Hailed by Benjamin Moser as "the most important Jewish writer since Kafka," Clarice Lispector was a celebrated national icon in her home country of Brazil during her lifetime, and is now recognized as one of the greatest writers to come out of Latin America in the 20th century. ("Actually, I think she is better than JL Borges," Elizabeth Bishop confided in a letter to Robert Lowell.) I first encountered her work back in 2006, in a class taught by the writer Rebecca Curtis. To talk about form and register, Rebecca assigned us "The Fifth Story," an unforgettable, formally inventive short story about a woman who decides to solve her apartment's cockroach infestation. Related in five vastly (and hilariously) different ways, the story displays Lispector's mystic intelligence and charm, as well as her perfectly unhinged sensibility.
On August 18, New Directions will release The Complete Stories, all 86 of the Brazilian master's stories, from her teens through her death, at 56. The following story, "Report on the Thing," newly translated by Katrina Dodson, is taken from that collection.
For more thoughts on Clarice Lispector and her work, check out Blake Butler's excellent essay for VICE, "The Dark Logic of Clarice Lispector."
Report on the Thing
This thing is the most difficult for a person to understand. Keep trying. Don't get discouraged. It will seem obvious. But it is extremely difficult to know about it. For it involves time.
We divide time when in reality it is not divisible. It is always immutable. But we need to divide it. And to that end a monstrous thing was created: the clock.
I am not going to speak of clocks. But of one particular clock. I'm showing my cards: I'll say up front what I have to say and without literature. This report is the anti-literature of the thing.
The clock of which I speak is electronic and has an alarm. The brand is Sveglia, which means "awake." Awake to what, my God? To time. To the hour. To the instant. This clock is not mine. But I took possession of its infernal tranquil soul.
It is not a wristwatch: Therefore it is freestanding. It is less than an inch tall and stands upon the surface of the table. I would like its actual name to be Sveglia. But the owner of the clock wants its name to be Horácio. No matter. Because the main thing is that it is time.
Its mechanism is very simple. It does not have the complexity of a person but it is more people than people. Is it a superman? No, it comes straight from the planet Mars, so it seems. If that is where it is from then that is where it shall one day return. It is silly to state that it does not need to be wound, since this is the case with other timepieces, as with mine that is a wristwatch, that is shock resistant, that can get wet as you like. Those are even more than people. But at least they are from Earth. The Sveglia is from God. Divine human brains were used to capture whatever this watch should be. I am writing about it but have yet to see it. It will be the Encounter. Sveglia: Awake, woman, awake to see what must be seen. It is important to be awake in order to see. But it is also important to sleep in order to dream about the lack of time. Sveglia is the Object, it is the Thing, with a capital letter. I wonder, does the Sveglia see me? Yes, it does, as if I were another object. It recognizes that sometimes we too come from Mars.
Things have been happening to me, after I found out about the Sveglia, that seem like a dream. Awaken me, Sveglia, I want to see reality. But then, reality resembles a dream. I am melancholy because I am happy. It is not a paradox. After the act of love don't you feel a certain melancholy? That of plenitude. I feel like crying. Sveglia does not cry. Anyhow, it doesn't have a way to. Does its energy have any weight? Sleep, Sveglia, sleep a little, I can't stand your constant vigil. You never stop being. You never dream. It can't be said that you "function": You are not the act of functioning, you just are.
You are just so thin. And nothing happens to you. But you are the one who makes things happen. Happen to me, Sveglia, happen to me. I am in need of a certain event of which I cannot speak. And bring me back desire, which is the coil spring behind animal life. I do not want you for myself. I do not like being watched. And you are the only eye always open like an eye floating in space. You wish me no harm but neither do you wish me good. Could I be getting that way too, without the feeling of love? Am I a thing? I know that I have little capacity to love. My capacity to love has been trampled too much, my God. All I have left is a flicker of desire. I need this to be strengthened. Because it is not as you think, that only death matters. To live, something you do not know about because it is susceptible to rot—to live while rotting matters quite a bit. A harsh way to live: a way to live the essential.
But one night I was sleeping soundly and could be heard saying in a loud voice: I want to have a baby with Sveglia!
If it breaks, do they think it died? No, it simply departed itself. But you have weaknesses, Sveglia. I learned from your owner that you need a leather case to protect you from humidity. I also learned, in secret, that you once stopped. Your owner didn't panic. She fiddled around with it a little and you never stopped again. I understand you, I forgive you: You came from Europe and you need a bit of time to get acclimated, don't you? Does that mean that you die too, Sveglia? Are you the time that stops?
I once heard, over the phone, the Sveglia's alarm go off. It is like inside us: We awaken from the inside out. It seems its electronic-God communicates with our electronic-God brain: The sound is low, not shrill in the least. Sveglia ambles like a white horse roaming free and saddleless.
I learned of a man who owned a Sveglia and to whom Sveglia happened. He was walking with his ten-year-old son, at night, and the son said: Watch out, Father, there's voodoo out there. The father recoiled—but wouldn't you know he stepped right on a burning candle, snuffing it out? Nothing seemed to have happened, which is also very Sveglia. The man went to bed. When he awoke he saw that one of his feet was swollen and black. He called some doctor friends who saw no sign of injury: The foot was intact—only black and very swollen, the kind of swelling that stretches the skin completely taut. The doctors called more colleagues. And nine doctors decided it was gangrene. They had to amputate the foot. They set an appointment for the next day and an exact time. The man fell asleep.
And he had a terrible dream. A white horse was trying to attack him and he was fleeing like a madman. This all took place in the Campo de Santana. The white horse was beautiful and adorned with silver. But there was no escape. The horse got him right in the foot, trampling it. That's when the man awoke screaming. They thought it was nerves, explained that these things happened right before an operation, gave him a sedative, he went back to sleep. When he awoke, he immediately looked at his foot. Surprise: The foot was white and its normal size. The nine doctors came and couldn't explain it. They didn't know about the enigma of the Sveglia against which only a white horse can fight. There was no longer any reason to operate. Only, he can't put any weight on that foot: It was weakened. It was the sign of the horse harnessed with silver, of the snuffed candle, of the Sveglia. But Sveglia wanted to be victorious and a thing happened. That man's wife, in perfect health, at the dinner table, started feeling sharp pains in her intestines. She cut dinner short and went to lie down. The husband, worried sick, went to check on her. She was white, drained of blood. He took her pulse: There was none. The only sign of life was that her forehead was pearled with sweat. He called the doctor who said it might be a case of catalepsy. The husband didn't agree. He uncovered her stomach and made simple movements over her—the same he himself made when Sveglia had stopped—movements he couldn't explain.
The wife opened her eyes. She was in perfect health. And she's alive, may God keep her.
This has to do with Sveglia. I don't know how. But that it does, no question. And what about the white horse of the Campo de Santana, which is a plaza full of little birds, pigeons and quatis? In full regalia, trimmed in silver, with a lofty and bristling mane. Running rhythmically in counterpoint to Sveglia's rhythm. Running without haste.
I am now going to say a very serious thing that will seem like heresy: God is dumb.
I am in perfect physical and mental health. But one night I was sleeping soundly and could be heard saying in a loud voice: I want to have a baby with Sveglia!
I believe in the Sveglia. It doesn't believe in me. It thinks I lie a lot. And I do. On Earth we lie a lot.
I went five years without catching the flu: That is Sveglia. And when I did it lasted three days. Afterward a dry cough lingered. But the doctor prescribed antibiotics and I got better. Antibiotics are Sveglia.
This is a report. Sveglia does not allow short stories or novels no matter what. It only permits transmission. It hardly allows me to call this a report. I call it a report on the mystery. And I do my best to write a report dry as extra-dry champagne. But sometimes—forgive me—it gets wet. A dry thing is sterling silver. Whereas gold is wet. May I speak of diamonds in relation to Sveglia?
No, it just is. And in fact Sveglia has no intimate name: It preserves its anonymity. Anyhow God has no name: He preserves perfect anonymity: There is no language that utters his true name.
Sveglia is dumb: It acts covertly without premeditation. I am now going to say a very serious thing that will seem like heresy: God is dumb. Because He doesn't understand, He doesn't think, He just is. It's true that it's a kind of dumbness that executes itself. But He commits many errors. And knows it. Just look at us who are a grave error. Just look how we organize ourselves into society and intrinsically, from one to another. But there is one error He does not commit: He does not die.
Sveglia does not die either. I have still not seen the Sveglia, as I have mentioned. Perhaps seeing it is wet. I know everything about it. But its owner does not want me to see it. She is jealous. Jealousy eventually drips from being so wet. Anyhow, our Earth risks becoming wet with feelings. The rooster is Sveglia. The egg is pure Sveglia. But the egg only when whole, complete, white, its shell dry, completely oval. Inside it is life; wet life. But eating raw yolk is Sveglia.
Do you want to see who Sveglia is? A football match. Whereas Pelé is not. Why? Impossible to explain. Perhaps he didn't respect anonymity.
I want to send this report to Senhor magazine and I want them to pay me very well.
Fights are Sveglia. I just had one with the owner of the clock. I said: Since you don't want to let me see Sveglia, describe its gears to me. Then she lost her temper—and that is Sveglia—and said that she had a lot of problems—having problems is not Sveglia. So I tried to calm her down and it was fine. I shall not call her tomorrow. I'll let her rest.
It seems to me that I shall write about the electronic thing without ever seeing it. It seems it will have to be that way. It is fated.
I am sleepy. Could that be permitted? I know that dreaming is not Sveglia. Numbers are permitted. Though six is not. Very few poems are permitted. Novels, then, forget it. I had a maid for seven days, named Severina, and who had gone hungry as a child. I asked if she was sad. She said she was neither happy nor sad: She was just that way. She was Sveglia. But I was not and couldn't stand the absence of feeling.
Sweden is Sveglia.
But now I am going to sleep though I shouldn't dream.
Water, despite being wet par excellence, is. Writing is. But style is not. Having breasts is. The male organ is too much. Kindness is not. But not-kindness, giving oneself, is. Kindness is not the opposite of meanness.
Will my writing be wet? I think so. My last name is. Whereas my first name is too sweet, it is meant for love. Not having any secrets—and yet maintaining the enigma—is Sveglia. In terms of punctuation ellipses are not. If someone understands this undisclosed and precise report of mine, that someone is. It seems that I am not I, because I am so much I. The Sun is, not the Moon. My face is. Probably yours is too. Whisky is. And, as incredible as it might seem, Coca-Cola is, while Pepsi never was. Am I giving free advertising? That is wrong, you hear, Coca-Cola?
Being faithful is. The act of love contains in itself a desperation that is.
Now I am going to tell a story. But first I would like to say that the person who told me this story was someone who, despite being incredibly kind, is Sveglia.
Now I am nearly dying from exhaustion. Sveglia—if we aren't careful—kills.
The story goes like this:
It takes place in a locale called Coelho Neto, in the State of Guanabara. The woman in the story was very unhappy because her leg was wounded and the wound wouldn't heal. She worked very hard and her husband was a postman. Being a postman is Sveglia. They had many children. Almost nothing to eat. But that postman had been instilled with the responsibility of making his wife happy. Being happy is Sveglia. And the postman resolved to resolve the situation. He pointed out a neighbor who was barren and suffered greatly from this. She just couldn't get pregnant. He pointed out to his wife how happy she was because she had children. And she became happy, even with so little food. The postman also pointed out how another neighbor had children but her husband drank a lot and beat her and the children. Whereas he didn't drink and had never hit his wife or the children. Which made her happy.
Every night they felt sorry for their barren neighbor and for the one whose husband beat her. Every night they were very happy. And being happy is Sveglia. Every night.
I was hoping to reach page nine on the typewriter. The number nine is nearly unattainable. The number 13 is God. The typewriter is. The danger of its no longer being Sveglia comes when it gets a little mixed up with the feelings of the person who's writing.
I got sick of Consul cigarettes which are menthol and sweet. Whereas Carlton cigarettes are dry, they're rough, they're harsh, and don't cooperate with the smoker. Since every thing is or is not, it doesn't bother me to give free advertising for Carlton. But, as for Coca-Cola, I don't excuse it.
I want to send this report to Senhor magazine and I want them to pay me very well.
Since you are, why don't you judge whether my cook, who cooks well and sings all day, is.
I think I'll conclude this report that is essential for explaining the energetic phenomena of matter. But I don't know what to do. Ah, I'll go get dressed.
See you never, Sveglia. The deep blue sky is. The waves white with sea foam are, more than the sea. (I have already bid farewell to Sveglia, but shall keep speaking about it strictly because I can't help it, bear with me). The smell of the sea combines male and female and in the air a son is born that is.
The owner of the clock told me today that it is the one that owns her. She told me that it has some tiny black holes through which a low sound comes out like an absence of words, the sound of satin. It has an internal gear that is golden. The external gear is silver, nearly colorless—like an aircraft in space, flying metal. Waiting, is it or isn't it? I don't know how to answer because I suffer from urgency and am rendered incapable of judging this item without getting emotionally involved. I don't like waiting.
A musical quartet is immensely more so than a symphony. The flute is. The harpsichord has an element of terror in it: The sounds come out rustling and brittle. Something from an otherworldly soul.
Sveglia, when will you finally leave me in peace? You aren't going to stalk me for the rest of my life transforming it into the brightness of everlasting insomnia? Now I hate you. Now I would like to be able to write a story: a short story or a novel or a transmission. What will be my future step in literature? I suspect I shall not write anymore. But it's true that at other times I have suspected this yet still wrote. What, however, must I write, my God? Was I contaminated by the mathematics of Sveglia and will I only be able to write reports?
And now I am going to end this report on the mystery. It so happens that I am very tired. I'll take a shower before going out and put on a perfume that is my secret. I'll say just one thing about it: It is rustic and a bit harsh, with hidden sweetness. It is.
Farewell, Sveglia. Farewell forever never. You already killed a part of me. I died and am rotting. Dying is.
And now—now farewell.
Translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson.
Clarice Lispector was born in 1920 to a Jewish family in western Ukraine. As a result of the anti-Semitic violence they endured, the family fled to Brazil in 1922, and Clarice Lispector grew up in Recife. Following the death of her mother when Clarice was nine, she moved to Rio de Janeiro with her father and two sisters, and she went on to study law. With her husband, who worked for the foreign service, she lived in Italy, Switzerland, England, and the United States until they separated and she returned to Rio in 1959, where she died in 1977. Since her death, Clarice Lispector has earned universal recognition as Brazil's greatest modern writer.