The cronista hunts big game with a pocketknife. A brief description of the old neighborhood soccer team suggests the unrelenting passage of time; a glimpse of a stranger’s arm during a turbulent flight leads to a reflection on life and death. “There’s a right way to start a crônica by using a triviality,” Machado de Assis, one of the first great writers to champion the form, wrote in 1877.
One says: how hot it is! How unwaveringly hot! One says this while shaking the tips of a handkerchief, snorting like a bull, or simply agitating one’s overcoat. Then one slips from the heat to atmospheric occurrences, drawing a few speculations about the sun and the moon, others about yellow fever, sending a sigh to Petrópolis, and la glace est rompue; the crônica has begun.
As with almost everything he wrote, there’s a subtle irony in Machado’s suggestion that an easy step-by-step will lead to the desired outcome. Shorter and more elliptical than an essay, the Brazilian crônica is in fact a maddeningly elusive genre. The difficulty lies not so much in identifying the form’s attachment to the mundane (simple prose, wry personal anecdotes, an eye for the odd detail or fleeting character), but in the specific magic dust that transforms minor observations into prose that’s brimming with pathos. The underground passage from triviality to transcendence is hard to locate, yet you know a true crônica when you read one.
The ratio of failure to success is high, but when it works it is indelible. It is a form that is at once high-risk—because hard to master—and complacent, perfect for the talent wasters, the boozers and sinecure seekers who can’t always endure enough solitude to write novels. The genre’s birth, or at least its first wave of popularity, can be traced to the expansion of Brazilian cities, particularly Rio de Janeiro, and the local press in the nineteenth century. Once a stylish reprieve from the urgent news articles it accompanied, the crônica has seen a severe decline in influence over the past decades.* There are writers working today who define themselves as cronistas, but in the age of furious tweets and bloated newsletters, such a subtle form seems unlikely to regain ground.
Much like the flaneur drifting around Paris, the cronista is often thought of as both a product and an observer of Rio’s chaotic growth—a nocturnal, dipsomaniac figure who sketches the fleeting scenes and characters of the city. Unlike the flaneur, though, the cronista is no loner; he (almost always a he) feeds on companionship and cliques. His paths through the city contain longer pit stops at bars and restaurants; he is more idler than wanderer.
An aura of thwarted promise hovers over even the most celebrated practitioners of the form. Not because they failed to achieve worldly success, but because to be a cronista is to celebrate what is minor, to show a certain indifference toward literary greatness. It was Rubem Braga who came closest to elevating the crônica to canonical status. Having worked from the 1930s through the 1970s, he is now probably the writer most associated with the form, and the main representative of its last great generation. Braga and his group of friends contributed to Rio’s bohemian landscape as much as the bossa nova musicians, writing about one another and creating a mythology around themselves that made them seem elegiac from the outset, as if they knew that their way of expressing themselves would one day be outgrown.
Although she often appears in anthologies of the genre, Clarice Lispector occupies a peculiar position in the history of cronismo. She was a latecomer, writing her first crônicas in the last decade of her life, but her presence in the daily papers gave her the readership that had long eluded her as a writer of fiction. The critical and commercial success of her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart (1943), published when she was only twenty-three, had been followed by a string of commercially disappointing novels, earning her a reputation as an author who was “hermetic” (an adjective she hated) and hard to sell. Braga and his friends, fierce admirers of her fiction, used their influence to promote her journalistic career, recommending her fiction in 1958 to Senhor, an influential little magazine where she would become a regular contributor. But it was her hiring by the Rio daily Jornal do Brasil in 1967, a few years after she wrote the book that is now considered her masterpiece, The Passion According to G.H. (1964), that brought her to the attention of a wider public. She held the job until 1973, four years before her premature death from cancer. It was the press that put Lispector on a first-name basis with the Brazilian public, like a soccer player, musician, or politician. “Thanks to the Jornal do Brasil I’m becoming popular. I get sent roses,” she wrote in a column in 1967.
Too Much of Life: The Complete Crônicas, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, is mostly made up of her pieces for the daily, though a sprinkling of writings for other publications is also included. The second half of the title is misleading. Only a few pieces in this collection would fit even the loosest definition of a crônica—they vary widely and include, among other miscellany, reflections on writing; miniprofiles of friends, artists, and artist friends; cryptic dialogues; replies to fan mail; a spiky riposte to a rumor about the author’s divorce; and one indignant letter, in the Moses Herzog vein, to the minister of education. Also, unclassifiable sentences and paragraphs. Few writers have ever taken the expression “This is an open space” quite so literally. Costa and Patterson’s translation does a fine job of capturing Lispector’s syntax and rhythms, a task that isn’t so straightforward considering the sheer variety of forms her pieces take.
Tucked away in these nearly 750 pages, like rare flowers among ordinary grasses, are more purposeful attempts at writing what one might call pure crônicas, some of which are perfectly rendered, and a handful of which have the unmistakable touch of the author. These are the ones that most often appear in anthologies, and upon which Lispector’s reputation as a cronista rests.
“When I was very young,” she writes on June 6, 1970, in “Fear of Eternity,” “I’d still never tried chewing gum, and it wasn’t much talked about even in Recife. I had no idea what it was.” This is a typical setup for a crônica: a personal memory or perception—Machado’s triviality—clearing only the faintest path to a theme hinted at in the title. Her sister warns her not to lose the never-ending candy (“It lasts a whole lifetime”), alarming little Clarice:
I picked up that small pink pastille representing the elixir of eternal pleasure. I examined it, scarcely able to believe in that miracle. I, who, like other children, would sometimes take a still intact piece of candy out of my mouth in order to suck it later on and so make it last longer. And there I was with that seemingly innocent pink thing, making possible the impossible world I had only just become aware of.
Lispector here nails the form’s paradoxical mixture of accessibility and high artistic ambition by conjoining a childhood memory with the unbearable weight of eternity. “Suck it and enjoy the sweetness,” her sister orders. “And then you can chew for the rest of your life. Unless you lose it, that is, and I’ve already lost quite a few.” As the gum becomes rubbery and gray and tasteless, Clarice starts to feel panicked; eventually she spits it onto the sandy ground at the school gates, pretending she has lost it. “I felt shamed by her kindness, ashamed that I had lied,” she says. “But relieved too. No longer burdened down by the weight of eternity.”
In Lispector’s most fully achieved crônicas, the trivial doesn’t so much segue into the transcendent as become inextricable from it. A piece of gum contains the whole space–time continuum; a mercury droplet represents the elusive nature of all material things. This is the same sense of rapture one hears from her hypersensitive fictional narrators, to whom no ordinary thing fails to carry some extraordinary emanation—an encounter with a cockroach evokes the vision of a terrible, boundless, amoral universe, the liquid oozing out of it a damning nectar containing the whole secret of human existence.
Often, though, Lispector just seems to fret about her new day job. “I know that what I write here cannot really be called a crônica or a column or even an article,” she writes on March 9, 1968. That same year, she asks, “Is the crônica a story? Is it a conversation? Is it the summation of a state of mind?”
Dwelling on one’s desire, ability, or lack thereof to master the form—metacronismo, say—is not unusual. But there is something wildly incongruous about Lispector as cronista—it’s as if J.M. Coetzee had been invited to write weekly op-eds for the Times, or Cormac McCarthy hired as a regular book critic. Where the form privileges levity, suppleness, storytelling, and a certain sense of humor, her writing is often abstract, weary, and wary of language’s limits, impatient not merely with narrative but with events in general, always seeking a fast track to metaphysical experience. “As a reader, I prefer the attractive type of book, because it’s less tiring, less demanding, requires little real engagement,” she wrote on February 14, 1970. “But as a writer, I want to dispense with everything I can possibly dispense with: that is what makes the experience worthwhile.”
Her primordial world of animals, rocks, plants, and anthropomorphic rooms doesn’t really jibe with the secular, street-smart world of odd characters and sly observations, the gossipy tone one finds in writers like Braga. Often, in her weekly pieces, she slips into a novelistic voice that, one suspects, reflects the kind of thing she’d rather be doing. A column published on October 10, 1970, begins:
It was very dry that spring, and the radio crackled, picking up static, our clothes bristled with static electricity, our hair clung to the comb as if magnetized: it was a hard spring. And very empty. Wherever you happened to be, you set off into the distance: never had there been so many paths. We spoke little; our bodies heavy with sleep, our eyes wide and blank. On the balcony, along with the fish in the aquarium, we drank a cool drink, gazing out at the countryside. The dreams of the goats wafted in from the fields on the breeze. At the other table on the balcony sat a solitary faun. We stared into our drinks and dreamed static dreams inside the glass. “What did you say?” “I didn’t say anything.”
It’s heady to picture my grandfather back in vast, isolated Mato Grosso in the late 1960s, nursing his ulcer and stirring his ground guarana leaves while opening his paper and finding this sort of writing. But readers were probably not that fazed. Lispector’s enigmatic style was certainly unique, but part of the whole point of crônicas is their unapologetic lack of utilitarian value, their beautiful pointlessness. They are a kind of anti-news.
The journalist Flávio Pinheiro—who did not cross paths with Lispector at the Jornal do Brasil but worked there in the late 1970s and then again in the 1980s and 1990s as the editor of the famed CadernoB supplement that she used to write for—recently told me that the cronista’s role back then was to “enhance the paper’s vocabulary.” According to him, cronistas rarely ever went into the office, and were a group apart, largely exempt from the daily routine.
In a preface to the Brazilian edition of The Complete Crônicas, released by the publishing house Rocco in 2019, the writer and journalist Marina Colasanti, then the young employee who was put in charge of dealing with Lispector’s pieces, recalls seeing her only a handful of times, right after she began as a contributor. After that, her pieces would usually come via emissary, in big brown envelopes, written in a difficult scrawl—the result of a home fire that almost killed her in 1966, leaving her writing hand severely damaged. Very little editing went on: “I fixed one typo or another, not more than that,” Colasanti writes.
In one sense Lispector was a part of Braga’s gang. According to Benjamin Moser, the author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector (2009), it was Otto Lara Resende, another cronista, who in 1960 first suggested to the then editor of Jornal do Brasil, Alberto Dines, that he hire Lispector as a regular writer. In 1962, a few years after divorcing her husband, the diplomat Maury Gurgel Valente, Lispector had a brief and intense affair with Paulo Mendes Campos, a well-known cronista from Braga’s group who was married at the time. And it was Braga and Fernando Sabino who published The Passion According to G.H., through their own small publishing house.
But these close relationships belie Lispector’s separateness. The most glaring difference, of course, was her gender. Along with Cecília Meireles and Rachel de Queiroz, Lispector is among the very few women associated with a male-dominated genre. The ideal occupations for cronismo—boozing and idling, mostly—demand gargantuan amounts of time, something that pretty much only men had in the heyday of the form. Though the income she received as a diplomat’s wife (first in Naples, later in Washington) gave her a certain amount of freedom to write, Lispector longed for home. Her second, third, and fourth novels were all written abroad with difficulty, between attending diplomatic functions and taking care of her two boys, and the cold reception of publishers back in Brazil depressed her.
Reeling from her divorce, she returned to Rio in 1959 with her sons and hardly seemed to have the appetite to take part in a literary scene built on barhopping. Moser’s descriptions of this period give Lispector the air of a Ferrante character: the female artist only half-belonging, unraveling even while being the center of intellectual admiration, calling friends up in the middle of the night, taking sleeping pills and chain-smoking (hence the fire), using heavier makeup to shock herself into a new persona, consumed by her domestic life while her male counterparts drink, self-mythologize, and launch new literary ventures. Mendes Campos, after their affair, went back to his English wife and children; Gurgel Valente sent her $500 every month, but financial anxiety became an issue.
Jornal do Brasil was not Lispector’s first experience in journalism. In 1940, a few years before publishing her first novel, she convinced a government official and censor to give her a job as a reporter and editor for the Agência Nacional, a press agency controlled by the Department of Press and Propaganda of the Estado Novo, a dictatorial regime installed by then president Getúlio Vargas. Shortly afterward she worked at the daily A Noite, also under Vargas’s watch.
In 1952 Braga gave her a women’s advice column at Comício, an anti-Vargas weekly he was running at the time. Lispector gave cosmetics and relationship advice under the pseudonym Tereza Quadros, occasionally smuggling in material that subtly questioned female stereotypes. After her divorce she worked as a ghostwriter for the model and actress Ilka Soares and was again hired as an advice columnist by the newspaper Correio da Manhã, this time using an anglicized pseudonym, Helen Palmer. Part of her job was to lure unwitting readers toward the benefits of Pond’s face cream, which was never explicitly mentioned in the pieces.
None of these early writings are included in Too Much of Life, but Lispector’s former selves often reappear in her Jornal do Brasil columns. In a piece dated April 24, 1971, she describes the pleasure she finds translating an Encyclopedia for Women:
Every woman should have one (it isn’t ready yet), since it covers culture (the section I’ve been doing up till now, and I just hope they’ll also give me the section on makeup) as well as things that are strictly feminine like makeup, lifestyle, handicrafts (I’ve embroidered numerous tablecloths, but only in flat stitch or satin stitch—I don’t know how to do complicated stitches), etc.
Then she says, “For women, our turn has finally come: we are considered important enough to be given an encyclopedia.”
Lispector often shows this kind of sardonic awareness about the terrible deal women get. But she also seems to be a pragmatist at heart, preferring to navigate the world as it is rather than confront it too forcefully. (That the aforementioned ironic comment ends the column rather than starting it sums up this attitude.) Politically, she declares herself a leftist. “I would like to see a socialist government in Brazil,” she writes on December 30, 1967. But other discussions about politics in the columns are sparse and generic. Whether this is because of or despite the fact that in 1968 the military government clamped down on civil liberties, leading to the most repressive period of the regime, is a question that is hard to answer.
Writing a column under her own name was not something Lispector undertook lightly at Jornal do Brasil. In a column dated June 5, 1971, she writes, “One day I phoned Rubem Braga, the creator of the crônica,” reminding us yet again of his stature. Worrying that her pieces were becoming “excessively personal,” she asks for his advice. “It’s impossible not to be personal in a crônica,” he tells her. She writes, “But I don’t want to tell anyone about my life: my life is rich in experiences and vivid emotions, but I don’t ever want to publish an autobiography.”
There is a paradox in Lispector’s fiction: despite her use of the first person, her narrators often betray little background. What comes across is a sense of self-effacement, or of self-scattering, self-dispersion—the narrator is so sensitive to the mood, atmosphere, and objects surrounding her, pulling her in different directions and down rabbit holes of abstract reflection, that the traits usually associated with a stable character or persona (psychological details, biographical facts) seem beside the point.
To this can be added a certain freedom from the distraction of careerism. Lispector was not immune to criticism, but no other Brazilian novelist of the twentieth century—no other Brazilian novelist ever, perhaps—seemed more unselfconscious about what was going on elsewhere, or more aloof from what other people were interested in, utterly free from the usual inferiority complexes that weigh on artists from a huge, peripheral country that worries about being irrelevant. In the archipelago of postwar Brazilian fiction—precariously united by a common language and the ruins of a modernist project—hers is the most self-sufficient island.
This aloofness infused her fiction with a peculiar originality. More surprising than her astonishing debut at age twenty-three was the speed with which she discarded gifts other writers would kill for, moving quickly from a modernist style to more mystical writing. Shifting among the points of view of three characters, Near to the Wild Heart is an embarrassment of riches, hinting at the inventive syntax she later became known for while also representing acute psychological portrayals and a deft use of stream of consciousness. Whereas the more realist work of the great modernists is usually deemed more “accessible,” in Lispector’s case the early modernist novel plays the role of the “easier” book. (She was baffled by comparisons to Joyce, Woolf, and Proust; she claimed she hadn’t read any of them before writing her first novel.)
In hindsight, it is not hard to understand why critics were initially flummoxed: the trajectory from almost fully formed modernist to sui generis mystic isn’t a usual one. By the time of The Passion According to G.H.—the religious allusion isn’t ironic—Lispector was tuned into the unseen, her narrators all seemingly overcome by a too-long stare into the Aleph. For those who don’t get her half the time (I count myself among them), Near to the Wild Heart remains the work to be cherished, more tethered and in touch with down-to-earth anxieties, like whether to get married, have a kid, and so on.
“You pick up a thousand waves I can’t catch,” Braga wrote to her in 1957, referring to her novels. “I feel like a cheap radio, only getting the station around the corner, where you get radar, television, shortwave.” The compliment sheds light on her unusual position as cronista—why seek a glimpse of transcendence when most of the time you’re in a full-blown trance? If Complete Crônicas is a misnomer, the other half of the collection’s title, Too Much of Life, is apt. The impression Lispector gives is not that she is uninterested in the quotidian, but rather overwhelmed by it, sensorially overcharged by the smallest occurrences, needing only the tiniest slice of existence to feed her fiction.
An ambivalence toward “chasing after money, work, love, pleasures, taxis and buses” can be a disadvantage for reporting. Lispector’s profiles of artists are laudatory, showing not the slightest inclination to find fissures in their public image. Her book and art reviews read like press releases. (Among these is a plug for Braga and Sabino’s second publishing house.) Her interviews are whimsical but without the suggestive depth of her fiction. She asks Pablo Neruda, who is “extremely nice,” questions like “What is anxiety?” and “Who is God?” as well as “Where would you like to live if you didn’t live in Chile?” and “What, in your opinion, makes a pretty woman?” When she asks him to write a poem on the spot, he demurs. “What is love, Zagallo?” she asks, apparently in all seriousness, of the manager of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup soccer team.
Sometimes she is saved by her subjects, who indulge her in a way they probably wouldn’t someone less famous. Glória Magadan, a Cuban-born writer of soap operas, answers her heroine’s occasionally banal questions with warm candor. “Given the influence you have with the general public, couldn’t you raise your level a little?” Lispector asks, probably without sensing her own snobbery. “I would lose my influence then,” Magadan replies.
Yet these shortcomings never grate. Perhaps we are as starstruck as her star interviewees. Or more likely it’s that her attempt to navigate the discomfort of weekly exposition actually produces a pure and mundane portrait, and complicates her immaculate literary image. In her column of September 18, 1971, she relays a rumor that disturbs her:
Someone told me that Rubem Braga said I am only good in books, and that I don’t write a good column. Is that true, Rubem? Rubem, I do what I can. You do it better, but you shouldn’t require others to do the same. I write columns humbly, Rubem. I don’t have any pretensions. But I receive letters from readers and they like my columns. And I like to receive those letters.
I like to receive those letters: there is something thrilling in this unguarded tone, which is heard often in the collection. To one reader, whose letter mixes “aggression with flattery,” she says: “You’re quite right to want me, like Chekhov, to write amusing things…. Don’t worry, Francisco, my moment to say amusing things will come, I really am full of highs and lows.” To another, who speculates on her divorce:
I reckon you’re the wife of a diplomat. You adopt an air of false pity…. Madam, please keep your pity to yourself, I don’t need it. And if you want to know the truth, something you weren’t expecting, here it is: when I separated from my husband, he waited for me to come back to him for more than seven years.
When a “rather disheveled young woman” shows up at her house uninvited, paper in hand, and mentions that she knows Lispector is an insomniac because she can see her light on every night—also saying that she witnessed “the fire”—she is invited in. The woman cooks an octopus for her. Lispector’s editor is not thrilled about this sort of engagement with readers—he eventually asks her to stop dealing so much with fan mail.
This raw sincerity and artlessness is one of the most appealing aspects of Too Much of Life. Even more so than in her fiction, in her crônicas and other columns Lispector uses the “I” without the self-conscious, manipulative care often employed by more autobiographical writers (Philip Roth, say), and the impression given is one of vulnerability. “Fear of Eternity” and others deserve their place among the masterful examples of the crônica, but it is remarkable how infrequently Lispector tried to write these perfect set pieces. Maybe the personal charm and autobiographical self-presentation demanded by the crônica—and even by a regular column—was a little too much for someone whose fiction always showed a deep hesitation regarding the idea of a unified, confident self. The self remains fragmented, inconsistent, rather comfortable with its contradictions.
April 6, 2023
Becoming Enid Coleslaw
Descriptions of a Struggle
One notable exception is Antonio Prata, whose crônicas for the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo not only maintain the artistic principles that first animated the genre but also are popular among readers. ↩