Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star
By Sarah Kruse
At the novel’s start, the unusual narrator tells the reader, “I want to accept my freedom without reaching the conclusion like so many others: that existence is only for fools and lunatics: for it would seem that to exist is illogical.” As we read, we are constantly interrupted by such illocutions. The novel does not progress but comes to a halt, and the narrator does not tell us about the lives of the characters but about the act of writing the characters, early on swearing “that this book is composed without words: like a mute photograph. This book is a silence: an interrogation.”
But how does one write without words? The self-reflexivity of the novel is one of Lispector’s strengths—her mastery lies not in the simplicity of the characters, but in the odd, at times awkward interjections of the narrator. The reader is continually reminded that the characters do not exist, that they are not real, and yet the question of reality and existence is at the same time of crucial importance for Macabéa. The tension found in this reflexivity is the “failure” of the novel, which exists in the space between doubt and affirmation, life and death.
There is a gradual kind of consciousness Macabéa comes to over the course of The Hour of the Star, but it is a consciousness that only comes to fruition in the moment of her death—a consciousness that dawns on her gradually, through what others tell her. At “clairvoyant” Madam Carlota’s, Macabéa, in response to Carlota’s question of whether she is frightened of words, replies, “Yes, Madame, I am.” Her simplicity and refusal to partake in the world aligns her with the narrator who, near the novel’s end, declares, “If I continue to write, it’s because I have nothing more to accomplish in the world except to wait for death.” Writing is given attention not because of what it conveys, but because it inhabits a space. We are told that Macabéa’s “thoughts were gratuitous and unconnected because, however erratic, she possesses vast reserves of inner freedom.” It is the unconnected, the aimless, and the emptiness of space that links character and narrator: the banality of existence is also the act of writing.
It is for all the reasons that we might deem Macabéa a failure that she is the real “hero” of the novel. As the narrator tells us:
Yes, I adore Macabéa, my darling Maca. I adore her ugliness and her total anonymity for she belongs to no one. I adore her for her weak lungs and her under-nourished body. How I should like to see her open her mouth and say: ‘I am alone in the world. I don’t believe in anyone for they all tell lies, sometimes even when they’re making love. I find that people don’t really communicate with each other. The truth comes to me only when I am alone.’ Maca, however, never expressed herself in sentences.
The narrator and the character eventually become one, because the illusion of separation perhaps belongs to the convention of narration itself:
I should like to add some details about the young girl and myself; we live exclusively in the present because forever and eternally it is the day of today, and the day of tomorrow will be a today. Eternity is the state of things at this very moment.
The Hour of the Star explores the possibility that to fail is everything. We are born to fall, but this necessary failure is also, perhaps, the beginning of love. Like Simone Weil’s fall between two gravities, failure is the space between two antinomies. Failure is not doubt itself, nor is it death. When we have reached the point where we do not know, when we are beyond doubt and beyond knowledge, we have, in a very peculiar way, failed—“failed” because we no longer choose a dichotomy of understanding. Affirmation itself may be a particular kind of death, just as a one-sided life of doubt is also death. It is in the gravity between the two where we may learn to “fail better.” In the “mute photograph” that is Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, we are asked to read not for what language tells us, but for what exists in the silence of the margin.
Sarah Kruse is a staff writer. In the summer 2013 issue she wrote about Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet.