Having read a couple of Clarice Lispector’s short stories and enjoyed them, I wanted to try one of her novels and settled on The Besieged City. Translated by Johnny Lorenz, the novel follows Lucrecia Neves, a vain and superficial young woman who lives in the small town of Sao Geraldo. The novel tracks the changes both Lucrecia and Sao Geraldo experience through the years; the woman intent on achieving perfection and the town surrendering to progress.
In the Penguin Modern Classics edition of the novel is a review of the book published in 1949. The writer, Temistocles Linhares, concludes by saying, ‘Everything that the novel offers – its lyrical power, the development of Lucrecia Neves’s individual consciousness, the interspersed references to other beings and incidents without greater importance, etc. – fails to go beyond whatever verbal worth it might have. Everything is worthwhile in the eyes of this novelist, but she’s susceptible to lacking discriminating taste’. Whilst the novel does focus on seemingly unimportant events and may initially appear very surface level in terms of exploring themes, this seems deliberate on Lispector’s part. The shallowness reflects the shallow nature of Lucrecia’s character; as the primary narrator the reader mainly sees the world through her eyes. She is incredibly superficial and seems to be more attracted to and interested in objects than people. In fact, there is a scene where Lucrecia poses like a statue – pretending to be an object that people admire. That is what she deems ‘worthwhile’ and Lispector does spend a bit of time on that scene. So whilst Linhare’s critique is understandable, I read the superficiality and emphasis on seemingly insignificant things as a reflection of Lucrecia’s personality.
Lucrecia herself is a wonderful creation and one of the book’s greatest strengths. She is such a fascinating character; in some ways repugnant but captivating throughout. The intensity of her thoughts and dreams – rendered beautifully by Lispector’s literary prowess and almost teetering on the brink of magical realism – allows the reader to really understand her. It also contrasts nicely with her relationships. Whilst she has these vivid daydreams she rarely speaks throughout the course of the novel – she is nearly mute. This again helps to emphasis the importance she places on things rather than people – she thinks so little of others that she barely communicates with them. Lispector also compares her to horses throughout. This not only reflects Lucrecia’s wild, almost animalistic, nature (it can also be read as Lucrecia rejecting her humanness) but the main theme of progress. It is horses that are used to change Sao Geraldo from a small backwaters town to a bustling city; they are carrying the materials used to make things like houses and railroad tracks. And Lucrecia – who believes she had a part in Sao Geraldo’s progress because of her sheer will power – sees herself in a similar manner. Lispector really captures this through her use of zoomorphism, and the reader is given a deeper insight into Lucrecia and how she views her place in Sao Geraldo.
The Besieged City will delight many Lispector fans, though admittedly it is not one I would recommend to people new to her work. It has the beautiful and evocative imagery that Lispector seemed to write effortlessly, but it is also an experimental novel. She plays with time and structure, and admittedly at points the novel can be difficult to understand. Certainly I had to reread passages a couple of times to fully understand what Lispector was meaning. A difficult but worthwhile read.
The Besieged City is published by Penguin and you can find more information here.