Clarice Lispector & Caetano Veloso: Fascination with Language

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Clarice Lispector
Clarice Lispector

There is a new book of complete stories by Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector  (1920–1977) that was recently featured in the New York Times Book Review. Most people don’t know about her, though they might have heard a song sung by Caetano Veloso called “Clarice.”    It was written by Capinam.

At first I thought maybe this song was about Lispector;  as it turns out, however, Clarice is a common name and that there are many Clarises in Brazil, so Caetano’s song is not about her.  The two artists, however, have things in common.  Caetano, along with Gilberto Gil, created Tropicália, a music movement from 1968 that not only diverted music away from the apolitical bossa nova, but also scandalized the dictatorship and got him thrown out of the country.  He has written and recorded countless songs and dozens of album since then.  Caetano loves surrealism, automatic writing and concrete poetry, and is always inventing and experimenting with language.   This was true of Lispector as well.  Clarice was unique in her sometimes visionary writing style, but only became appreciated after her death at 56 in 1977.

Lispector’s life and writing mirrored the sadness, anguish, and alienation of another much more famous Jewish writer, Franz Kafka.  During the anti-semitic pogroms in Ukraine after the Russian Revolution, family members were murdered and her mother was raped by Russian soldiers and infected with syphilis.  Her father lost his work and social standing.  The well-to-do middle class family lost all its money.   The family made a harrowing escape, through Moldova and the Balkans and eventually arrived in Recife, Brazil, half a world away.  Her mother died just a few years later, from the effects of the venereal disease she contracted from rape. Her father never found his footing again.

In Brazil she met and married a young lawyer who eventually became a diplomat.  Her life became one of privilege as she globe-trotted the world on his various postings.  She became the dutiful socialite and charming hostess of various parties and other social affairs.  Her writings, however, reflect a different side.  She left this life and her husband and returned to Brazil.  Part of her later sadness involves fading beauty and the loss of her allure.   She became addicted to sleeping pills and once fell asleep in bed while smoking.   The fire disfigured most of her body.

Hour of the StarI remember Caetano mentioning her in his autobiography, but I also remember her from a remarkable 1985 film  “Hour of the Star,”  based on her novel that was published just after her death in 1977 . The film is about a poorly-educated country bumpkin who moves to Rio to live a lonely single life as a typist. She doesn’t know much about personal hygiene, but after a visit to a fortune teller, she is told that she will meet a handsome man who will sweep her off her feet. Although this turns out to be a false hope, the illusion keeps her going. The film was nominated for several awards, and I was very taken by it when I watched it 30 years ago. It’s one of those films that I’m afraid to revisit lest it be a case of disappointment and a “what was I thinking” moment.

Anyhow, years ago, I reviewed Veloso’s autobiography, Verdade Tropical or Tropical Truth, for the LA Times Book Review. They ran it as the cover story, “The Boy from Ipanema.”  I remember being annoyed by the book’s pretentiousness, and especially by Veloso’s being so enamored by the surrealistic films of Glauber Rocha, especially Terra em Transe, which I once attempted to watch until I couldn’t fathom five minutes of it. I found it similar to some of Yoko Ono’s performance art (lighting matches for 24 hours in a 1955 performance piece), or some of Lispector’s writing that is mentioned in Terrence Rafferty’s  recent New York Times book review. I’m probably not alone in my disaffection for these types of works, though many will probably disagree with me.

For instance here is an excerpt from Lispector’s story, “The Egg and the Chicken,” quoted from Rafferty’s review:

Why This World“In the morning in the kitchen on the table I see the egg…seeing the egg is impossible…the egg is supervisible just as there are supersonic sounds. No one can see the egg. Does the dog see the egg? Only machines see the egg. The construction crane sees the egg. When I was ancient an egg landed on my shoulder…”
Etc., ad nauseum. Did she write this with a planchette?  This isn’t a bad translation, but it just seems pretty loopy to me. Her fans will disagree: they have called her the Brazilian Franz Kafka.

For those of you curious to learn more about her, there is the biography, Why This World, by Benjamin Moser, that was published in 2012.

The lyrics to Caetano Veloso’s “Clarice.”

Há muita gente apagada pelo tempo 
Nos papéis desta lembrança que tão pouco me ficou 
Igrejas brancas, luas claras nas varandas 
Jardins de sonho e cirandas, foguetes claros no ar 
Que mistério tem Clarice 
Que mistério tem Clarice 
Pra guardar-se assim tão firme, no coração 
Clarice era morena como as manhãs são morenas 
Era pequena no jeito de não ser quase ninguém 
Andou conosco caminhos de frutas e passarinhos 
Mas jamais quis se despir entre os meninos e os peixes 
Entre os meninos e os peixes, entre os meninos e os peixes do rio, do rio 
Que mistério tem Clarice 
Que mistério tem Clarice 
Pra guardar-se assim tão firme, no coração 
Tinha receio do frio, medo de assombração 
Um corpo que não mostrava feito de adivinhações 
Os botões sempre fechados, Clarice tinha o recato de convento e procissão 
Eu pergunto o mistério que mistério tem Clarice 
Pra guardar-se assim tão firme, no coração 
Soldado fez continência, o coronel reverência 
O padre fez penitência, três novenas e uma trezena 
Mas Clarice era a inocência, nunca mostrou-se a ninguém 
Fez-se modelo das lendas, fez-se modelo das lendas 
Das lendas que nos contaram as avós 
Que mistério tem Clarice 
Que mistério tem Clarice 
Pra guardar-se assim tão firme, no coração 
Tem que um dia amanhecia e Clarice 
Assistiu minha partida chorando pediu lembranças 
E vendo o barco se afastar de Amaralina 
Desesperadamente linda, soluçando e lentamente 
E lentamente despiu o corpo moreno 
E entre todos os presentes 
Até que seu amor sumisse 
Permaneceu no adeus chorando e nua 
Para que a tivesse toda 
Todo o tempo que existisse 
Que mistério tem Clarice 
Que mistério tem Clarice 
Pra guardar-se assim tão firme, no coração

here is the translation:  i hope it’s not a case of “poetry lost in translation” as the old saying goes:

There are a lot of people
Erased by the time
On the papers of this memory
That so little stayed with me
White churches
Light moons on the verandes
Dream gardens and cirandas*
light rockets on the air
What mistery does Clarice have
What mistery does Clarice have
To keep herself so strong, in the heart
Clarice was a brunette
Like the mornings are brunettes
was small in the sense
of being of almost nobody
She walked with us through paths
of fruits and little birds
But never wanted to undress herself
between the boys and the fish
between the boys and the fish
between the boys and the fish
from the river, from the river
What mistery does Clarice have
What mistery does Clarice have
To keep herself so strong, in the heart
She feared the cold
fear of ghosts
A body that didn’t show
made of guessing
The buttons always closed
Clarice had modesty
of convent and procession
I ask what is the mistery
What mistery does Clarice have
To keep herself so strong, in the heart
Soldier saluted
Colonel bowed
the priest did a penance
three novenas and a trezena
But Clarice
was the innocence
Never showed herself to anyone
Made herself a model of the legends
Made herself a model of the legends
of the legends tha our grandmothers told us
What mistery does Clarice have
What mistery does Clarice have
To keep herself so strong, in the heart
So in a day
the sun would rise
And Clarice watched me leave
Crying asked for souvenirs
And seeing the boat going far from Amaralina
Desperately pretty, weeping and slowly
and slowly undressed her dark skinned body
and between all the gifts
until her love disappeared
She stayed on the goodbye crying and naked
So she’d have all
all the time that existed
What mistery does Clarice have
What mistery does Clarice have
To keep herself so strong, in the heart

(Taken from http://lyricstranslate.com/en/clarice-clarice.html#ixzz3hxt2mKSZ)

A trailer for Hour of the Star, followed by an interview with Clarice Lispector.

below isA trailer for Rocha’s surrealistic last film, A Idade da Terra (1980)

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