Complacency or Peril
The Complete Stories
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.