TOO MUCH OF LIFE: THE COMPLETE CRÔNICAS
by Clarice Lispector
translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson
New Directions, 864 pages
reviewed by Dylan Cook
A note of caution about Too Much of Life: reading it may cause you to question your reality. When Clarice Lispector took up her crônica column in 1967, she refused to give readers half-hearted, surface-level observations. Each crônica lets us see the world as Lispector saw it, and, under that microscopic magnification, even the most commonplace things become unfamiliar. Who are we when we’re asleep? Why do we lie? What’s the difference between “person” and “persona”? Or, as Lispector asks, “who am I? what am I? what will I be? who am I really? and am I really?” For our own sanity, we may choose not to question our being so closely because we’re afraid of what we may find. Lispector had no such fear.
For Clarice Lispector, life was a never-ending process of becoming. She was born in Ukraine in 1920, but she became Brazilian when her family immigrated to escape the unrest of the Russian Civil War. She began her career writing for magazines until her successful debut Near to the Wild Heart made her a novelist. Through her fiction, she became famous, so much so that her books could be purchased from vending machines in Brazil. All the while, Lispector was a mother, a diplomat’s wife, a fire survivor, and so much more. It was relatively late in her career that she became a crônica writer too, using the gig for supplemental income. Unique to Brazilian newspapers, crônicas are simply a space for writers to put anything they want, with a strong emphasis on “anything.” In her Saturday slot, Lispector gave readers daily musings, interviews, political statements, book reviews, advice, travelogs, travel itineraries, personal ads, speeches, fiction fragments, letter responses, apologies, and countless other entries that resist clear characterization. Too Much of Life collects all of these crônicas for the first time, putting their wayward, frenetic nature on full display.
On the whole, Too Much of Life is a delightfully mixed bag. Lispector’s crônicas are short and sharp, often no more than a paragraph, which lets readers hop between them with the same carefree perusal used to swipe through TikToks. Not every entry resonates, but the ones that do are unexpected, and it’s that feeling of discovery that makes them so addictive. Take, for example, Lispector’s perspective on turtles:
No shell, no head, breathing, up, down, up down. Alive.
How do you understand a turtle? How do you understand God?
The point of departure must be: “I don’t know.” Which is a total surrender.
To Lispector, the turtle is an animal we take for granted. We may see a shell, a head, and limbs, but what does the average person know about turtles? Next to nothing. Yet, from our human perspective, we may see ourselves as better than them even though their species have walked this planet for millions of years more than us. Lispector wants us to humble ourselves and approach things like the amateurs we usually are. If we fail to look at turtles critically, we have little hope for the bigger questions.
Lispector pulls meaning out of the mundane, but she often turns her attention inward. She said that she was concerned about her crônicas “becoming excessively personal,” but, in writing from her perspective, she becomes the incidental subject. Some of her most seductive writing comes when she puts down her thoughts unfiltered. Consider the existential crisis Lispector enters when she loses a document:
I often feel so transfixed by those words “if I were me” that looking for the document becomes secondary, and I start to think. Or, rather, to feel.
And I don’t feel good. Try it: if you were you, how would you be and what would you do? […] I think if I were really me, my friends would not even greet me in the street because even my face would have changed. How? I don’t know.
Even Lispector had difficulty reconciling the many versions of Clarice. When Fernando Pessoa encountered this problem, he fractured his identity into his many “heteronyms.” Lispector was brave enough to put them all under her own name. She stated that she didn’t, “ever want to write an autobiography,” and Too Much of Life certainly isn’t one. Still, the glimpses of Clarice that spill over form an emergent portrait. Week to week, Lispector’s crônicas show a woman who is intently trying to understand the world around her and her place inside it. If her perspectives seem shifty, it’s because people change. If anything, her sincerity stems from the fact that she’s willing to show these conflicting sides of herself. Being a human is messy business, and Lispector never pretends to be clean.
In some ways, Too Much of Life contains essays in the literal sense: they’re attempts. They’re attempts to understand people, the self, and the emotions that govern them all. “I don’t want to grasp everything,” Clarice Lispector wrote. “Sometimes I want only to touch.” She reminds us that not everything can be understood completely, but it’s still worth it to try. Each crônica is written with a cool, assured clarity, but they never actually get to the bottom of their subjects. Instead, we’re given a guided tour through Lispector’s thought process – enter at your own risk. At its worst, Too Much of Life shows the chaos that comes from giving a brilliant writer column inches and no oversight. At its best, it opens new doors of understanding, helping us see ourselves and others as fuller human beings.
Dylan Cook is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied creative writing and biology. He currently lives and works in Chicago. He’s often reading and writing, and when he’s not doing either of these things, he can be found working in a genetics lab, lost in the woods somewhere, or at [email protected].
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