Sarah Gerard sits down with Johnny Lorenz to discuss his translation of A Breath of Life, the final novel written by the enigmatic Brazilian author Clarice Lispector.
Never before translated into English, Clarice Lispector’s last novel, A Breath of Life, consists of a dialogue between an Author and his creation, Angela Pralini. The novel, essentially plotless, explores the relationships between God and man, author and character, language and time, writing and death. Written simultaneously with The Hour of the Star in the year before Lispector died, A Breath of Life was composed of scraps organized after her death by her friend and assistant, Olga Borelli. Lispector never saw the final draft of her book.
I met with the book’s translator, Johnny Lorenz, at a taverna in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, a few blocks from his apartment. Lorenz is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Montclair State University and a young, expectant father. His enthusiasm for translation was immediately apparent as he told me about his current project, a collaborative translation of Spanish poetry, and spoke excitedly about the nuances of translating Spanish as opposed to Portuguese. Lorenz was eager to talk about the curious challenges Lispector presents to translators, and the intricacies of translating such a unique novel as A Breath of Life.
Sarah Gerard Were you at a disadvantage being the first person to translate A Breath of Life, or was there some freedom in that?
Johnny Lorenz When the book was being edited by Benjamin Moser, we had a kind of back-and-forth about every page of the novel. I suppose some people might find that to be tiresome—to go over, again, everything that you’ve done and make changes here and there—but as far as I was concerned, it was a relief to talk to someone about the nuances of translation. Suddenly, I felt like someone was just as invested as I was in getting it right. Or as right as your aesthetic sensibility thinks it should be.
Alison Entrekin, translator of a new edition of Lispector’s Near the Wild Heart, on the difficulties and pleasures of translating this particularly difficult and pleasing writer.
At the tender age of 23, Clarice Lispector shocked the world of Brazilian publishing with her first book, Near to the Wild Heart, and won the 1944 Graça Aranha Prize for best debut novel. This year, Alison Entrekin retranslated it for a New Directions series of Lispector’s work that included three other novels—The Passion According to G.H., A Breath of Life, and Agua Viva—each with a different translator, and edited by Lispector’s biographer and translator of The Hour of the Star, Benjamin Moser. Entrekin answered my questions by email from her home in Brazil.
Sarah Gerard It has often been said that Clarice Lispector’s Portuguese isn’t like the Portuguese anyone was writing in when she published Near to the Wild Heart, and remains unique. What does this mean? How is it different?
Alison Entrekin Clarice was a native speaker of Portuguese, but her writing style definitely isn’t run-of-the-mill. Her turns of phrase are often peculiar, her word choices unconventional, and her syntax can be rather odd at times. Not always, but a lot of the time. There are places in her books where she is entirely idiomatic and makes perfect sense and places where every reader understands something different, because her sentences are open-ended, with words that contain a range of nuances, allowing for several different readings.
SG Different challenges arise translating a work from any one language into another. What are some of the challenges you face translating a work from Portuguese into English?
Sarah Gerard learns how to live safely.
“Life is, to some extent, an extended dialogue with yourself about how you are going to let yourself down over the coming years.”
— Charles Yu, narrator of Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. It was early December, and my husband and I had plans to fly down to Florida for my parents’ annual holiday party. It would be his first time seeing my hometown, and we were both a little curious as to how it would shake down when the world of my present collided with the world of my past. Even though not much time had passed since I moved to New York, I had made many purposeful changes in my life since then, because by the time I left Florida, I didn’t much like the person I’d become. Driving to the airport, I was apprehensive about going back home and bringing David. I didn’t know what we would find when we got there.
I had been reading a lot about black holes for a piece I was writing and was especially interested in how time was observed at the point of approaching them. A black hole forms when a massive star undergoes a supernova and collapses on itself, becoming a point with zero volume and infinite density called a “singularity.” Around the singularity is a region called the “event horizon” where gravity is so strong, not even light can escape. To the layman, this is the point of no return; a body crossing an event horizon cannot be prevented from hitting the singularity. But if you were able to survive falling in, it would appear, upon crossing the event horizon, as if time were moving normally for you. However, to an observer, you would seem to stop just before crossing, and never fall in. Einstein’s special theory of relativity suggests this could be interpreted as a kind of time travel.
Ross Racine’s maplike prints of suburban landscapes are like being airborne over an imagined America. He talks to Sarah Gerard about materiality and immateriality, paper, and maps.
I found Ross Racine first in the summer of 2010, when an editor-artist I was working with at the time suggested we interview him for a journal we were publishing. Having recently moved to New York, I was eager to visit galleries. I discovered Racine had work in a group show hanging in the Jen Bekman Gallery, in a show called “Land Use Survey.” I went.
Racine’s work tells the story of the quintessential suburb. If he were a writer, he might be something like Franzen or Roth, but with a dreamy, ethereal layer he places between you and the subject. You’re in the position of a God, or a child, looking down from above, fingers twitching to move the pieces.
I met him in his apartment in Manhattan on a sunny afternoon that came in through his tall, stately windows. He pulled out three portfolios and began to talk.
Sarah Gerard continues her investigation of the work of Clarice Lispector, tracing the Brazilian writer’s thinking about concepts of eternity.
For Clarice Lispector, time is inextricably wrapped up in the act of writing—in the way the author, in the position of God, creates an experience of time between the covers of a book. That her seventh novel, Agua Viva (as well as her last, A Breath of Life), begins and ends somewhat arbitrarily—without narrative, in the classical sense—allows us to imagine that the writing exists independently of the book; that, when we finish the last page, it will go on eternally somewhere outside it. This is reinforced by the way Agua Viva is structured in fragments that were organized only after Lispector died, as if each bit were not necessarily connected to those that came before or after, but plucked from a flow, or a field, and set down on the page—each dispatch constituting an elementary state of the book—or multiple presents, counterparts of what the book presents to us as “all time.”
Sarah Gerard on Existentialism, relationships, and Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing.
Choice is an apt theme in literature today, and a timeless one. One could argue that it’s more important now than it’s ever been. Occupy Wall Street demonstrations are escalating in New York and places around the country and abroad. The presidential race is heating up and the national debt is skyrocketing alongside the divorce rate. Choice was Penelope’s only defense against the onslaught of suitors, Bartleby’s revolt, Frodo’s first step on the journey to Mordor. It’s also central to the story of You Deserve Nothing, Alexander Maksik’s debut novel and the launch of Alice Sebold’s new imprint, Tonga Books.
But what does it mean to make a choice?
Sarah Gerard on the experience of language in Clarice Lispector’s recently translated fifth novel, The Passion According to G.H.
“Though the ether is filled with vibrations the world is dark. But one day man opens his seeing eye, and there is light.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
Clarice Lispector’s first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, broke the world of Brazilian publishing wide open with a signature stream-of-consciousness style and won the Graça Aranha Prize for the best debut novel of 1943. By the end of her short life (she died at 56 of cancer), she had penned nine novels, nine collections of short stories, five books for children, and numerous articles, essays and interviews, including “Cronicas,” a weekly column written for Brazil’s leading newspaper. However, it was her fifth novel, The Passion According to G.H., recently republished by New Directions with a translation by Idra Novey, which Lispector claimed “best corresponded to her demands as a writer.” In it, she tells the story of G.H., a dilettante sculptor in Rio de Janiero, whose experience crushing a cockroach causes a crisis of boundary, meaning, and identity from which she fears she may never recover.
Though The Passion According to G.H. was first published in 1964, an English translation of the book didn’t appear until 1988. In his introduction, translator Ronald Sousa explains the difficulty of interpreting a work of such wrought complexity.
Where does literature end and philosophy begin? Intellectually speaking, that question is an easy one to answer: they both end in “language,” which for Lispector is the medium within which such designations as “literature” and “philosophy” are made, as well as the medium in and through which alone anything nonlinguistic can be reached. The problem is that for her language is also fallacious unless it is pushed to its limits and thereby made to reveal what, in its structuring as a container, it seeks to hide.
Sarah Gerard on life’s closing and Gerald Murnane’s fifth novel, Inland.
“In all the world there has never been, there is not, and there will never be any such thing as time. There is only place. Eternity is here already, and it has no mystery about it; eternity is just another name for this endless scenery where we wander from one place to another.” –Gerald Murnane, Velvet Waters
Gerald Murnane has never left Australia and rarely even left the state of Victoria, but his fiction is widely traveled. In his fifth novel, Inland, available for the first time in the U.S. from Dalkey Archive, a writer sits alone in a manor house among books he doesn’t read, and pages he struggles to write, and “travels” as far as the American plains, the Hungarian Alfold, and the Australian interior. Places are overlain with other places, assigned unspecific or fantastical-sounding names, tableau settings, or two different periods of time. Many of the vignettes one encounters in Inland are taken from Murnane’s own childhood, and transplanted, in whole or in part, into different settings, with different characters. Walking the border between autobiography and fiction in this way, the book is an exploration of memory’s relation to time, time to place, and truth to language, fiction, and dreams.
A few days after finishing Inland, when I had moved onto Wuthering Heights in anticipation of writing about their respective uses of landscape, my mother called to tell me that my grandfather’s body was “shutting down.” He would likely die before the end of the day Saturday, and it was currently Friday. My grandparents lived in a semi-rural suburb of Cleveland called Pepper Pike, in a house surrounded by rolling lawns and woods I liked to explore as a child. I had bought a ticket to see my grandparents later in the month, when they would celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary. But within minutes, I was on the phone changing the dates of my trip, and within hours, was departing JFK.
Sarah Gerard on the calculation of life’s value in Sam Savage’s The Way of The Dog and Joshua Abelow’s Painter’s Journal.
It is surprising that Sam Savage would write a book about a character who has never had a profession—before writing, he worked as a bicycle mechanic, carpenter, crab fisherman, and letterpress printer. What is not surprising is that the protagonist of Savage’s latest novel, The Way of the Dog, is an elderly man reflecting on his lifelong struggle to make art; Savage, himself, published his first novel at sixty-five. Since then, he has gone on to publish four more novels, all of which feature protagonists who are somehow frustrated in their art-making. Like the rest, Harold Nivenson lives alone at the story’s open. Mourning the death of his dog, and the life he had hoped to live but ultimately failed to, he records snatches of thoughts on index cards, hoping that, along with the detritus of his dilapidated mansion and the dusty pieces of artwork left behind by a onetime friend, they will add up to something: a statement of purpose, the legacy of his life. Perhaps, if nothing else, his life will be his art.
While similar in his design, what sets Nivenson apart from the rest of Savage’s protagonists is his seriousness. Unlike Firmin, the titular literary rat who stars in Savage’s breakout novel, or Andrew Whittaker, the rambling, self-absorbed landlord-cum-editor/publisher of his third novel, The Cry of the Sloth, Nivenson’s afflictions are not comical. He is searching and introspective, longing without the levity that lines the rest of his books. Nivenson contemplates suicide, citing many artists (mostly writers) whose lives ended that way: Gertrude Stein (although in reality she did not take her own life), John Berryman, Vincent Van Gogh, and others, including Peter Meininger, a former friend and partner whose career overshadowed Nivenson’s own. But his evaluation seems to be that, as a final act, one’s suicide only carries value insomuch as one’s life has had value. And the question of how to valuate permeates The Way of the Dog.
Though Nivenson dreamt of making his own art, and even attempted to at times, his feeling now, at the end of his life, is that he wasted his time “failing privately as a great artist and succeeding publicly as a minor dilettante, a man locally famous as an art appreciator and utterly unknown as a literary failure.” Whereas Savage’s other protagonists persist relentlessly—arrogantly—in their writing, despite their obvious lack of talent, Nivenson gazes backward from the end of his life over a vast, empty gallery of paintings he never finished and pages he never wrote. Whereas Meininger’s suicide shocked, Nivenson’s would doubtless be forgotten. And without recourse to suicide in his final days, he is left to ask: What has been the meaning of my life? And who has lived it? And what will remain of it after I die?