Cloudy English prose dims Brazilian star
THANKS TO BENJAMIN Moser’s recent biography (reviewed in the JC of September 4), Clarice Lispector is finally on the English-speaking map. The distinguished translator Gregory Rabassa’s new version of her fourth novel, The Apple in the Dark, gives us the opportunity to assess the work of a woman acclaimed as one of the most important Brazilian novelists of the 20th century.
It tells the story of a fugitive named Martin, who leaves an abandoned hotel owned by a mysterious, Fordowning German. He eventually turns up at a farm run by two sisters, Vitoria and Ermelinda, gains employment with them, has an affair with one and is betrayed by the other to the authorities for the crime (its nature disclosed only towards the end) from whose scene he is in flight. Given the thinness of the narrative, it would be wrong to reveal any more.
But it is not the plot that concerns Lispector so much as the ideas, inspired by Kabbalah, for which it is a vehicle. Though Martin is the book’s central figure, he is the least developed of the three major characters. He is a symbol, a version of the mythical golem, the mud figure who cannot speak and becomes a servant ultimately growing stronger than his masters (here mistresses). When we first meet him, he has, in effect, been reduced by his sin to the level of a stone (or, at best, a beast) and needs to relearn the nature of the world, while retaining a mystical grasp of the true essence of objects that lies beneath their given names.
As Martin regains, in a worldly sense, his understanding (a word with negative connotations for Lispector), his sin paradoxically redeems him: “After- wards, when he went out into the light, he would see the things his hand had felt before, and he would see those things with their false names… but he would have known them already in the dark,” one such being the apple of the title.
When a novel’s narrative is subordinate to its ideas, the quality of the writing is of paramount importance. Lispector’s echoes of transcendent Kabbalistic lyricism are expressed in a succinct, musical Portuguese that often fails to translate (which may explain her neglect in English). Rabassa’s translation ranges from unremarkable to ugly and clunking — someone takes “sneaky and crafty advantage of that materialisation of light” or “used to play soccer and made a happy goal”.
Nor is the enterprise helped by inadequate editing and proof-reading that allows Ermelinda suddenly to metamorphose into Ennelinda, “not” to become “riot”, and entire sentences to be rendered incomprehensible. And if anyone can provide me with a definition for “ththi”, I would be grateful.
Clarice Lispector: ideas above plot