By Lesley Hazleton
“You’re an agnostic?” said the head of the theology school when I told him about my new book, Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto. “Ah, so you’re a nun.”
I’d been called many things over the years, including all manner of salacious takes on my sexuality, but a nun? That’s one thing I’d never been taken for. So whatever showed on my face, it was enough to prompt him to explanation. “You’re the fastest growing category in religion,” he said. “All the polls are showing a sharp rise in the population of nuns.” Then he spelled it out for me—“N-O-N-E-S”—people who answer “none” when asked about their religion.
By Robin Becker
Almost four decades of sending poems to editors has yielded me my share of acceptances and rejections. As a beginning poet, I studied literary journals to see which published a significant number of women, and I sent poems to them. I sought journals that published work I admired, and I sent poems to them. Over the years, I sent poems to journals large and small: those housed in universities (such as Prairie Schooner at the University of Nebraska); those stapled on kitchen tables (such as Aspect Magazine ). Early on, I included the New Yorker, a general-interest, culturally iconic, and mostly unattainable magazine on my list. Somewhat more realistically, I set my sights on American Poetry Review. I eventually had a poem accepted there, as well as in Poetry Magazine.
A somewhat arbitrary listing of books we've received lately in the Women's Review of Books office:
by Zabel Yessayan, translated byG. M. Goshgarian
edited by Judith Saryan, Danila Jebejian Terpanjian, and Joy Renjilian-Burgy
A somewhat arbitrary list of books we've received lately in the Women's Review of Books office:
by Merce Rodoreda, translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relano and Martha Tennent
By Diane Reynolds
Dietrich Bonhoeffer visited his twin sister Sabine in London, taking with him his best friend Eberhard Bethge. World War II loomed, and during idle moments in Sabine’s garden, amid the forsythia and dark mauve lilacs, during what Sabine called “a magical spring,” Bonhoeffer wondered if he should allow himself to be caught in England when the war started. He was, after all, in the company of the two people in the world with whom he felt, as he put it, “in contrast to … other people … a remarkable sense of closeness.”In the spring of 1939, the German theologian
Bonhoeffer, who was hanged by the Nazis in the last days of the war, catapulted to fame after his death, when his prison writings were published as Letters and Papers from Prison. His personal writings and poems interspersed with theological musings exerted a pull on the popular imagination, as did his resistance to the Nazis.
A somewhat arbitrary list of books we've received recently in the Women's Review of Books office:
By Linda Hirshman
New York: HarperCollins, 2015, 390pp., $28.99, hardcover
Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
By Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
New York: HarperCollins, 2015, 227 pp., $19.99, hardcover
Reviewed by Ruthann Robson
The United States Supreme Court has been at the center of social and legal change: declaring that abortion restrictions, same-sex marriage prohibitions, racial segregation, and sex and other types of discrimination are unconstitutional. The nine justices of the court are arguably more powerful than any individual president. Once confirmed, they may occupy their seats for the rest of their lives, with no worries about re-election, term limits, or age limits. While the presidency has thus far been an exclusively male province, the Supreme Court has not. Of the 112 justices to sit on the court since 1790, four have been women.
Linda Hirshman’s Sisters in Law compares and contrasts the first two women to serve on the court, Sandra Day O’Connor, appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, appointed more than a decade later, in 1993, by President Bill Clinton. Notorious RBG, as its title suggests, focuses on Ginsburg, who turned 83 in March and who remains on the bench. She is now joined by two other women, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, each appointed by President Barack Obama.
Both Sisters in Law and Notorious RBG are stellar biographies. Both illuminate the lives as well as the political and social contexts of their subjects. Both navigate the difficult task of writing accessibly for readers unfamiliar with legal feminism while also captivating readers well versed in it.
Of the two books, Sisters in Law, despite its rather unusual dual-biography structure, is more traditional: it is primarily text, illustrated with a few photographs. And what terrific text. Hirshman’s descriptions of Supreme Court litigation and decisions make them come alive without sacrificing incisive analysis. The juxtaposition of O’Connor and Ginsburg rarely feels artificial, although Hirshman makes it clear that these very different women were forced together and have had very different fates. While O’Connor no longer serves on the court, Ginsburg has become a celebrity. Such trendiness can be difficult to resist, and Hirshman’s phrasings sometimes jar, as when she describes the text of a dissenting opinion by O’Connor as having a “Girlz Rule string of citations.”
The collage book Notorious RBG is a product of Ginsburg’s popularity: it had its genesis in the Tumblr site, notoriousrbg.tumblr.com, created by Shana Knizhnik, who crowned Ginsburg with her rap-star moniker (a play on the name of the late rapper Notorious BIG). The book shares many aspects of a fun website: it is awash in creative images and personal text. Want to know more about Ginsburg’s attire? Her exercise routine? Want to read a copy of the note her husband left her before he died? Then this book is for you. But somewhat surprisingly, this book is also for you if you want to gain a deeper understanding of law. Spread across two pages, for example, is a handy chart of recent cases in which Ginsburg dissented. It’s similar to the case grids law students learn to construct (although the headings here read “what was at stake” rather than “issue,” and “RBG says” rather than “dissenting opinion”). Knizhnik and the journalist Irin Carmon also provide briefs and opinions by Ginsburg, which they’ve annotated with comments ranging from “#benevolentsexism” to an explanation of the legal difference between “facial” and “as applied” constitutional challenges.
If we read biographies to learn how to live our own lives, Notorious RBG satisfies that craving with a list, “How To Be Like RBG”: “Work for What You Believe In”; “But Pick Your Battles”; “And Don’t Burn Your Bridges”; “Don’t Be Afraid to Take Charge”; “Think About What You Want, Then Do The Work”; “But Then Enjoy What Makes You Happy”; “Bring Along Your Crew”; and “Have a Sense of Humor.” These may be good rules and even ones that Ginsburg embodies—although both books note that she may not have much of a sense of humor and that she tends to work too much—but of course following them will not make you into a Supreme Court Justice.
Sisters in Law presents a complex interrogation of the necessary conditions for individual success. Certainly, one component is personal character, forged early in life. O’Connor learned to “combine her confidence in her own equal value with a unique ability to absorb a high level of injustice without complaint.” Ginsburg’s ambition was rooted in her mother’s early nurturing and her death on the day before Ginsburg’s high school graduation. It also helps to be very intelligent, as both women undoubtedly are. Hirshman describes O’Connor as having a nearly photographic memory and Ginsburg as a well-known “serious brainiac.”
In addition to individual attributes, both O’Connor and Ginsburg had good timing. Both went to elite colleges (Stanford for O’Connor; Cornell for Ginsburg) and elite law schools (Stanford again for O’Connor; Harvard and Columbia for Ginsburg) after World War II, when women’s education was starting to be taken seriously. This is not to say the women were enthusiastically welcomed. Both books include the well-known anecdote about the dean of Harvard Law School who asked the recently married Ginsburg how she could justify attending law school, thus taking the place of a male student. Ginsburg reportedly answered, “It’s important for wives to understand their husband’s work.” Hirshman explains that the answer astonished even Ginsburg herself, and still does. The authors of Notorious RBG speculate that if the dean “knew [Ginsburg] was lying, he didn’t let on.” After graduation, both Ginsburg and O’Connor had trouble finding jobs: employers felt free to simply state they would not consider women. Neither obtained the high-level positions being routinely awarded to their similarly high-achieving, male counterparts.
A few decades of feminism later, when presidents decided that it would be a good idea to appoint women to the nation’s highest court, there were not that many “suitable” women available, Hirshman explains. For O’Connor, part of her attraction for President Reagan and his team (including Kenneth Starr, later infamous for his investigation of the Bill Clinton – Monica Lewinsky affair) was that she had been a Republican operative and state legislator with conservative views on tax policy and federal-state relations. Importantly, she was also a ladylike hostess. As for Ginsburg, President Clinton did not at first focus on finding a women. But when his two (male) top candidates were nixed, he turned to Ginsburg, who had been appointed by President Jimmy Carter as a federal judge on the Washington, DC, Circuit. Clinton liked the notion of nominating someone who’d been called “the Thurgood Marshall of the women’s movement.” Marshall, the first African American on the Court, who had retired in 1991, was widely seen as the architect of civil rights legal reform—and Ginsburg’s litigation profile and political beliefs were similar to his (unlike O’Connor’s). Ginsburg came to the White House to meet Clinton on a Sunday; he nominated her the next day.
Yet one can be in the right place at the right time and fail to be noticed. Hirshman, a former prominent union-side labor law attorney, reminds readers again and again of the comfortable and elite world both women occupied, due in large part to their husbands, both of whom were successful attorneys. Their husbands provided material comfort and championed them, both directly and indirectly, through their contacts, support, and mere presence. Ginsburg’s husband, Martin Ginsburg, a well-known tax attorney and professor, was the more enthusiastic of the two men. He “worked the phones” on his wife’s behalf on numerous occasions, including bringing her to the attention of those who would nominate her for judicial positions.
But it may be O’Connor’s husband who ultimately played a more important role in Supreme Court jurisprudence. O’Connor resigned from the court at the age of 75, in January 2006, to care for her Alzheimer’s-afflicted husband. Hirshman’s chapter about this, “Justice O’Connor’s Self-Inflicted Wound,” is worth the price of the book. As she describes the circumstances of O’Connor’s “abrupt decision,” her assessment of O’Connor’s character seems to shift: gone is the woman known for her “social intelligence” and “kindness.” In this chapter, she writes,
O’Connor was legendarily impatient with people who couldn’t handle the business of everyday life; she was always telling people how to drive and giving them directions to places whether they wanted them or not.
Hirshman shares the contradictory mixture of anger and pity that many progressive court-watchers, myself included, feel when we contemplate O’Connor’s retirement.
It is difficult not to blame O’Connor for some of the subsequent conservative five-to-four decisions that might have been different if she were still on the Court. Yet it is also difficult not to feel sorry for her, especially when one contemplates her sitting in the Supreme Court, not on the bench, but “in the section reserved for VIPs.” O’Connor was there in June 2013, more than seven years after her retirement, to hear the Court’s announcement in one of those close cases: Shelby County v. Holder, in which a five-Justice majority invalidated major sections of the Voting Rights Act, essentially declaring that racial discrimination is a thing of the past. The description of the event in Notorious RBG centers on Ginsburg’s powerful dissent in Shelby County, which was the catalyst for original Tumblr; it reduces the former Justice O’Connor, who once such wielded tremendous power, to “RBG’s close friend.”
One of the most revelatory incidents in Sisters in Law demonstrates what a remarkable friend O’Connor was to Ginsburg. Relying on interviews Hirshman conducted with the now-retired Justice John Paul Stevens, she discusses United States v. Virginia, decided in 1996, which involved a constitutional challenge to the ban on women students at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). According to custom, the most senior justice in the majority selects the Justice who will author the court’s opinion. The senior justice chose O’Connor—but O’Connor demurred, saying “This should be Ruth’s.” The VMI opinion is one of Ginsburg’s most well known, and many consider it the culmination of the quest she began as a litigator to use the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause to end sex inequality.
Notorious RBG discloses another unfamiliar matter that demonstrates the depth of Ginsburg’s feminist friendship. The book includes a photo of the brief for the appellant in Reed v. Reed, filed on June 25, 1971, the first case in which the Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited sex discrimination. The brief lists five attorneys for Sally Reed, who had been barred from administering her deceased son’s estate in favor of her estranged husband because of a Idaho law that preferred male relatives. One was the Idaho attorney; another was legal director of the ACLU; and another was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg insisted on adding two more names: Dorothy Kenyon, formerly of the ACLU; and Pauli Murray, the co-author of the ground breaking article, “Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII” (George Washington Law Review, 1965). Yet Murray and Kenyon had not worked on the brief. Ginsburg insisted that since she was indebted to their work, their names belonged on it—even though she was warned that listing them violated legal ethics. In 2015 she affirmed that the women were “too old” to be working then.
Any feminist working on legal issues today is indebted to the work of Ginsburg as well as to O’Connor, even if we disagree with them. While Hirshman calls both O’Connor and Ginsburg “icons” and “beacons,” she admits that it is only in retrospect that the rather conservative and uninspiring O’Connor is revealed as a “gift from the gods of jurisprudence.” As the Supreme Court is poised to deliver important decisions this term—which have the potential to allow states to seriously curtail abortion; to forbid public universities to pursue affirmative action; to weaken public employee unions; and to strengthen religious organizations’ resistance to sex equality—we will be looking to the current gifts from the goddess of feminist jurisprudence on the court: Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan. And with controversial conservative Justice Scalia now gone—he died unexpectedly February 13, 2016—perhaps the next justice will be another gift.
Ruthann Robson is professor of Law and University Distinguished Professor at City University of New York, where she teaches constitutional law. She is the author of Dressing Constitutionally: Hierarchy, Sexuality, and Democracy (2013); Sappho Goes to Law School (1998); Gay Men, Lesbians, and the Law (1996); and Lesbian (Out)Law: Survival Under the Rule of Law (1992), and the editor of the three volume set, International Library of Essays in Sexuality & Law (2011).
By Paula K. Kamenish
Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2015, 208 pp., $44.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Irene Gammel
On February 5, 1916, the German poet and performer Emmy Hennings co-founded the legendary Cabaret Voltaire along with her compatriot, the writer Hugo Ball, whom she would marry in 1920. Through song, dance, and puppetry, she contributed to the birth of Dada. “I had never seen anything like it and was immediately won over by the Dadaists,” remarked the dancer Suzanne Perrottet, who had studied under the modern dance pioneer Rudolf Laban:
Emmy Hennings stood there in a roll of cardboard, from head to foot, the face was a ghastly mask, the mouth open, the nose off to one side, the arms lengthened in thin cardboard rolls, with long stylized fingers. The only living part that could be seen was her feet, naked, all by themselves at the bottom; it was so terse and impressive. That’s how she danced.
Indeed, Hennings’s performances were more felt by the audience than they were understood. Hennings, who earned her living through cleaning homes and occasional sex work, takes us inside the turbulent movement. A German citizen during war time, she was jailed for six weeks for forging passports, a traumatic experience she later dramatized in her 1919 autobiographical novella Gefängnis (“Prison”). Attuned to the carnage on the World War I European battlefields, which cost the lives of at least 10 million people and wounded and maimed another 20 million, Hennings violently rejected the traditional and embraced the radical in life and art. A photo in Paula Kamenish’s Mamas of Dada shows Hennings, petite and pixie-like, looking defiantly at the camera. She leans into Ball, who appears melancholy, as does the teenager beside him, Annemarie, Hennings’s daughter by another man. Taken one year before Ball’s early death in 1927, the photo shows little of the fun of Dada, instead confronting viewers with the trauma that underpinned the rebellious, iconoclastic movement.
As an anti-art movement, active in urban centers such as Zurich, Berlin, Paris, and New York, Dada reveled in provocations and nonsense, scatological humor and mischief. Pushing the boundaries of art and life to extremes and exhibiting exuberant creative energy, Dadaists shaped quirky and flexible new art forms such as the ready-made, the collage, and the photomontage, as well as sound poems, manifestos, and performances.
Through exploring the attitudes toward war, art, sex, and relationships of the six women featured in this book—Emmy Hennings, Gabrielle Buffet, Germaine Everling, Céline Arnauld, Juliette Roche, and Hannah Höch—Kamenish reveals both their interconnectedness, through Dada, and their individuality. She offers insights into their writing and performance across multiple languages, offering her own translations from works unavailable in English. In time for the Dada centenary in 2016, Mamas of Dada offers fascinating portraits of the radical women who, in their lives and art, confronted the inequities and complexities of sex, gender, class, and nationhood.
Although they were feminists and subversive critics of the Dada boys’ club, the six “mamas” often found themselves paired with larger-than-life Dada husbands. “For me, the Dada era began the day I met Picabia,” said the French painter and Dadaist Gabrielle Buffet, whose well-to-do background contrasts with Hennings’s impoverished life. Highly educated, Buffet had studied music and experimented with radical expression long before she became known on both sides of the Atlantic for her Dadaist commentary. An artist and intellectual, confident in her capabilities, she was a match for the French Dada leader Francis Picabia, whom she married and had three children with by 1913. A shrewd observer of the proto-Dada scene in New York from 1915 on, where Marcel Duchamp was pioneering the ready-made, Buffet engaged sharply with the movement, supplying the US press with articles and critical manifestoes that were eagerly reprinted. At that time, the word “Dada” was not yet used; as Buffet describes it, it was only in 1919 that this key term was adopted. After Buffet and her husband visited Tristan Tzara, the grand impresario of Dada, in Zurich, she recalled that she had been “very amused by the word ‘dada’ that we had never heard before.”
From there Buffet and her husband went on to found the movement’s Paris incarnation. By then, Buffet was forced to share the stage with her husband’s mistress, Germaine Everling, herself the mother of a teenage son and recently separated from her husband. The two women formed an uneasy alliance as they confronted Picabia’s egocentrism. Remarkably, in 1919, each gave birth to a son fathered by Picabia. Both signed his artwork L’Œil Cacodylate (1921), composed of some fifty other signatures, as well as photographs and postcards of his Dada friends, and both would eventually part ways from him.
During the height of Parisian Dada, Everling housed Tristan Tzara for a year. Turning her Paris apartment into a Dada headquarters, her hands and accessories were photographed by Man Ray as part of Marcel Duchamp’s cross-dressed persona Rrose Sélavy. Her 1970 memoir, L’Anneau de Saturne: Un roman d’amour (Ring of Saturn: a love story), provides a lively retrospective account, which astutely puts “Dada à la loupe” (Dada under the magnifying glass) and asserts her active role in Parisian Dada, while reckoning with her former lover. Using fictional dialogues, she conjures up outlandish Dada happenings with striking immediacy, and inserts herself into the events. One of the book’s chapters is titled, “Un enfant naît ... et Tristan Tzara arrive” (“a child is born … and Tristan Tzara arrives”), juxtaposing her child’s birth with the birth of Dada in Paris, both of which took place in her apartment, an intimate space that joined the physical with the intellectual and artistic.
Amid the “transitory Parisian Dada” one also finds Céline Arnauld, born Carolina Goldstein, “a single prolific female artist,” as Kamenish observes, “sandwiched by art historians between the widely known French versions of Cubism and Surrealism.” In contrast to Dada’s anti-aesthetic, Arnauld crafted poetry that she published in fourteen volumes—The Magic Lantern (1914); Openwork Poems (1920); and Chess Game (1921)—in addition to writing a novel and editing a literary magazine. Set in Paris and using Paris landmarks (“Wooden horses revolve around the Eiffel Tower/and the sun at its summit awaits the pilot”), her well-wrought verses have a modernist edge that refuses Romantic conventionality and pleasure. Her poem “Alarm,” for example, evokes the unsettling discomfort of World War I:
Your words are shrapnel
On the sunflower wheels
The cemeteries extend to the dead grass...
Watch out for the open graves.
Relevant here is the poet Pierre Reverdy’s observation that avant-garde poetic images are most powerful when they are born “from the juxtapositions of distant but true realities”; in other words, as Kamenish writes, “The more distant and accurate the correspondences between ideas are, the stronger the image.” A constant presence in the mercurial world of Parisian Dada, Arnauld used arsenic-green paint to sign her name in the upper right corner of Picabia’s L’Œil.
Whereas Arnauld created poetic images in words, the French painter Juliette Roche shaped poetry in pictures. Well-to-do and attractive, Roche was married to the Cubist and Dadaist painter Albert Gleizes. She held strong feminist views—advocating for “equal artistic, industrial and economic opportunity for men and women”—and was critical of the war, which she believed was fuelled by greed. Her 1917 pictorial poem “Brevoort” brilliantly depicts one of New York City’s landmark hotels near Washington Square, then a vibrant meeting point for the cosmopolitan avant garde. The poem is arranged visually and contains “overheard conversations, recorded then chopped up and arranged to move the viewer’s eye around the page,” Kamenish explains. Composed of flashes of pictures and verbal fragments of conversation, the pictorial poem has the typographical layout of a poster. Although fascinated by New York’s modernity, Roche satirized the city’s commercialism, critically comparing the bank vaults on Wall Street to military weapons (“The new [safety deposit vaults] are shaped like naval cannons,” she wrote.)
Like Roche, the book’s final example, Berlin Dadaist Hannah Höch, used Dada’s cutting and pasting technique, which enabled her to pioneer the photomontage. The proliferation of illustrated newspapers provided the raw material, and the collage became a hallmark of Dada art. In Höch’s words, “collage was born with the Dada Movement, and it never ceased to hold me… it was a form of expression complete in itself and could culminate in purely aesthetic work.” One of her most famous works, with the elaborate title Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1919-1920), illustrates Höch’s scathing critique of militaristic, nationalistic bourgeois culture. She was equally acerbic in lambasting stereotypical femininity; Höch, like many of her Dada sisters, saw Dada’s potential to challenge gender and sexual conformity. Höch had long-term relationships with both men and women, including the Dadaist Raoul Hausmann, who was married, prompting her twice to terminate pregnancies; and the Dutch poet Mathilda (Til) Brugman, who wrote sound-poems and a heartbreaking love poem-elegy when the two women broke up in 1936 (“your thighs/ delicious, elongated basin/ that I lasciviously adored … // but agonizing pain you left me”).
Ultimately, Mamas of Dada makes a forceful case for these women as Dada agents, illuminates their fascinating lives, and expands the category of Dada by highlighting their various roles as its facilitators and champions. However, Mamas of Dada does not delve deeply into the ideas and gender nuances behind Dada; the plethora of books on women in Dada are listed in the preface but never engaged with. As a result, some readers may miss the connection between Emmy Hennings and the outrageous Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven; or the radical queering of gender championed by Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, the formidable lesbian editors of the Little Review; or Höch’s fascination with Weimar’s sexual subcultures and early gender-reassignment surgery. Feminist readers are bound to query the lack of nuance in a chart listing male Dadaists as “the most recognizable participants,” which relegates the women to a list of “less-known contributors.” The gender divide postulated at the book’s outset seems overdrawn, considering that artists like Höch have long enjoyed impressive international cachet and high market value for their work, and deserve credit for these achievements and successes.
Nevertheless, Mamas of Dada offers an unequivocal and enthusiastic tribute to six women who helped give birth to Dada, adding to the pantheon of formidable women Dadaists. The book will appeal to readers keen to learn more about the daring and experimental women who were “instrumental in birthing new techniques,” as Kamenish says, and who both sustained and challenged the movement from within. In the process, they embodied radical impulses in both their lives and their art, and gave us innovations that continue to resonate a century later.
Irene Gammel holds a Canada Research Chair in Modern Literature and Culture at Ryerson University in Toronto. Among her books are Looking for Anne of Green Gables (2008) and Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity (2002). She also coedited Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (2011) and Crystal Flowers: Poems and a Libretto by Florine Stettheimer (2011). She is the director of the Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre. For more, see http://mlc.ryerson.ca/ and and follow her on twitter (@MLC_Research).
By Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dobson, edited by Benjamin Moser
New York: New Directions, 2015, 640 pp., $28.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Marguerite Itamar Harrison
“Every word has its shadow.” That sentence is a primer for reading Clarice Lispector’s work, particularly this weighty volume, which comprises the nine collections of short stories published during her lifetime, as well as a few posthumously published pieces. As Katrina Dobson affirms in her translator’s note, The Complete Stories is significant as the first one-volume compendium of Lispector’s short fiction to appear in any language.
In addition to Dobson’s illuminating Note, this volume is enriched by an introduction by Lispector’s biographer, Benjamin Moser. Lispector was born in Ukraine in 1920 to Jewish parents, who brought her to Brazil as a young child. As a female writer in mid-twentieth-century Brazil, she had to fit her professional career alongside her roles as a diplomat’s wife (in Europe and the US) and then as a single mother, until her untimely death in 1977. As Moser writes, she found a balance between “glamour and grammar”; he describes her as a “female Chekhov on the beaches of Guanabara.” Lispector accentuates moments of instability in her characters’ lives in order to scrutinize social norms and male-dominated authority, rooted in a patriarchal—and parochial—system.
Reading Lispector is deceptively easy because of the pleasurable momentum, range, and freshness of her storylines. Her protagonists’ lives seem to mirror her readers’, especially in early collections such as First Stories (1952) and Family Ties (1960). Yet, the storylines twist, opening into uncanny instances of second-sight and epiphany. Her fictional world hovers at the edge of a cliff, at what she calls “the delicate abyss of disorder.”
Lispector’s characters are predominantly women whom she characterizes as in “the stream of life”: inhabitants of urban, middle-class Brazil. They are housewives and mothers, for the most part—like Lispector herself—and we partake of their daily lives by way of short flashes through an intimate viewfinder. But these scenes widen into odd encounters with other human beings, creatures, or objects, in disparate situations and settings. In these moments, the women’s routines are disrupted by psychological estrangement, even (or especially) from family members. Take, for instance, the young redhead who meets a basset hound in “Temptation”; or the chauffeur-driven socialite who communicates with a handicapped beggar on a Copacabana street in “Beauty and the Beast or the Big Wound”; or the family who confronts a freshly hatched chick in “The Foreign Legion.” These characters suffer profound interior shock and transformation, even when their customary routines are apparently restored.
“The Imitation of the Rose,” from Family Ties, is the chilling story of Laura, who unravels as she is dressing to go to her first dinner party after a period of convalescence from mental illness. We follow Laura through her day, hearing her inner conflicts and interactions with her maid, and come to understand that she must follow a strict routine in order to keep herself stable. This tight regimen includes making sure the house is impeccably neat, that she is tidily dressed, and that she meticulously follows her doctor’s nutritional orders. The weight of her husband’s (and society’s) expectations is revealed when he returns home at the end of the story. By then, Laura’s fixation with a perfect spray of “small wild roses” has triggered her undoing and a breakdown of sorts, perceived as shameful and indecent by her husband. As Lispector does here, she often associates moments of female crisis with breakthrough, in the form of escape from norms and family ties. An early feminist, she artfully criticizes men’s judgments of the women around them.
Lispector’s stories are life lessons without moral underpinnings: the women in them are circumscribed by routine or societal limitations, until some form of liberating association enables them to break out. This is true of Ana, the protagonist of “Love,” whose chance meeting with a blind man chewing gum in Rio’s lush Botanical Garden engulfs her in overwhelming abundance, as if she has suddenly found herself in a foreign land or on a new planet, where she must face the unknown in and beyond the self. In Lispector’s fictional world, joy and pleasure may produce peril, yet peril is preferable to complacency. Order and sanity are akin to acquiescence and conformity. The mundane exists alongside the mystifying. Moments of luminescence and breakthrough occur during ordinary interactions.
As Lispector grew older, her fiction became more daring and unrestrained, as well as more esoteric and abstract. The characters in her mature collection, The Via Crucis of the Body (1974), for example, explore uncharted physical, sexual territory. Thus, “The Body” focuses on a sexual threesome that evolves into an act of murder and complicity. “Via Crucis” features a birth like that of Jesus, but within the scope of the miraculously pregnant Maria das Dores’s reality: her “kind of impotent” husband and her own “strange cravings” and obesity.
Lispector’s later stories, such as those in Where Were You at Night (1974), can make the reader feel as though she is combating the dizzying and mind-scrambling effects of high altitude. Seemingly concise texts in uncomplicated language harbor dense thought patterns and labyrinthine derangement, such as in the bewildering ode to a clock in “Report on the Thing” and the bizarre portrait of an emergent, modernist city in “Brasilia” (in Visions of Splendor ). To be absorbed by Lispector’s works is to allow in both the beauty and the beast. The “fragile luminosity of dawn” is only pages away from the “the miserable, Copacabana miserable” of Cidinha, who in “Pig Latin” narrowly escapes being raped and murdered on a train.
Lispector makes shrewd use of binary opposites, shifts in tone, and repetition, in this passage at the beginning of “Such Gentleness”:
So the dark hour, perhaps the darkest, in broad daylight, preceded that thing that I don’t even want to attempt to define. In broad daylight it was night, and that thing that I still don’t want to define is a peaceful light inside me, and they call it joy, gentle joy. I am a bit disoriented as if a heart had been torn from me, and in its place were now the sudden absence, an almost palpable absence of what before was an organ bathed in the darkness of pain. I am not feeling a thing. But it’s the opposite of a torpor. It’s a lighter and more silent way of existing.
One of my favorite stories, “Covert Joy” (1971), captures a girl’s joy—or irrepressible ebullience—as she anticipates savoring a good book. The story measures her patience and perseverance against the controlling actions of a mean kid (described as “fat, short, freckled” with “reddish, excessively frizzy hair”) whose book she must wait to borrow, having none of her own.
Lispector had a great esteem for animals. Her stories highlight curious, symbiotic interactions between humans and animals, an elemental clash between instinct and intellect that emboldens humans to become invigoratingly alive, like the bus passenger who sits next to a marmoset in “A Full Afternoon”; or the character who experiences a vertiginous face-to-face encounter with a black buffalo at the zoo in “The Buffalo.” A later piece, “Dry Sketch of Horses,” is a more abstract homage. Chickens, especially, hold a place of existential prominence: in “A Chicken,” the bird’s escape represents freedom, albeit fleeting:
Alone in the world, without father or mother, she ran, panting, mute, focused. At times, mid-escape, she’d flutter breathlessly on the eave of the roof and while the young man was stumbling over other roofs she’d have time to gather herself for a moment. And then she seemed so free.
Stupid, timid and free.
Reading Lispector can be challenging not only because of the mystical and philosophical bent of her narratives but also because of her peculiar, “head-tilting” language, writes her translator Katrina Dobson. Some passages are “like fever dreams,” she explains; others have “strong rhythms.” Those who read the stories in English may wonder if this is a problem with translation, but the translation is superb; the original Portuguese is equally destabilizing. Even though we may wish to greedily consume these narratives, The Complete Stories requires us to read unhurriedly.
With the publication of The Complete Stories, Clarice Lispector ascends to a prominent place among world literature’s distinguished authors, such as Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, Italo Calvino, Franz Kafka and Virginia Woolf.
Marguerite Itamar Harrison is associate professor of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Smith College.