Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories will grab you by the throat and compel you to read on
For me, the greatest discovery of 2015 was the work of Clarice Lispector, a deceased Brazilian writer whose marvellous stories have been compiled and published posthumously in this stunning new collection.
And after reading the whimsical, electrifying and dizzying 85 short stories in this book, it is impossible to recommend this outstanding, austere writer strongly enough; for me, reading her work felt like discovering some long lost sister of Jorge Luis Borges.
In Complete Stories we witness the emergence of a significant Latin-American writer, and a prose stylist of the highest order, one who was mostly overlooked in her time. Clarice Lispector’s collection of short stories deserves all of the posthumous praise its author has received. This book appeared in the literary world like a narrative bombshell, exploding and scattering its highly radioactive shrapnel worldwide to make its presence felt. One of the reviewer, Katherine Boo of the New Yorker felt “jolted by genius,” and the venerated writer Colm Toibin called her “one of the hidden geniuses of twentieth-century literature”, while the writer Edmund White, a bit more effusive with praise, compared her to “Kafka and Joyce.”
Each of Lispector’s stories exudes hallucination, exhilaration and a fascinating strangeness. They constantly swerve so riotously between the mundane and the metaphysical, the everyday and the extraordinary. Hence, a journey through the swarming mind of Clarice Lispector can be an arduous experience, albeit a rewarding one.
In the beginning section of the book, the early pieces are titled First Stories. They are conventional in terms of form and material. They adhere to the traditional territory of literary fiction. The milieu in these stories is home-like and domestic, and the stories seem largely uneventful, at least on surface.
However, even these conventional tales are rendered unconventional, even iconoclastic and avant-garde, by her extraordinary characters; their epiphanies, their revelations and moments of derangement.
Many of her stories are bizarre, almost dreamlike and surreal. They are abstract, for the most part, in both, theme and style. In her wonderful story Love, Ana finds herself waiting for the end of ‘the unstable hour’ after an exhausting day of house chores.
In another dazzling story, The Smallest Woman in the World, African pygmies become the heroes and heroines; another delightful story, Report on the Thing, reads like an essay-ish contemplation on clocks. The more unconventional stories are more psychological in their undertones.
For instance, The Imitation of the Rose is a startlingly compelling narrative about a woman who is having trouble acclimating to her normal life after a period in a psychiatric hospital.
However, one constant theme in most of her stories is the marginalised role of women in mid-century Brazil. Most of the stories concern women who are daughters, wives, or ageing widows, whose dreams and desires are muffled and stifled by a conservative society. But these characters, much like Lispector, resist in a plethora of ways, there are a myriad images of individual struggle, revolt and even defeat.
The women in Lispector’s stories dream of real love, they fantasise about good sex, and they devour intelligent conversations. They are helpless, but, just as effortlessly Lispector’s remarkable prose rages against literary convention and sometimes even grammatical rules, her characters struggle to break free from the trenchant monotony of the Brazilian society.
Some of the stories in this collection are miniature musings on life. Their idiosyncratic tone and abstract and almost absent-minded undercurrents is the product of a wholly original and a daring mind. In some of the standout stories in this book, Lispector realises and brings to life something utterly uncanny and deeply strange and yet makes us realise how routine it is and how we personally experience it in our daily lives. In her stories, teenagers come of age and realise their sexual powers and artistic potential, bored housewives are jolted awake from their humdrum lives by shatteringly unexpected epiphanies, and old people look for new ways to make their lives interesting.
In recounting these experiences, Lispector makes us take a closer look at her characters’ lives and in doing so, makes us assess and analyse our own.
This collection is substantial proof that Lispector was a unique and singular artist. It attests to her copious powers as a writer and to her mixture of nonchalance, enigma, drollness, and eloquent minimalism, to her use of tones that are capricious and restrained, and finally, to her ability to create universes out of strange words, mixed in strange proportions and combinations, to create, surprisingly, a literary enterprise that is as harmonious as it is disorienting.
These startlingly innovative, dizzyingly ambitious and endlessly artful stories, oblique and colloquial in style, suffused with a mordant humour, can consume you. With their amusing, erratic and vital characters, they grab you by the throat and compel you to read on. And if that wasn’t enough, Lispector’s prose is one to fall for, beautiful and candid, from first paragraph to the last, in all its vibrant and teeming colours.
Here is the work of a writer, finally, that matters. Clarice Lispector, the most enigmatic and best-kept (until recently) secret of Latin American literature, is the real deal. The comparisons to Kafka and Borges are justified. The stories are brilliant. The prose is stupefying. Lispector’s swirling ribbons of sentences, euphorically defying grammar, yet always fresh and pitch-perfect, are mesmerisingly translated by Katrina Dodson, and in English they are pellucid and carry the rhythm of a honed and understated prose, one that can only be produced by a master of the highest caliber.
Lispector excels at structure, flow, construction, dialogue, characterisation, narrative and every other technicality of the short story form. And she triumphs because her stories perform the sort of haywire, flabbergasting and frenzied storytelling acrobatics that can knock you out.