A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
Suddenly she looked at everything with distaste… “Oi, oi,oi…” she murmured wearily and then wondered: what’s going to happen now now now? And always in the sliver of time that followed nothing happened if she kept waiting for what was going to happen.
These are the thoughts of impetuous young Joana, protaganist of Clarice Lispector’s modernist coming of age tale Near to the Wild Heart. Joana’s story jumps back and forth from her youth to the beginning of her adulthood. On the surface, it’s not a life that would seem novel worthy. She grows up, marries a lawyer and struggles to deal with his infidelity. That’s it. It’s Joana’s inner life that drives the story. She’s inquisitive, almost unnaturally inquisitve, and insightful to boot. And beneath that questioning is something deeper yet. Something that seeths and rages, and most importantly, keeps us reading.
Lispector was considered one of Brazil’s greatest writers, and she often garners comparisons to Virginia Woolf. There is certainly a similarity in the way they reveal the rich inner lives of women who might not seem so interesting on the surface. Though, I think if this 1943 novel must be compared to an earlier modernist classic, it’s actually much closer to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man than Mrs. Dalloway. Like Joyce, Lispector is extremely playful with her language, and like Joyce she gives us a range of styles from child’s storybook to philosophical ramblings. But neither Joyce nor Woolf ever presented us with a character quite like Lispector’s Joana, who seems such a volcano of stifled possibilities.
“What do you get when you become happy?” Her voice was a clear sharp arrow. The teacher looked at Joana.
“Repeat the question…?”
Silence. The Teacher smiled as she stacked up the books.
“Ask it again Joana, I didn’t hear you properly.”
“I’d like to know: once you’re happy what happens? What comes next?” she repeated obstinately.
The woman stared at her in surprise. “What a thought! I don’t think I know what you mean, what a thought! Ask it again in other words…”
“Being happy is for what?”
The teacher flushed—no one was ever sure why she went red.
I’ll admit I prefer young Joana to her older counterpart, who was more of a test to the reader’s patience. But even at it’s most frustratingly plotless or philosophically dense moments, I found Near to the Wild Heart readable, even a bit thrilling at times. Highly recommended for literary types, and those up to a new challenge, one they probably didn’t have to read in their freshman year Literature course.
Review by Matthew