A Woman Besieged: Clarice Lispector’s “The Besieged City,” translated from Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz

This month, in memory of our contributor Professor Jed Deppman who founded the Oberlin College Translation Symposium, instituted a literary translation minor, and taught courses in literary translation and comparative literature, we are featuring three reviews by Oberlin College Comparative Literature graduates and students, taught and trained by Professor Deppman and other Oberlin College faculty. Professor Deppman passed away on June 22, 2019. 

This is our second review, by Oberlin College alum and translator Victoria Olson. 

By Victoria Olson

LispectorWhen asked about his friend and colleague’s writing, Otto Lara Resende famously said, “Be careful with Clarice… It’s not literature. It’s witchcraft.”[1] Witchcraft or not, Clarice Lispector is commonly thought to have revolutionized modern Brazilian literature with her experimental prose. She was born to a Jewish Ukrainian family in 1920 that immigrated to Brazil soon after her birth. Clarice’s first novel, Near to the Wild Heart (1943), was an instant success. However, she faced significant problems in publishing her third novel, The Besieged City (1946), which is only now being translated into English by Johnny Lorenz.

At first glance, The Besieged City is a set of vignettes written in a dense, oddly structured, and almost poetic prose that focuses on the romance and routine of a young girl, Lucrécia Neves, and her life in 1920s Switzerland. Obsessed with the idea of seeing things as they objectively are, the readers are rarely given insight into Lucrécia’s thoughts. Instead, they must learn what they can from her words and actions while she is courted by the men of her pastoral (but rapidly industrializing) hometown, São Geraldo. Lucrécia spends her days going on dates and staring at pretty trinkets, and is always trying to find some objective perfection that she never quite reaches, even after she marries the older, wealthy Mateus. This can all be gleaned by skimming The Besieged City. But a mere glance does not do Lispector’s writing the justice it deserves. Layered with meaning upon meaning in her characteristically complex language and symbolism, The Besieged City is at its core a battle between the ways that men use women as tools in modern society and the ways that women can use men to their own ends.

It becomes clear early on in the novel that Lucrécia symbolizes her hometown and its pastoral roots. She feels a greater kinship with the horses of her town and the bucolic village itself than with many of the people, often referring to her hands as hooves or imitating statues in the area, and refusing to speak with the people in her life such as her mother, her boyfriends, or her husband. As the town is besieged by industrialization, pressured to sell its horses in favor of the popular machines, so is Lucrécia pressured to submit to the men in her life as they ask for her time, for her body, or for her understanding. Lucrécia refuses them and São Geraldo pushes back against the wheels of progress, at least until Lucrécia realizes she must marry or risk becoming an old maid. You cannot win a battle without a few casualties, and when every interaction with a man is a skirmish, there is no hope in coming out unscathed at all.

A glamorous woman herself, Clarice Lispector was no stranger to the power women have when they are aware of men’s desires. She knew that the correct application of makeup paired with the appropriate behavior can make the same woman appear childlike or intimidating or anywhere in between. Lucrécia too is aware of her appearance to the degree that it becomes her: “She’d see herself the way an animal would see a house: no thought going beyond the house” (78). Lucrécia’s appearance is all she has allowed herself to be, in part because her attractiveness and marriageability define her personhood. These are her weapons of war, and she would be a fool to forget them.

While symbols and mentions of war and siege fill The Besieged City, it’s the novel’s prose that allows the reader to truly experience this type of warfare. Through its long, drawn-out sentences filled with sections out of place, and through its infrequent use of dialogue, the reader is allowed to feel the pressure of the siege. Descriptions of rooms, streets, and people go on for pages uninterrupted by plot, and it is all the reader can do to wait while the siege on the town and Lucrécia continues. Portuguese has naturally longer sentences than English, but there is no preparing a reader for Lispector’s experimental linguistic tactics, or for the long and winding sentences Lorenz has constructed to represent them. At once beautiful and bewildering, each sentence is a broken confusion of actions and descriptions that is not for the faint of heart. Lorenz keeps all of Lispector’s eccentricities: her repetitions, her unusual word choices, her turns of over- and under-using punctuation, and it leaves the reader with something that could quite nearly be a 202-page prose poem.

Lorenz’s respect for Lispector’s work is palpable in the pages – he leaves every jagged edge of her writing intact. As a male translator, anything less would only prove Lispector’s point that men will use women to their own ends when they can. Still, Lorenz proves himself to be a champion of women as they are with his respect for Lispector’s words. Where other translators of Lispector’s works have smoothed out her language to sound more natural or more conventional, Lorenz proves that he believes in the beauty of a rough-hewn fortress of words. The words in The Besieged City may not always be pretty or quaint, and they may not ever give the reader a close bond with the characters, but they will give the reader a taste of a war they may not have been looking for and the hurt, confusion, and victory that may come of it.

In a siege such as this, a woman will either live long enough to be able to proclaim her individuality in her own right, or she will be dominated by some man along the way. Clarice gifts her readers with a kind ending – the siege is lifted and Lucrécia is sure of herself as she pursues her second husband. A woman in her own right, she is no longer the besieged city, but the woman going out to war.

Clarice Lispector. The Besieged City. Translated by Johnny Lorenz. New Directions, 2019.

[1] B. Moser, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector (2009).

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