Old favourites: Água Viva (1973) by Clarice Lispector

In one sense it’s bloody awful. But there’s a thrill in reading these breathless fragments

Statue of Clarice Lispector at Leme beach, Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Luiz Souza/NurPhoto via Getty

Statue of Clarice Lispector at Leme beach, Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Luiz Souza/NurPhoto via Getty

 

Some novelists dream of pruning the novel till it’s all but bare. How much, they wonder, can I cut away, so that I’m not wasting the reader’s time approaching what I want to say – elaborating plots and flicking characters into position like Subbuteo players – but simply saying it. Such novelists occasionally give up on the novel and become essayists. Others succeed in carving out heterodox, minimalist forms that replenish our understanding of what a novel can be. We might call such works the novels of subtraction. The late anti-novels of David Markson are emblematic of this category. So too is Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet.

Another writer who, like Pessoa, wrote in Portuguese – a language that has “no bones”, as Pessoa remarked – Clarice Lispector produced one work, erratic even in her own oeuvre, that must be counted among the noble failures in the literature of subtraction. Lispector was already a long-established novelist and short-story writer when, in 1966, she almost burned to death in her apartment in Rio de Janeiro. The accident left her disfigured, but she continued to write, and in 1973 she published Água Viva, which tells no story and contains no characters per se, only the voice of a woman – a painter – and the “you” to whom she addresses her fervid, effusive thoughts.

Lispector had her doubts about Água Viva. “I don’t know why you liked my book,” she wrote to a friend before it was published. “It’s so bad, so bad, that I’m not going to publish it.” In one sense, she’s right – it’s bloody awful. The prose gushes with unfiltered emotion so that you don’t know where to look. And yet, there is a thrill in reading these breathless, fitfully coherent fragments, each deployed in a vain quest to capture the living moment of naked existence, the “now-instant”. Água Viva is an eccentric reminder, still useful at this late stage of the game, that the novel has nothing to lose but its chains.

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