Written by Ingrid Alberding
It was a sunny day on Avenida Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro as a woman with cat-like eyes and vivid red lipstick stared at an empty display of naked mannequins. Her name was Clarice Lispector, an interesting figure now regarded as one of the masters of Brazilian literature. Jose Castello, a fellow writer who saw her that day and decided to say hello, writes, “It takes her a while to turn around. She doesn’t move at ﬁrst, but then, before I dare repeat the greeting, she turns slowly, as if to see where something frightening had come from . . . Clarice had a passion for the void.”
Though admired in her own time, she was nevertheless an othered creator. Lispector was born in 1920 as Chaya, the daughter of a Ukrainian Jewish couple. A year later, the family fled to Brazil as refugees and altered her original, Slavic name “Chaya” to “Clarice.” She lived much of her life on the margins as an immigrant and Jewish woman. For instance, when she was accepted to Brazil’s most prestigious law school, she became the first (and only) Jewish woman to attend. While still a student there, she worked as a fashion journalist to support herself after her father’s death, concurrently publishing her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, at twenty-three. Critics struggled to define her, often coming up with famous male writers to compare her to (her work was initially described as “Joycean,” much to her annoyance, as she had never even read him). But Lispector escaped definition.
Often, it feels as if Lispector vacillates between a need to deﬁne the world by its smallest sensations and a desire to paint the world in broad brushstrokes and all-encompassing altruisms.
Many of her novels and short stories trace the lives of women, often in a non-linear structure. If you are looking for a book with a high-paced plot, you should avoid Lispector, as many as her works depict life in a sudden flash rather than as a series of frames. For example, in the brief anthology Daydreams and Drunkenness of a Young Lady, three women live relatively prosaic, time- and setting- appropriate lives, only for them to reach a breaking point after an everyday event. In “Love,” one of the stories included, a woman on public transport is severely perturbed by a man chewing gum outside. So perturbed, in fact, that stepping outside into an expansive garden, the woman is propelled into crisis: “The cruelty of the world was tranquil. The murder was deep. And death was not what we thought.”
Often, it feels as if Lispector vacillates between a need to deﬁne the world by its smallest sensations and a desire to paint the world in broad brushstrokes and all-encompassing altruisms. The Hour of the Star, Lispector’s last novella, follows the protagonist, Macabéa, who displays a steadfast and irrational optimism that is rendered by the narrator as deeply pitiful. The Hour of the Star contains every detail of Macabéa’s deeply impoverished life, from an unawareness of her own stench, to her desperation to be beautiful and adored like Marilyn Monroe (a hope regarded as foolish by everyone around her). As in her other novels and stories, Lispector includes scenes you’d scarcely find in other great fiction about women. Macabéa eats a fried cat at one point in her life, which is hardly the kind of image commonly found in fiction by women before this. In spite of the great (in the words of biographer Benjamin Moser) “glamor” of her and her stories and the eloquent questions they posit, the circumstances of the characters themselves offer a contrasting grime.
“Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?” — A Hora da Estrela
Macabéa is essentially an absent character, described by Hélène Cixous as “a kind of woman, a person who is so slight she almost does not exist” in Three Steps On The Ladder of Writing. Although we are given some level of entry into her psyche, many of her thoughts remain ambiguous or completely unknown. This, we do know: despite her soul-crushing circumstances and the inescapable reality of her own life, she maintains an unshakable faith. This faith is only affected after a visit to a fortune-teller, who informs her of how horrible her life is and has been. This fortune-teller adds only later that Macabéa’s life will improve very soon, and she’ll meet a rich foreigner. However, the novella ends soon after, and the reader is left wondering if the fortune teller’s promises come true. Lispector noted in a TV interview later, “I went to a fortune-teller who told me about all kinds of good things that were about to happen to me, and on the way home in the taxi I thought it’d be really funny if a taxi hit me and ran me over and I died after hearing all those good things.”
To date, The Hour of the Star it remains one of her most famous and critically acclaimed works, and the most emblematic of the almost mythic quality in her writing. Lispector would die shortly after the novella’s initial publication in 1977. In the past decade, there has been a wave of translations of her work into English, providing an opportunity for a new wave of readers to absorb the writing of a singular woman who was simultaneously on the forefront and fringes of the literary world.