The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

The Hour of the Star is a novel you finish and then instantly want to pick up again. Because of this I will undoubtedly wish I had written something else about it by this time next week. Though short, I wanted to fold the corner of almost every page.

The novel follows the life of Macabea, a girl from North-east Brazil like thousands of others ‘to be found in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, living in bedsitters or toiling behind counters for all they are worth. They aren’t even aware of the fact that they are superfluous and that nobody cares a damn about their existence’ (p14). A badly paid and barely literate typist whose family are dead, Macabea exists with little luxury of thought or experience. We follow her as she struggles with work, almost gets a boyfriend and seeks professional advice about her health and her destiny.

Though ostensibly a male authorial narrator, Lispector’s voice remains present in the telling of Macabea’s story. The narrator says that someone else could write about Macabea ‘but it would have to be a man for a woman would weep her heart out’ (14). He continues to write about himself:

‘Prayer was a means of confronting myself in silence away from the gaze of others. As I prayed I emptied my soul – and this emptiness is everything that I can ever hope to possess. Apart from this, there is nothing. But emptiness, too, has its value and somehow resembles abundance. One way of obtaining is not to search, one way of possessing is not to ask; simply to believe that my inner silence is the solution to my – to my mystery.’ (p14)

This emptiness – echoed in a desire for simplicity in the writing – is something that the narrator shares with Macabea: ‘Most of the time, she possessed, without knowing it, the emptiness that replenishes the souls of saints. Was she a saint? It would seem so. The girl didn’t know that she was meditating, for the word meditation was unknown to her. I get the impression that her life was one long meditation about nothingness.’ (p37)

And so, though much has been written about Clarice Lispector being heir to Kafka, it is Flaubert I think of when reading The Hour of the Star. Of course Macabea is anything but a bourgeois Madame Bovary yet her story invokes similar themes in which human beings are forced to face the gratuity of life, are forced to squeeze meaning from the little afforded them.

Macabea confronts life with bravery and faith. In what does she place this faith? ‘It isn’t necessary to have faith in anyone or anything – it is enough to have faith. This often endowed her with a state of grace. For she had never lost faith.’ (p25)

These ideas of faith and saintliness point me even further in the direction of Flaubert, into an aesthetic that juxtaposes harsh experience against religion, myth and the power of story.

‘Remember that, no matter what I write, my basic material is the word. So this story will consist of words that form phrases from which there emanates a secret meaning that exceeds both words and phrases. Like every writer, I am clearly tempted to use succulent terms: I have at my command magnificent adjectives, robust nouns, and verbs so agile that they glide through the atmosphere as they move into action. For surely words are actions? Yes I have no intention of adorning the word, for were I to touch the girl’s bread, that bread would turn to gold – and the girl (she is nineteen years old) the girl would be unable to bite into it, and consequently die of hunger.” (p14-15)

The awareness of the creative act of using and shaping words, the desire to empty the self, the need to put faith in something, align Macabea and Lispector and highlight the writer as someone who is as one with the many millions ‘that nobody cares a damn about’. This is the kind of writing that inspires and humbles me. This is how literature best expresses philosophy and philosophy is best expressed.

The Hour of the Star is a beautiful gem whose many facets can be turned and turned again in an endless play of meaning. Even if you aren’t one for literary novels, you won’t regret reading The Hour of the Star.

Next week I’m reading Across by Peter Handke followed by Carol Topolski’s Monster Love.