“How do I know?” asks a character standing in for author Clarice Lispector in “Before the Rio–Niterói Bridge,” included in New Directions’ recent release of The Complete Stories. “I know the same way you do by imaginative guessing. I know, period.” It’s a slippery statement by an author who was a master of them, at once slyly undermining and proudly laying claim to her writerly authority, all the while defying her readers’ beguilement. Lispector’s persona remains a devastating force throughout the collection’s 86 stories, shifting on a dime from minute psychological observation to telescopic philosophizing, gleefully overturning conventions of grammar and meaning along the way. She can be hard to account for.
Though only now receiving widespread critical attention in the US, Lispector is a big enough deal in her adopted homeland of Brazil to be known there simply as “Clarice.” Born Chaya Pinkhasovna Lispector in a Ukrainian shtetl, her family left for Brazil after enduring tremendous horrors — her mother contracted syphilis after being raped by soldiers — in the pogroms that accompanied the Russian Civil War. In her new country, she quickly surpassed expectations for both Jews and women, publishing her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, to sensational acclaim in 1943. She was, at that point, twenty-three. After poverty in Russia and struggle in Brazil, she would spend the rest of her life in relative luxury. Shortly after her literary breakthrough, she left Brazil with her diplomat husband, returning for good two decades later after tiring of role of “diplomat’s wife.” Now a single mother, she supplemented her literary projects by writing for fashion magazines. Tall, blonde, impeccably dressed, and a chain-smoker, she developed a mystique. According to Lispector’s biographer and tireless advocate Benjamin Moser, “the connection between literature and witchcraft has long been part of the Clarice mythology.”
A good short story anthology can serve as a sort of artistic time-lapse, as the author’s concerns and obsessions are successively established, repeated, developed, reformulated, expanded and, in extraordinary cases, exploded. Lispector’s earliest stories, largely concerning housewives second-guessing their domestic realities, are remarkable both for their proto-feminist insights and their combination of fine material detail and linguistic abandon. Setting the tone for much of her work, the men in “The Triumph,” “Obsession,” “Jimmy and Me,” and “The Escape” are less interesting for who they are or what they do, but for what they ignite in the narrators’ inflamed psyches. “And, above all, for the very first time I, in a deep slumber until then, caught a glimpse of ideas,” proclaims the protagonist of “Obsession” on her desired. More than personal liberation or love, Lispector’s characters seem to long for a higher reality, something beneath the surface, more sharply realized and evidently true. It’s not surprising, then, that many of their romantic, sexual, and intellectual escapades end in a crash of bathos and disappointment, a special sort of hangover after the object of infatuation has been not just exhausted but transcended.
Over time, Lispector’s repertoire of narrators expands to include children, the elderly, and a chatty yet elusive representation of the author herself, who appears in the later essayistic flights of fancy that comprise some of her best work. Likewise, their epiphanies, Existential panics, and visionary episodes are inspired not just by romantic partners, but by strangers, inanimate objects, or animals. It’s a perilous yet thrilling psychic landscape, in which almost anything, once noticed, can trigger a potentially self-altering series of thoughts. The protagonist of “Love,” one of her best stories along these lines, is set off by a blind man chewing gum on the bus. Lispector writes, “What she called a crisis had finally come. And its sign was the intense pleasure with which she now looked at things, suffering in alarm.” Later, the character achieves a heightened sensitivity that pushes against the mystical and the psychedelic:
In the trees the fruits were black, sweet like honey. On the ground were dried pits full of circumvolutions, like little rotting brains. The bench was stained with purple juices. With intense gentleness the waters murmured. Clinging to the tree trunk were the luxurious limbs of a spider. The cruelty of the world was peaceful. The murder was deep. And death was not what we thought.
Gradually, Lispector’s expeditions beneath the surface of things gain greater depth and staying power, but these explorations reveal only more surfaces, which give way in turn to others. Yet this somewhat disappointing realization lends greater significance to their existence. In “The Egg and the Chicken,” Lispector’s penetrable but inexhaustible world is expressed through the act of preparing breakfast. Among many tenuously connected proclamations on the theme of eggs, Lispector writes, “Like the world, the egg is obvious.” Later: “The egg is an exteriorization. To have a shell is to surrender.” And: “That’s why the chicken is the egg’s disguise.” In “The Message,” two questing teenage would-be intellectuals encounter a house:
I am the thing itself you were seeking, the big house said.
And the funniest thing is that I don’t have any secrets at all, the big house also said.
This almost Zen-like preoccupation with ordinary phenomena is a necessary counterweight to the much-ballyhooed Lispector mystique. In a dispiriting example of how we discuss women artists, this seems to be due as much to her appearance as her prose. Much that is written about her repeats translator Gregory Rabassa’s snazzy description of the writer as “that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf,” an uncritically propagated inaccuracy that’s also beside the point. Can you imagine the Men of Rarefied Letters enthusiastically murmuring that, say, Albert Camus looked just like Humphrey Bogart? Me neither.
Alongside her otherworldly syntax and semantic transmogrifications — according to Katrina Dodson’s translator’s notes, the writer “produces a maddening effect” — one finds in Lispector a steadfast and sensitive attention to the lives of women of all ages as well as a healthy sense of humor. Throughout much of the collection’s second half, Lispector jokes repeatedly about her weakness for Coca-Cola. She can also construct a fabulously cutting one-liner (A sample gem: “I am a solitary person, said the masturbator to himself.”) In “The Man Who Showed Up,” the eponymous man tells a stand-in for the writer, “You’re a strange person.” Her response: “‘No, I’m not,’ I replied, ‘I’m very simple, not sophisticated at all.’”
Yet as a writer, she is undeniably unusual, habitually breaking with convention in often bewildering ways. Though often absurd, Lispector’s transformed language is no Dadaist gesture, mocking humanity’s doomed quests for meaning. Rather, it seems more like an earnest attempt to express what is ineffable in mortal life. According to the titular protagonist of “The Smallest Women in the World,” “Not being devoured is the most perfect of feelings.” Brazen and imperious regarding grammatical and literary convention, she displayed a poignant reverence towards the facts of life and death. In “Before the Rio–Niterói Bridge,” she would write:
[…] death is made of a great darkness. Or maybe not. I don’t know what it’s like, I haven’t died yet, and I won’t know even after I die. Maybe it’s not all that dark. Maybe it’s a blinding light. Death, I mean.