Hype can be beautiful. It can bring a writer from obscurity to being hailed as “one of the hidden geniuses of the twentieth century” in a matter of months. Such has been the case with Clarice Lispector, whose name until a few years ago was mostly known outside Brazil only to scholars of Brazilian literature.
In her native Brazil, Clarice Lispector has long been acknowledged as one of the twentieth century’s great stylists, who achieved things in the Portuguese language that haven’t been repeated since her death in 1977 aged just 56. Now, with the help of a major biography, new translations and re-issues from New Directions and Penguin, the rest of the world is finally catching up. The publication of her Complete Stories—all 86 of them, over 600 pages—was one of the major literary events of 2015.
Chaya Pinkhasovna Lispector was born in Chechelnyk, Podolia, in 1920. Podolia was “fertile soil” for followers of Shabbtai Zvi, for Frankists and Hasidim, more so than anywhere else in the Pale of Settlement, that had been “ruined by persecutions lasting for centuries”, according to the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia. After the Revolution, pogroms were ravaging the area once again. Lispector’s mother was raped and infected with syphilis, which would later kill her. By this point the family had moved to Recife in north-eastern Brazil; at the age of one, in 1922, Chaya was reborn as Clarice.
The high school she attended taught in Hebrew and Yiddish as well as Portuguese, so it’s safe to assume that she received a solid Jewish education. Although unmistakably Ashkenazi in origin to the initiated, the last name Lispector merely seemed somewhat foreign rather than explicitly Jewish in these Catholic surroundings. This helped Lispector, who aimed to separate herself from her roots and become a “true” Brazilian, though this separation never led to conversion.
Lispector was in law school when her father died after botched surgery in August 1940. In October that same year, she wrote her first surviving story, titled, aptly, “Interrupted Story”. The narrator, a young woman without a name (like most of Lispector’s protagonists), is in love with a “sad and tall man”. She decides to marry him, to “shock” him out his depression. She arrives at this decision with cool detachment, yet is filled with overwhelming happiness—until her young sister informs her that the man has committed suicide. The narrator is only left with the question of whether her pain has any meaning at all in a world in which God might not exist.
Lispector tells this brief story with remarkable ease and even allows herself a moment of meta-trickery—the woman who spreads the news of the suicide is called Clarinha. Here we have all of Lispector’s concerns condensed into a mere six pages: the fleeting promise of love, the roles we play, burning desire and chilly despair, the possibly futile search for God and ultimate meaning. These are the motifs she would return to again and again in her stories and novels, mostly in domestic settings with women at the heart of them.
Her works often lack obvious local and temporal reference points. All the stories in the collected volume take place in Brazil, some in Recife, some in Rio, but for the most part they might as well be set in Paris, London or Prague. Colm Tóibín memorably described her writing as “a strange display of a sensibility” rather than conventional storytelling. Her stories are nourishing and mournful; the tone goes from tenderness to despair in a second…
This review appears in full in the Summer issue of Jewish Quarterly. Subscribe to read more.