Sometimes it happens that I’ll read something that I’ve seen on other people’s lists of The Greatest! of! All Time!, and for whatever reason (let’s face it, it’s because I’m a terrible person) I’ve dismissed the hype. How great could it really be, I tell myself. I mean, they don’t really mean the greatest. They’ve probably only read one or two novels, so obviously this is the greatest one. But then I read whatever it is, and usually — an embarrassing preponderance of the time — I realize that no, no actually, Don Quixote might really be the greatest novel of all time (except for The Story of the Stone) or whatever it is. They weren’t kidding. The hype was real.
So I’ve heard about Clarice Lispector for years. She’s this amazing glamorous hypnotic Brazilian author, she’s not like anyone else, her novels aren’t literature, they’re witchcraft, she’ll ravish you. I figured, meh. I’ve read a lot of good stories and these would probably be just fine. I got a gorgeous copy of the recent New Directions translation of her Complete Stories by Katrina Dodson, and I began to read in chronological order. The first few stories were definitely good, but I could take or leave them; they were a little overwrought for my taste. Then I began the collection called Family Ties, and my hair just about stood on end.
Take “The Imitation of the Rose,” for instance. This is told entirely from the perspective of Laura, a young woman who is waiting for her husband to come home. Slowly, over the course of several pages, it becomes clear that Laura is recovering from a mental breakdown, and she is holding herself rigidly to a routine so as not to allow her thoughts to drift in unhealthy directions. (For instance, her doctor told her to drink milk every day for her health, but she must not drink it obsessively at the same time, so she constructs an elaborate display of nonchalance as she… drinks it at exactly the same time.) Laura begins to look at a bouquet of roses she bought at the market earlier, and she is more and more entranced by their fresh, perfect beauty. She impulsively decides to give them away to a friend (again constructing a script for what she’ll say when she does it) and then immediately, bitterly regrets the decision; the roses are “the only thing that are [hers]” and she ought to be able to keep them! Slowly, her focus narrows and narrows on the roses she’s given away. When the husband comes home, his wife is sitting on the sofa waiting for him, “like a train that had already departed.” Now, this story sounds gentle and pretty — milk, roses — but it takes place not only in one claustrophobic apartment, but in one mind descending into madness. In some ways it reminded me of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” only subtler. Creepy as hell.
Or “The Smallest Woman in the World,” also in Family Ties. This is about an explorer who discovers a tribe of people eighteen inches high. One of these people, the smallest of her tribe, is a pregnant woman. The story consists mostly of the reactions of people reading in the newspaper about this discovery, and it explores racism, sexism, colonialism (including the involvement of the church), dehumanization, and the complications of joy. It is one of the most startling stories I’ve ever read.
These stories are unbelievably inventive. They are about love and hate and families and magic and chickens, birthdays and marriage and murder and race and the family dog. They reminded me of Nabokov and Calvino, except for one thing: they are about women. These stories are about little girls, teenagers, young wives, old ladies, single women, widows, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, friends. There’s a young woman who hears two men on the subway saying in Pig Latin that they’re going to rape and kill her. There’s an old woman on her birthday, surveying her no-good family who have gathered to honor themselves more than to honor her. There’s a Puritanical woman who’s visited by an alien being from Saturn and gains sexual power from the encounter. These stories are troubling, strange, odd, powerful, marvelous.
Increasingly, they say more with less. There are more stories about animals, about silence. There’s a startling story about a first kiss that doesn’t even involve two people. Lispector writes moving, beautiful, dramatic, dazzling stories, but they are stiller and stiller towards the end.
In case you couldn’t tell, Clarice Lispector blew my tiny mind. I took about two weeks to read the entire collection of stories (the translation was divine.) I am so looking forward to reading one of her novels. I highly, highly recommend this collection, to dip in and out of or to read nearly at a sitting, as I did. Spectacular. Ravishing. Maybe even witchcraft.