‘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