Reading Clarice Lispector’s “Água Viva”

by Helen Holmes


Clarice Lispector’s work belongs to the well produced by female writers passed between New York City “literary types” like talismans, or a still-wrapped piece of caramel candy. Hers is the type of prose that makes you want to recommend it to your best friend, or tweet a picture of a particularly vivid passage, or scour one paragraph over and over on a packed subway ride home from Rockaway Beach.

As a collegiate baby reading her for the first time, I can wholeheartedly say that I get the hype. I mean, look at her! I’m joking, but it seems impossible to digest Lispector without knowing what she looks like. These days her face is unavoidable: her Complete Stories were collected and published this year. The spectacle of her portrait as affixed to her writing is deliberate and entirely not her fault. She was fucking stunning. But there I go, I’m part of the problem; addressing the arch of her mean eyebrows and the slice of her cheekbones before I’ve even mentioned her prose, which is tremendous.

I’m tearing through Água Viva, which is a novel and not a novel; an emotional underwater echo that ripples and speeds towards those listening for it. It’s very short. The book works that magic of being shatteringly universal and utterly individual.

I’ve been trying to read the introductions to whatever book I pick up, because college has taught me to contextualize. The introduction to Stefan Tobler’s translation of Água Viva is a goddamn doozy. I’ve never read such a flat-out glamorous tale of how a piece of work was put together. Forever and always, editors are the true heroes.

In Água Viva, Clarice pushed her language as far is it could go without risking incoherence. The book was written in fragments, and Olga Borelli’s editorial method, she wrote, was “breathing together, it’s breathing together.”

Because there is a logic in life, in events, as there is in a book. They follow one another, they must. Since if I took a fragment and wanted to move it further ahead, there wouldn’t be anywhere to put it. It was like a puzzle. I took all the fragments and collected them, kept them in an envelope. On the back of a check, a piece of paper, a napkin…I still have some of these things at home, and some of them still even smell of her lipstick. She would wipe her lips and then stick it in her purse…Suddenly she noted something down. After collecting all these fragments, I started to note, to number them. So it’s not difficult to structure Clarice, or it’s infinitely difficult, unless you commune with her and already are in the habit of reading her.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.