IMAGINING THE LAST HOURS OF CLARICE LISPECTOR
“I write and that way rid myself of me and then at last I can rest.”
—Clarice Lispector, A Breath of Life
1:05 a.m.: The rain starts. I arrive; so close to her I can breathe the rain mixed with the sour smell of her scalp.
1:13 a.m.: Fighting against the slowdown of the pills, C sits in front of the dressing table and hates what she sees: an ancient face with new furrows, an aged reflection of whom she thought she still was, a worsened version of herself. She can’t leave the house tomorrow as she is now: swollen face, short eyelashes, brittle hair stuck to her scalp. Grey spots mark her pale forehead like stains on the face of a full moon—a reminder of the fire in the apartment that almost extinguished her years before.
What she knows is that she needs to look well tomorrow. This will be her final spectacle, now that her relative success as a writer exposes her to eyes on the streets. After thirteen books, she has become the subject of her own fiction, and the public expects her to be the actress of herself. If this small success had arrived twenty, thirty years ago, maybe she wouldn’t even care about her appearance, trusting people would hold onto her erstwhile image. But all the recent attention deprived her of the freedom of not being beautiful anymore, right at the moment of fleeing the scene.
1:20 a.m.: C calls Rudi, her makeup artist.
1:43 a.m.: Before she falls asleep, she remembers that this year, 1977, was meant to be a great year for her, according to the esoteric world. She would turn fifty-seven. “The numbers five, seven, and nine are very important to you; they mark big moments of your life,” her numerologist had said. The I Ching had answered that the year would bring her abundance and that she would win. Her astrologist pointed out that Jupiter in Aquarius would bring revolution. And the Tarot… well, the Tarot revealed the card of Death. But the fortune-teller insisted that Death in this case could mean something good, that something needed to die for something else to be born.
2:00 a.m.: She is asleep, but she is still thinking, or maybe it’s a mix of dream and thought, or of dream and memory: a humid December morning talking on the phone with her friend Lydia. C was looking out the window to the mantle of roofs and tree canopies above the neighborhood as Lydia told her about the pai-de-santo, who was said to be the best African-Brazilian priest in the city. Two days later, C called the man and told him that she was feeling a heavy cloud over her head, that she couldn’t sleep without the help of pills, that she was always tired, and that there was this fear of writing the next word or phrase, as if they could reveal something that she was not prepared to learn or accept. And there was the constant feeling that something big was about to happen, which she would not be able to handle or face or fight against. The pai-de-santo asked her to bring a live black rooster to him.
On the last day of 1976, Lydia drove C in a yellow Volkswagen Beetle up the hill overlooking a beach on the outskirts of Rio, where the pai-de-santo lived. The man was in his forties, dark skin, not handsome. He took the rooster from C’s hands and brought her to a wooden table in the backyard. “Turn around and bend over,” he told her. She did, folding her arms over the table and clasping her hands as if in a prayer. The pai-de-santo killed the black rooster on C’s back with three strong strokes. “To undo the job of evil spirits.” He said there was too much bad energy circling around her. Strangely, the strokes didn’t hurt. They felt like strong pushes softening her muscles. On the second blow, something moved inside her. Then, on the third stroke, something came out of her; she couldn’t tell what. There was no explanation for the vacuum she felt after the thing that had been inside her body vanished. It left a lightness, like she was floating on Valium. (In the dream, this felt like flying).
The pai-de-santo threw the dead rooster into the trees in his forested backyard and guided C inside the house with his hand. They sat in the living room with the simple furniture of his rotten wooded hovel. He played the jogo de búzios for her, throwing the white shells inside a board. In their resting position he saw that she would have some complications in her reproductive system, but that the problem would not come up as long as he lived. He said it seriously, head bent to the búzios, a thick vertical wrinkle crossing the middle of his forehead. C trembled with his diluted stare. She felt a chill running up her legs and arms.
She left the pai-de-santo’s hovel feeling shallow, like a thin river sliding over its bed of rocks. Lydia was waiting for her in the yellow Volkswagen, listening to the radio. Frank Sinatra’s “Let Me Try Again” played too loudly. On her way home, C kept imagining the pai-de-santo returning to the backyard to collect the dead rooster and simmer it all afternoon. Which he did. The pai-de-santo ate the stewed rooster with farofa, rice, and beans, for three days (this, she is imagining). On the third day, the pai-de-santo died. Lydia called to tell C, terribly impressed.
2:22 a.m.: Rudi arrives while she is asleep, applies the permanent makeup, clears her eyebrows, straightens her hair. He works on her as if preparing a corpse.
3:00 a.m.: Her sleep is deep, dreamless, deep.
11:05 a.m.: C wakes up, checks Rudi’s work in the dressing table’s mirror. Much better. Like when Rudi prepared her for her first TV interview a few weeks ago. Lately, the world seemed to want to catch up with her, and she secretly delighted herself with the discreet taste of victory, for stubbornly believing in herself. But now they wanted her to explain herself and her work. Lazy people, wanting it all chewed up, wanting a summary of a life in a thirty-minute interview. How could she compact and explain everything to these people if time itself was the fundamental matter of her process?
She was confused when she arrived at the studio in São Paulo. Tired from the travel. The plane shook desperately when it went up the mountains in Rio, like it didn’t want to bring her, and all that bumping jumbled her energy. The studio didn’t have air conditioning. When the lights came on, she got dizzy. A blinding white spot settled behind the camera, like a star in continuing explosion.
She would have to open and reveal herself for public entertainment, squeezed in between commercials for soap and toothpaste. C was tired. Tired. Of the heat in the studio, of the unmerciful light of the strange star, of the pressure to be a performer. More than anything, physically tired. The invisible corrosion had advanced in her guts. The last weeks had been of pain and nausea and sleepless nights. Appetite was gone, and when she was forced to eat, her body rejected the food of life.
All seemed to be out of rhythm: having to explain herself to the world at the time to leave it. She’d thought she wanted fame, but now she saw that wasn’t the case. She wanted to run away, but ended up sitting on a beige leather chair, sweat dripping under her dress, her mascara gluey, the makeup hot and foreign as if she were wearing a mask.
In the interview, she was irritated, lazy, distant. Words came out of her mouth like punches. She didn’t articulate, did not connect dots, was not interested in the questions, which seemed either too complicated or too boring. The interviewer opened her with a scalpel without anesthesia. The camera captured her burnt arm when she lighted a cigarette. What an invasion, my God! Why did she wear short sleeves?
1:30 p.m.: Standing in her apartment, C spins on the spot, looking around the living room full of light. The steak with fried onions she ate for lunch still lingers in the air like an olfactory ghost. She looks quickly at each thing, but there are too many, and not enough time to dwell on memories. Lydia waits for her in the taxi downstairs. The hospice waits for her in another neighborhood. Everything is waiting for this rushed escape, which she did not ask for.
1:37 p.m.: C sits hesitantly on the couch. She will never return to this living room and its objects, to the light that crowned the afternoons with stillness and laze. Oh, the afternoon hours, favorite and difficult, that for years stretched in depth and width. The sunlight crossed the living room’s brown wooden floor, spread on the white leather couch, climbed the eccentric red wall, reflected itself on her paintings and on the black-and-white photographs of Rio, until it was sucked up by the ceiling. The afternoon hours, in which she squeezed the juice of time, in which she wandered in her mental valleys and mountains, hunched over the typewriter, many times with blindness but also hope. Now, they will stay there, the afternoon hours, in the empty apartment, with the light galloping its path, without her to witness it. It will stay clean and clear, the apartment. Ready for the next resident. Paulo, her ex-husband, will act quickly to recover the money invested in the property.
2:00 p.m.: It’s time to go. C collects the cat from the floor and settles him in between her arms and breasts. She dives her nose into the Persian cat’s plushy fur. She stares right into the confusion of his green eyes. He doesn’t like to be stared at that way and leaps from her arms in a twirl, disappearing into the kitchen. There’s enough food for him until Rodrigo arrives. But Rodrigo’s house is so big. The cat will feel lost.
2:07 p.m.: She presses L in the elevator.
2:10 p.m.: Outside the gate, the taxi is waiting: black, long, like a funerary car. Lydia receives her in the back seat with sweet brown eyes, lands a bony hand on C’s left knee, the one that was not burnt in the fire. Lydia gives the name of the hospice to the taxi driver. A pink plastic rosary loops around the rearview mirror. Jesus, in the little cross of fake silver, shakes in the air when the car starts. A picture of Our Virgin Mary is glued above the radio. An upbeat samba filters through the car’s doors.
2:22 p.m.: Traffic is stuck around Copacabana. It delays her funeral march. Rio’s static afternoon holds her up, postpones her, and she doesn’t think that’s too bad. The taxi stops at a red light. A mother crosses the street, holding hands with her two little sons on their way to the beach. Like C used to with Rodrigo and Daniel. It was pure fun to paddle the legs under water, let the body float in the waves’ movement. Then, to lie on the sand and let the sun suck the cold water from the body, leaving just a thin dust of salt on the skin. When they got home, they drank sweet and black Coca-Cola on the balcony, delaying the shower as much as possible, extending the ocean’s stay in their bodies. The kids slept so well on those beach days. The ocean moved in their blood all night. It was another Rio in the fifties. There weren’t all these people smoking marijuana on the beach. Back then, a person would get high on their own gas of life.
2:25 p.m.: The light turns green; the car won’t move. C watches the world outside as if she is trapped in a fishbowl. This is what most revolts her: that the world will continue to exist and transform itself without her. She is dispensable and unnecessary. Yes, this is a selfish thought. But her fight in life has been one of claiming ownership of Time. And now she needs to accept this detachment? She will miss the succession of decades. The eighties, so close, so full of promises of changes. The nineties, when everything is going to be automated, robotized. The 2000s, each person in their own flying saucer, taking a little ride to the moon and Mars.
2:27 p.m.: Red light. They haven’t gone anywhere. C feels irritated. For forty years, with the exception of a few critics and loyal readers, people complained they didn’t understand her, and as a reactive response, she became a stranger to the world. But to herself, she was never a stranger; she understood herself each day a bit more. The more the world ignored her, the more she dug into her writings. Over time, the way she saw the world came into fashion. But it all arrived so, so late. Maybe God wanted to show her what she could not handle. Maybe that was her measure: fifty-seven years. The world moved too slowly. And that waiting had rotted her inside.
Yes, the world still irritates her, even when it is time to leave it. And it’s not because she feels guilt—a white woman living in a middle-class high-rise overlooking the slums in the hills—but because she did nothing to change this world. But who was she to change anything? She was small and inoffensive, like a little beetle. She lost great opportunities to give more, because her focus was always inward. What she gave to the world were two sons and dozens of characters in thirteen books. (And the characters were like sons as well, independent, emancipated from her, with their own lives.) That’s it. That’s what she has been, a great mother, she concludes in the taxi.
2:40 p.m.: The movement of the tanned, muscled, hairless arm of the driver, going up and down between the steering wheel and the gear, brings C back to the taxi. He’s handsome—or she wants him to be—as far as she can see from his face in profile. She is surprised to feel lustful when her body is so wracked and weak. But she recognizes this lubricity: it was the very material for her art; it was what sustained the hand for hours and days over the typewriter. Sex was the principle of everything, and if she could start all over again, she would want to be there when the milk bathed the egg and the egg opened to the selected spermatozoon and there was a pleasure that was microscopic and silent. And when her mysterious interior contorted and expanded to deliver Rodrigo to the world, that was a grand sensuality. And when she opened herself a second and definitive time, Daniel came to the world, radiant, in a grand, oh-so-grand sensuality.
2:52 p.m.: C needs a cigarette, to warm herself up with blue smoke and nicotine. She lowers the car window. The sun has come out high and strong, after all the rain from last night. The light dances on the leaves on the trees, silvers the green on the hills. And the hills offer C an interior view of the shacks in the favelas. The first drag is always of pleasure. She exhales the thin smoke from her chest, and the wind sucks it out into the street air. She lowers her hand with the cigarette locked in her fingers. Her red nails scratch the fabric of the plaid dress on her thigh. She inspects the burnt skin on her right hand and arm, that melted, deformed skin she could never get used to. Knocked out by the pills, she fell asleep with the cigarette burning. Yes, guilty, guilty. But why remember all that now? What matters is that she survived, so she could arrive at this moment, when she offers her partially burnt body to the final fire.
2:59 p.m.: C throws the cigarette butt out the window and stays silent. Lydia understands the artist’s mood and remains quiet, too. This is C’s farewell to the city that has dazzled her with so much beauty and horror. Goodbye to the streets where the hot blood of a furious monster flows.
In C’s guts, what travels is bad blood. Contaminated. How fast and efficient this poison acts is information the doctors prefer to save her from. This medical generosity is somehow welcoming to her, but it leaves each minute with extreme marks, as if each thing lived through could be the last experience of the thing itself.
3:02 p.m.: “What are you thinking?” Lydia finally asks.
C says: “That Hemingway would have said ‘Rio is a party’ if he had lived here instead of Paris.” She opens her hand, with her five long fingers pointing out the window. “Look at this.”
This is Rio. C’s moveable feast.
3:05 p.m.: The taxi enters Ipanema through the block before the beach. More traffic. At this rate, they will be in the car for two hours. C lowers the car window more. The ocean air channels in between the buildings and strikes her. She brings her nose very close to the window and inhales Rio’s maritime air. The smells engulf her. Remembered smells, since her sense of smell is now compromised. Her memory recognizes the smell of the girls’ bodies returning from the beach: ocean salt, sunblock, wet bikini, shampoo mixed with the sun, water, and wind. Bus smoke, car smoke, cigarette smoke, smoke on her tongue, fried fish and chips, refried beans, coffee freshly brewed, the pineapple smelling yellow on the fruit stand, beer smelling cold, spilling in the bars. She can smell the dust on the plastic towels of tables on the sidewalks, on the trees’ leaves along the avenue. Pollution has a smell. Buildings’ entrances have a smell. Blood pumping in the veins has a smell. All enveloped by salty air. All this is Rio, all the time. The city processed inside her.
3:13 p.m.: They move through densely populated streets. Then, watching the Brazilian race passing by on the sidewalk, she forgives herself. Not for being selfish—she had to be, many times, for survival—but for not giving more. Yes, she offered the world some sentences, some stories—that have touched or will touch someone someday—but they did not change and will not change anything or anyone. What difference would it make to the world and the course of things if people had read her or not? If they missed the works she couldn’t finish or the ones that were lost in the fire? She would trade a thousand reproductions of life for more minutes of life itself.
3:15 p.m.: Then, a movement inside her. A pain that is more painful and pleasurable than giving birth. That feels like an emptying. Like a light has gone off and the room now is dark.
C silences the scream. She is scared. It is the most difficult thing she has ever done: to let herself go. She who, through life and work, scavenged the hermetic chambers of death, wanting to guess it, predict it, understand it. Now, here she is, completely ignorant before its certainty. She who exhausted time until the last drop, always after the atom of the instant. Like a larva devouring the sweet fruit, she continued always forward, until she came across a bitter, dark lump, her cancer. When she looked behind and wanted to go back, there was no fruit any longer. And she was out of breath, choked from so much lasciviousness.
The larva’s white head sways in the air like an astronaut in black space. She needs to cut this umbilical cord to Earth, but she doesn’t know how to do it, my God.
3:16 p.m.: Finally, she ascends. She floats above the city, as she has done so many times as inspiration and technique of work. She takes Rio’s aerial perspective, the best form to apprehend it. The buildings are white walls of concrete and glass, lined up symmetrically as urban canyons. The streets are humid valleys where cars refract light on their metallic hoods. This would not be God’s view. He is farther above, in the statue, the figure of His son. This is the view of someone escaping her body. Going even higher, entire neighborhoods diagram themselves in between the dark blue sea and the bounds of the mountains. The land where she lived. Sinuous and salacious. Full of recesses and protrusions. A sensual gesture of God, her last thought.
Edgar Garbelotto is a writer and translator born in Brazil. His translation of João Gilberto Noll’s novel Lord was a finalist for the 2020 Lambda Literary Award in Best Gay Fiction. His translation of Noll’s novel Harmada is forthcoming from Two Lines Press in November 2020. His translation of Beatriz Bracher’s Davi was included in The Best Small Fictions anthology of 2019 by Sonder Press. He has received fellowships from the DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, among others. He lives in Chicago, where he is currently working on his debut novel.