happiness,” she said. “But it’s actually in facing the darkest realities of life that we find light in them.”
Watch this: Speaking of punk rock, The Linda Lindas are going to save us all:
ICYMI, part 2: Books on GIF’s virtual 5th anniversary celebration was a lot of fun. Here are the books we discussed. Maybe you’ll put some on your reading list:
Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!
Until next time,
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If this premise seems far-fetched, it isn’t. When Donna and I received the keys to our new apartment, we found that the previous owner had smashed several roaches into the door frames of the kitchen cupboards or drowned them in soap dishes. This inspired us not only to question the fabric of reality, but also to completely gut the kitchen.