There’s a whiff of madness in the fiction of Clarice Lispector. The Complete Stories of the great Brazilian writer, edited by Benjamin Moser and sensitively translated by Katrina Dodson, is a dangerous book to read quickly or casually because it’s so consistently delirious. Sentence by sentence, page by page, Lispector is exhilaratingly, arrestingly strange, but her perceptions come so fast, veer so wildly between the mundane and the metaphysical, that after a while you don’t know where you are, either in the book or in the world ... But it’s best to approach her with some caution. For the ordinary reader — that is to say, for most of us — immersion in the teeming mind of Clarice Lispector can be an exhausting, even a deranging, experience, not to be undertaken lightly ... Lispector’s madness is that of an artist who won’t allow herself to settle for what’s known, who has to see and feel everything for herself, even what can’t be seen ... Her Complete Stories is a remarkable book, proof that she was — in the company of Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Rulfo and her 19th-century countryman Machado de Assis — one of the true originals of Latin American literature ... Her stories are full of strange words, in strange combinations and, every now and then, the harmony of a new-minted morning.
The stories in this collection are ones you can live and wrestle with, like difficult scripture. From the punctuation to the use of repetition, every small detail powers the whole and makes an indelible mark ... These stylistic elements give each story a poetic quality that lingers in the mind like a chorus, or like a painting with multitudes of purposeful and compounding layers. It's a welcome occasion when literature can so elevate simple words that you question whether you might be under a spell. And here it happens, over and again, each piece serving as a separate visitation ... Many of her characters, wives and mothers themselves, yearn to experience a life beyond the mediocrity they find themselves in. Her fiction both sympathizes with their hunger and makes it artful ... Reading Lispector is like being handed a world on fire. Or rather, a number of blazing worlds that at any moment could explode and level everything around them. And yet they are worlds you choose to hold, because their melancholy holds a certain depth of meaning. Through these 85 stories, these mini invasions, it's apparent that yes, Clarice Lispector was indeed a singular artist. Decades after her death, she continues to champion the possibilities of language, and its ability to mesmerize.
The consistent theme is the circumscribed role of women in mid-century Brazil – her protagonists are often daughters, wives, or ageing widows, stifled by a conservative society. But these characters resist in myriad ways, dreaming of real love, or good sex, or intelligent conversation – just as Lispector’s remarkable prose breaks with literary convention ... What shines through is a clarity of thought and an intensity of feeling. In an early story, 'Another Couple of Drunks' the narrator encounters a man who 'kept mute… never getting excited about the chance to live.' For the protagonist, as for Clarice Lispector herself, that seems to have been the greatest crime of all.
In her mixture of nonchalance, inscrutability, wit, and knowing simplicity, in her use of tones that are whimsical and subtle, in the stories that are filled with abstractions, she has perhaps more in common with some Brazilian visual artists of her generation than she does with any writers ... Lispector had no interest in blessing, or happiness for that matter. Rather, she entertained happiness so she could play with it, leave scratch marks on it, wound it as best she could. Thus 'Happy Birthday,' one of her finest stories, will deal with a birthday that is considerably less than happy ... While some stories appear whimsical and read like exercises, and others muse at length and almost absent-mindedly, almost abstractly, on habit and motive, or something that happened, others have an exquisite sharpness, the fruit of a most original and daring mind. In the best stories, something deeply strange is fully visualized by Lispector, as though it had come in a waking dream and it needed to be given urgent substance ... Lispector’s command of tone allows her to be amused gently and with subtlety at times, at other times savagely, and then at other times, in the weakest stories, she creates a story with a throwaway tone, as though she could not really be bothered ... She was, all the time, ruefully aware of the limitations that writing imposed on her. Part of her dark vision included a sad knowledge of the frailty of the very words and phrases she used, the necessary thinness of her own observations and her games with form.
a splendorous achievement ... Katrina Dodson...recasts the Complete Stories into English with an energetic mastery that feels utterly contemporary while evoking the intoxicating dissonance of the original Portuguese prose ... Glittering.
Even if she finds herself rooted in a feminine quest for self-empowerment and autonomy, the early Lispector bears witness to numerous interesting stylizations that galvanize and individuate her suffragette-ish concerns. Primary among these is a strain of mysticism, a tendency to use the magical and fantastical as a hopeful figure for every potential that lies beyond the stifling personae and conventions people are forced to adopt ... However, as these stories about female passivity and cipherdom mount up, it soon becomes apparent that Lispector isn’t simply targeting how women are expected to reflect the dictates of men. Instead, it transpires that her fundamental concern is authenticity in the deepest possible sense, the urge any right-minded human being has to live their life according to their own best judgment on who they are and what they want ... increasingly devious prose becomes a mirror to the anarchic incoherence that populates the self and the world ... In the end, the chaos and rawness [Lispector] so beautifully captures here is what ultimately frees her from being a simple housewife or girlfriend, and what ultimately makes The Complete Stories such a penetrating read. It displays a formidable modernist-feminist-existentialist at the peak of her formidable powers...
[The stories] often verge on the surreal; strange or supernatural elements are introduced slyly into the lives of her urban characters. A quirky realism is equally in evidence. [Lispector] avoids the grand magic realist flourishes of her Hispanic contemporaries – the weirdness of her worlds is calculated ... The darkly humorous underpinnings are not unlike the fiction of her close contemporary, Lygia Fagundes Telles, though the latter seems ultimately best at the shorter forms while Lispector is at her very best in novels. Translator Katrina Dodson tells us that Lispector's language is more conventional in her stories, which possibly makes this volume a place for the uninitiated reader to sample the Lispector canon, before embarking on a longer journey with the hidden genius.
For almost all of New Directions’ remarkable new Complete Stories, brilliantly translated by Katrina Dodson, I felt wrapped in flame ... Sometimes when you don’t care about how many writing rules you break, you wind up somewhere sublime and subversive and original. Reading Lispector, you see this happen with startling regularity. Also with startling regularity, mundane situations in her fiction have incisive or other-dimensional qualities, wedded to a seeming contradiction: She’s awfully good at plunging in and getting to the point, but equally good at digression and adding seeming tangents. These stories change texture and direction at will, but not capriciously ... The Complete Stories also reveals Lispector’s questing, ever-roving engagement with language, her lifelong task of making words do things other than originally intended ... Even the drunkest or least fortunate of her protagonists are sharp, questing people who have interesting views of the world ... Finding the absurdity or oddness in reality is, in isolation, a good enough magician’s trick, one that has sustained entire literary careers. But the joy in discovering Lispector is that she fuses the trick to a simultaneous sense of the universal, often in the same sentence or paragraph. Her characters could never be anyone else, yet they are also all of us ... joyous and revelatory.
Lispector's writing – dense, often engaging in aspects of surrealism or disjunction, and steeped in a tradition of Jewish mysticism – is not easy, or particularly comfortable ... These stories indicate that Lispector could be straightforward enough when she wanted to be. Perhaps more typical, however, are stories such as The Egg and the Chicken, which features a cascading series of free-associative images flowing out of the quotidian moment of noticing an egg on a kitchen table ... Also typical here is a focus on the domestic, though this is seen through a lens that aggressively defamiliarizes everyday objects and experiences.
In this collection, Lispector’s style — stranger than that of any of the writers she is compared to — might put off some fans of literary realism. Some stories are so brief that after reading them I thought: That’s not a story! But there are many rewards ... perhaps the greatest surprise is how wickedly funny so many of these stories are ... Many of the best stories are about women confronting the world ... We are the richer now having the chance to see so much of what [Lispector] did think and publish.
Lispector's laconic, almost aphoristic syntax is, at times, full of a brutal sense of humor and at times disquieting ... Lispector is the master of magnifying small, everyday details into epiphanies ... The Complete Stories — more than 80 short stories, covering her entire writing life chronologically — seems to both restitute the form's most essential characteristics and open it up to boundless possibilities. Lispector writes, in the most simple and straightforward sense of the term, stories to be told ... Lispector is one of those rare writers who can simply tell a story ... Published by New Directions and translated beautifully and with a vigorous pulse by Katrina Dodson, The Complete Stories is bound to become a kind of bedside Bible or I Ching for readers of Lispector, both old and new. Wherever one opens the book, there is a slice of life to confront.