Knowing the unknowable Clarice

Jenny McPhee

Review of the book Complete Stories, by Clarice Lispector. New York, New Directions, 2015. ISBN: 9780811219631.

Of all the eclectic posts on my Web site blog, the one that has consistently received the most views over the years contains two stories by the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector translated by the poet Elizabeth Bishop. A link to my post regularly turns up on syllabi all over the world. Since her death in 1977, Lispector’s stature as a writer has grown so great in Brazil that she has become a household name. Elsewhere, her work, especially her stories, has remained relatively unknown and untranslated, hard to find except in random corners of the Internet.

Benjamin Moser, author of the excellent biography Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector (2009), has devoted much of his career to bringing this wonderfully weird writer to a wider audience. In 2012, Moser oversaw the translation and publication of four of her nine novels by New Directions: Near to the Wild Heart, A Breath of Life, Água Viva, and The Passion According to G. H. Now he has edited the Complete Stories (also for New Directions), an unprecedented single-volume collection of all eighty-four of Lispector’s stories from the first, written when she was a teenager, to the last, published posthumously.

When I first read Lispector in the 1980s, I fell deeply, inexplicably in love. I wanted to know her work inside and out; I wanted to know everything about her. I read all I could find, which was not much and mostly in French translation as she was a darling of the French feminists. Hélène Cixous described her as what Kafka would have been had he been a woman, or if Rilke had been a Jewish Brazilian born in the Ukraine. If Rimbaud had been a mother, if he had reached the age of fifty. If Heidegger could have ceased being German.

No author before Lispector had ever spoken to me so directly, so obliquely, challenged me at once drastically and playfully to move to new places within and beyond language, within and beyond the body. No author had ever shown me so clearly, forcefully, profoundly, and humorously how the female experience is the human experience.

As Moser notes in his introduction to Complete Stories, however, Lispector is not for everyone. A reader’s love for her work usually comes immediately and instinctively. Many don’t get her. Her prose can be deliberately messy; whatever plot there is is often located in her characters’ wandering minds. Traditional narrative, logic, and linearity are of little interest to her. So what makes me love her? Is it because, as Moser writes, “her sympathy for silent and silenced women haunts these stories”? Is it because she gleefully, brutally, mystically, physically breaks all the rules and creates her own literary tradition? It certainly has much to do with the fact that I can’t fully articulate why.

Reading this collection, Moser notes, is to “follow a lifetime of artistic experimentation through a vast range of styles and experiences.” Seen, I would add, through a peculiar feminine gaze. Also animating her work is what Moser calls “an essentially spiritual impulse.” His biography extensively explores Lispector’s roots in Jewish mysticism: “As the Kabbalists found divinity by rearranging letters, repeating nonsensical words, parsing verses, and seeking a logic other than the rational, so did Clarice Lispector.” In their odd yet quotidian observations replete with a strange grammar, Lispector’s stories contain the weight and wonder of the world.

Lispector’s own life contained much weight and wonder. Born in Western Ukraine to Jewish parents, her family was constantly threatened by the pogroms of the Russian Civil War. Her mother contracted syphilis after being raped by a Russian soldier; in the belief that pregnancy would cure her of the disease, Lispector was conceived. Two years later, the family fled to Recife in Brazil, and nine years later her mother died. The family then moved to Rio; with her father’s encouragement, Lispector pursued an education and eventually enrolled in Rio’s prestigious law school, supporting herself through journalism. At the age of twenty-three, she published her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, to overwhelming acclaim. Soon after, she married a diplomat and spent the next fifteen years living abroad, struggling with her writing career, as well as raising two sons.

In her stories, Lispector writes about, among many things: a chicken who lays an egg; an octogenarian’s sexual desire; an ontological alarm clock; a pygmy woman from equatorial Africa; an encounter between a bourgeois woman and a homeless man; a woman’s search for carnage at the Zoological Gardens. She can be philosophically grand—“What matter am I made of in which elements and foundations for a thousand other lives mingle but never merge? I go down every path and still none is mine”—but mostly dwells in the philosophically mundane: “Something uneasy was happening. Then she saw: the blind man was chewing gum.” Among the earlier stories’ dominant themes is the discombobulation of young women as they realize they must learn to exist in a man’s world: “Little by little I was adapting,” she writes in “Jimmy and I,” “to his elongated head.”

In the middle and later stories, Lispector focuses on the female condition from a more mature perspective:  “She’d been married for twelve years and three hours of freedom had restored her almost entirely to herself: –the first thing to do was to see if things still existed” (“The Escape”); “Would anyone happen to see, in that tiniest point of surprise lodged in the depths of her eyes, would anyone see in that tiniest affronted speck the lack of the children she’d never had?” (“The Imitation of the Rose”). She offers advice: “I would like to tell you that having passions does not mean living beautifully, but rather suffering pointlessly… If you cannot free yourself from desiring passions, read novels and adventure stories, for that is also why writers exist” (“Letters to Hermengardo”). She reflects on the writing process: “My entanglement comes from how a carpet is made of so many threads that I can’t resign myself to following just one; my ensnarement comes from how one story is made of many stories” (“The Disasters of Sofia”). Lispector’s similes can be hilarious: “Everyone exchanged polite glances, smiling blindly, abstractedly as if a dog had peed in the room” (“Happy Birthday”); and her metaphors astonishing: “Yet feelings are the water of an instant” (“The Foreign Legion”).

Much praise is to be heaped on Katrina Dodson for her translation of these stories. She has conveyed in English Lispector’s distorted grammar, syntax, and punctuation, maintaining both the purposefully foreign feeling of the language as well as its odd fluidity and overall command. As a translator myself, I am always intrigued by how inevitable untranslatability is handled. For example, Lispector’s story “A Hope” revolves around the dual significance of the Portuguese word esperança as both “cricket” and “hope.” Dodson handles this tricky problem quite brilliantly.

As Moser writes of Lispector: “Hers is an art that makes us want to know the woman; she is a woman who makes us want to know her art.” Her genius, however, is that as much of herself as she offers in her writing, she remains rigorously unknowable—as we all are. The Complete Stories will make the great Clarice Lispector much more widely unknown.


Jenny McPhee’s books include A Man of No Moon, No Ordinary Matter, The Center of Things, and Girls: Ordinary Girls and their Extraordinary Pursuits. Her most recent translations are of Primo Levi’s short story collections Flaw of Form and Natural Histories.



Copyright 2015 Jenny McPhee

Source: Book Review From the September 2015 issue: Geography of the Peruvian imagination.


LISPECTOR, C. Complete Stories. New York, New Directions, 2015. Review by: MCPHEE, J. Knowing the Unknowable Clarice. PortVitoria, UK, v.13, Jul-Dec, 2016. ISSN 2044-8236,