Saturday, May 11, 2019

More on Lispector: Not Just a Depiction of Another Victim of Patriarchy

I promised I would return to conclude my reflections when finished, but I am far from feeling conclusive about the last part of Clarice Lispector's The Besieged City, which is to say: it resonates and reverberates and is probably not fathomable. There were more objects and more animals and I became more and more convinced that Lucrecia, the novel's main voice and main eyes, was not merely a cipher for the objectified woman.
Sometimes I wonder if I am reading the same book as other people. I mean, Benjamin Moser's introduction was beautiful and evocative, and it told me many things I did not know, but I just cannot understand how he could characterize Lucrecia in this way or suggest that female objectification is a central theme of the book. Male objectification is just as prevalent as female objectification. And female agency just as prevalent as male in my reading. But not only Moser's introduction, but the New Directions blurb iterates this reading, starting with these words: "Underneath Lispector's inventive, modernist style is a poignant and radical depiction of a young woman navigating a patriarchal society." It is as if the publishers wanted to reduce Lispector's complex and nuanced depiction of female power and powerlessness to a stereotypical narrative of more of the same. How really belittling that is, both to Lispector's vision and to women in general, as if we were that trapped. This seems to be a pattern, and a dangerous one.
What is really in the novel is much more than more of the same. Much more than a depiction of a victim of patriarchy. There is even a whole chapter towards the end when an older woman admires the beauty of one of Lucrecia's former flames, a young man who is barely capable of uttering a simple sentence. Still, he is a "gem"...all because of his beauty. Lucrecia had admired him earlier in the book, saying she doubted she would ever have another chance to have such a beautiful man. Women do make objects of men, too, in and out of literature. Lucrecia, although married by the end of the book, develops a passion for another man and pursues him with quite a lot of agency, despite his attempts to elude her. She also completes her siege of the city which is her alter ego or strange double, noting its progress (due, in her mind, to her own seeing, her own work in constructing it and fostering it). The city develops from a rural outback smelling of stables (with horses) to a modern city of restaurants and street cars (the horses driven out of town). Shall we infer that she too has been civilized, modernized, stripped of her animality and relationship to nature?
Perhaps not. Once these sieges are complete, the other man conquered, her husband dead of a heart attack, Lucrecia is ready to move on to her next conquest, a new husband, perhaps a new city. Hardly a meek object of any reader's predatory desire. As I mentioned in the last post, Lucrecia's vision of the world may not constitute a great work of genius, but she is attempting to take possession and to delineate her world. She is an artist, if not a great one. As Lispector writes in a letter directed to a critic of the novel included at the end of the book, "'The struggle to reach reality--that's the main objective of this creature who tries, in every way, to cling to whatever exists by means of a total vision of things....One of the most intense aspirations of the spirit is to dominate exterior reality through the spirit. Lucrecia doesn't manage to do this--so she 'clings' to that reality, takes as her own life the wider life of the world". And this merging with the world, this self-identification with objects, with the wild horses, and with the modernizing metropolis that will drive away these horses is effected by means of a language that is almost hallucinatory at times. Ecstatic and vivid, sharp and shimmering, as if the terrible distance between word and thing, signifier and signified, seeing and thing seen, symbol and symbolized, observer and observed were--for one fraction of an impossible second--dissolved. This mystical siege of reality by the imagination, written by a woman about a woman's imagination, is much more interesting than just another tale of another helpless victim of patriarchy.


Monday, May 6, 2019

Objects, Animals, and Personhood (Womanhood Especially) in Musil and Lispector

Clarice Lispector. Look at those seeing eyes!
I have been reading Clarice Lispector's novel, The Besieged House, newly translated by Johnny Lorenz and published by New Directions. And this after just being so immersed in my own translations of Musil's two novellas in Unions. All of the stories depict women who are deeply preoccupied with objects, subjectivity, animals, and the sometimes fluid, sometimes rigid boundaries between them. For another essay I was writing, on women who like to look, the good parts of objectification, female mate choice in the animal world, and the animistic vision of things, I had been thinking about all of this for some time, remembering all of the brilliant depictions of objects coming to life in Modernist fiction, objects with trembling boundaries, objects that then play dead or dumb as their suspicious "owners" try to glimpse their fugitive aliveness. Consider Hofmannstahl's famous "Lord Chandos Letter" and his less famous "Letter from One Who Has Returned" (which you can read here in my translation: https://issuu.com/contramundum/docs/hfa___9.1.2015 ), or the things seen dissolving and coming back into form in so many Virginia Woolf novels; consider the gaze of Malte Laurids Brigge in Rilke's novel, the nauseated narrator who is learning to see, or Sartre's Roquentin. In Musil's two novellas in Unions, the objects sometimes mock the fraught women who gaze upon them, sometimes bring comfort in their solidity and seeming unconsciousness (oh, to be an unconscious thing, the women seem to think, without my constant analyzing neuroses!), and in the opening scene in the first novella, they echo the harmony between the married couple in a shimmering almost still-life, its stillness only interrupted by the sound of tea hitting the bottom of a china cup. And for the heroine of Lispector's novel, Lucrecia, who feels she must work very hard to constantly see objects, delineate and name them, keep them in their places, or even to somehow create and recreate them in her dreams, the object world is a constant obsession. Since this is a blog and not an academic paper, I am not going to bother to furnish examples from the texts. Believe me, they are there. Find them yourselves if you just graze the pages!
     Animals, too, are essential to the women in these stories, most obviously to Veronica in the second novel in Musil's Unions and to Lucrecia in Lispector's novel, but also to Claudine of "The Completion of Love," whose reflections often turn to animal metaphors, and to the question of animal consciousness/unconsciousness, and to the sometimes tenuous and even dissolved boundary between human and animal desire. Lucrecia's animals are horses, and she imagines at times that she herself is a horse, walking on hooves. Veronica, of course, concentrates on some chickens copulating before her eyes and a memory of a beloved dog, but general animal metaphors are rife, as she wishes she could be like an animal, simply doing things (particularly erotic or maybe violent things) without consciousness, compunction, or social awareness or consequence.
    What is going on here? Why all these objects, why these animals? And what could it all have to do with the other concerns (philosophical, erotic, narrative, aesthetic, social) of these works of fiction? Reading Lispector has helped me to clarify some presentiments that were haunting me in Unions. Benjamin Moser, who edited The Besieged City and wrote its introduction, opines that Lucrecia represents the objecthood of women in Lispector's novel, that Lispector is embodying Simone de Beauvoir's concept of the objectified woman who is seen but does not see. Strange that he says this, since most of the novels pages are filled with Lucrecia seeing! Yes, she is orchestrating her role and her pose as a woman in a world where her attractiveness is important to her identity, but she is much more. She is the agent and the subject of her own objectivity and the objectivity of the world, the city, the people and things around her. She is, in fact, an artist of her world, not necessarily a good one or a successful one, but her self-appointed task is to see and to create the city and herself, so they may be seen by others. That is the work of an artist. And the creation of a woman writer, who herself is doing just that. Just as many readers might see Claudine, of Musil's "The Completion of Love" as an object of the predatory male gaze, helpless and victimized, I see her as an agent of her own desires, who is engaged in a quest to discover her self through a risky experiment. She gives her self or at least her body to men to test her own boundaries, to find her self and to "complete" the very strong love she has for her husband. She is not a victim, but a woman experimenting with the boundaries of her own autonomy by transgressing them.
    Lucrecia is a virgin and for her everything is still frustratingly held at bay. She feels the space between self and other person and other thing almost painfully. I feel that something in her longs for and is terrified of being besieged, being displaced by another's presence in her body and mind. A man inside one's body and mind tends to push one's self out of the way (not to mention a baby, which literally sucks a mother's consciousness and life-blood!), or at least to fill up a great deal of who one is. To become one with another person is both an eclipse of and an expansion of self (in "The Completion," the narrator suggests that by merging together Claudine and her husband cut off the world, but expand the space inside their two-selves; also, they seem to cut off roads to different abandoned but still hearkening parts of themselves that cannot live within the new structure of the marriage). When Claudine goes on a solitary journey, she comes back to her self and the abandoned parts haunt her.  Veronica, who is a virgin like Lucrecia, discovers her sensuality, which was confused between the attentions of two men. Lucrecia, lone, separate, inviolate, virginal, never yet breached by another, feels awkwardly out of touch with the things and people outside her borders. She is hyper vigilant about her own role of keeping the world in order. What cataclysm awaits were the world, the city, her body, besieged?  How is such a siege accomplished? Will it hurt? Will I still be myself? Will I still be whole? Or will I finally be made whole?
   Yeats said that Virginity renews itself with the moon. Thus all lovers know that the renewal of the act of love and the pauses in between does not solve the problem of self and other, or of animality and consciousness, or personhood and objecthood, subjectivity and objectivity, but that all of conscious life is an interplay between all of these states and that one must find multiple perspectives and ways of seeing (and being seen), all valid, but some more life-affirming and more fruitful than others. These woman are searching for the best ways to be their selves with others, in and out of the world. No easy task for anyone, but possibly more challenging for women, or for women who affirm their own role in making the world through seeing.
   I will come back and conclude when I have finished reading Lispector's novel, but for now I reach out my hand to you in an invitation to consider these questions with me....

Monday, March 18, 2019

UNIONS, Forthcoming April 15th

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Unions: Two Stories, by Robert Musil, translated and with an introduction by yours truly, will be out on April 15th, the anniversary of Musil's death. Beautifully typeset and designed by Contra Mundum's Alessandro Segalini, our book is graced with a cover featuring a painting by Musil's wife, Martha, allegedly inscribed to the dentist with whom she conceived her daughter during her second marriage (to Herr Marcovaldi), an incident which is referred to in the first story of the collection. Both the stories in Unions were inspired by Martha's experiences and psyche, and, as such, I feel that this book, especially in our edition, is Martha's book, issued in her honor. I have also dedicated my introduction to my sister, Simone Ellin, and all the other non-biological sisters in my life. It is a woman's book, about women's desire, though written by a man. An amazing act of ventriloquism, translated into English and, I like to think, somehow, now, translated back into a woman's voice.


Mark Mirsky inspired me to translate these stories, with a query about the original text of the first one, and it will appear in his magazine Fiction, some time in the spring. Rainer J. Hanshe, Contra Mundum's driving force, sustained me through the difficult task in all its phases, supplying invaluable insight into questions large and small.

You can read the description and advance order here: http://contramundum.net/2019/03/17/unions/






Thursday, February 14, 2019

New Musil Translations!



I have recently finished a new translation of Musil's novella collection, Unions (Vereinigungen), which only appears in English in Wilkin's and Kaiser's collection called Five Women. Originally, in German, it was its own book of two novellas, and the other stories in the English collection were printed in a book as Three Women. One of them, coincidentally, "The Portuguese Lady," is currently garnering some new attention due to a new independent film based upon it, which is making the rounds of the film festivals. Aside from the minor problem that Five Women grouped the two novellas of Unions together with the unrelated stories of Three Women, I came to feel that the Kaiser and Wilkins translation of Unions left much to be desired, and called for a fresh eye. These two early and very experimental stories of Musil's, entitled "The Completion [or Perfection] of Love" and "The Temptation of Quiet Veronica," are quite difficult to translate and also sometimes somewhat shocking or challenging to conventional morality. While Wilkins and Kaiser are very worthy translators, who have come up with some ingenious solutions to some of the more thorny passages in the stories, they have also normalized the stories, both in terms of their experimental prose style and in terms of their content, even to the extent of mistranslating a few key passages which they must have found too disturbing to render correctly. I will not, however, go into detail now, as all of this is explained in full in the translator's introduction, and the book should be out, with Contra Mundum Press, by the Summer of this year. The book's first story, "The Completion of Love," will also be featured in Fiction Magazine this Spring. But I will provide a few short passages below, just in time for Valentine's Day, to give some idea of the richness of the writing.

The next project is a bit more ambitious and involves the collecting and translating of Musil's plays and writings on theater, and will come out with Contra Mundum Press (again) sometime in 2020. Some excerpts from this book will be published in the upcoming Columbia Journal.

Also, a translation of Klaus Amann's Robert Musil:Literature and Politics, an extremely relevant offering of Musil's writings on the role of the writer amid the rise of Fascism, along with a marvelous commentary and introduction by Amann, will be published in 2019, with Fomite Press.

Here are some excerpts from Unions. First, a passage from "The Completion of Love":

“You really can’t come along?”
“It’s impossible: you know I have to work now to come quickly to an end.”
“But Lilli would be so glad …. ”
“Of course, of course, but it cannot be.”
“But I have no desire to travel without you ….” His wife said this while she poured the tea, and she looked over at him, as he sat in the corner of the room in a brightly-flowered armchair and smoked a cigarette. It was evening and the dark green blinds looked out toward the street, in a long row of other dark green blinds, from which nothing distinguished them. Like a pair of dark and serenely closed eyelids, they hid the radiance of this room, in which the tea poured now from out of a tarnished silver pot into the cups, touching their bottoms with a soft ring, and then seemed to grow still in its own lustrous streaming, like a twisting, transparent shaft made of tawny, light topaz …. In the slightly dented surfaces of the pot were shadows of green and grey hues, also blue and yellow; they lay quite still, as if they had flowed there together, but could not continue on. From the woman’s arm rising from the teapot, to the look with which she gazed at her husband, a transfixing, rigid triangle was drawn about them.
Indeed, it was a triangle, as one could see; but something else too, something almost physical could be felt by these two people alone inside of it; to them it seemed as if its trajectory spanned between them like a brace made of the hardest metal, holding them fast in their places and yet binding them together, even though they were so far apart, into a unit, which one could practically feel with one’s senses ... it buttressed itself in the pits of their stomachs and they felt the pressure there ... it lifted them upright from the armrests of their chairs, with unmoving faces and unwavering glances, and yet they felt a tender emotion there — something quite light it was — as though their hearts were fluttering in and out of each other like two swarms of tiny butterflies ....

The whole room hung on this thin, barely real, and yet so apparent feeling, as on a softly trembling axis, and then on the two people upon whom it depended: the surrounding objects held their breath, the light on the wall froze into golden lace ... everything was silent and waited and was there only for them; ... time, which ran through the world like an endlessly glittering thread, seemed to move through the middle of this room, and seemed to move through the middle of these people and seemed to suddenly pause and become rigid and still and glittering ... and the objects moved a little closer to each other. It was that stillness and then soft kind of sinking, as when surfaces suddenly arrange themselves to create a crystal ... and these two people, through whose midst it ran, suddenly saw each other through this holding of breath and this curving and leaning of everything all around them, as if through thousands of mirroring surfaces, and saw each other again, as if they were seeing each other for the first time ....

And now, an excerpt from "The Temptation of Quiet Veronica": 

In those days she had loved the fur of a large St. Bernard, especially the fur in the front where the broad breast muscles protrude with every step from its arched bones like two hills. There was such an overwhelming mass of hair and it was so golden brown, and it was so much like some incalculable richness and a soft boundarylessness, that her eyes became confused when they let themselves fall gently on even the smallest patch. And while she felt nothing more than a single, whole, strong feeling of liking, that tender camaraderie that a fourteen-year-old girl feels for a thing, it was almost like being in a landscape. As when one walks, and the woods are there, and the meadows, and the mountain and the field are there, and in this great order everything fits so simply, like a pebble, each thing frightfully in place. When one looks at it by itself, cautiously alive, one suddenly becomes afraid amid the awe, as if before an animal that crouches and lays motionless and waits.
But once, as she lay like that next to her dog, it seemed to her that this must have been the way giants were; with mountains and valleys of fur on their breasts, and song birds swinging in their hair, and little lice that sat upon the song birds, and — she did not know any further, but it didn’t need to have an end, and again everything was so connected, one thing after the other, and one thing pressing into the other, so that everything seemed to stand still out of an awe before all the power and order. And she thought secretly, that if the giants were to become angry, everything in this thousand-fold life would shoot out, screaming, in all directions, and deluge everything with a frightening fullness, and if they were to descend on someone in love — that would be like someone stomping down from the mountains and swooshing with the trees, and small waving hairs would grow on one’s body and creeping insects, and a voice that screams in bliss about something wholly unspeakable, and her breath would have to wrap it all inside of a swarm of animals, holding it fast.