Clarice Lispector, literary phenomenon and "sacred monster," in 1972 (Wikimedia Commons/Arquivo Nacional do Brasil)

In the first half of the twentieth century, literature, like philosophy, experienced a breakdown in its trust of language. This signaled, among other things, a breakdown in the relationship between the word and the world—in the power of language to speak to the essences of things, to name and reveal. In “The Aesthetics of Silence” (1967), Susan Sontag points out that, in this respect, modern art had “inherited the problem of language from religious discourse.” Thenceforth, it was artists who took up what had once been the bailiwick of mystics—the pursuit of an uncorrupted utterance. As examples, one could cite Cage, Beckett, and Wittgenstein (who said that philosophy should be practiced as an art). It was a task that would push language to the brink, and tempt many to abandon it altogether.

One cannot look at this phenomenon without considering Clarice Lispector, who is perhaps its supreme exemplar. All of Lispector’s work is preoccupied with the problem of language. Indeed, in reading her, one sometimes gets the sense that she is less a novelist than a mystic for whom the novel is a metaphysical arena for staged confrontations with language. Not for nothing does Benjamin Moser, Lispector’s biographer in English, say that she “has been compared less often to other writers than to mystics and saints.” In all of her novels we see a restless effort to break out of language and into true perception, to generate a kind of writing that can crack the glass that stands between us and reality.

This is present from her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart (1943), but one sees it most starkly in her later, experimental works, Água Viva (1973) and A Breath of Life (1978). The book that bridges these periods is The Apple in the Dark, now available in an English translation by Moser. An inversion of the Genesis creation narrative, the novel is a heretical allegory, one that seemingly undermines the whole architecture of Judeo-Christian morality.

“It was a fascinating book to write,” she wrote to a friend after completing the manuscript, but she acknowledged that it was “also a great suffering.” Lispector wrote the novel while living in Washington D.C., where her husband, a diplomat, was stationed for more than a decade. Completed in 1956, The Apple in the Dark fell into limbo for several years and was eventually published in 1961, following a twelve-year silence and two critically unsuccessful novels, The Chandelier (1946) and The Besieged City (1949). Surprisingly, it was a commercial and critical success, after which Clarice (in time, she would be referred to simply by her first name) became a literary phenomenon in Brazil, or in the words of one journalist, “a sacred monster.”

The Apple in the Dark lavishly basks in its own unknowing, in its koanlike prose, in the knocking, jostling symbolism of its abstract passages.


The novel opens with a symbol of mid-century Americana: the automobile. Outside a hotel room, a black Ford idles in the night, as Martim, the protagonist, is born into a void. In the darkness, he is a nonentity—“no more than a thought”—rising into consciousness. At the center of “a great empty and inexpressive space” he hears the sound of his own name, a moment of birthing self-awareness: “So, then, me.” Grunting, wordless, scarcely anything but “indistinctly himself,” Martim metamorphoses into tree, rat, horse, then man, until he realizes: “It must be Sunday.” It is the Lord’s Day, man’s first day, the day of resurrection.

A crime has taken place, but what exactly we don’t know until the end. The crime is already so far in the past that it has started to take on the nature of an abstraction (“his crime now seemed more like a sin of the spirit, merely”). As in Kafka, it appears to be the sin of existence, the crime of having been born. It is “that thing without a name that had happened to him.” It is a primal crime, after which all other crime is redundant. Martim is “proud” of himself as he observes “the demolished world…[t]he world undone by a crime.” One that he can then rebuild “on his own terms.”

Martim is more akin to Milton’s Lucifer than to Adam. He is a co-creator in the abyss, whose revolt occasions self-discovery; it is a transgression that is its own kind of transcendence. But Martim’s self-knowledge is actually a rejection of knowledge—that is, the knowledge of good and evil. As in the Eden story, crime is the inaugurating event, but the novel’s amoral landscape rejects the notion that error is synonymous with evil (“Evil? Why use that dreadful word?” Martim thinks). Unashamed, he reflects that it had actually been “a blessing to have erred.” Only then is he able to create himself “in his own image.” Here, crime is a kind of purification rite. And in refusing judgment for his act, Martim stands beyond good and evil—a savage self-authorizer, a Nietzschean transvaluator.

Martim claims to be an engineer, a man of reason, a world builder (later, we learn he is actually a statistician). In any case, this identity is shed as he grows and embraces a new, feral physicality. When he is reborn, he is on par with the rest of creation, existing at the same frequency as the trees (“The silence of the plants was at his own pitch”). He eschews the dominion given to Adam over the plants and the animals and continuously refuses the temptation to “fall into profundity.” It is an “unintelligible but harmonious” state that he wishes to preserve against the creep of reason. He sits on a rock and watches as the world is born, basking in his own meaninglessness, in the “vast emptiness of himself.”

The first fifty pages of the novel are conducted in this “state.” There is little dialogue or action as the narrative (much like the contours of Martim’s embryonic consciousness) becomes vertebrate. Fleeing into the desert, he comes to a ranch where he is employed by two women, Vitória and Ermelinda, to till the land. There is also a third, nameless woman known only as the “mulatta,” whom Martim takes “like a bull” in order to regain knowledge of the opposite sex. The only other character who shows up at the plantation is “the teacher,” a sanctimonious clerc who holds the women of the house under his influence and whose effusive sermonizing epitomizes the abuse of words—everything Martim, in his contented silence, despises.

As Martim undertakes the task of Adam, he discovers that reality already bears the gendered imprints of language (“the world was masculine and feminine”). He is frustrated by “having to transform the growth of the wheat into numerals.” As we know from cuneiform tablets, this was the first use of writing—not storytelling or the transmission of knowledge or learning, but simple record keeping. But even this seems impossible to Martim. He finds he is unable “to organize his soul into language.” For language, like us, is fallen. The simplest act of language is the naming of things, and we see that from the very first word that the names we give things are inadequate to the things themselves. Martim even fears that assigning names to objects will contaminate the world.

In an allegorical realm in which everything is both itself and something else, all things seem to take on a resonant symbolism. Martim longs for a purely symbolic reality, where the symbol is the thing itself: “I wanted the symbol because the symbol is the true reality and our life is what’s symbolic to the symbol.” The search for a truly symbolic language is the search for the essence of essences, what the seventeenth-century German mystic Jakob Böhme called “the Language of Nature” (Natursprache), in which “each thing speaks of its particular properties.” This, Böhme says, was the language Adam spoke in the garden, a “sensual speech” that we lost with the fall and can never recover: “Today, while the birds of the air and the beasts of the forests may still, each according to their own qualities, understand each other, not one of us understands the sensual speech any longer.” But here, the outcome of the fall is upended. Through his crime and his rebirth, Martim loses “the languages of others” and recovers his own “harmonious” impressions.

Like an ape writing cursive in the dirt, Martim finally scribbles under “thing number 1”: “That.” It is an immaculate referent, seemingly containing anything and everything (“The still-wet phrase had the grace of a truth”). He stops short of adding a second word, for there are already too many, and abandons the task altogether, for nothing, not even “That,” seems sayable: “Everything that had seemed to him ready to be said had evaporated, now that he wanted to say it.” The word is the source of creation, but it inherently corrupts and occludes that creation: “So disloyal was the power of the simplest word upon the most vast of thoughts.”

 This could easily serve as a description of Lispector’s literary life. “What gets in the way of writing is having to use words,” she once wrote. But it would be wrong to understand this as mere frustration with the ineffable, the yearning to express what we feel we don’t have the power to express. The worry here is with the smear that words leave upon perception, and the desire is for a perception beyond words (“To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees,” as Paul Valéry said). I think the language Lispector tried to find in her writing is something resembling Böhme’s sensual speech, a true consonance, in which an “I” doesn’t stand from without, but is rather part of a single, universal substance.

One can also understand it as a quest to find what Martim at one point calls “that thing without a name.” The task of the mystic, Sontag reminds us in “The Aesthetics of Silence,” “must end in a via negativa, a theology of God’s absence, a craving for the cloud of unknowing beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech.” The course of Lispector’s development from the early novels to the later, experimental works is exactly this movement toward what lies beyond speech. “If I could, I would leave my place on this page blank,” she once wrote, “replete with a resounding silence.”

Lispector described writing as “a curse, but a curse that saves.” The envy of silence is heavily present in her work. But unlike Rimbaud or the young Wittgenstein, she was not a renunciator, nor even, like Beckett, a great negator. Instead, what we see in her work is language that attempts to transcend itself through prolonged derangement and disarticulation. This was also the path of the surrealists, the “boundless and systematized disorganization of all the senses,” as Rimbaud phrased it.

The Apple in the Dark lavishly basks in its own unknowing, in its koanlike prose, in the knocking, jostling symbolism of its abstract passages that, despite their declarative character, never seem to reach anything concrete. Indeed, Lispector herself seemed not to fully understand the novel she was writing: “I want to say something and I still don’t know for sure what,” she confessed while working on it. The novel apparently went through eleven drafts, because, she said: “By copying I will understand myself.” As monastic scribes copied psalms until they had internalized them, so Martim seeks to “copy into reality the being that he was.”

The novel’s reversal of the biblical account of creation is clear enough: man creates himself and then creates God in his own image. But it is far more unorthodox than that. Not only does it offer a new definition of what it means to be “fallen,” it plainly rejects the Christian notion of the Word. That is, the Word as the source of creation, redemption, and salvation. In the novel’s closing pages, Martim rejoices in this rejection: “[He] was no longer asking the name of things. It was enough for him to recognize them in the dark…. Then, when he went back out into the brightness, he’d see…those things with their false names.” Lispector’s novel suggests that only once the Word has been rejected can the apple be grasped, without shame, in the darkness, where we know things as they truly are.

The Apple in the Dark has been described as an allegorical novel, but this is perhaps too simple. Like Kafka and Beckett, Lispector approaches the allegorical but deprives us of the easy interpretations that allegory usually lends itself to. If it is speaking of something else, we cannot be sure of what. Perhaps it is speaking of the absence of God itself, or perhaps of that which hides in plain sight, behind the veiling brightness that Martim regards as “nothing more than the other side of the silence.”

The Apple in the Dark
Clarice Lispector
Translated by Benjamin Moser
New Directions
$19.95 | 384 pp.

Jared Marcel Pollen is the author of The Unified Field of Loneliness: Stories (2019) and the novel Venus&Document (2022). His work has appeared in the New Republic, the Nation, Liberties, Poetry magazine, and elsewhere. He lives in Prague.

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