Picture the trailer of “Eat Pray Love,” and you’ll get some idea of what it’s like to read “An Apprenticeship, or The Book of Pleasures” by Clarice Lispector. I say this because it’s a novel about a woman trying to find herself, but also because Lispector is one of the most accessible writers out there. Literary critics have made her out to be an enigma, probably because she makes peculiar, inventive choices, like beginning her novel with a comma and ending it with a colon. Parul Sehgal, book critic at The New York Times, called the rediscovery of her work one of the “true literary events of the 21st century,” which only makes Lispector seem all the more untouchable.
While her genius can’t be overstated, I can’t stress enough how Lispector’s fiction is for everyone. Every thought her characters have will be a thought you have had, and every sentence will be like looking in a mirror. And that’s the entire point. Lispector had the uncanny ability to voice the unspoken, the restlessness and yearning and infinity we all feel deep down inside ourselves but never manage to put into words.
Originally published in Brazil in 1973, “An Apprenticeship” was translated from Portuguese by Stefan Tobler, edited by Benjamin Moser and is the latest of Lispector’s novels to be released in English by New Directions. The novel follows its leading woman Lóri, who (surprise, surprise) falls in love with the leading man, Ulisses. The catch — and there’s always a catch — is that Ulisses decides they aren’t going to be together right away. Instead, weirdly, the pair enter not into a relationship but what Lispector terms an apprenticeship: Lóri will take the time to come into her own, after which she, ready for love, will be ready for Ulisses. “Isn’t it horrible? What a plot!” exclaims Sheila Heti in the afterword. “Yet can I say Lispector is wrong? It is always tempting to try to make oneself worthy of someone who has put themselves above you (or who you have put above you).”
So begins a journey of self-discovery, during which Lóri spends a lot of time awake — drinking coffee late at night on her terrace, looking up at the moon — and a lot of time on her own. She goes to the market to look at fresh fruit. She goes swimming in the sea at dawn. She uses all of her money to buy new sweaters for the children she teaches at the elementary school. It’s easy to envision the film montage, punctuated by a rousing soundtrack, as Lóri lives each day to the fullest, realizing that, as Lispector writes, “The thing the human being aspires to most is to become a human being.”
If all of this sounds horribly cliché, that’s because it is. Romance stories like “An Apprenticeship” structure themselves around stereotypes that might make us roll our eyes. The man dashes to the airport to catch his love interest just in time. Two people start out pretending to date only to realize they’ve fallen in love. Ross and Rachel. “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.” The list goes on. Yet we return again and again to these tropes because they are a shortcut for conveying some universal truth — a truth too universal for words.
Lispector, however, has the words. And if she takes the shortcut, it’s because she wants to reveal to us, step by step, the shortcut itself, and the oblivion lying just beyond it. Her every turn of phrase exposes those mental leaps that let us live more or less on autopilot; otherwise, the strangeness of being alive would drive us crazy. “Existing is so completely out of the ordinary,” Lispector writes, “that if we were aware of existing for more than a few seconds, we’d go mad.” If Lispector’s writing is as demanding as critics might suggest, then this is the reason why. It’s not that you’ll have to squint at the page, trying to parse what on earth some sentence means. More likely than not, you’ll know exactly what it means. And the revelation will be so dazzling in its simplicity, a still life in fluorescent colors, that you will have to put the book down for a moment and rethink your entire life.
Lóri and Ulisses do not wrangle existential truths out of their daily lives because they are superhuman. In fact, Lispector makes her characters ordinary on purpose. Who hasn’t felt that “whatever she was, was only a small part of herself,” for “she was the World” and yet “living so little”? Who isn’t guilty of “being careful not to be big inside herself so as not to be in pain”? Who hasn’t realized that “deep down she didn’t want to comprehend,” because understanding “was impossible and every time she had thought she’d understood it was because she’d understood wrongly”? Lispector has a unique power to situate the metaphysical within the realm of everyday experience. “None of this was thought,” Lispector writes, clarifying, “It was lived.”
Over and over, the most stunning passages of the text are also the most relatable. At one point, Lóri misplaces a paper, and so she thinks to herself, “If I were I and had to keep an important document where would I put it?” This question of “if I were I” catapults Lóri into an existential crisis. “The lie in which she’d been living so comfortably had just been shifted slightly from the spot where it had settled,” Lispector writes. “Lóri was thinking that if she were she, then acquaintances wouldn’t greet her on the street because even her countenance would have changed. ‘If I were I’ seemed to represent the greatest danger in living.”
In the end, yes, the guy gets the girl. Yes, they are going to get married, and they’re going to live happily ever after. But unlike other romance stories, where the payoff lies in the moment two people finally get together, the magic of “An Apprenticeship” comes from the meticulous attention Lispector pays to the journey of getting there. Where the draw of other romances might be the huge wedding or the characters dramatically professing their love to each other in the rain, the draw of Lispector’s writing is how she zeroes in on the tiniest of epiphanies, as miniscule as the firing of a single neuron — and as significant.
“You’re the right woman for me,” Ulisses tells Lóri, “because I’m missing someone to say obvious things in an extraordinary way. Obvious things, Lóri, are the hardest truths to see.” Lispector’s writing voices the same sentiment. Reading her work doesn’t require some extensive background in continental philosophy or of Proust. All Lispector requires is that you be open to the possibility that the most profound truths can be found in the most mundane of experiences. That as she tackles impossible questions about the nature of existence and the immensity of our universe, maybe, just maybe, she is writing about you.