Hour of the Star – Clarice Lispector

First published in 1977 in Portuguese

I totally forgot that August was WITmonth or Women in Translation Month, but I did actually read the right books. I read Lispector’s Hour of the Star, and I just finished Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.

Clarice Lispector seems to be the go-to author for women in translation books. This is my first time reading her work. Unfortunately I didn’t like it as much as I expected to. It made me think whether my problem is with works translated from Portuguese in general. Perhaps the language just does not translate very well to English. The last book I read translated from Portuguese was The Book of Chameleons, and despite the fact that the two authors come from different countries (Agualusa is from Angola, Lispector from Brazil), and of different gender (while we’re talking about it), I had quite similar problems with the 2 books.

In Hour of the Star Lispector uses a narrator to tell the story of Macabéa, a simple, poor girl. Some readers mentioned their problem with the passive character or the simplistic story, but for me it’s not that. I didn’t like the writing style. It is very odd sounding, punctuated with nonsense words and sentences, and words in parentheses (example: “(explosion)” which is sprinkled liberally, and I didn’t get the purpose of). I did not enjoy reading it, and I was very much aware that I was reading a translated book.

The translator’s notes of my Penguin edition gives a bit of an insight into the challenges of translating the book. According to him, it doesn’t only sound odd in English, but also in Portuguese!

“Because no matter how odd Clarice Lispector’s prose sounds in translation, it sounds just as unusual in the original. … Clarice Lispector’s weird choices, strange syntax, and lack of interest in the conventional grammar produces sentences – often fragments of sentences – that veer toward abstraction without ever quite reaching it.” – Translator’s Afterword

Benjamin Moser goes on for 3 pages about how difficult it is to translate Lispector’s books, while arguing at the same time that it does not mean they’re untranslatable – as “they are not littered with regionalisms, slang, puns, or inside jokes. Her meaning is almost always perfectly clear.” While I appreciate the challenges, I’m not sure if it does much for me as a reader.

The Book of Chameleons also uses a narrator to tell a story (a gecko in its case). I kept wondering while reading Hour of the Star, whether the narrator in the book was also some sort of fly-on-the-wall animal or spirit. We know the gender is male, because he said that this story needs to be told by a male writer. “.. a woman would make it all weepy and maudlin.” – p6. (Is that sarcasm by Lispector?) I just found him annoying, and it gives an extra layer that distanced me even further from the real character of the story. I failed to connect emotionally with any aspect of the book.

Saying that I’d probably try another book by Lispector, just because they’re short. Biblibio seems to have the same reaction with me in regards to Hour of the Star, but she ended up liking her short stories. I can see why. I don’t feel the experimental writing style sustainable for a long period of time – I was already struggling with 70ish pages. Longer than that would’ve been frustrating. It might work better for short stories. Tony also recently posted about The Passion According to G.H., the book that I initially thought of reading next, but it sounds quite similar in style with Hour of the Star, confirming I should jump onto her short stories next instead.

Mee’s rating: 3/5

Clarice Lispector (1920-1977)
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