Though long considered one of the most important writers in Brazil, Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) has only recently begun to gain appreciation among US audiences. Formally fearless and possessed of an interior sense wholly her own, her writing wastes no time with scenery and poise; her sentences are wired with psychosis, fixated on some kind of understanding of the dark maze of every day.
Lispector’s writing is in no small way a reflection of her unordinary life. She was conceived when a strange rumor convinced her parents that pregnancy could cure syphilis, which her mother had become ill with. Soon after she was born in Western Ukraine, where pogroms of the Russian Civil War constantly threatened her Jewish family, Clarice escaped with her parents and two older sisters to Brazil. Nine years later her mother died, leaving Clarice haunted with the feeling that she had somehow let her mother down—a misplaced sense of guilt that would stay with her throughout adulthood. In her teens, Lispector’s family moved to Rio de Janeiro, where she studied law and began to write as a journalist for the official government press service, the Agência Nacional, and published her first novel to great acclaim at age 23.
Over the next 30-plus years she would write nine novels as well as a large array of stories, articles, and children’s literature to a variety of critical response. Meanwhile, she remained constantly active on both literary and political fronts; she married and eventually divorced a Brazilian diplomat, worked in a military hospital in Naples during World War II, protested the Brazilian dictatorship, wrote widely for Portuguese newspapers, and published translations of Agatha Chrstie, Oscar Wilde, and Edgar Allen Poe. Her life was cut short when, after a long period of pain and affliction (including one bout where she fell asleep while smoking and nearly had to amputate a hand), she was diagnosed with inoperable ovarian cancer, and later died one day before her 57th birthday.
Near to the Wild Heart (1943)
First published in Brazil when the author was only 23, this first novel immediately established Clarice Lispector as a powerful and vibrant force. The novel has a truly compelling tone, similar to the book the novel got its name from, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It begins somewhere between child-gibberish-memory and the simultaneous clear grip of a storyteller who is in total control, and can go anywhere at any turn: “Her father’s typewriter went clack-clack… clack-clack-clack… The clock awoke in dustless tin-dlen. The silence dragged out zzzzzz. What did the wardrobe say? clothes-clothes-clothes. No, no. Amidst the clock, the typewriter and the silence there was an ear listening, large, pink and dead.” The voice, as it continues, jumps to different scenes or introspections from page to page as it follows the unruly central character, Joana. This style delineates an important facet of Lispector’s storytelling method: While working on the book she claimed to simply write down her ideas as they occurred, creating strings of thought and action that reflected a more natural way of speaking, without a necessary goal. “Freedom isn’t enough,” she writes. “What I want doesn’t have a name yet.” The result here is a novel that seems more aware of each passing moment, neither dissolved in language to the point of drowning, nor hung up on action beyond tone. It’s kind of alive.
The Passion According to G.H. (1964)
When I was a little kid I used to think someone had hidden a book in the basement of my grandmother’s house behind the walls. I drew a map that I thought would help me, but I never found it. Years later, considering The Passion According to G.H., it feels almost like I did. This is my personal favorite of all the Lispector I’ve read, and it is by far her strangest. It’s essentially the story of a woman who comes into a room in her home, finds a cockroach coming out of a wardrobe, and kills the cockroach. That’s all. But the space the book manages to awaken in the midst of such a simple action is insane and unnerving both in its logic and how it wraps around itself. In time that seems slowed down and muted the same way the strobe lights work in David Lynch films, Lispector fills the time with thoughts of death and God and hell and nothingness and language and murder. Each small section of the prose winds itself a little further, then breaks off, and then begins again on a new page with the same sentence it ended on before, like a little jagged stairwell of ideas. And the deeper you go into the book, the more it comes on. Each successive chapter seems to open up a little further, from oddly schlocky, almost psycho-babble into a climax made not of action but of mental terror, bent from something as simple as standing in a room inside your house.
Água Viva (1973)
Água Viva offers an interesting update to the process described as the generative force behind her first novel, in that here Lispector claimed to literally write down everything that came into her head, whether it seemed profound or dull. The result is a brief, odd mash of sentences that kind of come on in a flood, from something like “Animals don’t laugh,” to “Nothing is more difficult than surrendering to the instant,” to “A fantastical world surrounds me and is me,” to “I was born.” There is no narrative here beyond the way the thinking fits together and how the space between the lines themselves seem to take on a strange kind of energy on pause. The book’s title has no true correct translation, literally meaning “living water,” which is a nice analogy for how the thing itself goes on. Published near the end of her life, Lispector was known to have bipolar feelings toward the text, by turns finding it unpublishable and awful, though constantly drawn to understand its place in her career. I like the idea of reading something that might have been forever kept or otherwise deleted; it feels like listening in on someone talking in her sleep.
A Breath of Life (1978)
Lispector’s final novel, A Breath of Life, was published posthumously. Written as fragments during the last years of her life, often dictated to a close friend who then constructed the novel’s manuscript from what remained, the book reads from a very strange manner of perspective, by turns lucid and abstruse. Basically the story of a man and the female character he is using as a tool in what he writes, the book combines alternating dictation from the author and “Angela,” each kind of fumbling for meaning in where they are and what they’re doing, which for the most part concerns the creative act in the face of death itself. Both the creator and the created grapple constantly with how or why anyone does anything at all, how to go on existing in the general feeling of nothing that fills the day. “Every book is blood,” the author writes, “it’s pus, it’s excrement, it’s heart torn to shreds, it’s nerves cut to pieces, it’s electric shock, it’s coagulated blood running like boiling lava down the mountain.” Perhaps even more so than the books before them, this final novel walks the weird line between ecstasy and boredom, here sent in a wild-eyed and intrepid voice literally on the cusp of life and death.