‘Interrupted Story’ (“História interrompidia”) by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson

Young Adulthood…

I was twenty-two and felt nature in my every fibre…

The importance of the sudden acquisition and the careful of wielding of real adult responsibilities is also considered in Clarice Lispector’s ‘Interrupted Story’, which, like Shwartz’s ‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities’, was written when its author was around the same age of her story’s narrator. Here the unnamed narrator finds herself ill-equipped to meet the demands placed on her by her depressed lover. We are told very little about this man other than he is “sad and tall” and constantly complains that his life is “shattered” and amounts to nothing but “a pile of shards”. The narrator struggles to find the words that she thinks her lover would see as an adequate response and instead falls back on platitudes (“for someone who’s read a little and thought quite a lot during nights of insomnia, it’s relatively easy to make up things that sound profound.”) At the same time the narrator is intensely conscious of her youth – luxuriating in its sensuousness, while decrying its inexperience – and realises that her own, autonomous, happiness is under threat:

I had to react. I wanted to see whether the grayness of his words could cloud my twenty-two years and the bright summer afternoon.

The woman believes that her youth and beauty alone will be enough to “save” her lover; that these in themselves are a form of “Truth”; and that if the couple were to marry all their problems will be over. But before she is able to propose she learns that the man has committed suicide. 

The story ends with the narrator (now married and looking back at this period in her youth) wondering if any of this – her lover’s suicide, her own pain – “had any meaning”. This ambiguous, elliptical little story does not proportion blame. Rather, it seems to be reflecting on the flawed innocence of youth and the fundamental unknowability of other people’s inner lives. 

Dated October 1940, first published posthumously in Beauty and the Beast (A bela e a fera), Nova Fronteira, Rio de Janeiro, 1979, then collected in Complete Stories, New Directions 2015

‘The Fifth Story’ by Clarice Lispector, translated by Giovanni Pontiero

If you’ve read The Passion According to GH, you’ll know Clarice has a thing about vermin – as do I. This very short story is about a woman dealing with an infestation of cockroaches. It begins by outlining all the possible alternate titles the story could have had, and how she will

…tell at least three stories, all of them true, because none of the three will contradict the others. Although they constitute one story, they could become a thousand and one, were I to be granted a thousand and one nights. 

In the first story, she learns a horrible kitchen potion for killing them and in the second she puts it to use. By the time we reach the third story, she must face the aftermath of what she has done, squaring up to an existential horror that is at once domestic and universal. I won’t spoil what comes next, except to say that these moments are replayed and echoed, and what seems to be a resolution is absolutely not, exploding your preconception of narrative, passage of time, intent, self, the natural world, violence, obsession and a fair few other things too.

First published as ‘A quinta história’ in A legião estrangeira, 1964 and in translation in The Foreign Legion, New Directions. Also in the Complete Stories, New Directions, 2015, and in Short: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms, Persea. You can read it in full here

‘Brasília’ by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson

In 1956, Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek commissioned the design and construction, from scratch, of a new capital city: the city of Brasília was to be a center of modernist, egalitarian, highway-driven progress with the shape, visible from above, of an airplane. By 1960 this concrete and steel embodiment of networked unity and nationalist-cosmopolitan innovation was complete; and in 1962, with no idea that Walt Disney was planning, along the same lines but wheel-shaped, an Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow in the United States, Clarice Lispector visited Brasília for the first time, returning briefly twelve years later. On both occasions, what she wrote about it was fantastical but not. She invented an ancient history for the two-year-old city, imagining the original ‘Brasilianaires’ as “extremely tall blond men and women” who “sparkled in the sun,” were completely blind, and, “dressed in white gold,” were altogether more like skyscrapers than people. Lispector’s Brasília is so hospitable that there’s no room for pedestrians. It’s so bright and vigilant one feels guilty for feeling guilty. The utopian imperative is so insistent that tears and tiredness aren’t allowed. There’s such a rational lack of corners that this actual, real-life city seems not to exist—like a fantasy without magic. Lispector’s writing, too, is dizzying, euphoric, terrified, insomniac, as she recognizes in herself the temptation to wish for absolute order, to create a situation where although freedom and clarity are the first imperatives, there are no surprises. And no rats.

“A whole part of us, the worst, precisely the one horrified by rats, that part has no place in Brasília. They wished to deny that we are worthless. A construction with space factored in for the clouds. Hell understands me better . . . —The construction of Brasília: that of a totalitarian State. —This great visual silence that I love. My insomnia too would have created this peace of the never.”

Collected in The Complete Stories, New Directions, 2015

‘Amor’ (‘Love’) by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson

I’ve only ever read Clarice Lispector’s novels in moments of absolute joy or despair: her work sits on a spectrum that slips between those extremes without hesitation. This does mean, though, that while her novels continue to take me years to complete, her short stories are a wonderful alternative. ‘Amor’ is a very troubling, tempestuous story about a woman named Ana, who finds herself crumbling at the very limits of the world she knows—one that involves looking after her family and children—one afternoon on a train. Ana’s character has resonances with the wretched loneliness of the narrator in Elena Ferrante’s novel Days of Abandonment, but Lispector’s story is, as ever, more surreal and dissonant. I simultaneously find several bits of the story distressing, including how the blind man becomes the figure who incites her upheaval, but I am also swept by the chilling accuracy of Ana’s alienation. There’s a forest. A spider. A knit mesh bag stuck with broken egg yolks. How “her heart had filled with the worst desire to live.”

First published in Laços de Família, Francisco Alves Editóra, 1960. Collected in English in The Complete Stories, New Directions, 2015. It can be read online here

‘Family Ties’ by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katherine Dodson

‘After the dinner we’ll go to the movies,’ the man decided. Because after the movies it would be night at last, and this day would shatter with the waves on the crags of Arpoador.

I love my family, but have no desire to be in a car with them. Consequently, I’ve chosen this, very short story which begins as the holiday ends. It was first published as part of a larger collection by Francisco Alves Editoria In 1960, although I encountered it via Katrina Dodson’s translation in one of those slim pistachio Penguin books entitled ‘Daydream and Drunkeness of a Young Lady’ (2018).  Little happens in ‘Family Ties’ besides an unnamed woman saying goodbye to her mother, and feeling relieved to think that the ‘cautious tact’ that has prevailed throughout her visit will soon be over. At the same time the woman’s warmth, both towards her mother and her own, somewhat distant child are depicted with the utmost tenderness. It only takes a minutes to read, but always leaves me with a lump in my throat.

First published as the title story in Laços de família, Francisco Alves, 1960. First published in – a different – English translation in Family Ties, Texas Pan American Series, 1984 and more recently in The Complete Short Stories, New Directions/Penguin Classics, 2015 and Daydream and Drunkenness of a Young Lady, Penguin Modern, 2018). Chosen by Susan Finlay, who is author of, most recently, Indole (The Aleph Press) and Our Lady of Everything (Serpent’s Tail)

‘The Body’ by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson

Xavier was a belligerent and red-blooded man. He loved tangos. He went to see Last Tango in Parisand got awfully turned on. He didn’t get the movie: he thought it was a sex film. He didn’t realize it was the story of a desperate man.

To say this story is a sex story is to misunderstand the story. It is erotic, yes, and it is bloody, but most of all it is, of course, the story of a desperate man.

I could’ve chosen any of the 86 stories within this collection that the translator herself describes as “disorientating” and “jarring”. But this particular work, for me, is a such brightly burning example Lispector’s writing style. It jabs and it wounds, and it continues to sting long after you finish reading. The clarity of her images and the pacing of her phrasing is peerless, like this moment, when Xavier goes out with a woman on each arm:

At six in the evening the three went to church. They resembled a bolero. Ravel’s bolero.

The Via Crucis of the Body was written in the last decade of Lispector’s life, when she was gravitating towards what she called “antiliterature”. I think ‘The Body’ is a perfect example of her unravelling of language, its depletion, its rawness. It is built on a skeleton of bare, disjointed sentences. Its flesh yields slender, precious threads of pathos and passion. It is oracular and spontaneous:

Sometimes the two women slept together. The day was long. And, though they weren’t homosexuals, they’d turn each other on and make love. Sad love. One day they told Xavier about it. Xavier quivered.

But before you rush off to read it, let me tell you one of my favourite quotations from a writer on the process of writing. It is quintessential Lispector:

I am not an intellectual. I write with my body. And what I write is a moist joy.

First published as ‘O corpo’ in A via crucis do corpo (The Via Crucis of the Body), 1974; included in The Complete Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2015

‘The Hen’ by Clarice Lispector, translated by Elizabeth Bishop

While you’re there you might as well read ‘The Smallest Woman in the World’ too. In both stories, Lispector writes female figures who become the instrument of a turn against narrative – as though to be female were to overturn the rules of form.

First published in The Kenyon Review, 1964. Collected in The Complete Stories, New Directions/Penguin Modern Classics, 2015. Read it online here

‘A Hope’ by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson

Part of what I enjoy about Kafka and Can Xue is that I don’t get a sense from within their work that it desires to be read in a certain way. It’s wide open. To a certain extent, it doesn’t care. Clarice Lispector’s stories have something of this as well. ‘A Hope’ is a pithy little pun of a tale, playing on the fact that, in Portuguese, ‘uma esperança’ means both ‘a hope’ and ‘a cricket’, as in the spindly green creature. Lispector’s playfulness and Katrina Dodson’s artful translation bring to life all kinds of ideas, without ever losing sight of what it is to be a person among these theoretical shapes. If this were a desert island anthology, I think I’d be glad of that.

This translation was first published in The Complete Stories, London: Penguin Classics, 2015.

‘Report on the Thing’ by Clarice Lispector

For Lispector, any everyday object can be the start of meditations on time, the universe, God, as well as her own domestic routines. In this instance we’re dealing with an alarm clock which serves as the pretext for a wild, incantatory resistance to any notion of categorisation or predication. The story is littered with what is and what isn’t this or that: “The Sun is, not the Moon. My face is. Probably yours is too.” Philosophical ideas are combined with intensely physical description, making this a typical Lispector piece where any and all assumptions are reclaimed through the medium of the body, the body which writes.

(1974; in Complete Stories, Penguin. Translated by Katrina Dodson. Online here