New York, NY: New Directions, 2015. 640 pages. $28.95.
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Few people seem to be aware that Clarice Lispector ever existed, even fewer seem to be aware that she was one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Born to Jewish parents in the Ukraine in 1920, she and her family were corralled by the Russian Civil War into emigrating to Brazil in 1922, where she was to establish herself as one of South America’s best-kept literary secrets. Beginning with the stream-of-consciousness Near to the Wild Heart in 1943, she went on to pen eight other novels and countless short stories, garnering several national awards along the way.
Even so, she still remains something of an enigma to the English-speaking public, partly because her premature death by ovarian cancer in 1977 interrupted a career and a style that was only expanding its inimitable repute. Luckily for the public, her neglect is now being mitigated by a steady slew of translations, of which The Complete Stories is the latest and undoubtedly the most exhaustive. Compiling some eighty short stories into an authoritative survey of her creative trajectory, it charts her growth from a headstrong feminist to a philosophical absurdist, incorporating family drama at one end of the spectrum and existentialist surrealism at the other. Through its psychosexual conflicts and abstract studies of human existence, it ends up demonstrating not only the sheer intellectual stature of Lispector, but also how, underlying her already noble pursuit of gender equality, there was the even nobler pursuit of individual truth and freedom.
Working through the anthology in chronological order, it’s nonetheless easy to forgive the initial misapprehension that she was more or less a straightforward feminist. Her first story—”The Triumph,” 1940—paints a young girl coming to terms with her writer boyfriend’s abandonment of her, eventually realizing that his erudition and self-declared talent was mainly a facade he used to intimidate and control her. This modest emancipation sets the tone for the more ambitious self-discoveries to follow, with other early vignettes extending this theme of women trying to live their lives outside the shadows cast upon them by men. In “Obsession,” the female protagonist meets a mysterious “Daniel” who, in teaching her how to feel and live intensely, teaches her to leave behind the humdrum subjugation of her marriage and then later the subjugation to which he, as some kind of unreachable Svengali, also subjects her.
Even if she finds herself rooted in a feminine quest for self-empowerment and autonomy, the early Lispector bears witness to numerous interesting stylizations that galvanize and individuate her suffragette-ish concerns. Primary among these is a strain of mysticism, a tendency to use the magical and fantastical as a hopeful figure for every potential that lies beyond the stifling personae and conventions people are forced to adopt. In “The Fever Dream,” a convalescent perceives a “pair of wings [dancing] in the rosy atmosphere” and “tiny beings of pure light [emerging] one by one” as he lies in hospital; these metaphors vividly represent his “urge to steal away” from the “easier life” that’s being pushed on him.
Conversely, many of the entries in The Complete Stories allude to an essentialism and naturalism that also explains why Lispector was so opposed to the conventional straitjackets she and her characters were often forced to wear. Stories like “A Tale of So Much Love” and “Temptation” use animals as the image of the essence or inner nature that’s repressed whenever society in the abstract forbids people from ever deviating from their assigned roles. In “The Crime of the Mathematics Teacher” the eponymous teacher buries a dog on “the highest hill,” just as “he had buried his weakness and his condition” in a bid to become a fully paid-up member of civilization. Another dead animal is also encountered in the brief “Monkeys,” in which a mother buys a soon-to-be-deceased marmoset called Lisette for her sons, only for her eldest to tell her, “You look so much like Lisette!”
In fact, as the anthology soon reveals, Lispector believed that women could be made to look like almost anything other people wanted them to look like. This is evident in “He Drank Me Up,” in which the female lead realizes that a male makeup artist “had annulled her face,” and in “Happy Birthday,” in which the completely impassive great-grandmother has everything from birthday cake to jubilant words shoved into her mouth. However, as these stories about female passivity and cipherdom mount up, it soon becomes apparent that Lispector isn’t simply targeting how women are expected to reflect the dictates of men. Instead, it transpires that her fundamental concern is authenticity in the deepest possible sense, the urge any right-minded human being has to live their life according to their own best judgment on who they are and what they want.
This can be seen, for example, in “It’s Going to Rain,” where a nineteen-year-old man couples with a sixty-year-old women purely for money and then suffers impotence as a result. It can also be seen in the infant of “Boy in Pen and Ink,” a boy who gives up “the real happiness that would only bring abandonment” in order to be recognized and coddled by his mother. In these two cases, the protagonists renounce something of themselves so as to take the path of least resistance through life, yet what makes Lispector both a subtle and profound writer is that much of The Complete Stories actually questions the possibility of achieving this, casting substantial doubt on the existence of a “true” nature or identity that would make the individual’s authenticity and inauthenticity possible.
This foreboding is apparent in plots that have little girls identifying more with party costumes than anything else (“Remnants of Carnival”), and grown adults unable to sleep in the “desolate” quiet that speaks their essential nothingness (“Silence”). Yet, as the anthology progresses, it’s embedded in the very form and language employed by Lispector, whose increasingly devious prose becomes a mirror to the anarchic incoherence that populates the self and the world. In the wondrous journalistic mirage that is “Brasília,” she throws almost every kind of voice and register into the mix, underlining how (modern) life is constituted by so many contradictory and conflicting currents the individual can’t possibly have any one essence, personality or role in particular. As she cryptically notes, the Brazilian capital “is the mystery categorized in steel filing cabinets,” and as such, she as one of its denizens is reduced to being “disoriented in life, in art, in time and in space.”
In the end, the chaos and rawness she so beautifully captures here is what ultimately frees her from being a simple housewife or girlfriend, and what ultimately makes The Complete Stories such a penetrating read. It displays a formidable modernist-feminist-existentialist at the peak of her formidable powers, and even if this once-neglected writer, as she herself admits in “Brasília,” is “so lost” for much of the collection’s bounteous duration, “that is exactly how we live: lost in time and space.”