Ben Winch's Reviews > Complete Stories

Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector
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it was amazing
bookshelves: latin-american, brazilian, 5-stars

As must be obvious to anyone who’s read her, Clarice Lispector is an original. The Hour of the Star – until 2009 by far her most prominent work in English – is a dizzying game of mirror-selves, stark and unsparing, and to those unfamiliar with her work probably as jarring an introduction to an author as it’s possible to have, short of mid-period Samuel Beckett. Other major works A Breath of Life (her Unnamable) and The Passion According to G.H. (until recently my favourite, and the only one I could claim – if tangentially – to have grasped) are just as unnerving. Unnervement, I think, could be said to be her strategy, or a crucial part of it. To soften up the terrain of the reader’s mind for planting, for the seeding of myth and paradox which is her main work – an insidious task which you sense could lead (as with Beckett, or Thomas Bernhard, or Gerald Murnane) to takeover.

Well, though there are plenty of instances of it (in his introduction Benjamin Moser calls it “glamouring”), in my case the Lispector seed has not infiltrated all mental furrows, but my reading (slowly, at intervals) of her Complete Stories takes me a significant step closer. The beautiful thing here – and essential, for me, in finally comprehending her aesthetic – is that I can get on “at ground level”, with her early stories, as she herself is in the process of comprehending. (Not that this process of self-comprehension, for an imaginitive writer, ever ends.) And to my mind, with my Lispector-comprehension as developed as it is, a sweet spot is reached about late mid-career (1964) with the stories originally published as The Foreign Legion:
I was a very odd girl and, going pale, I saw it. Bristling, about to vomit, though to this day I don’t know for sure what I saw. But I know I saw it. I saw deep as into a mouth, in a flash I saw the abyss of the world. What I saw was as anonymous as a belly opened up for an intestinal operation. I saw some thing forming on his face – the already petrified distress was fighting its way up to his skin, I saw the grimace slowly hesitating and bursting through a crust – but this thing that in mute catastrophe was being uprooted, this thing so little resembled a smile as if a liver or a foot were trying to smile, I don’t know. Whatever I saw, I saw at such close range that I don’t know what I saw. As if my curious eye were glued to the keyhole and in shock came upon another eye looking back at me from the other side. I saw inside an eye. An eye opened up with its moving jelly. With its organic tears. An eye cries all by itself, an eye laughs all by itself. Until the man’s effort reached a peak of full awareness, and in a childish victory he showed, a pearl plucked from his open belly – that he was smiling. I saw a man with entrails smiling. I could see his extreme worry about getting it wrong, the diligence of the slow student, the clumsiness as if he’d suddenly become left-handed. Without understanding, I knew I was being asked to accept this offering from him and his open belly, and to accept the weight of this man. My back was desperately pushing against the wall, I shrank away – it was too soon for me to see all that. It was too soon for me to see how life is born. Life being born was so much bloodier than dying. Dying is uninterrupted. But seeing inert material slowly trying to loom up like one of the living-dead... Seeing hope terrified me, seeing life tied my stomach in knots. They were asking too much of my bravery simply because I was brave, they were asking for my strength simply because I was strong. “But what about me?” I shouted ten years later because of lost love, “who will ever see my weakness!” I looked at him in surprise, and never ever figured out what I saw, what I had seen could blind the curious.
Less shocking than her novels, less obviously experimental, her stories, for me, are where Lispector’s writing is most fertile. From The Passion..., a tight tangled thicket persists, dense and dark, in which the explorer glimpses, at intervals, bright bursts of night from above. Granted it’s a journey worth taking, it’s harrowing, baffling; you hack your own path. Maybe the stories here, for the most part, deprive us of the explorer’s role, but they present a vast plain of varied bioregions, circled and transcribed but wild within, where the apprentice can train, before the hard slog of the novels. Plus – strangely – where the novels seem almost shorn of characters and setting and drama (elements normally crucial in stretching a story over 100 pages), the stories make space for all of this and are enriched by it.

All of which is to say, maybe, that my interest in Lispector is peripheral and I’ve thus been drawn to her periphery – the place most easily accessed. Also it’s possible (likely?) that in the light of these stories the novels would come alive for me – that I’ve now “cracked the code”. And of course there’s my stated love for the short-story form (which I’ve frequently, only half jokingly, called the “pre-eminent artform”). Plus my reading is ever more scattered, more fragmented. But for what it’s worth, this book has the feel of permanence to me – of something I’ll return to often and forever, till death do us (Clarice and I) part. Moreso than the novels, this is my Clarice Lispector. This is is raw, unself-conscious genius. This is prose that shapes all prose after it – prose that will shape my prose, in any case, for years to come. A treasure, a discovery, a revelation.
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Comments Showing 1-13 of 13 (13 new)

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message 1: by Alex (new)

Alex Oh hey! Fuck yeah Lispector!

message 2: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch Right on!

message 3: by Christopher (new) - added it

Christopher Want to "like" this twice

message 4: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch Thanks Christopher!

Eldonfoil TH*E Whatever Champion Oh, wow --- !!!!!!!!!! This is a great surprise!!!

message 6: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch She snuck up on me. Almost had me with G.H., but I had to see her from all sides. Borrowed the biography (by Benjamin Moser) from the library yesterday and discovered that G.H. and The Foreign legion came out the same year, after a twenty year silence.

Eldonfoil TH*E Whatever Champion Lovely, man!!

The stories are poised on my shelf, eyeing me nightly --- but with summer and all, I've been soft on the reading ... and I'm almost frightened to tackle them until I feel fully clean!

When I do open it, I must expect nothing and everything!

message 8: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch Probably an obvious thing to say, but I wouldn't attempt the whole collection at once.

I agree re nothing and everything. Some of these stories approach a kind of failure, I think, but it's the risk of that failure that keeps them so alive.

And I know what you mean about being frightened. Deep breath now...

Eldonfoil TH*E Whatever Champion Yes, right --- but at the same time, her novels have obsessed and possessed me ... so I can't go in thinking necessarily that I can control my pacing! :)

message 10: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch No well I guess there's no need to control it... But I'll be curious to see whether you can sustain that kind of obsession over the whole collection without pause. One of the great things about short stories, I think, is how they jolt you out now and then. The opposite of addictive.

Did you read Near to the Wild Heart yet btw?

And the biography?

Eldonfoil TH*E Whatever Champion Yes .... that's true about stories. And I'd imagine they'd have to be "uneven" in some ways. But, I don't know, I just can't put anything out of the range of possibility with her ...

Yes, I read that one and loved it --- but not in the vein of Passion or Apple.

Heading up to New York in just a bit for ... get this:

Soft Kill
Boy Harsher
Second Still

message 12: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch Chameleons?! But only Burgess and backing band, surely? Still, best of luck!

Apple in the Dark, huh? Funny, no reprint for that one. I didn't even realise it was a novel. I'll see if I can hunt it down.

Enjoy your gig, sir.

Eldonfoil TH*E Whatever Champion Yes, that's right --- "Chameleons Vox."

Apple in the Dark is another one in the vein of GH --- don't ask me to choose a favorite!

Soft Kill --- check 'em out!

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