Books: Clarice Lispector – Life Stories

Some writers such as James Joyce, compose entire cities with their words. Others, like J.R. Tolkien, invent magical lost worlds. Still others conjure a super-reality from psychology as vivid as the shifting weather (think Proust or Virginia Wolf).

Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (1920 – 1977) is in the same league as these extraordinary literary magicians. Born in Ukraine in 1920, Lispector came to Brazil as an infant and moved to Rio de Janeiro as a teenager. At the age of 23, she published her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart (1943) to wide acclaim. Soon after, she married a diplomat and spent the next period of her life in Europe and the US, returning to Brazil in 1959. Of her fiction, Lispector once said, “In painting, as in music and literature, what is called abstract so often seems to me the figurative of a more delicate and difficult reality, less visible to the naked eye.” It is these delicate and difficult reality that Lispector captures in her stories.

‘An ability to write as though no one had written before’ … Lispector at home in 1964. Photograph: Courtesy of Paulo Gurgel Valente

Take her story “Love”, first published in 1952. It starts out as a woman named Ana, carrying groceries she just purchased. She boards a tram in Rio de Janeiro to take her home, where she is expected to prepare dinner for her family and some company. We are made privy to Ana’s thoughts which revolve around her daily life. With great sensitivity to the nuances of the mundance, Lispector writes:

The only thing she worried about was being careful during that dangerous hour of the afternoon, when the house was empty and needed nothing more from her, the sun high, the family members scattered to their duties. As she looked at the clean furniture, her heart would contract slightly in astonishment. But there was no room in her life for feeling tender toward her astonishment – she’d smother it with the same skill the household chores had give her.

The Complete Stories (2015 reprint) is an ideal introduction to this “female Chekhov on the beaches of Brazil”. It is a record of a woman’s life, from exhilarated childhood on the cusp of adolescence to adulthood, from solitude to marriage, and back again, from motherhood to loneliness, from youthful vigor to the blemishes and frailty of age – all adding up to an unusual record of a woman’s entire life. Here’s an excerpt from The Complete Stories, in a chapter entitled “Remnants of Carnival”:

No, not this past Carnival. But I don’t know why this one transported me back to my childhood and those Ash Wednesdays on the dead streets where the remains of streamers and confetti fluttered. The occasional devout woman with a veil covering her head would be heading to church, crossing the street left so incredibly empty after Carnival. Until the next year. And when the celebration was fast approaching, what could explain the inner tumult that came over me? As if the budding world were finally opening into a big scarlet rose. As if the streets and squares of Recife were finally explaining why they’d been made. As if human voices were finally singing the capacity for pleasure that was kept secret in me. Carnival was mine, mine.

The Complete Stories was first published in 1950. The latest reprint as of now is the 2015 edition, edited by Benjamin Moser and translated by Katrina Dodson. The publisher is New Directions.

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