I am a horror in the face of things: The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector

Take it as a warning. Clarice Lispector prefaces this metaphysically intense novel with a short address to her “possible readers” that states:

This is a book like any other book. But I would be happy if it were only read by people whose souls are already formed. Those who know that the approach, of whatever it may be, happens gradually and painstakingly—even passing through the opposite of what it approaches. They who, only they, will slowly come to understand that this book takes nothing from no one.

She does not want your existential “blood” on her hands, dear reader. You have to be willing to surrender it freely, to engage with G. H.’s passion on your own terms, experience her horror and joy as she struggles to make sense of, and give voice to, the “truth” that she has just come to understand. And, if you do, you may well find that the journey is unforgettable.

GHIt is clear from the stuttering opening sentence of The Passion According to G.H. that the narrator, a woman known only by the initials embossed on her suitcases, is uncertain, fragile, and disoriented. It is only by recounting the events of the previous day, by shaping them and giving them form, that she can make sense of the radical transformation she seems to have experienced. This is not a conventional narrative. In her retelling, addressed to the invisible owner of a disembodied hand that she imagines she is holding—the “you” who is at once the reader and, as the monologue progresses, a stand-in for an intimate from her past—she pieces together a superficially simple encounter that unleashes in her a torrent of thoughts, images, and emotions. She spirals into a very vivid personal hell, suffers a crisis of vast existential and spiritual dimensions, and emerges a decidedly changed being. But what of it? As the novel opens G. H. has no clear idea, she must start with who she was to discover who—or what—she has become.

One day earlier, she had arisen late with the intention of cleaning and tidying the room where her former maid had lived, a task she anticipated to be arduous yet satisfying. Assuming the room would be dirty, dank, and disordered, she would exercise her talent or, rather vocation, for “arranging.” G. H. is a wealthy sculptress living in Rio de Janeiro, who paints a portrait of herself as an independent woman, with no husband or child; she admits to a certain measure of vanity, but confesses that hers was a rather referential existence, one that in essence left her ripe for the events that would soon unfold:

My question, if there was one, was not: “Who am I,” but “Who is around me.” My cycle was complete: what I lived in the present was already getting ready so I could later understand myself. An eye watched over my life. This eye was what I would probably now call truth, now mortality, now human law, now God, now me. I lived mostly inside a mirror. Two minutes after my birth I had already lost my origins.

G. H.’s rapid descent to the brink of madness, begins when she enters the maid’s room and discovers a stark, nearly barren chamber. Most unsettling is the sight of three charcoal figures etched onto the whitewashed wall: a man, a woman and a dog. But the unexpected calm and order of the entire room catches our narrator completely off guard. The bed has been stripped, the curtains are gone from the window, three monogrammed suitcases are stacked along one wall and the narrow wardrobe, stands cracked and bleached by the harsh sunlight. She describes the room as “the portrait of an empty stomach.” And as she ventures into the room, she feels as if she has entered a nothingness, a formless space that cannot contain her. To gain some control she decides to wash down the wardrobe, and that is when her nightmare begins.

Cracking open the wardrobe, she confronts a cockroach, emerging through the door. The sight of the roach ignites a primal reaction, tied to memories of childhood poverty, but ultimately bound to a much deeper fear for G. H.—the cockroach is a prehistoric creature, durable and enduring, holding in its being the horror of unformed eternal existence. However, it is her response to the situation, her decision to kill the roach, that triggers what will escalate into an all-consuming metaphysical crisis.

To trace out G. H.’s tortured passion, one step removed through the limitations of a relatively brief review, one can only vaguely approximate the actual experience of revelling in Lispector’s haunting, sensual language. Through the agony and ecstasy of her protagonist’s journey of self-discovery we are invited to bear witness, to share her joy, to feel her pain, to taste the dawning strangeness of it all. And her awareness is startlingly acute. For instance, in her act of violence against the roach she instantly realizes that she has violated something in herself:

Because during those seconds, eyes shut, I was becoming aware of myself as one becomes aware of a taste: all of me tasted of steel and verdigris. I was all acid like metal on the tongue, like a crushed green plant, my whole taste rose to my mouth. What had I done to myself? With my heart thumping, my temples pulsing, this is what I had done to myself: I had killed. I had killed! But why such delight, and besides that a vital acceptance of that delight? For how long, then, had I been about to kill?

The terror that drives the narrator toward the breaking point is grounded in her acknowledgement of a kinship between herself as a human woman and the despised roach. As someone accustomed to defining the self only in the context of the other, it is conceivable that to see herself reflected in such a primitive, base creature could provoke a crisis of Biblical proportions. It shakes her admittedly superficial self-identity to the core. To recognize herself in the face of the roach is to acknowledge the potential annihilation of the self. “—Hold my hand” she implores her invisible listener, “because I feel that I’m going. I’m going once again toward the most divine primary life, I’m going toward a hell of raw life.”

During the hours that follow, G. H. will wrestle with questions of heaven, hell, morality, humanity and, most critically, the troubling reactions that these metaphysical problems provoke in her. She fears her own ambivalence, and discovers that the promise of hell is not a torture of pain but a torture of joy.  In what she will insist are not hallucinations but “visual meditations”, her awareness of being is stretched and exploded, extending back beyond the Cradle of Civilization across deserts and oceans to reach beyond the time of the dinosaurs. To encompass the humble origins of the primeval roach. Gradually, slowly, she will begin to fashion a reformed, redefined spiritual sense of self, to approach her own salvation, to embrace life in all of its uncertain terms.

From its opening passages, The Passion According to G. H. is propelled forward with a relentless intensity that builds as the narrative proceeds. The final sentence or phrase of each chapter is carried forward to open the next, as if with each chapter the narrator is reorienting herself, gathering her resources to move on with her story. The revelations advance in fits and starts, more noticeably as her questioning becomes increasingly obsessed with the nature of being. There seem to be things she can only come to terms with piece by piece, as she attempts to reconstruct and express an understanding of a world in which she can exist. In the end, she must come to an acceptance that being is a process, an act of trust in the unknowable, a continual active re-engagement. Her creator, Clarice Lispector, knows intimately that language—words—are essential to articulating, not just the emotional journey G. H. endures, they are essential to articulating the truths of human existence, once being has been stripped to its most fundamental elements.

Although I have read many of her short stories, this was my first encounter with one of Lispector’s novels. I had wanted to read this particular title for years, but had not realized how closely her theme ties into the existential questions that drive my own most personal writing project. And in a timely instance of serendipity, my finishing this work dovetailed nicely with joining the editorial team of The Scofield in time to copyedit and proofread 70 pages of the upcoming Lispector issue which will be out very soon. The opportunity for some very focused, close reading of some wonderful Lispector inspired writing, including a number of detailed critical essays, has left me eager to read the rest of her work. I can fully understand why she was (and is) so beloved in Brazil, and such a powerfully influential writer.

The Passion According to G.H. was originally published in 1964. This evocative translation from the Portuguese by Idra Novey (2012) is published by New Directions.

Update: The Scofield Issue 2.1 Clarice Lispector and the Act of Writing is now available and can be downloaded for free as a PDF. You’ll find it here. You will find a wealth of Lispector related and inspired reading, including two short stories and much, much more!