Literary critic and theorist and Robert Scholes said, “What makes reality fascinating is the imaginary catastrophe that lies behind it.” This is the quote that comes to mind every time I read from Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s impressive body of work, which includes nine novels, 10 short story collections, five children’s books, and numerous compilations of interviews, essays, and journalism, most of which are available in English translation. Lispector is a master of the imagined catastrophe, also known as interiority — or, as Lispector calls it in her short stories: the “mute catastrophe,” the “maelstrom within.”
Doesn't that sound kind of amazing? Trust me: It is.
It’s this quality — this nakedness of feeling — that causes readers to fall in love with not only her writing, but with the person who dared to expose so much of herself in the process of creation. For those who’ve been reading her work for years, decades even, her current popularity may seem wildly overdue. It also may seem like a violation, an exposure, of the private relationship devout readers will often cultivate with this obscure Aphrodite.
In any case, the secret is no more. With the release of The Complete Stories by New Directions in August, Lispector-philes are making themselves known. So it goes, the time has come for every reader to discover the reasons her genius deserves this late-blooming recognition.
Lispector Breaks All of the Rules
Don’t think it’s possible to start a story from the point of view of… sunlight? See “The Triumph.” You always thought “talking heads” (i.e. disembodied thoughts) were a bad thing in literature? See “The Disasters of Sophia.” Lispector’s unfettered attention to abstraction — rather than scene or plot — makes her one of the most wildly revolutionary writers of our time.
You’ll Witness Miracles of Syntax
“And if her eyes were glittering and hard, if her gestures were difficult stages of finally reaching the toothpick dispenser, in fact on the inside she was even feeling quite well, she was that laden cloud gliding along effortlessly.”
That is all.
You’ll Meet Uncensored, Wrathful Women Who Are So Empowering and Lovely
Lispector has a knack for pinpointing and extending the moment when innocence is lost in young girls, and then lost again, and again, and again, on into adulthood and beyond. She has an eye for the feminine journey, and its vices, that parallels no other.
Lispector Knows No Cliché
“Her snow-white flesh was sweet as a lobster’s, the legs of a live lobster wriggling slowly in the air. And that urge to feel wicked so as to deepen the sweetness into awfulness. And that little wickedness of whoever has a body.”
Flesh as sweet as a lobster’s? You tell it, girl!
You Won’t Want to Miss What She Does With POV
If you’ve ever been told that you can’t switch between points of view in a writing class, mail “The Smallest Woman in the World” to your instructor this instant. Write in big block letters on the manuscript SEE, IT CAN BE DONE. In this story and others, Lispector moves fluidly from view to view, and without a trace of whiplash or disorientation on the reader’s part.
All of the Stages of Relationships Will Be Revealed to You
In Benjamin Moser’s introduction to The Complete Stories, he notes, “If Clarice Lispector was a great artist, she was also a middle-class wife and mother. If the portrait of the extraordinary artist is fascinating, so is the portrait of the ordinary housewife whose life is the subject of this book.” Through these stories, we navigate all the phases of marriage — from defiance and jealousy to unbearable melancholy to supreme joy and everything in between.
You’ve Never Seen Emotional Intelligence Like This
The depths to which Lispector navigates the internal conditions of her characters absolutely astounds me. Children, adults, men, women, nobody escapes her discerning eye. See “The Disasters of Sofia” and “The Foreign Legion” for two superb examples of the complex inner lives of children. My heart bursts.
You’ll Encounter the Saddest Sentences Ever Written
Exhibit A: “Joy would always be covert for me.” Ouch.
Exhibit B: “I swallow the madness because it calmly makes me hallucinate.” Ah, well.
Lispector Doesn’t Write Like anyone Else
It’s likely that Lispector’s disregard for conventional plotting (her narrative arcs range widely in shape and scope) has excluded her from American bestseller lists for many years. However, it’s also precisely the reason why her stories are so fascinating. You won’t find the meandering thoughts that characterize much of her work in your average short story. As Lispector says, “I am well aware that I’ll have to stop, not for lack of words, but because these things, and above all those I only thought and didn’t write, don’t normally get published in newspapers.” If readers can shelve their expectations during their encounters with Lispector’s work, new ways of thinking and talking about storytelling will surface.
New Directions Is Publishing Lispector’s Entire Collected Stories in One Volume.
It used to be that you couldn’t get your hands on a Lispector short story unless you went to a vintage bookstore and got lucky. Even then, bad translations abounded. New Directions will release a beautifully translated, new edition of Lispector’s entire body of short stories on August 18.
And if I'm doing a good job of getting you excited for it... then my work is done here.