Review – Lispector, Complete Stories

Clarice Lispector, “The Complete Stories” (2018) (translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson) – I think I get it. This isn’t really “for me.” Clarice Lispector is hot new shit in certain literary circles, despite (?) having been dead since 1977. Born into a Jewish family in the Ukraine, Lispector’s family made the smart move of getting the hell out of there before the wheels came completely off, and Clarice was raised a middle-class Brazilian. She became a literary success early on, and a social one too, moving in Brazilian high society and marrying a diplomat. The biographical details are mainly relevant insofar as they inform the glamour that has wrapped around Lispector’s name, first in her native Brazil, and then in anglophone literary circles as her work came to be translated. I’m trying to find a generous way to say it, but basically, I think there’s a lot of hype here. Divide Latin American literary hype — breathy, exotic, not your granddad’s dour (or sappy) northern hemisphere literature — by the sort of hype that surrounded the recently-deceased Joan Didion (harshly “literary,” and a beautiful elegant woman readers can project themselves on to) and you’re more or less there.

Well, I read Lispector’s short stories, supposedly her most accessible works- apparently she really gets into some modernist weeds in her novels. They weren’t bad, necessarily… or maybe they were and I’m just trying to be “nice.” They were mostly tales either of cities being weird and surreal, or women dealing with bad men, or both. The language is supposed to be “lush” but I can’t say I experienced it that way. The stories are more notable for what they lack- no moral or “point,” especially not a political one, and you have to imagine contemporary literary readers breathing a sigh of relief on that score. Not much in the way of character, often anonymous men and women described by surface characteristics and behaviors. You can’t really get avant garde points with a focus on character, anyway, or plot, which the stories don’t really have either.

What do they have? Well, a vague air of tropical decadence- cf my notes about “Latin American literary hype,” anglophone and Western European readers have been looking to Latin American writers for that at least since “The Boom” in the mid-twentieth century. It’s ushered great writers onto the global literary scene, this literary escapism. Who knows, maybe Lispector is one and I’m too much of a literal-minded lunkhead to enjoy! Kinda sucks that the best they can find to renew that source of interest in world letters has been dead longer than the people “discovering” her have been alive, but thems the breaks, I guess. I was never that much of a stickler for “show don’t tell” but Lispector does a lot of telling about people’s inner states. There isn’t much here that sustains my interest, I’ll admit.

Shot in the dark- as Dril put it, “this whole thing smacks of gender!” Not in the sense that Lispector’s work is where it is because she’s a woman or something stupid like that. I mean in the sense that many of these stories comment on gender relations in a groove well worn by millennial thought on the subject. The bad men with whom Lispector’s protagonists deal aren’t dissimulators or opportunists like many abusers. They advertise themselves as the nihilists they are, the protagonists find themselves irresistibly drawn into their orbit, and are usually changed in some way- and callooh, callay, a miracle! In the differently-moraled global south they don’t jump immediately to “the woman gets murdered” to send the point about bad men home. In fact, they seem empowered by the experience, to use a term Lispector would probably stick her arm in a bear trap rather than use. Not by sticking with the bad man, oh no. Just in general. They’re badder and vaguely witchier.

From the cheap seats of cis manhood, it appears the great comic theme of millennial women’s writing — and men, especially straight men, keep saying things but have less and less to say that transcends the level of overly-elaborated grunting, so most writing these days is done by women — is that you can be gay! The comedy of errors that is compulsory heterosexuality straightens, if you will, itself out and everyone can go off and be happy. The central tragic theme of millennial women’s writing is that most of the time, they either love, or have loved, or will love, a man or men, alas. Lispector stories show the shiftiness of loving men, but, like certain genres less of literature (though it’s there) and more of music and social media aesthetics, depicts a ability one might have to have one’s cake and eat it too by emerging from the tragedy of dealing with our dumb male asses stronger and more independent. Well! I’ve heard worse visions. ***

Review – Lispector, Complete Stories

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s