The Mystery of Consciousness in “The Apple in the Dark” – Chicago Review of Books


We like to think we are masters of our bodies and minds and, for the most part, we possess total agency and comprehension of our thoughts and actions. This assumption is embedded so thoroughly in our society that it seems unnecessary to even observe it. 

But that is exactly what the legendary Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector does in her mind-bending, metaphysical novel of the psyche, The Apple in the Dark, first published in 1961. Released this fall as the “capstone” in a series by New Directions, Benjamin Moser’s translation challenges our most basic assumptions about human behavior and the way we make sense of the world. Impressively, Lispector does so through both the musings of her characters and the sentences themselves. By repudiating standard syntax, she urges readers to reexamine their own patterns of thought, thereby posing the central question of the book—are we truly responsible for our actions?

We meet our protagonist, Martim, at a country inn. He is tired and paranoid, running from something, and fears that he is being followed. Believing the owner is about to expose him, Martim slips away in the night and travels on foot through a forested area. Realizing that no one is after him, Martim drifts away on a journey of the mind. His dreamlike thoughts circle around an intriguing hint of some kind of “crime” from his recent past. He sits on a rock and allows his body to blend into the forest, at one point even cupping a bird in the palm of his hand. 

Martim eventually arrives at a sleepy ranch owned by a stern proprietor named Vitória, who interrogates him. She perks up when Martim claims he is an engineer. Though it isn’t clear—to us or the ranch owner—if he is lying, the need for repairs causes Vitória to overcome her suspicions and offer the stranger room and board in exchange for manual labor. 

Lispector dedicates alternating chapters, more or less, to the perspective of a different character on the property, from Martim, to Vitória, to young Ermelinda, who lives on the ranch under Vitória’s supervision. Ermelinda observes the new arrival from a distance, gradually falling in love with Martim, though he hardly notices her. She rallies the courage to approach him, at first babbling nervously and then settling into a calculated silence that charms the reserved, older man. Some of the most beautiful passages in the book describe the intensity of Ermelinda’s youthful love, bordering on obsession:

“His was a fine mouth, and that extraordinary beauty that only a man has and that was turning her mute, with a longing to flee—which made her peer at him bloodthirsty. . . . She’d never come close to him, and between them was always distance. But slowly the girl had spiritualized the distance and ended up making it a perfect means of communication.”

But Ermelinda’s thoughts also return with nonchalance to the idea of death, striking a conspicuous contrast with the life-affirming tone that predominates.

Martim dutifully digs ditches and feeds livestock, completing his chores with a steady hand that simultaneously impresses and frustrates his benefactor. The work is enjoyable for him, a distraction from worries about a wife and son that he has left behind and the mysterious “crime” that Lispector carefully withholds until the last chapters. Martim develops a tender appreciation for his sleeping quarters in the shed, the field outside, and the animals in the barn, which serve as subjects for lengthy meditations on Martim’s life in the aftermath of his wrongdoing. He comes to believe that by considering his surroundings deeply enough, he can earn a kind of authority over them and, by extension, authority over his own thoughts. Martim, Vitória, and Ermelinda are each plagued by notions and feelings of unknown provenance and elusive significance. It’s easy to sympathize with their frustration and confusion; who can claim to know where ideas come from?

Lispector uses their internal struggles to draw us closer to her argument—that we may rationalize our behavior, but in the end, we cannot really explain why we think what we think or act the way we act. The experience of consciousness is like groping for an apple in the dark. In that sense, the form of the novel—meandering, stream-of-consciousness chapters that dramatize her characters’ intimate struggle to wrest meaning from a meaningless universe—slyly exemplifies its thesis. In fact, Lispector admits in an interview that “for me, form and meaning are one single thing.” The novel’s searching, recursive quality could also stem from her writing process; she claims in another interview that she typed out a 500-page draft of The Apple in the Dark and then copied it over eleven times “in order to find out what I was trying to say. . . . Copying it out, I start understanding myself . . .” During this period, Lispector spoke Portuguese to her son, though he would reply in English. This code switching may have contributed to the unique voice that her translator, Benjamin Moser, describes as “shot through by a ceaseless linguistic searching, a grammatical instability.” Moser—a Lispector expert in his own right whose biography sparked a resurgence of interest in the Brazilian writer—adds that her background in Jewish mysticism and “a logic other than the rational” may have contributed to the abstract nature of her prose.

Abstract, yes, and languid in pacing, yet pointedly attentive to detail. She lingers lovingly on characters’ casual observations about the environment, such as the way rocks in a field inspire transient feelings of belonging or authority. What makes this novel so continually surprising is Lispector’s unflinching fascination with the minute and sensual qualities of being alive. Through her ecstatic tone, we feel her striving to capture the nuances of daily experience. At one point, Martim pictures the barn on the ranch “as a cow would see it: the stable was a hot and nice place that was pulsing like a thick vein.” Lispector describes the ranch owner’s “greedy” desire to improve the appearance of her property: “the details to which she descended were like a fly taking off.” There is something perfect and mysterious about these descriptions, but it can be exhausting to maintain the profound concentration needed to comprehend them. On second glance, I wonder if the author has accomplished something more impressive than prose poetry—if her eye for detail is something that demands to be noticed, an exhortation for her readers to practice a similarly intense focus in the world that lies beyond the page. 

See Also

The Apple in the Dark is wholly engrossed with the moment-by-moment details of life, rather than the fast and sweeping plots that drive modern page-turners. In terms of subject matter and narrative approach, Lispector’s book has more in common with Albert Camus’ existentialist classic The Stranger, about a man whose self-alienation leads to his murdering an acquaintance, or Dostoyevsky’s indelible exploration of criminal guilt and anxiety, Crime and Punishment. I saw Martim in the main characters of both. It’s quite possible that Lispector influenced Thomas Pynchon’s highly referential novel of symbols, The Crying of Lot 49, which came out only five years after The Apple in the Dark. Then there is the revelatory German novelist Herman Hesse, whose book Steppenwolf influenced Lispector so strongly that she said it gave her “a terrible fever.” But Lispector’s experimental grammar and fondness for abstraction set her apart from these in a category all her own. We can thank Moser, who is also New Directions’ editor of the Lispector series, for his fastidious adherence to the author’s original punctuation and turns of phrase. Or so he claims in interviews, and I must take him at his word, since my vocabulary limits me to English-language sources.

Reading Lispector is like deciphering an abstract painting. Moser has described her writing as cubist. At one point, she writes that “the bones of [Ermelinda’s] toes were crackling with sensitive bones.” And later: “The lady looked at that man, that man who was crudely the day of today, the impossible day of today, and how to touch directly the day of today, we who are today?” Though passages like these are meant to be inscrutable—it is a book about the inscrutability of life and the failure of language to capture it—they can exact a toll on the reader. At times, the author seems aware that her piercingly strange prose may disorient some to the point of vertigo. “Being blind,” she writes, “means having continuous vision. Could that be the message?” Many readers will be left wondering the same thing long after they reach the end.

I advise caution if one is coming to this book for the first time, as I did. This is a sprawling, complex, and heady volume, unsuited to a single reading. I consider it a token of respect for The Apple in the Dark when I advise the uninitiated to begin elsewhere, perhaps with a short story like “The Chicken” (included in Complete Stories, another volume recently retranslated by New Directions), or with slim novels like The Hour of the Star. Beware, The Apple in the Dark is a decadent fruit, an acquired taste that is best enjoyed by Lispector aficionados, rather than casual readers.

The Apple in the Dark

By Clarice Lispector
Translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser
New Directions Publishing Corporation
Published November 7, 2023


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