In Search of the Thing-Itself
The Complete Stories
Translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson
Edited and introduced by Benjamin Moser
New Directions, 2015
“I have found one contemporary I like,” Elizabeth Bishop wrote from Rio de Janeiro. “She has a wonderful name—Clarice Lispector.” Today’s English-language readers of Lispector, bewitched by recent translations of novels such as The Passion According to G.H. and The Hour of the Star, might be surprised to learn that Bishop admired the Brazilian for her work in a different form. “Her 2 or 3 novels I don’t think are so good but her short stories are almost like the stories I’ve always thought should be written about Brazil—Tchekovian, slightly sinister and fantastic,” Bishop wrote. “Actually I think she is better than J.L. Borges—who is good, but not all that good!”
With the arrival of The Complete Stories, the first time all eighty-five of Lispector’s short works have appeared together in any language, including Portuguese, we have the opportunity to assess Bishop’s claim. But we must also be sure to judge the stories on Lispector’s own peculiar terms. For if this book admittedly falls short of her most cherished novels, it yet delineates better than any single volume what its editor, Benjamin Moser, has called “the greatest spiritual autobiography of the twentieth century.”
When evaluating a writer whose personal aura, like the animal heat of a body, so permeates her work, perhaps it is indeed proper to praise The Complete Stories above her other books. These eighty-five stories form a tonal gradation as Lispector develops from adolescence, attains the height of her power, and begins to perceive the attrition of time. When Bishop met the writer, she encountered a mesmerizing beauty—”like the girl in The Magic Mountain“—and perhaps it was the presence of the slightly sinister and fantastic woman herself she found most palpable, and so most praiseworthy, in the stories.
Born in 1920 to a Russian Jewish family in the Ukraine, Clarice Lispector was brought to Brazil at the age of two when her family fled a homeland ravaged by war, rape, and racial slaughter. Although she never again set foot in Russia, and understood Brazil with perfect ease, it was in Lispector’s nature to retain an outsider’s air. Striking from the first and possessed of a rare brilliance, Lispector spoke and wrote as though she peered into—or out from—a mystical depth. She never appeared quite like a denizen of this world. Her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart (1943), published when Lispector was twenty-three, still reads like the introductory transmission of an alien life-form: its young protagonist shares her author’s searing intelligence, linguistic instinct, and visionary insight. But Lispector’s was a burdensome superiority. While never lacking in admirers, she remained essentially isolated, what she called a “sacred monster,” even as her persona grew to such an extent that in Brazil, she is conjured at a word—Clarice.
In many ways, Clarice would always remain the subject of her fiction, as if she hoped to translate herself to the world. Her experiments in self-understanding are most apparent in the early stories collected here, stories of women undergoing painful metaphysical awakenings. Yet all roads lead back to an elevated position. In “Excerpt,” for instance, a woman suffering at a bar looks upon the men around her and thinks, “Look, all of you, with that triumphant attitude, look: I can vibrate, vibrate like the taut string of a harp. I can suffer with more intensity than any of you gentlemen. I am superior.” And visiting a doctor, the protagonist of “Gertrude Asks for Advice” finds that no one is fit to advise her. Indeed, the banality of the people around Tuda is “completely alien to the noble fire that burned inside her.” Although Clarice discounted the influence of Joyce on her work—in “The Departure of the Train,” he’s called “a brilliant bore”—readers of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man will sense a similar embryonic genius in the early stories. Perhaps this is why, taken together, they read somewhat repetitively, indicative of a superior consciousness much discussed but not yet fully in evidence.
“Love,” first published in Family Ties (1960), is a clear leap forward in Clarice’s art, and marks the point at which The Complete Stories hits its stride. Ana is a mother who “gave to everything, peacefully, her small, strong hand, her stream of life,” while the world, rendered with the synesthetic intensity that would become Clarice’s signature, is increasingly claustrophobic: “Her brief conversation with the electric bill collector was growing, the water in the laundry sink was growing, her children were growing, the table with food was growing…”. Unlike the protagonists of the early stories, whose uniqueness is bluntly pronounced, Ana has her interior world exposed through the startling paradoxes that have caused many to perceive Clarice as a kabbalistic author. Returning on the tram with groceries, Ana sees a blind man chewing gum, and the vision plunges her peaceful stream of life into a vortex. All of a sudden, “compassion was suffocating her,” and Ana experiences “an excruciating benevolence.” When Clarice has her readers in this transcendent zone, one paradox cedes to the next in an ultrasensory cascade:
In the trees the fruits were black, sweet like honey. On the ground were dried pits full of circumvolutions, like little rotting brains. The bench was stained with purple juices. With intense gentleness the waters murmured. Clinging to the trunk were the luxurious limbs of a spider. The cruelty of the world was peaceful. The murder was deep. And death was not what we thought.
A Dirty Yard of Treasures
The narrator of The Passion According to G.H. (1964), a sculptor in Rio, has an unusual request for the reader. “While writing and speaking I will have to pretend that someone is holding my hand,” she says. “As soon as I can release your warm hand, I’ll go alone and with horror.” Many pieces in The Complete Stories have a similarly intimate beginning, as though a parent were reading a storybook to a child. Clarice wrote several children’s books in her career, and there is often a surprising conventionality to how these stories commence, considering her renown for eschewing convention at every turn.
“No one knows how it began. But it began,” she writes in “The Body,” while in “Praça Mauá,” we’re in sure hands: “Here’s how what happened, happened.” These are but two examples, drawn from the collection The Via Crucis of the Body (1974), which Clarice is reputed to have written in a single weekend. But such spoon-fed beginnings might also signal narrative impatience, as though the parent were eager to finish the book and fall into her dreams. For as in The Passion According to G.H., we proceed inexorably into the horror of these stories. In “The Body,” two women murder their lover and bury him in the garden, and “Praça Mauá” ends with its protagonist on the street, in the middle of the night, bereft, “like the cheapest of whores.” It always turns out that Clarice is drawing us into pitch-darkness, and that reassuring voice—”Here’s how it started”—is perceived, too late, as a trick.
Just as the early work conforms to a clear type, the later stories seem to rely more and more on the impact of “the horror.” In his introduction to The Complete Stories, Moser praises the later pieces, such as those in The Via Crucis of the Body, for their transgressions: “Had any writer ever described a seventy-seven-year-old lady dreaming of coitus with a pop star, or an eighty-one-year-old woman masturbating?” On these terms, there certainly is a historic value to these pieces; and equally historic is the labor of Katrina Dodson, who translated the entirety of this landmark volume. But one can’t help but feel that a collection of selected stories might have served Clarice’s reputation better, or encouraged more readers to share Elizabeth Bishop’s view.
Particularly strong are the stories collected in Family Ties, The Foreign Legion (1964), and Covert Joy (1971). The latter collection possesses the special intimacy that has made Clarice a kind of omnipresence in the lives of her readers. We see a mature Clarice looking back on her Recife childhood in “Remnants of Carnival,” while in “Forgiving God,” she poses some of her deepest questions: “How can I love the greatness of the world if I can’t love the extent of my nature?” Do we need to see an octogenarian masturbating to perceive this extent? A selection would do well to dispense with much of the early and later work, which in The Complete Stories flanks and in some ways detracts from her highest achievements in the form.
“The Disasters of Sofia” stands as one such high point. Now an older woman, Sofia recalls her battles with a teacher as a precocious and mischievous young girl: “I learned nothing during those lessons,” she says. “I was already too enthralled by the game of making him unhappy.” When the teacher assigns the students to rewrite a story he tells them, Sofia collapses the story’s meaning with a method that echoes her author’s iconoclastic technique:
The thing the teacher had probably wished to imply in his sad story is that hard work was the only way to make a fortune. But flippantly I had ended with the opposite moral: something about the treasure that remains hidden, that lies where you least expect it, that you just have to find, I think I talked about dirty yards full of treasure . . .
Suddenly, the teacher is fascinated with his young tormentor. With pitiful sincerity, as if pleading to a saint for solutions, he asks Sofia to account for her anti-moral, and in a frightening flash, Sofia sees into “the abyss of the world”: “Whatever I saw, I saw at such close range that I don’t know what I saw. As if my curious eye were stuck to the keyhole and in shock came upon another eye looking back at me from the other side. I saw inside an eye. Which was as incomprehensible as an eye.” “The Disasters of Sofia” is distinguished by the narrator’s retrospective voice, which has the effect of collapsing past and present into the story’s single instant. Sofia’s abysmal vision remains unprocessed years later—”even now I still don’t know what I saw, only that forevermore and in a single second I saw”—evoking the endless present in which Clarice uniquely operates.
A State of Animal Grace
Despite the occasional sense that The Complete Stories is itself a dirty yard full of treasure, even the most expendable pieces throw light on Clarice’s broader project: to return, through the irrational, to a state of animal grace, what Moser in Why This World (2009), his splendid biography of Lispector, calls “her complete refusal of any anthropocentric morality.” Usually attained in excruciating or humiliating fashion in The Complete Stories, animalism is a way of being at one with the world, a desirable state for the “sacred monster” who writes, in “Remnants of Carnival,” that the festival offered her a chance to get “what I’d always wanted: I’d be something other than myself.”
In the animal kingdom of Clarice’s imagination, horses stand as the ideal. The remarkable “Dry Sketch of Horses,” which forms a kind of “Thirteen Ways” of looking at the animal, praises horses in the same terms Clarice’s early heroines praised themselves: “Its innermost nature is forever wild and free,” she writes. “The form of the horse represents what is best in the human being,” for to be a horse is to exist as pure sensation, with no shadow falling between the world and the word: “Its form speaks.” At the very last moment, however, Clarice reins herself in from pathetic fallacy. She realizes that hers is an inescapably human view of the animal: “Perhaps the horse him-self doesn’t sense the great symbol of free life that we sense in him,” she admits. Yet he remains a useful symbol, and it is typical of Clarice’s capacious mind to indulge a metaphor and resist its charms at once.
The animalization of the self is a quest to move beyond language, into the realm where things simply are—the realm of God. A Platonic distrust of language runs throughout Clarice’s work, as well as what Moser rightly sees as a technique rooted in Jewish mysticism: “the process of removing language to discover an ultimate, and necessarily nameless, truth.” In A Breath of Life (Pulsations) (1978), her posthumously published novel, Clarice writes, “There are no words pure in themselves. They always come mixed with: ‘I don’t know what’s happening to me.’” And yet she never abandoned the search for words that exceed a mimetic function, words that are things-in-themselves. Indeed, she once wrote that “If I had to give a title to my life it would be: in search of the thing itself.”
The search hatches “The Egg and the Chicken,” a marvelous story in the vein of Gertrude Stein, in which Clarice furiously knits the language into fresh, byzantine patterns: “An egg is the soul of the chicken. The awkward chicken. The sure egg. The scared chicken. Like a paused projectile. For an egg is an egg in space. An egg upon blue.”
Clarice’s search also produces “Report on the Thing,” one of her best later stories, which attempts to convey an alarm clock called Sveglia with what is termed “the antiliterature of the thing.” But despite the linguistic virtuosity of such pieces, Clarice is permanently frustrated by how far writing can take her. In “Report on the Thing,” she equates the quixotic search for her clock with the search for God: “it just is. And in fact Sveglia has no intimate name: it preserves its anonymity. Anyhow God has no name: he preserves perfect anonymity: there is no language that utters his true name.”
But Clarice’s lofty search never obscured her fundamentally animal status. “Not only do I not forget the blood inside but I allow and desire it,” she writes in “Forgiving God,” “I am too much blood to forget blood.” This holistic quality makes it unsurprising that, to make ends meet, Clarice comfortably wrote for women’s magazines under a pseudonym: “If your skin is dried out, my friend—a look we all hate because it always adds a few years to our age—find a good special cream and use it daily, around the eyes and wherever wrinkles are appearing . . . .” In search of the thing itself, Clarice never forgot her blood, and it is this special collapse of body, mind, and spirit that gives the Jewish mystic a distinctly pagan slant.
Reading Lispector Today
In “The Burned Sinner and the Harmonious Angels,” a priest bemoans his era—”Many years has it been since the blind man has seen, the leper was cured, ah what a barren time”—and it seems reasonable to ask to what degree these stories, of intense sensation and mystical revelation, can resonate with our time. No doubt Clarice’s experience of the world was always rare, but for the city-dwelling, English-speaking, screen-bedazzled readers who will comprise the audience of The Complete Stories, it seems like an altogether extinct way of life. In The Passion According to G.H., humans are figured as “an orgasm of nature,” while in the stories, “feelings are the water of an instant,” and the body is “alive like lizards and rats.” Have her readers ever really felt this way?
Moser compares Clarice to Kafka: “Like him, she found locked doors, blocked passageways, and generalized punishment.” But in Moser’s view, Clarice goes “further” than Kafka, for “she also saw a different possibility: a state of grace.” This may very well be true, depending on one’s opinion of what it means to go further, but Kafka is likely to remain the author who speaks more broadly to the predominant spiritual mode, which is a barrenness. To the increasingly common person who rejects spiritual questions out of hand, Clarice may not have much to say. As for her more sympathetic or curious readers, who still may not, in today’s world, ever have felt like an orgasm of nature, is the state of grace available? Reading The Complete Stories, one senses that one must be like Clarice—perhaps one must be Clarice—in order to attain such heights of crushing ecstasy.
And what of her search for the thing itself? Again, on this matter, we mostly live in Kafka’s world, turning corners of the maze to be faced with more dead ends, and we are left to wonder if Clarice is going further, or not far enough, when against the grain, she continues the faithful search for the word behind the word. The results of her quest can be counted on one hand: in The Complete Stories, she frequently posits laughing and crying as close to an original language, to words that are things. One woman’s crying “sounded more like some Arabic gibberish . . . If crying was what that was. It wasn’t. It was something.”
But looking for the results of her search would be reading Clarice for spiritual guidance, and thus reading her for the wrong reasons. For ultimately, no matter what resonates in a superabundant volume like The Complete Stories, we aren’t really reading Clarice Lispector for us. She’s too intense, too singular, too otherworldly, to be followed in any direction. Instead, the reason her face is on the cover of these welcome New Directions editions—and why this author uniquely challenges the biographical fallacy, daring us to equate her body with her body of work—is that we read her for her. If there exists a word behind these words, surely it’s Clarice.