For almost the entire second half of the last century, a considerable portion of Latin American literature was held captive to the conviction that in order to be taken seriously, it needed to comply with the demands that literary theories, especially French ones, were imposing on the world. Setting aside the pathetic examples of emulators of the French nouveau roman, several generations of novelists suffered from the imperatives of “stream of consciousness,” “metafiction,” “objectivity” and its respective opposites, and created a literary universe that—with very few exceptions—possessed that characteristic that Borges once mentioned when referring to Argentine literature: it wasn’t essential. What worked in the City of Light couldn’t be transferred to our side of the world as anything more than an imitation or caricature. In Paris, writers and theorists were sometimes one and the same, and they almost always ran in the same social and cultural circles. This meant that they shared and simultaneously created the dominant prejudices that were upheld by a complacent editorial market and a legion of readers whose preferences were shaped by marketing.
Our reality during those years was completely different. Those writers who devoured Sartre, Barthes, Foucault, or Derrida and their disciples one after another competed to write comme il faut without an editorial industry that supported them or readers who were tarnished by marketing. In Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, or Mexico, the examples are too conspicuous to name. We spend time on this topic only because, to the pleasure that work by great writers has brought us, we must add the very welcome surprise of confirming that they paid very little attention—if any at all—to the trends that were imposed by publishing houses and literature professors. Among these great authors is Clarice Lispector, whose ample body of work that began during her adolescence and continued growing until her death demonstrates very few concessions (whether deliberate or involuntary) to the platitudes of criticism.
Contrary to speculation by some feminists, Lispector could voluntarily and stubbornly fit into the stereotype of the traditional Latin American middle-class woman if desired. This was something that didn’t cause her any embarrassment or, consequently, give her any need to justify herself. She assumed this role with authentic dedication, as a duty that primarily required being beautiful, elegant, refined: a woman who “any man would want as a wife.” She didn’t have to work too hard to be beautiful—her charming and proud body, delicate and striking without being too voluptuous, held not only erotic but aesthetic attraction and could have been complimented by a lustful teenager, a gracious gentleman, or a homosexual friend, not to mention by the women who loved or envied her. A beautiful, modest, elegant woman. An ideal wife, a dedicated mother, and a pious daughter in the very special Jewish family way. Clarice began writing in magazines that were called “from the heart,” where she gave beauty, fashion, and other female interest tips to women of all ages who grew to adore her. In a different way, and under very different circumstances, her feminine dimension, beauty, and talents wouldn’t have clashed with our “young lady who wrote because she was bored” (to quote Teresa de la Parra).
For those who may think that these “frivolous” activities (which she carried out under the protection of various pseudonyms) could have been things she did without much enthusiasm, that she didn’t take seriously, or that she considered below her literary aspirations, I partially quote Argentine journalist María Mansilla: “Her library was witness to what she took very seriously (…). After her death, books such as Ricettario domestico, Enciclopedia moderna per la donna e per la casa; The Homemaker’s Encyclopedia: Personal Beauty and Charm; Beleza e personalidade: o livro azul da mulher remained. Spinoza, Tolstoy, Kafka, Machado de Assis, James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, and Herman Hesse, among many other authors, could also be found in her library, which is now watched over by the Instituto Moreira Salles in São Paulo.
But none of that can serve us, help us, or even give us a slight hint when it comes to understanding her literature—and by understanding, I don’t mean deciphering her texts or having the ability to think about her relatively mediocre transit through this life where very few things happened, one of them being one of the most luminous bodies of work that has been produced in the twentieth century. I don’t like making this clarification, which is important for some, because the only reason to present this false problem is because it is about a woman, about a beautiful, seductive, and discrete woman—meaning a woman who traps all of the contradictions traditionally associated with the feminine sex inside of herself. To my knowledge, there are few who question the distance between the mediocrity of Jorge Luis Borges’s life and his magnificent, unsurpassable works, nor do they do it when it comes to Fernando Pessoa or so many other authors who lack the more or less heroic life of someone like Hemingway, André Gide, or any other creator. By understanding, I want to merely refer to the necessity of discerning lines of strength, expressive modes, points of rupture. Discerning, not explaining, and much less putting it below the magnifying glass of some theoretical framework.
If you have read Lispector (or Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Rilke), you have suffered a spiritual metamorphosis, a very secret renaissance, like what happens to a reptile who sheds its skin or a believer who sees their god. It is absolutely impossible to be the same person before and after going through the pages of The Passion According to G.H., Água Viva, or any of her multiple stories and novels—all intense and, in an odd way, compact, almost brief, all unforgettable, unmistakable, perfect. In some cases, in many in fact, there is no discernible story, or there is simply no story in the common sense of a plot that unfolds, goes through different stages, and then brings us to a shore, like the ocean. More than shores to which we’re taken, her books are the ocean itself, that ocean that Octavio Paz makes comprehensible when he tells us that its form is its movement. In Lispector’s work (and, surely, in all true literature), there is no predetermined form. It is the movement of the words themselves, that oscillation that pushes the wind and contracts the gravitation of the spirit, that draws its shape. Pure verbal matter—its only metaphysics is the fact that it is matter and spirit wrapped into one single thing that seems to narrate itself. In that ocean of words, there are characters who are still partial aspects of the author herself, involuntary fragments of a biography that oscillates between a secret and a confession. Every so often, almost every three or four pages, there is a definitive observation about something that, far from seeming like a casual insert, envelops and gives meaning to whatever precedes it.
In these brief lines, I want to point to one of the aspects of Lispector’s work that we have been more sensitive to—let’s not pretend that these considerations either exhaust or define her work. What I mean is the alternation between the description of the everyday world of women, charged descriptions of striking tenderness, and the careful observation of details that seem trivial to others on the one hand, and the sudden and very constant appearance of the deeper layers of being, of the countless discoveries of her extremely sharp intelligence and sensibility on the other hand. For this purpose, we will comment on two brief passages from works that are distant from each other when it comes to the formal, the thematic, and the temporal.
Let’s begin with “The Origin of Spring or The Necessary Death in the Middle of the Day” from The Book of Delights, where this paragraph can be found:
Once more, in her confused hesitation, what reassured her was something that had so often calmed and supported her: the knowledge that everything that exists, exists with absolute exactness and ultimately whatever she ended up doing or not would not escape that exactness; something the size of a pinhead would not extend by a fraction of a millimeter beyond the size of a pinhead: everything that existed was of a great perfection.
This fragment is preceded by a prolonged introduction that describes or narrates what would be the boudoir rituals of any woman dealing with the appropriate perfume and dress for an encounter with the man she loves. Although it lacks irony, the situation fits in with the impoverished perception of what the feminine universe is assumed to be, until we stumble upon this paragraph that seems almost out of place—modest, and almost prone to being looked over, it makes the mysterious profundity of Lispector’s writing surface. Where criticism sees the flow of consciousness, the transgression of syntax, and unimportant formal elements, we find a pattern that will be repeated over and over again: the quotidian and predictable, interrupted (with varying degrees of violence) by the subterranean magma of a truth that manifests unexpectedly.
Let’s look at a different case now. In one of her last works, Água Viva, we can find this sentence that is almost a poem: “I know what I am doing here: I am telling of the instants that drip and are thick with blood.”
This novel generously lends itself to the discovery of symbols, syntactical peculiarities, and levels of discourse, among many other things. None of that, however, interests us: we let ourselves be guided by that intense and uninterrupted voice that flows like blood from a wound or like the ocean, one that has persisted in trying to break through barriers of coral from the beginning of time. Here, we don’t see the presence of the quotidian that we pointed out before. Here, it is all eruption and mystery—maybe more than a formal exploration, there is the unique spotting of a voice, a rhythm, an intonation. If in The Book of Delights, we let ourselves be swept up by the obsessive repetition of the rituals of everyday life because we assume and end up convinced that this monotony will go through shocks, in Água Viva we remain anchored to the intensity of a voice that doesn’t seem to let up and that only lets us breathe in order to come back with more force. Lispector makes use of both narrative strategies, surely without full consciousness. That oscillation between ways of writing has its extremes, like the examples we’ve discussed, where they’re excluded with no possibility for reconciliation, but a careful reading of her entire body of work will reveal that these extremes alternate, mix together, and fight against each other because they are nothing more than the exterior reflection of her private world, like she herself says at one point.
Benjamin Moser’s excellent biography, Why This World, doesn’t only surpass many of those that came before it (and those it thanks profusely), even if that is only due to the privilege of its being the latest. It also insists on some topics that Lispector dedicated her whole life to evading, or at least to diverting people’s gaze. Her clear and sharp perception of her Jewish origins, which every so often becomes visible in her themes and obsessions, but also her incomprehensible neutrality in the face of antisemitism, a tolerance very similar to the one shown by another Jewish man who found himself among friendly enemies, Mijail Sebastian. Her now celebrated diary—a document that is indispensable when it comes to understanding an era, a personal diary that was not meant to be published and a declaration that was brought to light thanks to the dedication of academics after a long period of being forgotten—amazes us with the register of her resignation and almost suicidal tolerance toward Rumanian fascists, among which celebrities like Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade, or Camil Petrescu could be found, all frenzied anti-Semites and Nazi advocates. Sebastian recounts his childhood friends’ opinions and actions with bitterness, with a moving loyalty. These without a doubt weren’t Lispector’s circumstances, but her many friendships from the integralist movement and her frequenting of social circles where antisemitism and fascism were aired out with sympathy, present us with that same blindness—the same passive acceptance of someone who could have been a victim of horrible cruelty and who was saved by the fortuitous facts of history.
Is there not an element of cowardice or complicity in that attitude? Nothing seems to justify that question—no known anecdote, nothing that has been quoted or written. But its enunciation, surely unjust, forces itself on me like a slap in the face. I think, however, that lucidity can sometimes paradoxically be contaminated with blindness, maybe because it is imagined as the only way to avoid terror. Nothing, however, can cloud the happiness, the light, the hours turned into eternities that I owe to this extraordinary writer.
Translated by Isabella Corletto
Isabella Corletto was born in Guatemala City, Guatemala. She graduated from Wesleyan University in 2018 with degrees in English and Italian Studies and currently works at Indent Literary Agency. She speaks Spanish, English, Italian, and Portuguese. Her translation of Amalia Andrade’s Things You Think About When You Bite Your Nails is forthcoming from Penguin Books in the fall of 2020.