Singular South American genius

We absorb the work of a woman who 'looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf'

By Stoddard Martin, January 20, 2014
Lispector: from Ukrainian Jewish parentage to Brazilian flowering 'in the borderlands between fate and will'

Lispector: from Ukrainian Jewish parentage to Brazilian flowering 'in the borderlands between fate and will'

Near to the Wild Heart
Passion According to G.H.
A Breath of Life (all £8.99)

Agua Viva
Hour of the Star (both £7.99)
By Clarice Lispector

Why This World (£12.99)
By Benjamin Moser
Penguin Modern Classics

On the jacket of one of the five novellas by Clarice Lispector, released simultaneously by Penguin Modern Classics, Colm Tóibín describes the Brazilian author as "a genius". She was that in the truest sense: of a kind, totally her own. Like Kafka or Woolf, to whom she is compared, she was an explorer of strange inner worlds, principally those located in the borderlands between fate and will.

Her novels, published between 1943 and her death in 1977, often seem like writing trying to discover itself. Their usually female protagonists nurse lives that must ever identify themselves anew. Behind a turbulence of irregular breaths, plot is almost non-existent. Lispector's debut, Near the Wild Heart, has a young woman reacting to the knowledge that her husband has continued an affair predating their marriage.

She takes an inappropriate lover but soon relapses into herself. The theme is the possibility of retreat offering a new embarkation: a self-realisation incorporating a sense of God - an "other", which cannot be inappropriate because it is the life-force, concomitant with death, coterminous with the universal.

It is in such difficult realms of abstraction, that Lispector unfailingly places us. Experience is broken down to a shred of reality to cling on to. The Passion According to G. H. (1964) tells of a Rio housewife going into the room of her maid and finding a cockroach which she tries to kill but ultimately eats. This grotesque act is preceded by much fearful speculation leading to a conviction that it is the supreme sacrament. By eating the roach, she may pass beyond fear, beyond taste, beyond dignity and self into an arena where, briefly, she is beyond time and space and can feel eternal. Afterwards, she can put on a blue dress and go out and dance.

If you did not know that Lispector was a beautiful Jewish woman born to Ukrainians fleeing a pogrom, you might imagine this being written by some mystical, renegade Catholic. She is a philosopher, in debt to Spinoza, reminiscent of Nietzsche, ever mistrustful of language but having to use it as the sole means for expressing what one may never fully comprehend.

Her acts of taking away what she beautifully gives are performed in an idiosyncratic Portuguese; and one's hat goes off to the five translators who have worked to make its music available in English. One is Benjamin Moser, the paperback of whose fine, 2009 biography of Lispector is released in tandem with the novellas.

The last two from her lifetime are particularly slim and pure; a posthumous work, A Breath of Life, was accumulated from notes by her editor after her death. "Spineless writing", Moser calls the penultimate, Água Viva, noting that in Brazil the term denotes jellyfish - a creature which, though gorgeous, hides a deadly sting.

This most ravishing of Lispector's books forswears beauty - "ugliness is my banner of war"; "I take pleasure in the difficult harmony of harsh opposites". But in seeking "the mysterious tone of an evanescent present", "a photograph of perfume" or "the sadness of flowers", she quantifies "the aloof and delicate freedom of life" - "instants that flee like fugitive tracks seen from the window of a train".

"What I'm writing to you goes on," she says in a last aphoristic inclusion, "and I am bewitched".

It seems otiose to add that she is bewitching. Devotees of high modernism may find her so, also jazz aficionados, though her style is raffiné. More down-to-earth is her final, Hour of the Star, which depicts the progress of a girl from Brazil's impoverished northeast in the civilisation of Rio.

An author who had reached a level of sophistication of, say, Coco Chanel binds her imagination back to simplicity - a spirit on the verge of being born. Quick, vivid, tender, the narrative speeds past the usual Lispector cul-de-sacs of existential and aesthetic doubt to fix an image of the ephemerality of life and the potential for transfiguration in death.

There may be dark analogues behind this moving fable, but what remains in the mind is what is implied in its title: something luminous that escapes as mortality convulses: "essence at last touching essence… a thousand-pointed star... victory."

Stoddard Martin is a writer and publisher

Last updated: 11:27am, January 20 2014