Wharton, Colette, Lispector
Aug 25, 2015
16 Min read time
Between 1885 and 1943, three brilliant female novelists married young, to men who would never understand their passions or come to terms with the scope of their gifts.
Photo courtesy New Directions.
Between 1885 and 1943, three brilliant female novelists married young, to men who would never understand their passions or come to terms with the scope of their gifts. They found that marriage dulled their senses, restricted their movements, and weighed them down with concern for appearance and tact. In their prose, these writers were always resisting the enclosure of marriage, clawing away at the layers of insulation in which they’d been wrapped: the extreme receptivity they give their heroines to atmospheric changes; the thinness of whatever membrane exists between their characters and the outside world; their hatred or euphemism and cant. Eventually, all three of them divorced. Their writing became richer, wiser, more darkly melancholic and, in some cases, more curiously abstract. What it kept was its capacity to track sensation on the page: its heightened sensitivity to shifting gradients of light, rearrangements of bodies and disruptions in the atmosphere.
For seventeen years, the three of them coexisted in separate corners of the Western world. Edith Wharton, the oldest, died in 1937, having come to prominence as a writer late in life. The House of Mirth, her first major novel, was published in 1905, when she was forty-three, almost twice the age of Clarice Lispector when, over nine cramped, feverishly productive months in 1942, she wrote the book that would become her debut novel, Near to the Wild Heart. At the time, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette—by then known exclusively by her last name—was living in occupied Paris and churning out fiction with metronomic frequency. She was on her third marriage. Lispector was about to enter her first, but she had already written the first batch of the short stories that would become a major pillar of her literary legacy, many of which dealt prophetically with young women struggling to escape their uncomprehending husbands.
• • •
A few days before her wedding, Wharton mustered the courage to ask her mother “what married life was like.” The ghastly answer she received echoes throughout much of her fiction. “You’ve seen enough pictures and statues in your life,” the steely lady told her daughter. “Haven’t you noticed that men are—made differently from women?” The fact “that babies were not found in flowers but in people” was, Wharton claimed, all she knew of the “process of generation” until weeks into her marriage. “And all the while,”
Life, real Life, was ringing in my ears, humming in my blood, flushing my cheeks & waving in my hair—sending me messages & signals from every beautiful face & musical voice, & running over me in vague tremors when I rode my pony, or swam through the short bright ripples of the bay, or raced & danced & tumbled with “the boys.”
What, aside from the obvious sexual intimations, does Wharton mean by “real Life”? Jarringly, the passage implies that life is not what happens when a person’s blood hums or when her cheeks flush; it is a thing, intimate but foreign, whose humming she perceives within herself—a thing to be noticed, detected, and encountered. In that respect, Wharton’s definition of “life” wasn’t far from the one on which George Eliot relied at a certain moment in Middlemarch, which Wharton studied enthusiastically for, among other things, its depiction of a horribly ill-advised marriage. The tears Dorothea Brooke sheds as she feels her “wifely relation” to her older scholar-husband darken, Eliot’s narrator insists, needn’t trouble us much. For after all, “if we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”
The House of Mirth is thus the story of a young woman who tries her best not to walk about “wadded with stupidity,” who strains to hear all the “messages and signals” Life might send her. Lily Bart is beautiful, cunning, socially dexterous, and constantly, fatally alert to the pretensions of her peers. Attracted to wealth—“the glow of the stones,” Wharton writes of her encounter with a display of wedding jewelry, “warmed [her] veins like wine”—and appalled by the thought of poverty, she nonetheless refuses to marry into a life she knows will leave her deaf to the humming of the world. When she agrees to a solitary walk with Lawrence Selden, who she imagines could induct her, if he chose, into his “republic” of the witty, sensual and free, she finds herself split into “two beings,” one “gasping for air in a little black prison-house of fears,” the other “drawing deep breaths of freedom and exhilaration”—a “free spirit” that “quivered for flight.”
Wharton’s marriage to an older man of leisure was a creative incubator; it gave her space to patiently develop her craft. Colette’s thirteen-year entanglement with the philandering, flamboyant music critic and literary charlatan Henry Gauthier-Villars, who signed her first novels under his pseudonym Willy, was closer to a pressure cooker. Colette would later say that, as Gauthier-Villars’ young country wife, she’d been locked in her study and coerced into writing the massively successful Claudine novels. Subsequent critics, including Judith Thurman and Terry Castle, have put that claim to doubt. (“It seems unlikely,” Thurman concludes in her definitive Colette biography, although her evidence is inconclusive: “there were servants in the house, and a telephone.”) Regardless, Willy and Colette’s was certainly a marriage of unequal exploitation. Gauthier-Villars’s many connections in fin-de-siècleParis helped guarantee the series a wide readership. (Eventually, you could find its heroine emblazoned on sweets, perfumes, and cigarette cases.) But it’s striking to imagine this forty-year-old male libertine, whom even more sympathetic critics like Thurman ultimately depict as something of a cad, putting his name to books at once so reckless, tender, effusive, nostalgic, savage and clear-eyed about a young woman’s sexual education. It was thosequalities, after all, which made the books the succès de scandale they were.
Wharton’s marriage to an older man of leisure was a creative incubator; Colette’s entanglement with a philandering, flamboyant music critic was closer to a pressure cooker.
Bashful asides, hotheaded insults, candid judgments, and sordid confessions: the Claudine novels are presented as a schoolgirl’s diary entries, and their prose is far looser, shriller, and closer to the rhythms of speech than The House of Mirth. The two books emerged from authors of sharply different ages, temperaments, and class backgrounds: Wharton was older and, relatively speaking, less hotheaded than Colette, who grew up in a small, rural Burgundy village rather than a stifling New York brownstone. And there was a wide gulf between the Parisian theatergoers who devoured Colette’s books and the New York socialites who read Wharton’s. These differences emerge, sentence by sentence, in the novels themselves. It’s telling to contrast Wharton’s exquisite evocations of what she discreetly calls “real Life” with Claudine’s frank inventories of her desires and needs (“as I conjured up his mouth and the passion in his darkened eyes, a delicious distress made me clasp my hands”), or her suggestion early in Claudine Married, the third volume in the series, that “it is as if marriage (be honest and say sex!) had developed certain modes of ‘feeling’ in me that were older than myself.”
Claudine may have conflated marriage with sex, but sex, for Colette as for Wharton, was simply one of several dimensions of perceptual experience. Like Lily Bart, Claudine often frets over the thinness and poverty of her sensory life. Where Lily dances gracefully around her objects of desire, however, Claudine often admits wanting to gobble them up whole. “The green Parc Monceau,” she reflects in Claudine in Paris, “attracted me, like something good to eat”—a formulation she also applies to smells, animals, and other schoolgirls. Colette was fascinated by the dramatic possibilities of hunger, which, over the course of the Claudine books, tracks the development of Claudine’s capacity to savor, evaluate, and digest sensory stimuli: faces homely and alluring, body language seductive and absurd, the hollow of her husband’s shoulders, the depths of other women’s décolletage, the woods at Montigny, the contours and textures of her own body.
Colette’s marriage piqued some of her appetites and inhibited others; Willy, tyrannical and unfaithful, kept her movements under tight control. Like Wharton, Colette found escape in a passionate extramarital affair—in her case, with a reckless, cross-dressing, ambiguously gendered marquise ten years her senior. Outside their marriages, both writers gravitated to worldly, undomesticated figures: lovers by whom they were sometimes intimidated as well as inspired. “I’m so afraid,” Wharton wrote in a moment of abandon to her lover Morton Fullerton in March 1908, “that the treasures I long to unpack for you, that have come to me in magic ships from enchanted islands, are only, to you, the old familiar red calico & beads of the clever trader, who has had dealings in every latitude.” Concocting an overflowing prose style to describe the “treasures” she brought back from the sensible world was Colette’s way of doing what Wharton swore to do in the last lines of that letter. “Why should I be afraid of your smiling at me,” she asked, “when I can turn the beads & calico back into such beauty?”
• • •
“Before we got married,” Lispector’s husband Maury wrote her in a desperate note after their separation, “you told me that you weren’t made for marriage. . . . Instead of taking that as a slap in the face, I ought to have seen it as a request for support.” The long letter was a plea for forgiveness and, oddly, a glowing piece of literary criticism. Like many subsequent readers of Near to the Wild Heart, Maury was quick to conflate Joana, the book’s rootless, impulsive, storm-tossed young heroine, with her author—and himself, anachronistically, with the character’s clueless, complacently loving husband. “I could never understand,” he confessed, “the intensity of a jealousy, always denied and profoundly repressed by Joana and Clarice, that would make them detest Otàvio and Maury.”
Perhaps that was because jealousy, as Maury seems to have understood it, isn’t what moves Joana through this strange, fervid, incandescent book. What made Near to the Wild Heart a sensation when it was published in 1943 (printed, as was customary at the time, with a pink cover to indicate its author’s gender) was instead Lispector’s skill at staging, prolonging and acutely evoking what Eliot might have called moments of “keen vision and feeling”—the kind of moments Wharton and Colette’s heroine’s hungered for. “I carry on always inaugurating myself,” Joana reflects “some months after marrying,”
opening and closing circles of life, tossing them aside, withered, full of past. Why so independent, why don’t they merge into just one block, providing me with ballast? Fact was they were too whole. Moments so intense, red, condensed in themselves that they didn’t need past and future in order to exist . . . Once the moment of life is over, the corresponding truth is also drained. I cannot mold it, make it inspire other instants the same as it. Nothing therefore binds me.
Joanna resists marriage in part because it binds her to consider the implications of the past and the future for the present. It keeps her from approaching, in the words of James Joyce that Lispector’s gay first love Lúcio Cardoso suggested she take for a title, the “wild heart of life.” Lispector, for whom inhabiting the present completely was nothing less than a religious vocation, perhaps had similar reasons for considering herself ill-suited for her marriage to—of all husbands—a diplomat obliged to throw parties, travel abroad, and attend carefully to matters of social form.
Like The House of Mirth and Claudine at School, Near to the Wild Heart was so confident and unexpected that it single-handedly brought its author to fame. Lispector wrote the book in a small rented room in Rio de Janeiro, but she was born in Chechelnyk, a poverty-stricken Ukrainian village where her family suffered horrific abuses during the pogroms. Twenty-one years after her family’s move to Brazil, she started working for the newspaper A Noite at a time when, in the words of her biographer Benjamin Moser, it was little more than “a middling government organ.” She did, however, have open-minded supporters within Brazil’s lively literary subculture. Cardoso convinced her that she had a book on her hands where all she saw was notes, and her friend, the journalist Francisco de Assis Barbosa, guided it into the hands of an editor at A Noite’s publishing arm.
For Lispector, inhabiting the present completely was nothing less than a religious vocation.
The novels she published after that book, particularly The Passion of G.H. and her later masterpiece Água Viva, concentrated on the attempts of civilized women to, as G.H. put it, “reach the present time” around them. That task could mean, across those books, eating parts of insects as if they were communion wafers (G.H.’s extended study of the biorhythms of a dying cockroach suggests what Eliot’s narrator meant by the dangers of “hearing the squirrel’s heart beat”), engaging in anguished dialogues with yourself, or simply, in the words of the narrator of Aqua Viva, “looking after the world” until you lose yourself in it. In her late work, Wharton seemed to sour on the possibility of escaping what she called the “network of accepted prejudices and opinions” into which she was born. (“Autres Temps,” one of her saddest stories, centers on a cast-out divorcée whose recently divorced daughter hides the older woman away during a visit from the socialites whose blessing she needs to re-marry.) Colette’s later writing, in books like The Pure and the Impure and short stories like “The Tender Shoot,” likewise moved into a kind of disappointed quiescence. As she aged, Lispector insisted even more ferociously on her need to keep as thin a sheath as possible between herself and the perceptible world—to continue “always inaugurating” herself.
Nowhere does that impulse emerge more often or with more varied shapes than in Lispector’s shorter prose: her delightful crônicas, which appeared regularly for years in the Jornal do Brasil, but above all her short fiction, newly translated by Katrina Dodson and collected in its entirety for the first time by New Directions. (Moser, who presides generally over the recent new wave of Lispector translations, edited this volume.) Across her many stories, Lispector insists that her readers spend time in pungent, humid, often rickety or unstable structures of words. Her syntax is built to describe painful transformations and violent collisions. “It was clear,” we’re told of a traumatized teen, “that her face had become smaller—the entire painstaking construction of her age had come undone, she was a little girl once more.” Certain objects—roses, dress-up costumes, lipstick—recur in the stories like decorations or secret talismans. Animals, particularly chickens, intrude constantly (“A Chicken”; “The Buffalo”; “Monkeys”; “The Egg and the Chicken”; “Dry Sketch of Horses”; “A Full Afternoon,” which opens with a glimpse of a marmoset; “A Tale of So Much Love,” in which a young girl kills her beloved hen from over-care). And there is the governing presence of Lispector’s own authorial voice: it is prickly, assaultive, candid, unfailingly precise about even the most private emotional experiences.
And yet for all the sheer strangeness of Lispector’s style and tone, it is only in her bitter, morbid final collection The Via Crucis of the Body—a sequence of grim fables of sexual obsession and stymied desire, interspersed with crônica-like, thinly fictionalized dispatches from her own life—that she fully rejects the traditional thought that characters could take on convincingly human presences on the page. In its handling of character and its narrative structure, much of Lispector’s short fiction is Chekhovian: these are stories in which confused men and women move through precisely evoked places, have their mundane lives disrupted by sudden, eruptive encounters, and struggle to regain their balance.
The defining mark of Lispector’s genius is how she stages these disruptive encounters, the peculiar, surprising words she finds to suggest what brings her characters—especially her heroines—closer to the wild heart of life. A proud wife and mother with a deep need to “feel the firm root of things” feels her inner world convulsing after an encounter with a blind man on a bus (“Love”). A nine-year-old schoolgirl discovers “all the eager venom that we’re born with and that gnaws away at life” after she picks up her ugly teacher’s attraction to her (“The Disasters of Sofia”). Two platonic teenage friends pass abruptly into sexual maturity at the sight of an ivy-covered house (“The Message”). A freewheeling woman, in a variation on the themes of G.H., realizes how gruesome real freedom can be when she almost steps on a rat in the street (“Forgiving God”). The elementary school teacher’s over-affectionate grin in “The Disasters of Sofia” is a horrific, surgical spectacle: “I saw some thing forming on his face. . . . but this thing that in mute catastrophe was being uprooted, this thing so little resembled a smile as if a liver or a foot were trying to smile, I don’t know.”
• • •
Like any of the richest characters in fiction, the married women in the works of Lispector, Wharton, and Colette are usually moved by a mixed bag of desires and needs. They defy their domestic expectations to occupy, in some cases, surprisingly matronly roles. They give accounts of rapturous epiphanies that end with deflating lines like the one at the conclusion of one of Lispector’s most moving crônicas: “I am just another woman too many.” They delight in their own bodies by imagining—as Claudine often does—their effect on hypothetical men. And even as they resist marriage, they often depend on men, as Lily Bart depends on Selden, to put them through perceptual, intellectual, or sexual educations.
They want to be loved, these heroines, sometimes desperately or with clinging submissiveness. It’s rare for them to be their own centers of gravity. Instead, their triumph consists in their cultivation of a defiant sensibility, their hunger for sensation, and their unwillingness to scale down what hopes or expectations they have. Their authors gave them a language so muscular, fleet-footed, and blindingly assertive that it challenges, even overrides, the submissive desires it is sometimes used to express. You could imagine Claudine, bound back for Montigny, thinking the monologue that occurs to the heroine of Lispector’s story “The Departure of the Train” as she prepares to start a life away from her lover:
I’m headed for my own life, Edu. And I say like Fellini: in darkness and ignorance I create more. The life I had with Eduardo smelled like a freshly painted new pharmacy. She preferred the living smell of manure disgusting as it was. . . . She was still in love with Eduardo. And he, without knowing it, was still in love with her. I who can’t get anything right, except omelets.
And what is said of Lily as she stands in a train station on the first page of The House of Mirth might just as well be said of any of these characters: “It was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation, that her simplest acts seemed the result of far-reaching intentions.” The thrill of reading Wharton, Colette, and, above all, Lispector is finding those intentions reproduced in prose as varied and surprising, as flamboyant and disruptive, and as dangerous and elating as its subjects—prose that comes as close as they do to “the roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
August 25, 2015
16 Min read time