'The Chandelier' Is A Stop-Motion, Shaggy Dog Masterpiece
When I was younger, I used to ask my friends how they thought. Words? Images? Scenes? No one could answer in enough detail to satisfy, and I quickly learned to lay off. But the question never left me. How do other people think? In The Chandelier, just translated from the Portuguese for the first time, I've finally found a response.
The Chandelier is Brazilian modernist Clarice Lispector's second novel, written when she was 26 and already a literary legend. It's a shaggy stop-motion masterpiece, plotless and argument-less and obsessed with the nature of thought. Virgínia, the protagonist, floats through the world like Emerson's transparent eyeball, taking everything in and trying desperately to put together an idea coherent enough to let back out.
As a child, Virgínia has very little faith in her own ideas. She's endlessly frustrated by her "slender thoughts that ... suddenly break halfway before reaching the end," and often faints when they break. When her bullying brother Daniel orders her to spend a day "thinking deeply" in the basement of Quiet Farm, their family's decaying estate, she's delighted. This could be a chance to truly finish a thought. And she seems to, but when she emerges, she declares that she's failed. She hasn't thought hard enough. And then her agenda appears: "What made her happy was that the experiment hadn't succeeded. Daniel would surely make her return the next day."
The adult Virgínia is much the same. A long, agonizing passage of the book follows her through a dinner party, where she's so trapped in her own head that she can barely speak. She has a long internal debate — it would be a whole chapter if The Chandelier had chapters — over whether to tell her boyfriend Vicente she's leaving the city. She goes for some walks, looks in the mirror, has her doorman over to eat. Until the very end, which delivers the book's only true shock, that's about all the action we get.
Yet the energy level of The Chandelier is so high it's close to unsustainable. Every page vibrates with feeling. It's not enough to say that Lispector bends language, or uses words in new ways. Plenty of modernists do that. No one else writes prose this rich. She backs down a little when writing from Daniel and Vicente's perspectives, and those passages are an undeniable relief. But reading them feels like eating kale after a days-long feast. You know you want it, and yet the pleasure is in what came before.
Reading 'The Chandelier' requires a high level of acceptance, in the way that poetry does. Acceptance, and also humility. You can't expect to understand it all, and Lispector warns you not to try.
It's a major testament to translators Magdalena Edwards and Benjamin Moser that The Chandelier reads this way. The novel opens with the sentence, "She'd be flowing all her life," and it flows without a single interruption from there. I read The Chandelier in huge gulps, stopping only when forced. I read in a nail salon, the break room at work, waiting for an event to start. Its prose works like the river at Quiet Farm: Get in, and it will carry you.
But only if you don't resist. Reading The Chandelier requires a high level of acceptance, in the way that poetry does. Acceptance, and also humility. You can't expect to understand it all, and Lispector warns you not to try. "How unpleasant it was," Virgínia complains, "when Vicente would interpret her. How other people's understanding could dry one out." Maybe that was the message I needed most as a teenager. Don't worry so much about understanding. It's not what you need.
Toward the end of The Chandelier, Virgínia compares her own consciousness to "a hare, but sluggish, it kept running and getting lost like a wounded hare losing blood." This is a happy thought, to her. She wants to "run along and get lost in weakness." That's how I suggest reading The Chandelier. Pretend you're Virgínia. Don't interpret. Just let yourself run along and get lost.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, D.C.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.