Since her death in 1977, Brazilian Jewish writer Clarice Lispector has been called “a female Chekhov” (Benjamin Moser), “one of the hidden geniuses of twentieth-century literature” (Colm Toibin) and “an artist who belongs in the same pantheon as Kafka and Joyce” (Edmund White).
The newly translated volume of her more than 80 short stories underscores how wary Lispector would have been of this praise, reflecting the suspicion one continually sees in her writing of all such efforts to categorize and define.
In Profile of Chosen Beings, one of Lispector’s fictional avatars feels trapped by those worshiping fans judging the person from a picture. “The calculation of the being’s dream had been to remain deliberately incomplete,” the narrator tells us, before describing how the being “undertook a covert operation to destroy the photograph.”
“Not knowing yourself is inevitable, and not knowing yourself demands courage,” Lispector writes in another story. “Coherence is mutilation. I want disorder,” she writes in a third.
Lispector’s early stories, written immediately before and during the marriage she left, suggest why. Lispector was acutely aware of how women were frequently reduced when becoming wives and mothers. “I used to be a married woman,” a character says in The Escape, “and now I’m a woman.”
Brave words but hard to live by, as Lispector’s early stories make clear. Love, one of the best, follows a familiar trajectory. Ana marries to quell a “restless exaltation so often mistaken for unbearable happiness,” choosing instead to create something “comprehensible, an adult life.” But she’s dancing on a volcano, erupting when she recognizes that her “wholesome life” as wife and mother represents a “morally insane way to live.”
Lispector spent her middle years balancing conventional life as a Brazilian diplomat’s wife with the dangerous living she did through her writing, which became increasingly poetic and oblique — almost as if Lispector were trying to place her words under erasure even while writing them. If her early stories often recall Virginia Woolf, some of the breathtakingly original stories written thereafter suggest Emily Dickinson — telling the truth, but telling it slant.
The result is incredibly dense but exhilarating stories like The Egg and the Chicken, in which a meditation on whether one can ever say what an egg “is” culminates in a recognition — expressed in many of these stories — that one can only ever hope to grasp hold of an object by letting go. When “the egg becomes impossible” — when, finally, the narrator surrenders her all-consuming need to understand it — it finally begins to make sense.
Such epiphanies rarely stick in Lispector’s writing. How could they? Lispector’s effort to use language to describe life — even as she repeatedly tells us that language isn’t up to the task — ensures that every effort to communicate what she observes or feels is doomed. “When it’s a matter of life itself,” says one of the lonely older women dominating the late stories, “each one stands alone” — incapable of speaking a language others can ever truly comprehend.
Hence for all Lispector tries to tell us, many stories conclude their efforts to reach out by folding back in on themselves, true to their restless, dialectical gyrations between sense and seeming nonsense, civilization and its discontents. “The truth,” one of her characters reflects, is “mentally unpronounceable.”
But difficult as many of them are, these stories offer tantalizing glimpses of such truth. Call it love. Or God. Or beauty. Call it Clarice Lispector, urging us, even as we’re once again tempted to settle for less, to “erect within yourself the monument to Unsatisfied Desire.”
Mike Fischer reviewed this book for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.