This is my year of horrible reading. I am
reading the classics of horror fiction during the
course of 2016, and each week will write about
a significant work in the genre. You are invited
to join me in my annus horribilis. During the
course of the year—if we survive—we will
have tackled zombies, serial killers, ghosts,
demons, vampires, and monsters of all
denominations. Check back each week for a
new title...but remember to bring along garlic,
silver bullets and a protective amulet. T.G.
|a website devoted to radical,
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fiction with a particular focus on the
rise of modernism and its aftermath.
The literature of horror is mostly a mish-mash of monsters, murderers
and maniacs. The terror is external, lurking behind a dark corner, in a
cemetery, or inside a gloomy castle. The essence of this terror is the
encounter with the other, and the less well-defined this otherness, the
greater the fright. H.P. Lovecraft (who
feared the other as part of a deeply-
ingrained worldview, and not just his
writer’s craft) wisely realized that he
needed to give readers a glimpse of the
monstrosity—but usually no more than
a glimpse. He grasped that the darkest
terror came from the external evil whose
reality is unquestioned, but whose
parameters are undefined.
But the purest form of horror story
requires no monster or evil adversary.
You might call this the existential horror
tale, and it establishes its distinctive form
of dread from narrator’s inner reality. This type of horror even possesses its
own philosophical pedigree, as outlined in works such as Kierkegaard's The
Concept of Dread, Miguel de Unamuno's The Tragic Sense of Life and
Heidegger's Being and Time. But the heightened moods of existential horror
are especially well-suited for storytelling, and this literary tradition, first given
breadth and depth with Dostoevsky, can be traced in various dark modernist
novels (Knut Hamsun's Hunger, David Markson's Wittgenstein’s Mistress,
Thomas Bernhard’s Frost, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, etc.). Those
examples notwithstanding, existential horror finds its most complete
expression in Jean-Paul Sartre’s masterful work Nausea (1938), whose
protagonist Roquentin loathes virtually everything he experiences. The state
of abhorrence is the defining quality of his being.
Yet Sartre’s Nausea was surpassed, at least in terms of strangeness and
sinister ambiance, by avant-garde Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, in her
1964 novel The Passion According to G.H.—published, in an odd coincidence,
at almost the same moment that Sartre declined the Nobel Prize in literature.
Lispector takes the various ingredients of the existential horror novel, and
pushes them to a transcendent extreme.
Like any good horror writer, Lispector knows
that the early stage of the story must lull the
reader into a sense of complacency—indeed,
the slower the pace, the more frightening the
later shocks. But no novel you’ve ever read
starts at a slower pace than The Passion
According to G.H. For page after page,
Lispector provides no factual information—
no names, no places, no scenery, no physical
features of any characters, no plants, no
animals, nothing. Instead, our author
merely establishes a psychological state.
You will seek in vain for a single particular
noun in the first ten pages—even Joyce at
his most elusive gives you more to grab on
to than Ms. Lispector.
“I am the horror in the face of things,” our
unnamed narrator proclaims. These and
subsequent statements not only avoid
specificity, but frequently pose self-cancelling paradoxes: “Each moment of
finding is a getting lost.” “All sudden understanding is finally the revelation of
an acute incomprehension.” Even at this early stage in Lispector’s novel, we
have already entered into the that contradictory realm of spirituality, familiar
to us from Taoism and Zen and other systems of mystical anti-logic; and this
tone of metaphysical leaping beyond the known will only get amplified in the
Finally on page 13, our author obliges us with a single fact: the narrator
mentions a previous career as a sculptor. On page 15, we are given a second
clue—the narrator mentions the existence of a house maid’s room. On page 18,
we hit the jackpot, we learn that the narrator is a woman. Perhaps at this
rate, we might even learn, by the novel’s conclusion, the narrator’s name?
Don't get your hopes up; that’s asking for too much. But at least we are told
her initials: G.H.
G.H. may still be an enigma to us, but she is clearly in a state of acute
psychological crisis. "I’m searching, I’m searching,” she announces at the
novel's outset, “I’m trying to understand." We gradually realize that a single
event is responsible for her existential horror.
The prior day, G.H. walked out of her living room and entered the maid's
quarters. (We are told the maid's name—Janair. It is the only character’s
name mentioned in the entire novel.) Janair has resigned, and now G.H.
intends to clean up the sevant's room, making it suitable for its next resident.
She expects to find a mess of newspapers, dirt and junk, but the room is
surprisingly tidy and spotless….with two exceptions. A clumsy mural has
been sketched with a piece of charcoal, and it features a naked man, a
naked woman and a dog. But an even more disturbing surprise is waiting
inside the wardrobe.
Here G.H. encounters a fat cockroach. At this juncture, readers are forty pages
into the book, but they have already arrived at the dramatic high point of the
story. The rest of the novel revolves around the cockroach incident and its
aftermath. The basic facts are simple enough to relate. The roach tries to get
out of the wardrobe, and G.H. slams the door on it. The roach ruptures and
white pus oozes out of its cracked carapace. A dark existential horror descends
The essence of this horror is not the disgusting nature of the cockroach, but
rather our narrator’s realization that she shares an affinity with the creature.
“I’d looked at the living roach and was discovering inside it the identity of my
deepest life.” The realization cuts even deeper—G.H. discovers her basic
oneness with the entire universe. In other contexts, this comprehension would
precipitate a kind of spiritual bliss, but in the particular context, our narrator
is unnerved—because her entry point into this universal alignment comes via
a disgusting, pus-oozing bug.
Somehow Clare Lispector is able to stretch out this denouement for more than
one hundred pages. Our narrator, previously tight-lipped about details, now
grows loquacious in discussing cockroaches. We learn of their evolution, their
habits, their anatomy. G.H. even speculates about the taste of the cockroach.
“Would its eyes be salty? If I touched them—since I was gradually getting
more and more unclean—if I touched them with my mouth, would they taste
But once she begins mediating on the
possibility of tasting the cockroach, she
realizes that she must taste the cockroach.
What better way to establish her
identification with the universe at large,
and the roach at hand, then to assimilate
its matter into her own?
(By the way, Lispector had a history of
writing about roaches, even before The Passion
According to G.H. On at least three previous occasions, she had published
advice on how to eradicate the pests with a concoction made of sugar, flower
Lispector deserves credit for building superstructures of narrative on this
premise, while avoiding all its risks. In the hands of another writer, this story
would collapse into puerile humor, or come across as campy and cartoonish.
Yet Lispector not only holds on to the terror of G.H.’s encounter, but turns it
into a meditation on spiritual and philosophical matters.
Our narrator is seeking nothing less than salvation in these pages. Her
encounter in the maid's room forces her to confront her human condition and,
in Lispector’s words, "the human condition is the passion of Christ." The
biblical language is pervasive here, and the ingestion of the cockroach takes on
the symbolic weight of an act of transubstantiation. And though authors often
rely on moments of this sort in their stories, describing inspired epiphanies
that offer redemption to a fallen protagonist, few have gone quite this far. Not
even Kafka managed to find so much revelation in the physiology of a
The Passion According to G.H. is a strange, disturbing novel. And though
Lispector makes some attempt to resolve its issues, the essence of this story is
to resist closure. At one point, our narrator announces: “The explanation of an
enigma is the repetition of the enigma.” That aphorism could serve as
summary of this entire novel, and to some extent Lispector’s oeuvre as a
The story is told of a young female fan of Lispector’s work who demanded a
face-to-face meeting with the writer. The author obliged, but when the
admiring reader arrived, Lispector merely sat silently and stared intently at
the visitor until the latter fled in dismay. She had expected a life-changing
encounter, and had perhaps had one, but wrapped with a dose of mystery
and terror that she found too unsettling to endure. That’s exactly what you
will find in the pages of The Passion According to G.H. You may want to flee
from it, but I doubt you will forget it. Nor will you find any other author who
can deliver this repetition of the enigma with such force and conviction.
Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His latest book
is Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by Oxford University Press.
Publication date: February 1, 2016
|The Passion According to G.H.
by Clarice Lispector
Essay by Ted Gioia
Statue of Clarice Lispector in Recife
|Once she begins
mediating on the
possibility of tasting
the cockroach, she
realizes that she must
taste the cockroach.