There’s a whiff of madness in the fiction of Clarice Lispector. The “Complete Stories” of the great Brazilian writer, edited by Benjamin Moser and sensitively translated by Katrina Dodson, is a dangerous book to read quickly or casually because it’s so consistently delirious. Sentence by sentence, page by page, Lispector is exhilaratingly, arrestingly strange, but her perceptions come so fast, veer so wildly between the mundane and the metaphysical, that after a while you don’t know where you are, either in the book or in the world. “Coherence, I don’t want it anymore,” a character in one of her stories thinks. “Coherence is mutilation. I want disorder.” That character, a 37-year-old woman in melancholy flight from her husband or lover, has this revelation too: “It was a lie to say you could only have one thought at a time: She had many thoughts that intersected and were multiple.” Especially in the 1970s, in the last decade of Lispector’s life, when that story (“The Departure of the Train”) and two of her best, most challenging novels — “Água Viva” and “The Hour of the Star” — were written, she was trying to get all her own intersecting, helplessly multiplying thoughts on the page. She failed, of course, but failed beautifully. Her willed disorder is heroic.
But it’s best to approach her with some caution. For the ordinary reader — that is to say, for most of us — immersion in the teeming mind of Clarice Lispector can be an exhausting, even a deranging, experience, not to be undertaken lightly. (Pack food, water, a first aid kit and plenty of sunblock.) The early work in this volume, in the sections entitled “First Stories” and “Family Ties,” doesn’t stray too far from the charted territory of literary fiction. The settings are, for the most part, homely and domestic, and the tales are, at least in material terms, uneventful; their action is interior and tends to take the form, familiar to short story readers, of little epiphanies. (“Truth was a glimpse,” one of Lispector’s characters thinks.) What makes even these relatively conventional stories unusual, though, is that her people’s moments of revelation are often canceled almost immediately, superseded by some new kind of disorientation. Ana, the heroine of the wonderful story “Love,” finishes her daily chores and waits for the end of “the unstable hour” when her house is empty and she’s alone with herself; her brief existential panic is an everyday thing, just part of the routine. That’s how it is for most of Lispector’s characters, early and late: the unstable hours never go away for good.
In a later story, she writes: “Stability, even back then, meant danger to him: If other people made a mistake in their first pass at stability, the mistake would become permanent, without the advantage of instability, which is that of a possible correction.” She herself courted instability pretty assiduously, at least in her fiction. When “Family Ties,” her first major story collection, was published in 1960, Lispector was nearly 40 and had only recently returned to Brazil after 15 years spent abroad with her husband, a diplomat. She had been famous in her home country, though, since 1943, when her precocious first novel, “Near to the Wild Heart,” was published. After “Family Ties,” an enormous success in Brazil, she set about destabilizing whatever image of Clarice Lispector readers may have formed from reading those stories; it’s as if she needed to correct the mistaken impression that she was a writer like any they had read before. Her next volume of short fiction, “The Foreign Legion,” published in 1964, is a volatile mix of more or less traditional stories in the manner of “Family Ties,” but filled with short, quirky essay-like musings. The most peculiar, called “The Egg and the Chicken,” begins simply enough — “In the morning in the kitchen on the table I see the egg” — but a paragraph later the humble household object and its perceiver seem to have been launched into deepest space. “Seeing the egg is impossible,” Lispector writes. “The egg is supervisible just as there are supersonic sounds. No one can see the egg. Does the dog see the egg? Only machines see the egg. The construction crane sees the egg. — When I was ancient an egg landed on my shoulder. — Love for the egg cannot be felt either. Love for the egg is supersensible.” These reflections continue for 10 more pages. Which came first, you have to wonder, the weird thoughts or the heedless, spilling words?
Lispector herself probably couldn’t have said for certain, and that appears to be the way she wanted things to be, at least in her writing. For the rest of her life, she kept trying to close the gap between thoughts, which are fleeting and unruly, and words, which are so frustratingly definite, nailed down. A late story collection, “The Via Crucis of the Body,” which appeared in 1974, three years before her death, was written almost automatically, in about the time it takes for a flu to run its course: She sweated out 13 stories in three days. The stories are messy, hot and immediate — as befits their subject, which is sex. Untidiness never troubled her much. She once wrote: “I have an affectionate fondness for the unfinished, the poorly made, whatever awkwardly attempts a little flight and falls clumsily to the ground.” A few of the 80-plus stories in this volume do in fact plummet earthward not long after takeoff, but an amazing number manage to stay aloft for a while, graceful and free until they get too close to the sun.
That was where Lispector always wanted her writing to go, right to the flaming center of life. When the sun comes up on a character of hers and the world looks fresh, just born, her prose turns atypically restful, as if it were home at last. “It was one of those mornings that seem to hang in the air,” one story begins. “And that are most akin to the idea we have of time. The veranda doors stood open but the cool air had frozen outside and nothing was coming in from the garden, as if any overflow would break the harmony.” What bothered her more than messiness, more than instability, more even than failure, was the idea that the world — or the language in which she rendered it — could with a moment’s lapse of attention become fixed, impermeable, hostile. She writes in a state of hypervigilance, almost of paranoia.
Lispector’s madness is that of an artist who won’t allow herself to settle for what’s known, who has to see and feel everything for herself, even what can’t be seen (like that damned egg). Her “Complete Stories” is a remarkable book, proof that she was — in the company of Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Rulfo and her 19th-century countryman Machado de Assis — one of the true originals of Latin American literature. In her novel “Água Viva” she writes: “And when I think a word is strange that’s where it achieves the meaning. And when I think life is strange that’s where life begins.” Her stories are full of strange words, in strange combinations and, every now and then, the harmony of a new-minted morning.
THE COMPLETE STORIES
By Clarice Lispector
Edited by Benjamin Moser
Translated by Katrina Dodson
645 pp. New Directions. $28.95.