Clarice Lispector has been called by some the greatest Brazilian writer of the twentieth century. Publishing primarily in the 1950s and 1960s, Lispector was a woman with bold ideas and a fearless writing style. These two collections of short stories, “The Foreign Legion” and “Family Ties”, were my first foray into her work, and though at times I struggled a bit to get through them, her stories were certainly piercing and masterfully crafted.
Naturally, I gravitated toward her commentaries – some subtle and some decidedly not – on the roles of women within so many of her stories. In one of her early works, “Jimmy and I”, Lispector uses the voice of a child to eviscerate the subjugation of women:
“Since I was a little girl I had seen and felt the predominance of men’s ideas over women’s. Mama, before she got married, according to Aunt Emilia, was a firecracker, a tempestuous redhead, with thoughts of her own about liberty and equality for women. But then along came Papa, very serious and tall, with thoughts of his own too, about …liberty and equality for women. The trouble was in the coinciding subject matter. There was a collision. And nowadays Mama sews and embroiders and sings at the piano and makes little cakes on Saturdays, all like clockwork and cheerfully. She has ideas of her own, still, but they all come down to one: a wife should always go along with her husband, as the accessory goes along with the principal…”
Lispector’s stories frequently feature conflict between the sexes and the struggles women often face to reject or adapt expectations. In “The Message” a young man and woman form a friendship, initially because the young man is pleasantly surprised that a ‘girl’ could have deep thoughts and interesting ideas. Over time, however, the young woman becomes disillusioned with their friendship and its premise of gender neutrality.
“Above all the girl had already started taking no pleasure in being awarded the title of man whenever she showed the slightest hint…of being a person. While this flattered her, it offended her a bit: it was as if he were surprised that she was competent, precisely because he didn’t think she was.”
Many of Lispector’s stories felt heavy and dense, and often they lacked a hook to keep me engaged and enamored. Lispector’s skill at her craft, however, was undeniable. Sprinkled throughout her stories were beautiful, tangible scenes that were pure poetry.
“After dinner, at last, the first cooler breeze came in through the windows. They sat around the table, the family. Worn out from the day, glad to disagree, so ready not to find fault. They laughed at everything, with kind and human hearts. The children were growing up admirably around them. And as if it were a butterfly, Ana caught the instant between her fingers before it was never hers again.”
“[The mother] lowered her pendulous hands, full of hairpins. And considered the cruel necessity of loving She considered the malignity of our desire to be happy. Considered the ferocity with which we want to play. And how many times we kill out of love. Then she looked at her clever son as if looking at a dangerous stranger. And she felt horror at her own soul that, more than her body, had engendered that being fit for life and happiness.”
As is probably evident from the tone of this review, I found Clarice Lispector competent, intelligent, and slightly aloof. Her stories were carefully crafted and yet surprisingly forgettable.
In a moment of more overt political tenor, Lispector ended the last story in “The Foreign Legion” with a brilliant tirade that is near to my heart and sadly relevant in modern day America.
“Until a slightly madder justice came along. One that would take into account that we all must speak for a man driven to despair because in him human speech has already failed, he is already so mute that only a brute incoherent cry serves as signal. A prior justice that would recall how our great struggle is that of fear, and that a man who kills many does so because he was very much afraid. Above all a justice that would examine itself, and see that all of us, living mud, are dark, and that is why not even one man’s wrongdoing can be surrendered to another man’s wrongdoing: so that this other man cannot commit, freely and with approbation, the crime of gunning someone down. A justice that does not forget that we are all dangerous, and that the moment that the deliverer of justice kills, he is no longer protecting us or trying to eliminate a criminal, he is committing his own personal crime, one long held inside him. At the moment he kills a criminal – in that instant an innocent is killed.”