Clarice Lispector’s Vortex of Meaning

A new translation of the writer’s rarest novel The Apple in the Dark is a revelation

BY Carlos Valladares in Books , Opinion | 29 SEP 23

‘But now, having removed the layer of words from things, now that he’d lost the language, he was finally standing in the calm profundity of the mystery.’

After encountering the scandalous, miraculous writings of the Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, a new morality becomes visible, one that rejects a surface-level identification with the mirrored self. This new morality, in the dazzling world of Clarice – as her Brazilian disciples refer to her – sets the self at a healthy remove, an odd angle, in order to feel comfortable with the unknown. It’s a realm in which words need not clarify; instead, she takes the reader through a vortex of meanings and contradictions, clashing with each other yet harmonizing upon certain key principles – which, as it turns out in her 1961 novel The Apple in the Dark, are mystery, hope, love.

Until Benjamin Moser’s new translation, Apple has been the most difficult of Clarice’s novels to find in English. Its republication brings a fitting conclusion to New Directions’s project to retranslate all Clarice’s novels for a new English-speaking generation who will now be weaned on her alongside Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Marcel Proust, Marguerite Duras, Katherine Mansfield and the Brontë sisters, her closest siblings. (Her extraordinary collected newspaper columns and children’s books were published in English last year. Now, all that’s left is her correspondence, which already exists in Portuguese and French editions.)

Portrait of Clarice Lispector. Courtesy: New Directions; photograph: Paulo Gurgel Valente

It’s fitting that Apple came last in the project – it takes a bit more getting used to than Clarice’s other novels. If you’re new to her world, I wouldn’t recommend jumping into it – unless you are into cold showers. One of the later novels – An Apprenticeship (1967) or Agua Viva (1971) or The Hour of the Star (1977) – might be a better first read. Apple will ask a lot of you. It’s a descent into madness – the splintering-away of the real in language – without ever becoming mad itself. One can only think so much, whether on a crowded Metro or a Proustian bedroom!

Plot: a man called Martim has committed a crime and is on the run. A Raymond Chandler yarn, this ain’t. His crime is so immense he has been banished from his ‘normal’ life, banished even from the realm of language. He cannot speak. He sits on a rock and crushes a bird, a majestic, weirdly engaging scene that takes nearly 30 pages to describe. He must find the will to speak again.

What was the crime? We don’t know. Maybe he killed someone he loved. Maybe he abandoned them, or they him. Whatever the crime, he rediscovers what it means to say the word ‘crime’ on a secluded ranch overseen by ‘a strong woman’, Vitória, and her cousin Ermalinda, who is nervous and tetchy and falls into a weird love spell with Martim. But it’s not quite love, it’s something both less and more. (Here, Clarice lays the seeds for the manic situationship at the heart of the all-too-relatable An Apprenticeship.) These two women help this man find his tongue again. More than that, though: the women find themselves, independent of the tethers of conventional speech to which society would otherwise doom them. All three of these swirling lost souls come to realize ‘that we are born to love, and then you don’t understand yourself.’

Sudden shifts of pronouns like that are strewn throughout the novel, and they come refreshed by the new translation. Apple has already been translated into English once before – in 1967, by Gregory Rabassa, the grand doyen of Latin American literature who introduced Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez to English-speaking audiences. Indeed, it was the first novel of Clarice’s to appear in English. What has been added to the out-of-print Rabassa translation, of which Clarice herself approved?

Let’s compare. First, read the original Portuguese in which the writer describes the awesome force of Vitória, from the beginning of chapter five:

Vitória era uma mulher tão poderosa como se um dia tivesse encontrado uma chave. Cuja porta, é verdade, havia anos se perdera. Mas, quando precisava, ela podia se pôr instantaneamente em contato com o velho poder.’

Now, here is how it was first translated by Rabassa:

‘Vitória was such a strong woman that somewhere in the past she must have found a key. The door it opened had been lost many years back, of course. But when she needed to, she could bring back her old power at once.’

Finally, here is the new Moser translation:

‘Vitória was a woman as powerful as if she’d one day found a key. Whose door, it’s true, had been lost years before. But, when she needed to, she could place herself instantly in touch with her former power.’

A cursory glance shows how closely the new translation hews to Clarice’s original syntax and punctuation: that comma after the ‘but’ that adds a necessary rhythmic breath (‘But, when she needed to […]’), those weird sentences of hers which, with a period, start and stop where you’re not ‘supposed’ to: ‘a key. Whose door […]’

Clarice Lispector, The Apple in the Dark, cover photo. Courtesy: New Directions​​

Whereas Rabassa elegantly transposes the content of Clarice’s gist to English, easing our understanding, Moser directly transposes the form of her harsh, loopy sentences. To my ear steeped in the other New Directions translations of Clarice’s Portuguese, Moser’s was a smoother read. We need not necessarily prefer one translation over the other. But when we consider an author who wants to look directly at the stuff of life – and, by extension, derange our sense of reality – it’s clear that Moser preserves that volcanic Clarician intensity so central to her Portuguese original. That sudden ‘é verdade.’ The fact that Vitória does not ‘bring back her old power’ (Rabassa) but is rather ‘plac[ing] herself instantly in touch’ with it (Moser).

Apple is Clarice’s longest novel: nearly 400 pages. Compare that to the slim-yet-just-as-packed Agua Viva, an 80-page diamond pressed for seven years. Much of Apple could have been baggy and saggy, but strangely it isn’t. It’s something of a sister-piece to The Passion According to G.H. (1964), except that in Apple, beyond the vague crime, there are no active scenes pushing Martim’s, Vitória’s or Ermalinda’s thoughts forward. Correction: everything pushes them forward, such as the questions why was I cursed to life? How much of myself should I know? Where can I find the words to express the suffering I feel? And if I find those words, will anguish dissipate for the night – for that is all I ask for, I who is so strange to me? Obviously, we get no answers. But the questions feel like they’re being asked in entirely new ways, antiquity and modernity collapsing into each other like failing stars. May we all, after reading The Apple in the Dark, ‘stand in the calm profundity of the mystery.’

Main Image: Clarice Lispector, The Apple in the Dark, cover photo. Courtesy: New Directions

Carlos Valladares is a writer, critic and PhD student in the departments of art history and film at Yale University, New Haven, USA.