Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories

Not even five years ago now, the name of Clarice Lispector was everywhere. A new biography and English translations of her most popular works were rescuing her from a provincial obscurity her talent was always destined to transcend, finding her new readers in an era perhaps better able to absorb her. She was born in 1920, in the Ukraine, but grew up in Brazil, in the port city of Recife. Tall, blonde, and beautiful, with high cheek bones and a permanently stern expression, she was the embodiment of glamour, an incongruous image for a writer, and yet by the time she was 23, her debut novel, Near To The Wild Heart, rocketed her to fame in her adopted country. Less than a year after this early success, however, she left Brazil for more than a decade, accompanying her diplomat husband on his business travels in America and Britain. When she finally returned to Brazil 15 years later, she was divorced, with two young children in tow, and forced to write fashion journalism to support her family. This edition of her Collected Stories compiles her earliest work, written when she was just a teenager, and her latest stories, penned in the year of her death. In the words of her editor and biographer, Benjamin Moser: “This is a record of woman’s entire life, written over a woman’s entire life. As such, it seems to be the first such total record written in any country.” Lispector’s characters age as she ages, and therefore, across these 85 short stories, her reader gets in miniature the portrait of a life.

The first thing to note about Lispector’s prose is its inescapable strangeness. A Brazilian poet, commenting on her use of Portuguese, put it this way: “The foreignness of her prose [became] one of the most overwhelming facts of […] the history of our language.” From the very first story, “The Triumph,” about a woman who wakes up to discover her boyfriend has left her, vowing never to return, we glimpse something of Lispector’s inventiveness. Morning light “takes possession” of a bedroom, where a woman, sprawled out on the bed, “crucified by lassitude,” begins to awake. “Little by little the day enters her body.” What begins as mere metaphorical inventiveness becomes, as she matures as a writer, increasingly surreal and experimental. Sentences break down, non sequiturs emerge, and the concrete and the abstract blend together, often abruptly. It’s a disorienting experience, one I was prepared to blame on the translator until I came across her Translator’s Note:

If Clarice’s language were more stridently experimental, finding equivalents would be more straightforward. The departures from standard Portuguese would be more emphatically marked and allow more freedom in English. Instead, she produces a maddening effect (maddening if you’re tasked with reproducing it) of bending known forms nearly to the breaking point, yet almost always making them sound right if not correct, as if they ought to exist, or somewhere already do. These unexpected choices often make you do a double-take or blur your reading even if you don’t stumble. She shuffles words, leaves out parts of speech, invents new yet generally understandable words by giving them alternative suffixes or extra syllables. These touches sometimes lend a literary effect and sometimes come off as conventional in the flexible, playful mode of spoken Brazilian Portuguese.

The strangeness continues into the forms Lispector works in. Early stories are just that, narratives with beginnings, middles and ends, usually about the quotidian experience of Brazilian men and women, or the difficulties of loving and losing. But as we progress through this collection, we encounter oddities: essays, parables, memoirs and sketches and quasi-fantasy tales. Concrete names and places disappear, and the narrative I takes on greater importance, becoming more assertive.”Boy in Pen and Ink,” for example, is something of a sketch about boyhood, beginning with this negation: “How can you ever know a little boy? To know him I have to wait until he deteriorates, and only then will he be within reach. There he is, a dot in the infinite. No one will ever know his today. Not even he himself.” And yet what she goes on to do, in the story, is describe his today, burrow into his psyche, culminating in his cry for the comfort of his mother

He nearly collapses into sobs, urgently he must transform into a thing that can be seen and heard or else he’ll be left alone, he must transform into something comprehensible or else no one will understand him, or else no one will go to his silence no one will know him if he doesn’t speak and explain, I’ll do whatever it takes to belong to others and for others to be mine, I’ll give up my real happiness that would only bring abandonment, and I’ll be like everyone else, I strike this bargain to be loved, it’s absolutely magical to cry in exchange for: a mother.

The lack of punctuation, the run-on sentences, and the shift, mid-paragraph, from the third-person “he” to the first-person “I” all disorient the reader, and yet somehow also make perfect sense, as Lispector moves us from intuition about the child into his very mind.

One also gets the sense, reading Lispector, that she was destined to provoke. How she must have bit her tongue at all those dinner parties she attended among her husband’s diplomat friends and their wives! Or else she sublimated what was subversive in her mind, pouring it into her fiction. She gives us grandmothers ashamed of their children and grandchildren; adulterous wives; timorous virgins; a prepubescent schoolgirl seeking the attentions of her older male instructor; and an old woman upset to discover that her aging body still craves sexual pleasure. She also gives us glimpses of real human courage, in the strangest of circumstances. Here is a little girl, sitting down at a dinner table to eat a chicken she has raised from the egg, a chicken she has loved:

But the girl hadn’t forgotten what her mother had said about eating beloved animals: she ate more of Eponina than the rest of the family, she ate without appetite, but with a near-physical pleasure because now she knew this was how Eponina would be incorporated into her and become more hers than in life. They had cooked Eponina in a blood sauce. So the girl, in a pagan ritual transmitted to her from body to body through the centuries, ate her flesh and drank her blood. During this meal she was jealous of whoever else was eating Eponina too. The girl was a being made to love until she grew into a young woman and there were men.

The image of a young woman eating her pet chicken with gusto, the better to consecrate their friendship, is already very odd, but Lispector takes it further: it is also a “pagan ritual transmitted to her from body to body through the centuries.” And then that final sentence, which gets stranger and stranger the more often it is re-read: how does her becoming a young woman or the presence of men modify her as a “being made to love”? Do the men somehow disqualify her as a being capable of love? Or do they become the objects of that love, and the chicken (which, remember, she’s just eaten) was mere practice? In another famous story, “The Egg and the Chicken,” we get this judgment on love: “Few want love, because love is the great disillusionment with all the rest. And few can bear losing the rest of their illusions. There are people who would volunteer for love, thinking love will enrich their personal lives. On the contrary: love is ultimately poverty. Love is not having. Moreover love is the disillusionment of what you thought was love.”

Reading Clarice Lispector, I could not at times escape the sensation that I was being toyed with, that her playfulness often took center stage. “My mystery is that being merely a means,” she tells us at one point, “and not an end, has given me the most mischievous of freedoms: I’m no fool and I make the most of things.” Indeed, she does. And mischievousness is at the center of her art, embedded in her use of language and form, as if she’s always pushing at the boundaries of convention. If this frequently makes for a disorienting reading experience, it also makes for a delightful one.