More Than the Prototype: The Ineffable Short Fiction of Clarice Lispector

Clarice Lispector, whose American rollout continues this month with the publication of The Complete Stories (New Directions, trans. Katrina Dodson), has now been compared to Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, Angela Carter… It’s obvious that this list is too nebulous to adequately describe any writer, especially one like Lispector, who nonetheless deserves to be on it. It also gives the unfortunate impression that she emulated this or that canonical author, which is the opposite notion one comes away with after reading her Stories — without question one of the most important books of the year.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to understand why the “RIYL” approach to introducing Lispector to American audiences has become popular. The “problem” is that her fiction is difficult to describe in familiar terms because it is written in an unfamiliar style. (Or, arguably, she wrote in a “vast range of styles.”) It’s hard, then, for critics to explain why readers should give Lispector a chance without resorting to a comparative list. In other words, I think the tendency to compare Lispector in an unspecific way to literary greats, although not in itself enlightening, is paradoxically a symptom of Lispector’s ineffability, the strangeness and newness her work retains nearly 40 years after her death.

But before I get into what it is I think that makes Lispector’s fiction compelling, here is a biographical note — one drawn, more or less, from the writings of her biographer, Benjamin Moser (whose 2009 biography of Lispector, Why This World, I highly recommend):

Lispector was born in the Ukraine in 1920. Her family was Jewish, and they had the misfortune of enduring the pogroms that attended the dissolution of the Russian Empire — a period Moser refers to as “a time of chaos, famine, and racial war.” Eventually the Lispectors escaped to northeastern Brazil, by way of Romania, where they lived in poverty. Later, when Clarice (born Chaya) was nine, her mother, who was raped during the war and had become paralyzed, passed away; afterward, the family relocated to Rio de Janeiro. There, Lispector, a first-rate student, pursued legal studies and a career in journalism. Later, in 1943, she married a diplomat, Maury Gurgel Valente, and left the country. That same year she published her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, which was declared by one poet “the greatest novel a woman has ever written in the Portuguese language.” Over the next 35 years or so, Lispector amassed an incomparable body of fiction — including the more than 80 or so stories under discussion here — that would nonetheless find itself repeatedly compared to other writers, especially Virginia Woolf.

Now, Lispector has no shortage of impressive critics — the above-mentioned Moser is one. Another is Rachel Kushner. And both of these writers wrestle in different ways with the undefinability of her style. For Moser, Lispector’s “ceaseless linguistic searching” and “grammatical instability” have something to do with “the powerful influence of the Jewish mysticism” passed along by her father. For Kushner, Lispector’s fiction courts noumenality; it’s about the process of thinking itself, which is circular and implies that we’re “totally cut off from the world by the human capacity to conceive our part in it.” Even though I don’t know anything about Jewish mysticism, I’m somehow certain that Kushner and Moser are talking about the same thing.

Whether a given Lispector story is about a young man, a housewife, a chicken, or a city in Brazil, the sharp, almost submedial psychology behind the prose — which is dark and indeed witchy — speeds the story through one or a million abstractions, as if slackening the pace might dissolve the fun of the thought experiment. (I would argue, too, that virtually all of these 85 stories are thought experiments.) Here is one of innumerable examples, from the story “Brasília”:

Brasília is constructed on the line of the horizon. Brasília is artificial. As artificial as the world must have been when it was created. When the world was created, a man had to be created especially for that world. We are all deformed by our adaptation to the freedom of God. We don’t know how we would be if we had been created first and the world were deformed after according to our requirements. Brasília does not yet have the Brasília man. If I said Brasília is pretty they would immediately see that I liked the city. But if I say that Brasília is the image of my insomnia they would see this as an accusation. But my insomnia is neither pretty nor ugly, my insomnia is me myself, it is lived, it is my astonishment. It is a semi-colon.

It’s too easy to default to a comparison to Kafka here. Even though Lispector, like Kafka, is delineating a rule-bound realm (think The Castle or the 32nd Zurau Aphorism), there is still an excess of self that sets it apart: “Brasília is the image of my insomnia” or “But my insomnia…is my astonishment.”

For me, it’s the shock of this psychological excess flashing out from abstraction, like a spark from a fuse box, that characterizes Lispector’s short fiction. Earlier on, too, the young women who populate her stories seem to define themselves in terms of this excess — especially against men. In “Jimmy and I,” the narrator speaks about a young man in abstract terms, as merely an animal. “But there was the excuse of Jimmy’s skull,” she admits, coldly, “and there was, above all the excuse of his bright teeth and his clear smile of a contented animal.” Against Jimmy, she pits the sadness of her excessive development as a woman: “I would think, unhappily, that I had evolved too much, getting separated from the prototype — animal.”

And if it was there in the beginning, it lingered. In “Forgiving God,” a later masterpiece, Lispector’s narrator negotiates the realization that she is the mother of God, that she is in excess of God in the same way the earlier, younger narrator found herself in excess of Jimmy:

I then had a feeling that I’ve never heard of before. Out of pure affection, I felt I was the mother of God, I was the Earth, the world. Out of pure affection, really, without any domineering or glory, without the least sense of superiority or equality, I was, out of affection, the mother of whatever exists.

As ever, though, the first rush of excess flows into abstraction (and sadness, depression, and alienation) before Lispector punctures the thought experiment with a moment of hyperreality:

And that’s when I almost stepped on a huge dead rat.

Of course, all comparisons are abstractions, and so I have little doubt going forward that no matter who we compare to Lispector — the dead rat, her insomnia, too evolved, out of affection, the mother of whatever exists — she’ll remain in excess of the prototype.