The Unusual Mind of Clarice Lispector
The Brazilian writer’s Complete Stories reveals she was a genius on the level of Nabokov.

By Jeff VanderMeer

“Behold us nearly here, coming down the long path,” Clarice Lispector writes in the story “The Burned Sinner and the Harmonious Angels.” “An angel’s fall is a direction.” For almost all of New Directions’ remarkable new Complete Stories, brilliantly translated by Katrina Dodson, I felt wrapped in flame. I might as well have been burning up on re-entry trying to follow strange angels, receiving ecstatic signals, sometimes from afar and sometimes very near.
Lispector is an iconic figure in Brazil, where her work is taught in schools and her persona has become larger than life. A Ukrainian Jew transplanted to Brazil who also spent many years in the United States and England, Lispector was influenced by mystical elements of Judaism but also by living within a certain strata of society. Perhaps because of the patriarchies we live within, Lispector is known for writing spectacularly well about the lives of women at various stages of their lives.

But, like most enduring writers, Lispector, who died in 1977, was more than one thing, capable of inhabiting more than one role. Her fiction contains multitudes. For example, she’s often described as “middle class,” but I’ll be damned if I don’t see in some of these stories as much of an affinity for Charles Bukowski as Anton Chekhov. In some of the later mystical stories, she also can conjure up an outright religious experimentalism that suggests a whole other set of writers entirely, and when she injects surrealism it’s in a way that reminds me of the artist and writer Leonora Carrington.


Clarice Lispector at home in Rio de Janeiro, circa 1964.Clarice Lispector at home in Rio de Janeiro, circa 1964.Image courtesy of Benjamin Moser and New Directions

The Complete Stories also reveals Lispector’s questing, ever-roving engagement with language, her lifelong task of making words do things other than originally intended. “The cruelty of the world was tranquil. The murder was deep. And death was not what we thought,” Lispector writes in “Love.” These are not common juxtapositions, but sentences that require the reader to splice in what’s left out or to make uncomfortable leaps. They are also the hallmarks of an unusual, creative mind.
“He never spoke to me without making it understood that his gravest flaw lay in his tendency toward destruction,” the narrator of “Interrupted” tells us, and here Lispector creates tension from the observation that the myths a man creates about himself are imposed on the world and his relationships—the weight of his “tendency toward destruction” pushed onto others. “Either I destroy him or he’ll destroy me,” she says later in the story, after understanding that the man’s affectations, his self-image, are meant to obliterate her. In both stories, the women narrators behave almost like social scientists, studying men through trial-and-error responses, within the context of their romantic relationships. This inquiry might on a surface level seem to support wanting to understand the other person in a relationship, but underneath the truth is clear: Doing so is an act of survival for both women.
In these stories and in her later, more mature work, the effortless way in which Lispector enters the private lives of her characters creates a sense of intimacy with the reader. But the other key element is the sober focus brought by the acute intelligence of her characters. Even the drunkest or least fortunate of her protagonists are sharp, questing people who have interesting views of the world.
This quality manifests itself, at times, in a sense that the author herself feels trapped by words, frustrated by them. Take, for example, the woman getting drunk by herself in “Daydreams and Drunkenness of a Young Lady.” “Her snow-white flesh was sweet as a lobster’s,” Lispector writes, followed by a destabilizing clang: “the legs of a live lobster wriggling slowly in the air.” And then, Lispector twists once again, refusing to sit still: “And that urge to feel wicked so as to deepen the sweetness into awfulness.” [   ]
 “Oh, words, words,” Lispector writes in that same story—“bedroom objects lined up in word order, forming those murky, bothersome sentences.” I find that’s how I feel trying to explicate Lispector’s fiction—how can I make clear her amazing effects without reproducing an entire story? The first part of editor Benjamin Moser’s introduction, “Glamour and Grammar,” doesn’t help much in that regard. In fact, I suggest you consider it an afterword and treat it accordingly. [  ]
Reading these stories, I had the same feeling I had when I first read the collected stories of Angela Carter and of Vladimir Nabokov: that something lives beyond the skin and in the skin, and you welcome the invasion, you begin to long for it every time you’re away from the book. You read slow, you read fast, you hold stories back and then devour them, you dread that moment when you’ve finished the last of them. Because the strangeness is familiar and yet different than you’ve ever encountered before. Because life seems more vital, almost hyperreal, after reading Lispector, and it is harder to ignore the hidden life surging all around you, in all its many forms.

All three of those writers suffered from the same affliction of genius: They saw with absolute clarity, and they divined more connections between elements in the world than other writers. Having Carter and Nabokov in my reading life has always been a gift. In introducing me to a third writer of their caliber, The Complete Stories is a discovery every bit as joyous and revelatory.


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