In 1943, a 23-year-old Brazilian journalist who loved Katherine Mansfield’s fiction and Baruch Spinoza’s philosophy published a debut novel that was unlike anything Brazilian literature had ever seen. “Near to the Wild Heart” was the world’s first reckoning with Clarice Lispector’s brilliant, demanding, tempestuous prose, and it established her as a writer who — as we say these days — was going places. So it was a surprise, to Lispector as much as anyone, when three years later her second novel, “The Chandelier,” had trouble finding a publisher and received very little comment, even from reviewers who had loved her first. To this day, it remains her least written-about novel, often dubbed her “most difficult,” and now it gets a new superlative: the last to be translated into English.
Despite the ominous lore, “The Chandelier” fits a common pattern for second novels: It takes up the most remarkable attributes of its author’s first book and does all those same things, only more so. There is the Woolf-like fluidity of inner and outer worlds. We again follow the philosophical and emotional development of a young female protagonist, though over a much longer period. The writing is again relentless, exultant — what a later Lispector character called “ecstasy without a peak” — but here it comes in longer stretches and with fewer breaks.
“She’d be flowing all her life” begins the story of Virgínia, who from the outside appears an unremarkable young woman, but who secretly lives in a state of “serious distraction.” The novel’s first part chronicles her childhood, the years hurrying past in an impressionistic swirl of ordinary events (tattling on her sister, idolizing her older brother) and existential questions (about the nature of time and thought, the reality of death, the limits of language). It is a lyrical outpouring of sensation and perception, occasionally punctured — in true Lispector fashion — by disquieting incidents, as when Virgínia peers into her brother’s box of spiders and receives a bite that leaves her with a permanent squint.
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