The glamorous, experimental Lispector fascinated me, as she has so many others. This writer of nine novels, numerous short stories, fashion journalism and other work was a Jewish refugee from the Ukraine who immigrated to Brazil as a child.
Complete Transcendence: A Clarice Lispector Anthology
BY LISA BARROW
Before I knew a thing about Clarice Lispector, her name engraved itself on my memory.
I first heard of her in a class at the University of New Mexico. We each were assigned to give a talk in Spanish on a Spanish-language author; one of my classmates ended up with Lispector.
As our class soon learned, this writer of nine novels, numerous short stories, fashion journalism and other work was a Jewish refugee from the Ukraine who immigrated to Brazil as a child. Lispector wrote in Portuguese, not Spanish, but she’s so fundamental to Brazilian and Latin American literature that the profesora made an exception and assigned her anyway.
The glamorous, experimental Lispector fascinated me, as she has so many others. But for years, the only thing that really stuck with me other than her name was an intention to read her when I got the chance.
The publication of “The Complete Stories” (New Directions; hardcover; $28.95) brought Lispector back into my orbit — and finally, into the orbit of the rest of the English-speaking world. For the first time in any language, it collects every short story she ever published. An excellent introduction by her biographer, Benjamin Moser, makes the case for her worldwide importance: “This is a record of a 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.”
Despite humble beginnings, Lispector possessed privileges of class and skin color; she was a bourgeois diplomat’s wife and heterosexual: “A woman who was not interrupted: a woman who did not start writing later, or stop for marriage or children, or succumb to drugs or suicide.” Having circumvented these pitfalls, her achievement is enormous. With the publication of her first novel at age 23, she found instantaneous fame, but since her death at 57, her prestige has only intensified.
So, sure, she’s important, but is she any good?
Unequivocally, yes. But her stories aren’t easily summed up. In many respects, she wrote about the quotidian aspects of her own middle-class life. The stories from her 20s are populated by young, precocious women; as she matured, so too did her characters. There are lots of households, bus rides, family gatherings, restaurants, pets, husbands and wives, children and parents. Yet to pigeonhole her work as merely this would be to miss the point entirely.
A strangeness permeates Lispector’s stories. In her best work, she fuses an unflinchingly poetic, philosophical sensibility with penetrating sensitivity. She is experimental and labyrinthine, prone to sudden insights that jolt with electrical revelation.
The story “Love” is emblematic. Protagonist Ana, neither happy nor unhappy, reflects on her children, her kitchen, her chosen, married life as she moves through an ordinary day. A blind man chewing gum on the bus becomes a fixation, and Ana misses her stop. She ends up walking around the Botanical Garden in which, “The trees were laden, the world was so rich it was rotting.” Lispector’s gift lies in placing Ana’s preoccupations in the light of life’s largest questions about meaning and worth without sentimentalizing or overblowing them. The author juxtaposes the rich textures of inner selfhood against external frustrations or curiosities.
After the garden interlude, Ana returns home to await her children and prepare for a summertime dinner with extended family. She sinks into its pleasantness but continues to wrestle with thoughts of the blind man and, from them, reaches alarming conclusions: “In horror she was discovering that she belonged to the strong part of the world.” With unmatched subtlety, Lispector opens to us the careening interiority, the poetry and the suffering, of this outwardly unremarkable housewife.
Lispector takes a more playful, but equally profound, approach to coaxing meaning from daily life in “The Fifth Story.” The same tale of battling a cockroach infestation with a mix of plaster, sugar and water is retold multiple times with different emphases. In one, the roaches simply die. In another, the narrator’s anger rises to a murderous pitch.
In another, seeing at dawn the “cockroaches that have hardened from the inside out,” the narrator becomes “the first witness of daybreak in Pompeii.” The story toys with morality, perspective and storytelling itself. We are left with the discomfiting sensation that truth and death are mixed with deep-seated uncertainty.
“The Complete Stories” is a monumental work of world literature, of literary daring and scope. Yet it’s also a collection of stories without pretense — humans acting in their human capacities, recognizable in their faults, passions, insecurities and tiny triumphs. It deserves a wide and curious audience.
Lisa Barrow is a member of the Dirt City Writers collective. Visit her on the interwebs at facebook.com/LisaBarrowLikesWords. She most recently served as arts & lit and web editor at Weekly Alibi.