Sheila Heti on Clarice Lispector

In which we feature our first special guest

Today is a great day: another novel by Clarice Lispector, An Apprenticeship or the Book of Pleasures (1968), is born at New Directions.

I’m glad the word “pleasures” is in there. Few pleasures in my life have been as satisfying as erecting, page by page, this monument to the great Clarice. When I first discovered her, as a sophomore in college, I dreamed of helping her gain the international readership she deserved. Today, we’re publishing the eighth of her nine novels, and the eleventh book in our series. A lot of work. A lot of years. But what a pleasure to see her readership grow. What a pleasure to work on behalf of as great an artist as the twentieth century produced.

In honor of this day, I am sending the essay that Sheila Heti wrote on this book. Skip straight to our special guest if you’d like — but first a word about why I approached Sheila.

An Apprenticeship raises unfashionable questions. It’s a love story—between Lóri, a needy, inadequate woman, and Ulisses, an overbearing blowhard of a man. She longs to submit to him. She wants him to order her around.

See what I mean?


In Why This World, I wrote that even when the book was published in Brazil more than fifty years ago, it made people squirm.

At the same time, it was also the only book that was a bestseller during Clarice’s lifetime. People recognized themselves in it. People loved it, and they still do.

As I was working on it, I thought: there’s no way a man could have written a book like this. I wondered whether even a woman, now, could write a woman character like this. We live, after all, in the age of the Strong Woman, that brassy, sassy dame who appears more and more frequently in contemporary discourse.

You know her.

She’s the one who’s keeping it real. She’s just not that into you. She’s got big dick energy and she doesn’t give a fuck.

(For more on this mythical creature, see the excellent Freddie deBoer’s recent essay “Women Do Not Need Lunatic Overconfidence.”)

So deranged are the times we live in that lots of people seem to think that this phoenix, this chimera, this fury … actually exists. I can’t tell you how many people have asked me, amazed, whether it’s actually true that Susan Sontag was insecure. They seem disappointed that even the formidable Sontag might sometimes have been daunted by real life.

So as I was reading this book I fretted:

Is Clarice about to get cancelled for misogyny? For toxic masculinity?

At the same time, I found the book incredibly refreshing. Lóri might be a mess. But who isn’t? How many people long for someone to protect us, to serve as a bridge between ourselves and the world—to show us how to love. What a relief to read about someone who feels like the way a lot of us really are, even if we would never admit it.

That’s why I thought of Sheila Heti. I love Sheila Heti, as a person and as a writer. I thought that if anyone could understand these imperfect beings—could explain why, though they are extremely stylized and in many ways bizarre, they nonetheless feel real—it was Sheila. Her novel How Should a Person Be? has a title that’s as Clarice as you can get: easy to ask, impossible to answer.

It’s the question Clarice is trying to answer in An Apprenticeship.

This is my chance to thank everyone involved. For the beautiful translation, Stefan Tobler; for the gorgeous jacket art, Leanne Shapton; for her love through many years and books, Barbara Epler; for her work on publicity, Brittany Dennison; for his patience through pass after pass, Erik Rieselbach; for his friendship and kindness, Paulo Gurgel Valente.

Finally: we wouldn’t have been able to carry through such a huge project without the support of readers. Please consider keeping us going by buying the book: Amazon, Bookshop, McNally Jackson.

In conversation: Sheila Heti (left) and Clarice Lispector (right)

A human being is a creature who is lost, who is singular, who merges with and is like everything in existence, who knows and doesn’t know God, who has been steeped in pain and who is afraid to love and wants to love and be loved by another person more than anything else in the world. That is the quest of this book: to love and be loved. But in order to truly love and be loved, one must first find one’s way to the most difficult thing, which is a joyful relationship “with the mightiness of life.” And while most love stories do away with this requirement and don’t even recognize it — just have the lovers hurtling toward each other — this love story is a question about this requirement, and can it even be won?

Who is this man, this Ulisses, who asks of Lóri that she become somehow different before they come together in love? Who is this Lóri, who accepts this demand, and sets off down the road toward it? Who are these bizarre creatures, who ask of each other what no two people who are suffering from desire have perhaps ever asked of the other one?

How does Ulisses know that Lóri hasn’t yet become the full expression of herself? How does he know that she is someone who exists only through pain and suffering, and not through gladness and joy? How does he know, right from the start, that she “wasn’t up to enjoying a man”?

We are brought into the story only after all this knowledge has been won.

* * *

Before I start reading a book by Clarice Lispector, I always go off somewhere I can be alone, and I don’t check my phone or do anything else until the final page. I prefer to read her from start to finish, without interruption. Her novels are something I want to undergo, like a spiritual exercise. Just as Lóri both loses and finds herself in the salty sea with its “unlimited cold that without rage roars,” I feel, when reading her books, as if I am submerged in just as deep a vastness, in the great soul of a great writer who has access to all of Nature unvarnished. I feel “a dizzying seasickness that stirs [me] from the sleep of ages,” wakened by her philosophical mind, which seems to have grasped the deepest structure and meaning of the greatest mysteries of life. Yet twinned with her esoteric knowledge is also so much insecurity and doubt. This at first feels surprising — then it does not. In fact, it comes to seem outrageous that we had not known all along that of course the wisest among us would also worry about how to enter a party without exposing how vulnerable she feels.

As spiritually profound as her writings are, they are also sensually grounded in the things of the world and the pettiest aspects of life as a human — and as a woman specifically. But that all these things are important to the same mind makes the pettinesses seem profound, or at least inseparable from our lives here on earth.

* * *

True love involves waiting for one’s love is something we might guess from all the world’s love stories, but I have never before seen the trial of this waiting so transparently formulated as a spiritual discipline through which one comes to win that love and deserve it.

Each of the two lovers in An Apprenticeship holds all of the power, and each holds none. Each has total dominion over the other, and each is completely flattened beneath the other one’s heel. Although we only see the affair from Lóri’s perspective, it is easy enough to suffer alongside Ulisses, when Lóri doesn’t show up to their meetings, or even touch his hand.

In reading Lispector’s books, I learn about the structure of the relationship between a human and God, between a human and herself, and between a human and the other; in this case, both the other who is just another person one has slept with and lost desire for, and the Other who holds your life’s happiness in their hands. This second Other is the elemental force that drives the life of the loving one, while the other other has no power at all and might as well not even exist. Why is life like this? How can so much importance (for the one who loves) be concentrated in a random, Other, singular individual, while diffused among the rest is nothing, and we are able to stride past them with complete indifference?

What is this Other capable of that the other other could never do? In one sense (unhappy as this is to write) the Other is the one who circumscribes our limits. With the choice of who to love, we end up in a city, with a side of the bed on which to sleep, and a certain set of friends (growing further apart from those who are not invited over because one’s partner does not like them). We watch certain shows, not others. And the Other circumscribes our limits metaphysically, too. Maybe this procedure is necessary, in order for our lives to have a form. Just as the art-impulse must take a certain form — a sculpture, a play, a novel, a dance — so does the election of a specific Other shape our blobbish life-impulse into a specific form. I am now thinking of the part of the novel where Claire writes, “Lóri had a kind of dread of going, as if she could go too far — in what direction? Which was making it hard to go . . . There was a certain fear of her own capacity, large or small, maybe because she didn’t know her own limits. Were the limits of a human divine? They were.”

And so we choose a man or woman to confer some needed limits.

In this book, both Lóri and Ulisses “are attractive as man and woman.” He is a man with whom women easily fall in love, and she is a woman who surpasses everyone in the room, “in educational skills, in intuitive understanding, and even in feminine charm.” Their magnetism is a gift from the gods: she is that rare woman “who hasn’t broken from the lineage of women down through time,” and he, “from the viewpoint of strictly masculine beauty [had] a calm virility inside him.” She knows what she is doing in bed — you only have to glance at her to see it. And he has the ability to seduce. It’s like any Hollywood movie: the leading man must be attractive, and so must the leading lady, so we understand why she desires him (because we do too), and why he desires her (because we do too). And so Lispector makes them both desirable — or tells us that they are. (Because of course Ulisses is not! I mean, he has the manly virtue of self-restraint, but apart from that, what? Wouldn’t I throw down my napkin in disgust onto the elegant tablecloth of the restaurant we were sitting in if he spoke to me as he does her? — but he wouldn’t want me.)

So what locks her in?

Lóri has the twinned feminine virtue and vice of radical self-doubt (which perhaps I also have — but in life, not while reading a book), which makes one susceptible to other people, sometimes to a dangerous degree. That Ulisses resists her sexual charms seems to be all she needs to know that he’s the one to whom she must surrender. He can resist her, so he must be above her. And because she is below him, she is ready to make him her teacher. What does he hope to teach her? How to be worthy of him. Which is also how to be worthy of life itself — to be like rain, “without gratitude or ingratitude.”

This is an incredibly difficult task. It takes great deal of patience to bring herself to that place, and she undergoes a lot of suffering — but also gains more illumination than many people find in a lifetime. Isn’t it horrible? What a plot! Yet can I say Lispector is wrong? It is always tempting to try to make oneself worthy of those who have put themselves above you (or who you have put above you), and nothing is more humiliating than to fail to perform this task well. Anyway, it is a story that should be told.

(I have also tried to look at waiting for love as a spiritual discipline, from even its smallest expression: like trying not to destroy myself in agony over the pain of being a human who knows she has sent a bad email to someone she admires, from whom she believes she won’t — and actually doesn’t — hear back. That feeling is just a speck of what Clarice Lispector is writing about here, as one of the most important things we grapple with: how to assure ourselves that we are — and to actually be — worthy of loving and being loved.)

All love stories must have their obstacles: religion, parents, a stone wall. The obstacle in this book is that we may be unfit for love, plain and simple: because we haven’t lived in such a way that we have let ourselves be fit for it; we haven’t even lived in such a way that we have made ourselves fit for life. For God. For sex. For anything! We slack off on the spiritual level, always. We guess no one’s going to see it. Who’s looking? Even we are not. Then someone like Ulisses comes along and says, You cannot have me until you do the difficult work of being a human that you have been putting off. (And inwardly, the man says to himself, I am also not worthy of her, and cannot have her until I make myself fit for love, too.)

Is this book a fantasy, in a way? While some writers might fantasize about a man coming along who will shower a woman in diamonds and install her in a penthouse, Clarice Lispector, the great mystic, spins a fantasy of having an explicit reason for doing the most difficult labor a person is capable of: the work of becoming an actual human being in this world. Here, the motive to do the work is to win the love of a man. (But a man is not just some guy; he represents one of the elemental forces of the universe — the masculine force that sets the difficult task in motion, of impelling the feminine force, which would otherwise sit, roundly, alone. What woman has not felt that unfortunate thing, that some man, not yet won, was “like the border between the past and whatever was to come”? Yet in a way, isn’t Ulisses asking Lóri to find the masculine force within herself, before coming to him? Or to find it in herself so she doesn’t come to him seeking it, then get bored of what she’s found, like any woman who goes from man to man, never satisfied because she’s mistaken about what she is looking for, really? Yes. Any woman wanting any sort of lasting happiness has to realize that she can — and must — be the impelling force that moves herself through the world.)

The end point of all this spiritual labor isn’t a lasting happiness. Then what is the prize of the work of becoming human (work that those worthy of our love make us twist ourselves up in order to achieve — or else never achieve, which they will never cease to remind us of)? Is the prize simply a few private moments between ourselves and the universe, which are so magnificent — moments of true grace — such as Lóri encounters on the way to her man? Or is the prize of all that spiritual effort just hearing, and being able to honestly say, I love you? Is it a marriage in which one’s spouse is going to be working on a long essay, leaving one alone a lot? Or is the prize being interrupted midsentence by the person one loves, in bed? The struggle toward love is presented as an apprenticeship — but an apprenticeship in what? An ordinary kind of marriage? And after an apprenticeship, we supposedly become masters — but of what? Loving? Living?

No, never masters, for the master understands her craft — whether it’s an art form, or the craft of life, or of love — while the apprentice does not. As Lispector writes, “not-understanding” would always be better than “understanding,” for not-understanding “had no frontiers and led to the infinite, to the God.” Lóri, Ulisses, we, Clarice, remain apprentices, always — apprentices in everything — because apprentices feel more, think more, struggle more, and win more than the master, who has already arrived, ever can.

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Finally, speaking of pleasure: just before the pandemic, I was with no one less than Sheila Heti at the Toronto Public Library, this time talking about Sontag.

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