Clarice Lispector was born in 1920 in Ukraine but fled Brazil post WW1 in 1922 and considered herself Brazilian. The Hour of the Star, published in 1977, follows Macabéa, a poor woman from the northeast living in Rio de Janeiro in (presumably) the 70s. This is a novella of fewer than 80 pages, and more of a meditation on writing than a study of Macabéa. Lispector herself said in an interview that the novella is about “trampled innocence” and “anonymous misery”.
Macabéa shares a room with four other women, works and her only pleasures are listening to random facts on the radio and drinking Coca-Cola. She is treated badly routinely by her co-workers and her boyfriend. Rodrigo S.M. is the narrator and the writer of the story. He takes us through his process and how the story of Macabéa develops in his mind. We see him ponder decisions and omissions, claiming that he wants to keep it simple, that “nothing will twinkle” and that he won’t “be all modern and invent trendy words to make [himself] look original.” But the story blazes with the almost desperate fierceness of his need to get it written. He agonises over the destiny of Macabéa, and the ending, when it comes, seems inevitable. Her dream is to be a movie star. How he takes us there makes us experience the inescapable pull a writer feels to write a story.
Rodrigo S.M. explains to us that Macabéa “wasn’t an idiot but she had the pure happiness of idiots” because she thinks that things are the way they are because that’s how they are. Until she goes to a fortune teller. Madame Carlota commiserates with Macabéa about her misfortune and for the first time she sees “that her life was so miserable. She who had always thought she was happy.”
Macabéa and S.M. are opposites – she lives unquestioningly while he questions everything he puts down on the page, and his position as a writer. Here the two meet: things are what they are. For all his agonising over meaning and expression, over “the silent constellations and the space which is time which has nothing to do with her and with us”, he remains none the wiser about the metaphysics of the human condition. Lispector doesn’t romanticise poverty but here we see her distaste for middle-class contemplation and, to some degree, for the space she inhabits as a celebrated author.
Though the narrator is self-conscious Lispector’s writing is not – she has the lyricism of Woolf without the sentimentality, and the severity and indifference of a god observing her creation. This precious little book is a gem. Clarice Lispector is a writer who seemed genuinely profoundly unbothered by her readers, unburdened by preoccupations with reputation or popularity. She experiments with the tenuous line that separates philosophy from mysticism, and not just in the story. She spoke with the wisdom of a woman in her 100s, feline and mysterious. Her writing does, too.