It is hard to know where to begin with this review. ‘The Hour of the Star’ is a novella that is so short and so full of perfectly crafted sentences and images, my strong temptation to fill the blog post with quotations is tempered by the knowledge that this would end up in me copying out a ridiculously large percentage of the book itself. The title isn’t far off, it doesn’t take much more than an hour to read Lispector’s melancholy masterpiece. Attempting to describe it is only ever going to be clumsy, imprecise and shabby by comparison.
I suppose a good place to start is with the book’s titles. The first page gives a long list of possibilities with ‘The Hour of the Star’ appearing second after ‘The Blame is Mine,’ and above other equally brilliant phrases that are a haunting introduction to the novella, from ‘I Can Do Nothing’ to ‘She Doesn’t Know How to Protest.’ The list would appear playful and coy if it wasn’t for the sense of despair it evokes, an uncomfortably mixed tone that is continued as the story is narrated by an intrusive narrator, the author Rodrigo S. M., describing his creative struggles in capturing his protagonist in print: ‘Nobody desires her, she is a harmless virgin whom nobody needs. It strikes me that I don’t need her either and that what I am writing could be written by another. Another writer, of course, but it would have to be a man for a woman would weep her heart out.’
The emotions conjured up by the self-conscious narrator are constantly fighting with those evoked by his creation, an immature woman who is both intensely pitiable and yet problematically pure in her acceptance of her stunted existence. If it is difficult to establish a relationship with the patronising and sympathetic, hostile and loving narrator, how much more so to pin down Macabéa, the ‘star’ of the novel, introduced to us as ‘inept. Inept for living.’ Abused, monumentally lonely and desperate for affection, we see her torments from the outside (because she never recognises them as such) and are welcomed into her painfully modest joys. Simultaneously complex and simple, her message is, for me, one of both hope and despair: ‘She wasn’t aware of her own unhappiness. The only thing she desired was to live. She could not explain, for she didn’t probe her situation. Perhaps she felt there was some glory in living. She thought that a person was obliged to be happy. So she was happy.’
There is an overt social message in the book; it is clear that Macabéa is one of so many ignored lives in society, and the unfairness and inhumanity of her situation is never excused through her own acceptance of it. Equally powerful however is the way Macabéa emerges as a character in her own right, evading her narrator as he ties to pin her down and never giving the reader the comfort of a conclusive understanding of her motivations or inner life.
This is likely to be my only contribution to the 1977 book club (hosted kaggsysbookishramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book) and I only managed it in time because it really is extremely short. In terms of quality though, I can’t imagine many better books can have been published that year. ‘The Hour of the Star’ is a true timeless classic and I am so pleased that the club finally pushed me to read and review it.