The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

Clarice Lispector is much in the literary news at the moment with the publication of a collected edition of her short stories. In fact, her name has been bandied about for quite a while on the blogs I read (!) which has made me keen to read her work. “The Hour of the Star” is her last work, a slim novella of 96 pages which certainly packs a punch…

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It’s clear from the title page that we’re in complex territory, as the book is given a number of alternative titles, from “The Blame is Mine” to “A Tearful Tale”, and including that given on the cover. The story is that of a poor South American girl, Macabea. Born with all the disadvantages in life – not much in the way of brains or looks – she works as a fairly incompetent secretary in Rio de Janeiro and moons over her boss. Her main obsession is listening to a room-mate’s radio and memorising facts, which she spouts at any opportunity. Somehow, she manages to attract a somewhat thug-like admirer, but things do not go as she wishes.

However, the book may not be about Macabea at all, for the narrator of her story, who makes it quite clear that he is the narrator, keeps interposing himself into the tale and pondering on the fate of the poor girl. He names himself as Rodrigo S.M. and alternates between authorial over-confidence and self-doubt. The lines between what is fiction and what is real, what comes from the author and the character, become blurred and the book challenges preconceptions about writing all the way through. We gradually watch Macabea becoming revealed to us through the eyes of Rodrigo (or is it the eyes of Lispector, as she discusses the art of the author?), and there’s a fascination in watching the whole compositional process.

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“Star” is an engrossing read and Macabea a tragic, moving character. You sense all the way through that she had the potential for so much more in her life which was crushed out of her by poverty, fear and a bad upbringing. And the author of Macabea’s story is also intriguing, shown as struggling with the creation of his work, inhabiting her mind and treating her as if she were a real person he knew. What is truth? What is fiction? The book throws up any number of metafictional questions about the process of writing while involving you in Macabea’s story.

I have to say my thoughts were thoroughly provoked by my first read of Lispector! Her language and the structure of the story are complex, but the whole reading experience left me thinking deeply about the purpose of fiction, about what’s true and what’s not, and also about lives that could be so different if the circumstances were. I did enjoy my first experience of Lispector’s work and I’m sure it won’t be my last.

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