Matryoshka: two or three words on a travel notebook

Penworthy: thin notebook, fits in the palm of the hand, 17cm x 10.5cm and 58 pages. On the cover in cursive handwriting, and apparently with some pride, there is the name she assumed after being married: Clarice Gurgel Valente. As of January 23, 1943, Clarice Lispector would sign her name this way, full-time wife of the diplomat Maury Gurgel Valente who, that year, was appointed to serve as vice consul in Naples. The spouse will cross oceans right in the middle of the war to meet him in Italy. The trip lasts from July 19 to August 24, that is, more than a month in transit, in a state of travel, of expectation, of longing, of restlessness, and of anxiety. Tania, my dear sister, I love you.

It is her first international trip, straight to the unknown. Countries, people, marital status, the future unknown. Excited thoughts, through her eyes everything is new, everything is new, everything is – what goes through the body that it is not possible to share with the other? “What others are to the ascetic in a community, the notebook is to the recluse,” teaches Foucault. One writes, therefore, to relieve thought.

Coming to light in 2012 (prior to this it was under the care of the principal heir), the travel notebook is quite unique compared to the documents already known to researchers, editors and readers.

Penworthy overlaps different times. Sitting somewhere in Liberia, July 31, 1944, late at night, Clarice describes the experience of that day which she spent in still untouched villages of black people: “With the journalist Ana Kipper, the captain David Crockett, and Bill Young, I went to the black villages, Tallah, Kebbe, Sasstown”. She recalls what she did, what was said, what she saw. The booklet as a platform that keeps things from oblivion.

Liberia, Fisherman’s Lake, July 31, 1944

With the journalist Ana Kipper, the captain David Crockett,8 and Bill Young, I went to the black villages of Tallah, Kebbe, and Sasstown. Black women with bare breasts in villages where missionaries have not arrived. They work for the Americans and speak a little English (in Monrovia there are 24 or 25 dialects). They suddenly say: hello! They love to wave goodbye. I saw a young woman with very beautiful breasts. But most of them, still young, have large and sagging breasts. They are clean and healthy. But some children [14] have navels as big as oranges. A black man, to whom I had said goodbye and given a prolonged smile, on purpose, was enchanted and put his hand on his [erased].9 The young black women paint their faces with cream-colored strokes and their lower lips with a cream-colored paint. One of them asked for my shoes. Another, whose little boy was pleased by me, said: Baby nice, baby cry money. One of the guys gave her a nickel, she said: baby cry big money. One said something long and complicated. I saw that it was about me and she was laughing. (they laugh with great ease, but some are sad and even their laughter is one of humility and fascination.) I ask one of them, who spoke English, what she had said: he tried to summarize, finally saying: that you are fine, she likes you. They asked about my headscarf. I took it off to teach them how to put it on and when they saw my hair, they became serious and attentive.

Until Clarice interrupts the text and returns (returns?). “The missionary is talking about something with Ana Kipper.”- the gerund indicates that while recording the visit to the village, an episode parallel to the narrative and perhaps relevant was happening right there in front of her.

This return is somewhat cruel. How to go back, have dinner, go to the cinema, and move on? How not to turn inside out? Cinema will always be boring, dinner  lackluster. This return-no return recalls the story of the character Ana herself, from the short story “Love.” How to return home, to the children, to the husband, to make dinner, after having seen a blind man chewing gum? How to reorganize the room, clean up, after noticing and eating the cockroach? How to be happy dressed in pink at the Recife Carnival if the mother is dying?

Don’t return.

Clarice in that situation, that village of black people, would be just another tourist who would leave some money for the mother of the child who begs for “big money.” That episode for Clarice would be the impulse to compose the short story “The Smallest Woman in the World” (Family Ties, 1960 – “At that moment, Little Flower scratched herself where no one scratches.”), “Africa” (Foreign Legion, 1964) and “Corças negras” [Black Does] (Jornal do Brasil, April 5,1969). That is, twenty years would pass and the Fisherman’s Lake episode would not fail to echo.

The distance in time, in this case decades, is the right measure to join a biographical episode to a poetic text that serves to expand the fictional text. Biography intimately implicated in production.

Penworthy not only stands out from the other archival documents, but also escapes more technical archival definitions. Notebooks are common, like those of the Minas Gerais poet Paulo Mendes Campos and the study of the Russian language, and other manuscripts or typescripts for literary purposes. The normative classification, however, does not exactly fit the travel notebook. Is it a personal document? Yes, it holds very precise, informative data, accounts, and addresses. Is it an intellectual production? Yes, it holds excerpts that would be used in novels, short stories, and chronicles. Is it a planner? Yes, it contains dates, times, phone numbers, and appointments.

According to Louys Hay, there are two types of notebooks: diaries and work instruments. While the first are made up of notes whose referential space and temporality are defined by the clock and the calendar, the latter are dedicated almost exclusively to linguistic studies and experiments, the elaboration of phrases, titles, essays, and a list of proper names.

Although in the world of words no classification has an absolute value, Penworthy has both attributes, but it is a third type. This notebook would seem to be a composite, a genre that mixes the ephemeral and the essential, everyday events and literary projects, fragments of forms or ideas.

There are, in these writings, which have not yet passed, and will not pass, through the knife’s blade of the other – and this other can be the reader, the public, or the market -, there are energy expenditures in these hand gestures that do not correspond to any apprehended model. It may be a gain for the field of literature studies to think of this material not from the point of view of a certain curiosity regarding the erasure or which word the author has omitted – a very common approach to genetic criticism.

It may be a gain for the field of literature studies to think that a notebook retains the agitations of the body.

And to ask what language is that which serves both the author and the woman, the tourist, the wife of a diplomat? What language is this, the only possible and familiar presence in the face of an unknown world – Liberia, Portugal, Italy? How many folds can language make in the service of such and such a situation? The vernacular choreography in which an extremely utilitarian language and literary language converge on the same page?

A thousand folds. Matryoshka.

Dealing with this type of writing – that of writing in notebooks – means raising it to the category of a text that dialogues with experiences and events without repressing the documentary value and status of a literature that is inscribed there.

It is precisely in this writing medium, in this thin notebook, without, at first glance, robust literary content and disengaged from existing archival categories, that one finds a fundamental reading of not only geographical displacements, but, above all, of literary and personal displacements.

The notebook was described and its contents are available for reading here.

50 years of The Mystery of the Thinking Rabbit

Written in the 1950s, during the period in which she lived in Washington, The Mystery of the Thinking Rabbit was the first children’s book written by Clarice Lispector. After a question by her son Paulo – “Why do you only write books for adults? Not for children?” – the text, initially not intended for release, was written in English and shelved until 1967, when it was published by José Álvaro.

The narrator in The Mystery of the Thinking Rabbit is named Paulo, which evokes the name of Clarice’s son and will strengthen the close ties with the reader, since the narrative is constructed like an intimate conversation, where the one who listens/reads is constantly engaged.  

The plot focuses on Joãozinho the rabbit, who smelled of ideas, and invents a way to leave his cage when there is no food. The humans notice and do not forget to feed him. Nonetheless, the rabbit wants much more than what the humans offer him, and his life comes to be “eat well and escape, and always with a beating heart.” More than for the adventure, the rabbit had acquired a taste for freedom, and it is outside the cage that he really manages to be a thinking rabbit.   

According to Rosa Gens, “Lispector’s poetics is evident in the fluid plot, in the doubts and inquiries, in the presence of a narrator who is always together with the reader and does not know all the answers, allowing the doubt to be prolonged. Mystery narratives commonly lead the reader to investigate clues, elaborate solutions, solve enigmas. In Clarice Lispector’s writing, the mystery is different. It does not concern an enigma related to facts, only the possibility of pretending to be a rabbit, of climbing into someone else’s skin, of thinking from different angles. In the text, which emphasizes fantasy and imagination, playing and thinking provide the tone, and the contamination between rabbit and human, emphasized at the end of the narrative, makes way for the marvelous.”      

A book only for those who like rabbits, according to Clarice Lispector, who moreover asks adults for a little patience and understanding for the many questions that cannot be answered in rabbit terms.  

Original cover for The Mystery of the Thinking Rabbit, 1st edition

I’m Talking From My Grave

1.

In the year that completes four decades since the release of her last title, The Hour of the Star (1977), the work of Clarice Lispector continues to fully propagate. The book that tells the story of Macabéa – “the story of a girl who was so poor that all she ate was hot dogs (…) it’s the story of a trampled innocence, of an anonymous misery” –, for example, is among the three best sellers in Greece, even surpassing the contemporary Elena Ferrante.

2.

In February of 1977, months before her death, the author visited the studios of TV Cultura, Channel 2, in São Paulo, for a debate and accepted the invitation to be interviewed by the journalist Júlio Lerner, host of the program “Panorama Especial” – this would be her only audiovisual record, which, upon Clarice’s request, would air only after her death, on December 28th at 8:30 in the evening. We reproduce here the complete interview followed by a text written by Júlio Lerner.

3.

4.

From my office at the production of “Panorama” to the studio lobby I have to walk about 150 meters. I am so stunned at the possibility of interviewing her that I can barely organize myself on that short walk. Maybe talk about The Passion According to G.H.… Or who knows, about The Apple in the Dark and Near to the Wild Heart… I call to mind what Clarice has written. Have I read everything? In just five minutes I managed to get a studio to interview her.

It’s 4:15 in the afternoon and I only have half an hour. At 5pm the children’s program goes on live and I have to free up the studio fifteen minutes prior. I’m rushing and before even seeing her the time pressure starts to slaughter me. I won’t be able to prepare anything beforehand, or even talk a little. I won’t even be able to try to create a suitable atmosphere for the interview. I hate Brazilian TV! Just half an hour to listen to Clarice. The technical staff once again was generous and worked hard to make this happen. I look at the clock, I’m not able to get organized, I’m rushing, I look at the clock again. I’m disconcerted, I reach the studio lobby and see her there, ten meters ahead, Clarice standing next to a friend, lost in the midst of the disassembled sets, various equipment, and technicians who speak loudly, in the middle of a great uproar.

I stop in front of her. I’m a little out of breath, I reach out my hand, and I’m pierced by the most unprotected look a human being can throw at a fellow human. She’s fragile, she’s shy, and I’m unable to explain that the problem of time has raised my level of anxiety. Clarice introduces me to Olga Borelli, we enter, and I lead her to the center of the small studio. I ask her to sit in a creamed coffee-colored leather armchair. Clarice holds only a pack of Hollywood cigarettes and a box of matches. I provide an ashtray. The damned spotlights are turned on. Clarice looks at me. Clarice’s eyes interrogate me. I have only one camera. Clarice’s eyes plead, Olga settles in an unlit area, Miriam, the program’s intern, arrives and remains huddled and silent, the heat is getting unbearable and the air-conditioning is not adjusted. It’s only 4:20, Clarice tries to tell me something but I don’t talk to her, worried about adjusting a lighting issue, the breath of the furnace already reaches all of us, it must be 50 or 60 degrees Celsius in the studio, cursed TV, blessed Third World TV that allows me to be face to face with her now. Clarice looks at me squeamish, frightened, and her look asks me to reassure her.

“OK, Júlio, all set,” the metallic voice comes from the loudspeaker. I ask the entire team to leave, camera assistant, gaffer, studio assistant, thanks. Clarice realizes she’s fallen into a trap and there’s no turning back. I request silence and after about 10 seconds “recording” echoes.

We haven’t spoken before and I have only 23 minutes. I’m completely disconcerted, I remain silent for a minute, staring at Clarice. I’m hollow, empty, I don’t know what to say. Clarice looks at me, curiously but watchfully, defensive. I’m the lord of the castle and — arrogant — hold the key to this prison. No one can enter or exit without my express consent. Everyone must submit to my authoritarian will.

The furnace is burning, my heart is racing, my mouth is dry, and underneath these thousand tyrannical suns I’m the greatest of tyrants. The interview starts. The interview progresses. Her ocean-blue eyes reveal loneliness and sadness. Clarice is naked, there’s no forgiveness. Clarice is now cloaked, she lets herself be held, but soon she escapes, and returns, and catches me, and suggests to me the distant, the unspeakable, and then does not speak. And when I don’t expect any more, she speaks again. I do an anti-interview, pauses, silences. Clarice is now fleeing to an uninhabited, unreachable galaxy, but then she returns and, tolerant, supports all my limitations.

I think she’ll get up at any moment and say: “Enough!” Clarice senses that behind my seemingly comprehending smile and my smooth talk lurks a diabolical being who is a self-styled “reporter” and who wants to possess her private life. Her body expresses fears, she pulls away from me, but again attracts me, her legs cross and uncross unceasingly and telegraph that suddenly she will be able to get up and leave.