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This time we discuss two works by the remarkable Clarice Lispector—born to a Jewish family in Ukraine shortly before they emigrated to Brazil, where she became one of its most important writers. We read two of her works, the novella The Hour of the Star (1977), and the short story “The Departure of the Train” (1974).
I know there are girls who sell their bodies, their only real possession, in exchange for a good dinner instead of a bologna sandwich. But the person I’m going to talk about scarcely has a body to sell, nobody wants her, she’s a virgin and harmless, nobody would miss her. –The Hour of the Star
In The Hour of the Star, the narrator continually breaks the fourth wall as he obsessively addresses the reader about Macabea, the story’s primary character, whom Lispector describes as “… a girl who was so poor that all she ate was hot dogs… The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery.”
In the short story “The Departure of the Train,” Lispector writes about two women who meet on a train—the first, a young woman escaping her boyfriend’s overbearing intellect and lack of sensual passion; and the other, an elderly woman escaping her daughter’s negligence to return to her more loving son:
Donna Maria Rita was so ancient that in her daughter’s house they were accustomed to her as if to an old piece of furniture…. Since [she] had always been an ordinary person, she thought that to die was not a normal thing. To die was surprising. –”The Departure of the Train”
Join us as Daniel explains that while The Hour of the Star is “very intellectual, very heady” he’s never read anyone who writes with this sensuous quality; Nathan observes that the narrator is the only one in the novella who really sees this girl, that the world doesn’t see her—“she’s the grass.” Laura comments on Lispector’s “passion for the void” in her writing, while Mary notes that both women in “The Departure of the Train” were traveling from emotionally cold relationships to warmer ones—to people who were more loving and affectionate. And Cezary speaks for all of us when he describes Lispector’s writing as “maddeningly brilliant.”
In his 1989 L.A. Times review of Soul Storm, Richard Eder wrote of Lispector’s characters: “Lispector has not lodged her own poetic and subtle qualities in them; she has found their ‘ordinariness’ in herself. She hasn’t given them spunk, or fight or hidden wit. She hasn’t brought them, one by one, to her writer’s table and made them unforgettable by processing them with art. She has stripped herself of art and gone to them. She has made herself as foolish and uncertain at her typewriter as they are in the street, cabaret, or bedroom.”
Benjamin Moser, author of Lispector’s biography, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, calls her the “most important Jewish writer since Kafka.”
Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.
Please note: We had some technical problems that cut off Laura a short way into our talk.
This time, we talk about a novella in the late, great Iain M. Banks’s famed Culture sci-fi series, which is centered around a utopian, post-scarcity society that spans various planets (and other habitats) within the Milky Way galaxy.
They have hope. The Culture has statistics.
So says Linter, one of the chief protagonists in The State of the Art. In the story, a group of Culture members—mostly humanoids—venture to Earth to study its inhabitants and decide whether to induct them into the fold. A crisis occurs when one of the group—Linter, who has spent a considerable amount of time on-planet—wants to “go native” rather than return to the ship and his life in the Culture.
We’re the ones who’re different, we’re the self-mutilated, the self-mutated. This is the mainstream; we’re just like very smart kids; infants with a brilliant construction kit. They’re real because they live the way they have to. We aren’t because we live the way we want to.
Linter’s shipmate and friend, Diziet Sma, gives her best arguments to try to urge Linter to return, highlighting Banks’s fascinating examination of Earth’s human inhabitants as seen through the eyes of a far more advanced civilization. What they observe is a relatively barbaric species consumed by materialism, violence, and spiritual uncertainty, along with feats of astonishing creativity, depth, and beauty.
Within our discussion, Nathan contrasts Linter’s statement that “the stakes are higher on Earth” to the Culture’s belief that our civilization is brutal and wild. Cezary notes the similarity between the Culture’s attitude and that of hunter-gatherer tribes in the Amazon that avoid contact with the West, as once you do there’s no going back. Daniel wonders about the frictionless lives of Culture citizens, and what they sacrifice in never experiencing true pain and suffering. Laura questions the lack of hope in the Culture, and Mary says that it might be hard to imagine a post-scarcity existence, but it’s sure fun to dream of it.
//ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ss&ref=as_ss_li_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=theparexalif-20&marketplace=amazon®ion=US&placement=1857230302&asins=1857230302&linkId=e8a113fa02a413e98599b7b34ff0171a&show_border=true&link_opens_in_new_window=trueDisclaimer: Banks created a rich, dense fictional world in the Culture series, which might make this discussion a little tough to follow for folks who aren’t familiar with it. Plus, this is one of our older discussions, so there are a few glitches in the recording. That said, we had a good talk and Iain Banks was a great writer, well worth talking about, so please join us.
Listen to a dramatization by Paul Cornell from BBC Radio 4 on youtube.
Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.
From Ponce de León to Woody Allen (and likely every self-reflective person who has lived), entropy has been at the root of human anxiety. Is there a way to hold off or reverse the inevitable?
A testament to this primary apprehension is “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov, a short story we discussed a few years back (after which the resultant sound files had their very own group entropic episode, only recently resurrected).
This is one of Asimov’s most famous short stories and his personal favorite. It follows the evolution of his enduring conception, the computer Multivac, through six phases of space and time, and humanity’s relation to it. In each phase, a human asks the Multivac if it’s possible to reverse the entropy of the universe—how to stop its seemingly inevitable death, save the universe, save humanity. And the Multivac invariably responds:
There is as yet insufficient data for a meaningful answer.
It’s a short piece but packs a punch, with a comic ending that inspires rumination.
Join us as we tangle with this complex philosophical and engrossing scientific question—as Laura insists we’re not just data, that we have a physical life, Daniel ponders the merged consciousness at the end of the story, and Cezary warns, “If you’re looking for an individual consciousness here—not gonna happen. At some point, we’re going to be called IG-73 and then it’s going to morph into a hive mind.” Mary wonders at the exceptional nature of what makes up the human experience, and Nathan highlights that the end of the story provides a kind of hope, that there is a circularity there, the universe is coming back.
Listen to Isaac Asimov read this story on youtube:
Disclaimer: This is an early discussion and the quality is a bit low, but it’s a terrific talk and a great short story. Please join us!
Our reading this month is The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoevsky, a semi-autobiographical novel about life in a Siberian labor camp. Dostoevsky was sent there after being convicted for his connection with the Petrashevsky Circle, where Western philosophy and literature were discussed, which was deemed subversive by Tsar Nicholas I.
Told through the eyes of Aleksander Petrovich Goryanchikov, convicted of murdering his wife, Dostoevsky paints the world of the camp through the prisoners. He pulls us into the horror the inmates suffer within their souls:
No man lives, or can live, without having some object in view, and without making efforts to attain that object. But when there is no such object and hope is entirely fled, anguish often turns a man into a monster. The object we all had in view was liberty, the remission of our confinement and hard labor. —The House of the Dead
We discuss this fascinating “early prison literature,” and explore (i.e., veer off into) the role of crime and moral breakdown in society. Mary expresses concern about the loss of hope, and Laura about the inescapable human condition. Daniel admires Dostoevsky’s psychological sense, and Nathan notes that the prisoners are “broken in time by the larger swarm of the State.” And poignantly, Cezary finds Dostoevsky’s words hold hints of Nietzsche, with our laws having buckets of blood behind them.
Reality is a thing of infinite diversity, and defies the most ingenious deductions and definitions of abstract thought, nay, abhors the clear and precise classifications in which we so delight. Reality tends to infinite subdivision of things, and truth is a matter of infinite shadings and differentiations. —The House of the Dead
This is one of our earlier discussions, so there are a few sound issues. Many thanks to Tyler Hislop and Laura for their editing magic!
You are welcome to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any recommendations, thoughts, or what have you. Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.