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Lispector, Clarice

LISPECTOR, Clarice

Nationality: Brazilian. Born: Tchetchelnik, Ukraine, 10 December 1925(?). Education: National Faculty of Law, Rio de Janeiro, degree in law 1941-44. Family: Married Mauri Gurgel Valente in 1944 (separated 1959); two sons. Career: Editor, Agência Nacional and A noite newspapers, 1941-44. Lived in Europe, 1944-49, and in the United States, 1952-59; writer, journalist, and translator. Awards: Graça Aranha prize, 1944; Cármen Dolores Barbosa prize, 1961; Golfinho de Ouro prize, 1969; Tenth National Literary Library Competition prize, 1976. Died: 9 December 1977.

Publications

Short Stories

Alguns contos. 1952.

Laços de família. 1960; as Family Ties, 1972.

A legião estrangiera (includes essays). 1964; as The Foreign Legion, 1986.

Felicidade clandestina. 1971.

A imitação da rosa. 1973.

Onde estivestes de noite. 1974.

A via crucis do corpo. 1974.

A bela e a fera. 1979.

Soulstorm (includes stories from A via crucis do corpo and Onde estivestes de noite). 1989.

Novels

Perto do coração selvagem. 1944; as Near to the Wild Heart, 1990.

O lustre. 1946.

A cidade sitiada: romance. 1948; revised edition, 1964.

A maçã no escuro. 1961; as The Apple in the Dark, 1967.

A paixão segundo G.H. 1964; as The Passion According to G.H., 1988.

Uma aprendizagem; ou, o livro dos prazeres. 1969; as An Apprenticeship, or The Book of Delights, 1986.

Água viva. 1973; as The Stream of Life, 1989.

A hora da estrela. 1977; as The Hour of the Star, 1986.

Um sopro de vida: pulsações. 1978.

Fiction for children

O mistério do coelho pensante. 1967.

A mulher que matou os peixes (story). 1968; as The Woman who Killed the Fish, in Latin American Literary Review 32, July-December 1988.

A vida íntima de Laura (story), illustrated by Sérgio Matta. 1974.

Quase de verdade, illustrated by Cecília Jucá. 1978.

Other

Visao do esplendor: impressôes leves. 1975.

Para não esqueser (essays). 1978.

Translator, O retrato de Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde. 1974.

*

Bibliography:

Clarice Lispector: A Bio-Bibliography, 1993.

Critical Studies:

introduction by Gregory Rabassa to The Apple in the Dark, 1967; "Lispector: Fiction and Comic Vision" by Massuad Moisés, translated by Sara M. McCabe, in Studies in Short Fiction 8, Winter 1971; Lispector, edited by Samira Y. Campedello and Benjamin Abdalla, 1981; Lispector by Earl E. Fitz, 1985; in Women's Voice by Naomi Lindstrom, 1989; Reading with Lispector by Helene Cixous, edited and translated by Verena A. Conley, 1990; "Lispector: An Intuitive Approach to Fiction" by Giavanni Pontiero, in Knives and Angels, edited by Susan Bassnett, 1990; Passionate Fictions: Gender, Narrative, and Violence in Clarice Lispector by Marta Peixoto, 1994; Clarice Lispector: Spinning the Webs of Passion by Maria José Somerlate Barbosa, 1997.

* * *

Except for the names of people and places—Otavio, Lucia, Ipanema, and Rio, for instance—there is little that would place Clarice Lispector's writings in a specifically Brazilian context. In fact Lispector is often credited as one of the first to move Brazilian fiction from its historically regional focus toward the dramatization of universal human questions and themes.

Writing and publishing from 1942 until her death in 1977, Lispector spans the late modern and early postmodern literary periods. Her novels, stories, chronicles, and nonfictional essays reflect a movement from the "well-made stories" in the Laços de família (Family Ties) collection to the lyrical, narratively chaotic contemplations of A via crucis do corpo and Onde estivestes de noite.

The early stories deal almost exclusively with the tensions of familial and other close relationships. Through epiphanic insights, usually triggered by an insignificant object or occurrence, Lispector's characters find themselves momentarily severed from the traditional roles and relationships that until that moment have defined their lives. The sight of a blind man chewing gum, for instance, launches the protagonist of "Love" into a frenzied reassessment of her orderly domestic life. The eggs in Anna's shopping bag fall and break, she misses her train stop, and she finds herself wandering, dazed, in the Botanical Garden, facing with horror the knowledge that "she belonged to the strong part of the world." In a similar vein the 89-year-old protagonist of "Happy Birthday" explodes with fury at the "spineless" progeny gathered to celebrate her passage towards death. Choked by the thought that she has produced these "weak creatures," she spits on the floor and shatters the fragile and superficial unity of the party.

It has been observed that Lispector's characters generally return to their traditional roles, often showing no sign of change or heightened awareness. The circular pattern of the stories, together with numerous unsettling shifts in point of view, can leave the reader wondering exactly what has actually occurred and by whom it has been perceived. Has the young protagonist of "Preciousness" been physically touched or even assaulted by the young men on the street, or is this "touching" a metaphor for the sound of voices that she dreads? Does Catherine in the story "Family Ties" leave her husband permanently or only for the short walk she says she will take? Neither character projects sufficient thought to clarify these ambiguities. Instead, the perception and narration move to other minds. Catherine's departure from the house, an action that follows a personally liberating interior monologue, comes to the reader through the eyes of her husband. As a result the tone of the story melts Catherine's exuberance into her husband's anxiety and regret. Earl E. Fitz suggests that shifts of this kind push the stories beyond a circular return by adding depth to the protagonists and by implicating others into their dilemmas.

This involvement of pairs and groups of characters also reveals the failure of communication, which for Lispector typifies contemporary urban life. Flowing interior monologues contrast with sparse, hesitant dialogues, suggesting the privacy of the protagonists' new insights. And traditional gender roles—even if they are left unresolved, or, as some feminists scholars suggest, portrayed with a negative sense that change is impossible—are clearly tested by the isolating experiences that structure the stories.

Lispector's repeated examinations of gender roles and familial relationships also push gently at the boundaries of narrative realism. Although she is not a magical realist in the manner of Gabriel García Márquez or Jose Luis Borges, she does experiment with the horizons of being through the use of literal and figurative animals. An unnamed family and a hen in "The Chicken" act out the same patterns of entrapment and desire that shape the lives of Lispector's human characters. The protagonist in "The Crime of the Mathematics Professor" finds his Other in a dead dog—a surrogate, in fact, for a dog he once loved and abandoned. A. M. Wheeler suggests that the use of animals allows Lispector to magnify tensions that would require more subtlety in the development of fully rounded human characters. In this sense the animal stories are not parables but rather the literary equivalent of animation in film.

Operating at the boundaries of animal/human perceptions and impulses, "The Smallest Woman in the World" serves as a thematic bridge between these worlds. This story alternates an African explorer's discovery of a 24-inch-tall pregnant tree-dwelling woman with reactions to a photo of this woman in an urban newspaper. The newspaper readers devour the image, while the woman herself struggles daily not to be devoured by neighboring cannibals. The readers find the woman "black as a monkey," suitable for a family pet. For the most part, children seem drawn to the photo—in fascination, sympathy, or horror—while their parents avert their eyes and seek distance. The explorer, meanwhile, learns to feel the joy the woman finds in having "a tree to live in all by herself." In this story motifs of the body, of literal and figurative devouring, and of the animal-like purity that separates innocence from experience reveal the tense desires that underlie familial intimacy.

Interspersed as they are with the traditional narratives in Family Ties and A legião estrangiera (The Foreign Legion), the animal stories also mark a transition to other generic experiments. The Foreign Legion includes not only fictional stories but also a number of chronicles, sketches, dialogues, and personal narratives, some written for publication in Brazilian newspapers and magazines. The blending of genres continues in the Soulstorm stories, which tend to contemplate concepts and objects—silence, horses, a train, dignity, gentleness, and a full afternoon—rather than develop or even name individual characters.

Helene Cixous has embraced Lispector's intense, rhythmic narrative as truly feminine writing, or ecriture feminine. Some readers and theorists would consider this the highest accolade possible for a contemporary writer. Yet even Cixous grants the writings a thematic richness. This wealth opens Lispector's work to a broad spectrum of readings, from existentialist, religious, mystical, and gender-based to the political, fantastical, and sensual.

—Rebecca Stephens

See the essays on "The Imitation of the Rose" and "Where You Were at Night."

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