The Path of Negation: The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector
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by Kyle Coma-Thompson
Confession comes easily for Karl Ove Knausgård. In an interview with the Paris Review a few years ago, when asked about Min Kampf and his interest in Paul Celan, he made a curious admission:
My book is very much about what experiences are and what they’re good for, but it isn’t one of those experiences in itself. It’s a secondary thing. It’s a secondary book. A book about experiences that doesn’t produce those experiences, if you understand the difference. That’s why I’m writing about Celan instead of trying to write like Celan. It really is second best.
That Knausgård would chose a poet as a point of comparison, and one commonly praised and derided as hermetic, is notable. There are writers who represent personal experiences, often for the sake of parsing their nuances and significance, and then there are ones who create, as opposed to recreate, an experience within a piece of writing. If a poem is, at the most cursory level, a record of the poet experiencing the otherness of consciousness, in and by way of language, then subject matter, “content,” “having a message” is coincidental to this, a decoy of convenience, a ruse. The hope is that both writer and reader will skate through the lines of a poem on the heels of an inexplicable vibrancy, a quality of spontaneous synthesis of ideas and rhetorical effects more popularly known as magic. It would be embarrassing and insufficient to call Celan a magician. It would be even more so in the case of the author under review here, Brazilian novelist, essayist, and short story writer Clarice Lispector. That being said, it wouldn’t be too far off the mark. Here is someone for whom the creation of secondary experiences was foreign. Or, in her words: “Creation is not a comprehension, it is a new mystery.”
Over the past few years, there has been a concerted effort by Lispector’s biographer Benjamin Moser and New Directions to bring her work to wider notice. The publication of four newly translated novels and a biography, Why This World, have led to this high point, New Directions’ release of The Complete Stories. Eighty-six stories drawn from nine collections, written across a period of forty years, the earliest of which was penned when Lispector was still a teenager. The overall impression one has, reading The Complete Stories from beginning to end, is the development and broadening of a distinct, inimitable sensibility; even in the earliest stories that tone, that voice, the rangy cross-pollination of grotesquerie and abstraction, of introspective daydream and deadpan comedy, are rendered in sentences supposedly even more angular and idiosyncratic in Portuguese than they are here, in English.
The details of Lispector’s life are well known. But maybe it would be worth recounting them as she might have. Clarice Lispector wasn’t born in 1920, in the Ukraine. Her family didn’t move to Brazil in 1922; her mother didn’t die eight years later, of syphilis, contracted under circumstances too horrible to mention here glibly, as a biographical note, in a book review. She wasn’t one of the first women law students in Brazil, didn’t publish her first book at twenty-three, didn’t leave the country soon after with her new husband, an ambassador, whose diplomatic work led her to, of all places, Washington D.C.. These things happened, but they didn’t exist. For them to exist, she would have had to create a language for them. In her fiction, she was concerned with other things, with subtleties of perception so finely graded they might be deemed fantastical or imaginary. In the preferred style of the mystics, she lived and wrote according to “the path of negation,” Negative Way, Via Negativa (to quote that Jewish seer of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz The Son: “What is laid upon us is to accomplish the negative; the positive is already given.”) “…not having any secrets, yet maintaining the enigma,” she called it: exploding the characteristics of things beyond the strictures of their appearances.
Lispector was fascinated with the plasticity of consciousness. The sense of otherness that permeates the phenomenal world and all relationships, particularly those between people, was a continual point of obsession for her. This is common enough among poets yet among writers of prose fiction, slightly more unusual. There are similarities here to the work of Gertrude Stein, for example, and the very few stories Laura Riding wrote, but Lispector differs even from them in her blending of the intersubjective dynamics of daily interactions between people, with the bizarre associative capacities of a mind making connections where it pleases. Her work is often compared to Virginia Woolf, but these stories more closely resemble Woolf at her most unconventional and playful; the Woolf who would write a book-length autobiography of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning’s cocker spaniel, Flush.
No wonder animals appear repeatedly throughout her stories. Chickens, monkeys, horses. In the late sketch, “A Full Afternoon,” a man carries a marmoset onto a public bus. The marmoset leaps onto the lap of a lady seated near its owner. This is treated as the high point of her day. Later, the lady looks back on the experience as enigmatic and vaguely liberating. “But that’s how it goes,” Lispector writes. “…[N]o one’s ever heard of a marmoset that failed to be born, live and die — just because it didn’t understand itself or wasn’t understood.” Such observations were characteristic of Lispector. As in the poetry of Rilke, her fiction valorizes the innocence of animals, their freedom from metacognition and self-consciousness; their relationship to the world around them is unmediated by analytical intelligence — direct, alert, guileless.
Rilke praised the intuitive capacities of animals and one might imagine Lispector would as well; her descriptions of people and situations are hyper-observant — her characters compulsively reading the tea leaves of each other’s micro-expressions. The detail and intricacy of her tracking the ambiguities of people’s non-verbal interactions are as elaborate and subtly moving as anything in Proust or Woolf. This capacity is in evidence in even the earliest stories here, and didn’t seem to be something she needed to cultivate in herself or develop. It wasn’t a talent, it seems, but a dispensation. In “Love,” a narrator, Ana, stands on a station platform watching a blind man chew gum. Where a quick description might do, Lispector writes:
Leaning forward, she stared intently at the blind man, the way we stare at things that don’t see us. He was chewing gum in the dark. Without suffering, eyes open. The chewing motion made it look like he was smiling and then suddenly not smiling, smiling and not smiling — as if he had insulted her, Ana stared at him. And whoever saw her would have the impression of a woman filled with hatred.
Many could describe a blind man with such vividness and precision; it takes a different order of sensitivity, though, to track those perceptions back to their origin, to show how they might shape the bodily attitude of the woman standing near him, studying him.
The main through-line of these stories concerns the interior lives of women, often of a standing and circumstance similar to Lispector during the time of each piece’s composition: in her youth she portrayed the frustrations, aspirations, and neuroses of young, intelligent, shy women; in middle age, she portrayed the reflexive ruminations and witticisms of older women. What’s significant is that she did so with earthiness and wit and an eye for the revealing contradiction. The stories are unpredictable, their structures often rupture, collapse, and gather themselves back together in novel, disorienting ways. Which is to say, her language captures the currents and eddies of the unconscious, in swirling, asymmetrical syntactical patterns. One wonders if this would work so well if, in doing so, she wasn’t also so consistently funny.
There are brilliant pieces to be found throughout. In the earliest section, “Another Couple of Drunks,” with the camp horror of its stream-of-consciousness monologue, already lays out in miniature the full-blown phantasmagoria of the masterpiece of her later years, “Where Were You at Night.” Frequently anthologized stories such as “The Egg and the Chicken” and “The Smallest Woman in the World” can be appreciated in the context of their original collections, but also in contrast to pieces that take their guiding conceits and push them to even further extremes. The absurdist repetitions of “The Egg and the Chicken” appear, for example, in “Report on the Thing,” a late piece that reads like Wittgenstein possessed by Rabelais, as impersonated by Groucho Marx. In both, an object — an egg, an alarm clock — is scrutinized and reinvented to such a degree, they become a means for exploring how human perceptions function when liberated from a dependency on categorical thinking. The results: Simone Weil on a heavy dose of psilocybin.
Some of the stories exhaust themselves after a few pages; others, such as “Dry Sketch of Horses” or “Brazilia,” read more like a collection of memorable lines than stories. Her problem, if anything, appeared to be an inability to not write extraordinary sentences, so occasionally the sentences won out, at the expense of a story. The advantage of this is that — on any given page — a reader can be assured she’ll be caught by at least a half dozen phrases of biting, alien rightness. Some of these will evade immediate understanding, yet exude the resonance of homegrown gnostic insight: “…an angel’s fall is a direction”; “We are all deformed by our adaption to the freedom of God”; “Beyond the ear there’s a sound, at the far end of sight a view, at the tips of the fingers an object — that’s where I’m going.” If the Void had a Twitter account, it’d crank out similar aphorisms.
It’s this quality of cryptic transmission which bends even the most seemingly autobiographical and naturalistic stories into allegory. From the 1974 collection The Via Crucis Of The Body, there is the simple, affecting account of a narrator running into an old friend, a poet, an alcoholic, then inviting him back to her apartment to talk. Their conversation is recorded without much embellishment, with odd mix of pathos and menace. One day he could kill someone, he tells her; you’re pretty, he tells her; after petting her dog he tells her: once he shot a dog. After seeing her friend out, the narrator says:
I sat there smoking. My dog was watching me in the dark. That was yesterday, Saturday. Today is Sunday, May twelfth, Mother’s Day. How can I be a mother to this man? I ask myself and there’s no answer. There’s no answer for anything. I went to bed. I had died.
Plaintive yet ambiguous: the only way to say such things. When simple statements encompass elaborate unknowns, they take on the pressure of what they can’t account for. Despite our common language, reality is hermetic, mutable. Each moment to a subtle degree recreates the terms through which we know ourselves. Lispector knew this, and for this reason the unpredictability of her work as it unfolds sentence by sentence is matched by juxtapositions of manner and approach, story by story.
By her biographer Moser and others, Lispector has been characterized as a mystic, a witch, a figure of mystique and glamour. Well, but very often shyness plus beauty equals mystique; and a capacity to fluidly create works out of one’s unconscious is attributed to mysticism. It would be enough to call Lispector an original, whose authority is embedded in her abiding strangeness. It’s a strangeness instantly recognizable for anyone who has thoughts rolling around in their head, that they didn’t prompt, and can’t quite account for. That’s the proof of Lispector’s greatness. She crafted stories out of what people can’t get used to, being born for no reason they know, inside a universe whose expansion they have no sensory evidence of, though astronomy and physics attests to it. As long as that feeling of unease lingers, these stories will remain primary, true.