“Be careful with Clarice,” the writer’s friend warned a reader. “It’s not literature, it’s witchcraft.”
Clarice Lispector was born not so very far away from Kafka and Schulz, and you can tell. That particular magically impossible way of weaving a story feels very East Central European, though Rio was her real home. Chaya Lispector was born into a Ukrainian Jewish family in 1920. They emigrated to Brazil a year later, changing their names when they got off the boat from Hamburg. Clarice Lispector was to become that rare thing, a woman who had the education, support and leisure to write for her whole life long. Her short stories move through all the phases of woman, from girlhood to old age. And they are brilliant!
You get a real sense of the person who fascinated contemporaries and readers for decades from Benjamin Moser’s introduction to the Complete Stories
(including the quote above). Her translator, Katrina Dodson
, won the PEN Translation prize this spring for her “extraordinary” work
, which is now on the NTA longlist
. Dodson didn’t have it easy – Lispector stretches language well beyond its limits, gets inside her characters’ heads, and your own. It’s hard for the reader to know where ‘reality’ begins and ends. Lispector was also a journalist and her opening lines yank you right in:
“She was a Sunday chicken, still alive because it wasn’t yet nine in the morning (A chicken/Uma galhina)
“It was Saturday and we had been invited to the obligatory luncheon. But we all liked Saturday too much to waste it on people we didn’t want to be with.” (The Sharing of Loaves/A repartição dos pães)
“She was sobbing. And if the two o’clock glare weren’t enough, she had red hair.” (Temptation/Tentação)
“Right here at home a hope landed. Not the classic kind that so often proves illusory, though even still it always sustains us. But the other kind, very concrete and green: the cricket.” (A Hope: Uma esperança – the word esperança means both ‘hope’ and a ‘cricket’)
When these stories have sucked you in and spat you out, what to read next? The photo, courtesy of her son Paolo, was shared at an event to celebrate five new English translations of her novels, edited by Moser. I’ll be taking his translation of The Hour of the Star with me to Rio next month.