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Clarice Lispector: O lustre (The Chandelier)

This is Lispector’s second novel but was not translated into English (though available in other languages) till 2018, more than seventy years after first publication. Virginia and Daniel are the second and third children respectively of a couple who live in Quiet Farm, in Upper Marsh. They have an older sister, Esmeralda. The father is strict – he frequently hits his children – while the mother is becoming disinterested. A slow loss had appeared, she did not encompass her own life with her gaze, though her body kept living separate from other bodies. She was lazy, tired, and vague. The farm has few visitors.

Brother and sister are very close. With his clean and dry eyes he lived as if with Virginia alone at the Farm. We see this from the beginning when they are out walking and see a hat on a rock in the river. Has someone drowned? They do not know but vow to keep quiet about it, one of many secrets between them. Virginia very much looks up to Daniel. In the periods when he would shut down, severe and rude, giving her orders, she would obey because she felt him near her, paying attention to her — he was the most perfect creature she would ever know and playing with Daniel always wore her out, because she had to take care not to displease him.

Virginia lives inside her head, except when with Daniel. Much of the book consists of her interior monologues, which emphasise how much she is cut off from the rest of the world, as we only see her reactions to the world and, generally, most of the people she does see are shadowy, ghostly figures. Indeed, Esmeralda and her parents seem utterly remote. I am alone, she says to herself. She does have one hobby – making clay figurines – and this will continue in later life.

Daniel proposes creating the Society of Shadows. It is just the two of them. The motto of the Society is Solitude, according to Daniel. Everything that frightens us because it leaves us alone is what we must seek. They went to a clearing in the wood every day. It was dark and scary but they went. No-one noticed they had gone. It was as if both were alone in the world. But Daniel is using the Society as a a way of controlling Virginia. It is not Daniel giving orders, but the Society. When he tells her that she must tell their father that Esmeralda has been meeting a boy, she does so, with consequences for both girls.

We move on to their adult life. Daniel and Virginia had lived together in the city but he has now gone and, indeed, is married, and Virginia is alone with her clay figurines. She has had a relationship with Miguel but he is married and seemingly scared of her. She throws him out. Now there is Vicente. We see her at a party with Vicente and others and she seems so totally detached from the others. Virginia’s quiet tonight says one of the guests. Oh, it’s not just today,” Vicente answered in a falsely happy tone, “she is, how can I put it?, a serious creature.

Vicente is much more of a social person than Virginia and clearly things are not going to work out between them. He says, on first meeting her, she looked like a child withered, withered between the pages of a thick book like a flower and there is always this distance between them. She cannot fully work out in her mind whether she loves him or not (though, later on, she insists she does) but she seems determined to end it and go back home.

Back home, nothing seems to have changed, as her father says, though she notices that her touch is no longer there. Her mother is still miserable. Rute, Daniel’s wife, has gone off to stay with her family and Daniel does not seem to care. Daniel does not even work at the family shop, leaving it all to his father. Esmeralda is still there, still single, and reproachful towards her younger sister. You didn’t learn much in the city, Virginia, she says and Virginia has to agree. She was not happy in the city and, though she now feels at home, she wonders whether she should stay or go back to the city, go back to Vicente.

Considering that she was in her early twenties when she wrote this book, this is a very mature book. Virginia’s story is told mainly inside her head and, like most people, sometimes she is up and sometimes down. More particularly, she sees life only from her own point of view. As this is, in part, a feminist novel, we see that she is controlled by the men in her life, her bullying father, her controlling brother and her boyfriend.

Virginia does, albeit briefly, come close to other people – her brother when she is a child (though not as an adult) and Vicente (but not all of the time or even most of the time). But most of the time she lives life on her own, with others flitting by, affecting her but not getting close to her. It could be argued that his is the life that many people live or it could be argued that this is a life not really worth living. Apart from her clay figurines, which appear but do not play a huge role in her life, she seems to have little going on outside her head. The nearest comparison that I can make is to another novel written in Portuguese: Teolinda Gersâo‘s O silêncio [Silence] (not translated into English), though Gersâo’s purpose is different. Both books, however, are first-class feminist novels and well worth reading.

Publishing history

First published 1946 by Agir
First published in English 2018 by New Directions