Clarice Lispector: The Brazilian Writer Who Challenged Established Structures￼
To understand Clarice Lispector is to take a leap; like every great leap, it is scary yet liberating. Her work, complicated and strange, left its fingerprints on Latin American Literature and today more than ever seems to signpost a path. Lispector rebelled against the structures that absolutize or arrest feelings.
“The only structure that exists is the skeletal structure,” she said and she both acted and wrote true to that belief. To get close to Clarice Lispector is to understand that a diverse form of being in the world of the living exists; the possibility to focus simultaneously on the simplicity of daily life and its profundity with equal intensity. It is to find yourself in a world that is at times happy in its simplicity, at times sad and painful, and always strange.
Clarice Lispector was not always Clarice
Only a little more than a hundred years ago on 10th December 1920, Chechelink was born in a village in Ukraine that was so insignificant that it failed to appear on maps. Her birth there was lucky. Her parents, Pinjas and Mania Lispector, along with two daughters, Elisa and Tanya, were found fleeing from the persecution that they were suffering due to their Jewish origin in search of a new place to establish themselves. Their third daughter, our Clarice, was born with the name Chaya Pijosovna and with a great weight upon her shoulders.
Her mother suffered aches and pains due to an illness that was slowly robbing her of her health. At that time there existed a widely held belief that giving birth to a boy was the cure for this illness.
Due to this belief, the Lispectors decided to try for a boy but instead found themselves with three daughters. Clarice had to live with the responsibility assigned to her before her birth and grow with the guilt that she had failed in her mission to cure her mother following the latter’s death when she was just 10 years old.
In 1922 when Chaya was only a year old, the Lispector family installed itself in Brazil, a place where Clarice would feel she belongs although she spent much of her adult life in Europe and the USA. After moving to Brazil, in an attempt to accustom better to the culture that received them, the Lispectors took Portuguese names and Chaya then became Clarice Lispector. Despite this attempt to fit in, Clarice’s name never failed to arouse curiosity and many people believed it was a pseudonym.
Clarice Lispector and literature
Her writing began almost as a child’s game when she was a girl, a girl who had a vibrant internal world that she couldn’t resist embellishing. In an interview given a few months before her death, she recalled that from the same moment she learnt to read and write, she also began to write small stories that never ended. With shy daring (according to her own words) Clarice Lispector began to show her literature to the world, publishing some stories in newspapers and regional magazines.
On one occasion, Clarice Lispector sent some of her writings to a magazine that selected stories written by children for its infant section. Her words were rejected because they didn’t maintain a traditional narrative line like the writings of the other contestants. This characteristic that was the motive for rejecting her work became the defining mark of this writer who went on to change Brazilian literature.
Clarice explored in detail the subjectivity of her characters, especially women, in a way that no one had done before. Her novels and stories sew together fragments organised by psychological density as opposed to the sequence of events.
Whilst she studied Rights at the University of Brazil, in 1941 she published her first book, ‘Near to the Wild Heart’. Also, during her years as a student, she met Maury Gurgel Valente, a Brazilian diplomat to whom she would later be married from 1943 to 1959; they had two children, Paulo and Pedro.
Perfectly performing the uncomfortable role of wife to a diplomat, Clarice left her beloved Brazil to pass years living in Naples, Bern, and later in Washington. There, she lived a life of privilege that she couldn’t stand because she felt domesticated, out of place, and far from her friends.
Like many of her female characters, Clarice Lispector felt trapped in a conventional universe that crushed the liberty of her spirit so much so that after 16 years of marriage she got divorced and left Washington where she lived with her husband. Clarice then returned to live in Rio de Janeiro along with her two, still young, children.
After the divorce and in need of creating an income for herself, Clarice, who by now had attained fame, began to publish chronicles of subjects and various topics in the Jornal do Brasil, one of the most distributed newspapers. This amplified and diversified her audience.
In these chronicles, a writing space was created in which Clarice Lispector mixed everything: the exterior world and her more profound interior, her family life and motherhood, reflections on writing and language, and the simple actions of daily life.
Clarice played an exquisite game between being and seeming. On the one hand, she rejected the idea of considering herself a professional writer whilst on the other hand, she consciously demonstrated the complexity of her discourse and her place as a female writer. Clarice captured and took the rules of the game on media and the genders and transgressed them. This strategy allowed her to gain space in places where power was firmly in male hands. Clarice floods and empties a canyon with the power of her word.
In 1964 she published ‘The Passion according to GH’, a novel that has been considered her most prestigious work. Upon only opening this book, one finds a friendly letter from the author. In it, Clarice invites the reader to proceed knowing that “those who know that the approach, of whatever it may be, happens gradually and painstakingly – even passing through the opposite of what it approaches.
They who, only they, will slowly come to understand that this book takes nothing from no one” as though advising us that there are no easy roads, but those who try can find a “difficult joy, but it is called joy”. In this way, one finds their path into the world of Clarice and upon reading her work, a double sensation of discomfort and delight invades the reader.
In 1966 an accident would mark the life of Clarice. The sleeping pills she took to fight insomnia caused by her constant distress took effect before she finished the cigarette she was smoking. She unleashed an accidental fire and in a rush to save her papers, Clarice suffered burns over most of her body that kept her interred in hospital for months. Her right hand was notably affected and she never regained complete movement in it. The marks and scars that this accident left on her body affected her motivation and personality forever.
In 1977 Clarice published her last novel, ‘The Hour of the Star’, only months before she died of ovarian cancer. Clarice’s life ended on 9th December 1977, a day before her 57th birthday.
This author rejuvenated Brazilian literature as it was known: she retired the generic ties and created an intense narrative based on minimal stories in which sensations and effects are the protagonists. For Clarice, what she was told wasn’t enough.
She needed to find her own voice to tell her particular form of being in the world. She transgressed powerful patrons who fixated on absolute positions. Her writing defies us and invites us to reflect without expecting anything of us or giving us concessions. “It touches you or it doesn’t touch you”, she said of her work and continued: “I guess that to understand me isn’t a question of intelligence but of feeling; of being in contact”.