“Verbal Chess With a Brazilian Master: the Complete Stories” by Clarice Lispector



By Chris Fox

While revered throughout Latin America and Europe as a writer on the same level as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorges Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar, Clarice Lispector is not yet a household (or bookshelf) name in the United States. New Directions is to be commended, then, for their act of faith in unleashing all at once—in one beautiful 640-page brick—The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector.

While the size of the book is intimidating enough, the real challenge for the reader is the writing within. Ethereal yet opaque, like underground skywriting, Lispector’s prose is some of the most amazing and revolutionary in the 20th-century. In stories just a few pages long, the reader will find ideas that relate to post-structuralist language and gender theories, as well as the Bible, Greek philosophy, and countless other great works of literature and philosophy. These ideas do not merely serve as references, but rather are put into play with all their complexities and internal contradictions exposed for all to see. While Lispector’s sentences are lucid enough (unlike, say Joyce’s or Beckett’s), it is the abrupt transitions between them, with their repetitions and re-treadings, that trouble a straight-forward linear reading. These rhetorical strategies are not simply ornamental but come about due to Lispector’s interrogations of seemingly unproblematic concepts like “reading” and especially “representation”. The worlds of her characters are presented to us as if we are one of the characters ourselves, denying us a transcendental viewpoint and leaving us with fragments and verbal collages instead. The reader is forced to participate in the authoring of the narratives, reversing the normal relationship between reader and author—a challenging, dialectical game not unlike chess. This is not to say Lispector’s tales are dry exercises in conceptual origami: from a simple invitation to lunch to a series of dreamlike cockroach executions we are drawn in and held captive and helpless by her luscious prose.

Although I’m a huge fan of this book, it is not for the faint of heart. It is incredibly dense and extremely difficult. If you’re willing to spend the time and you’re up for the challenge, the rewards are great. My advice to curious readers is to read the individual collections compiled in The Complete Stories rather than start with the first story and proceed chronologically (I started with the collection entitled Where Were You at Night, for example). This will not only keep you from feeling overwhelmed, but this strategy replicates the disjointed character of the tales themselves, and allows one to savor the individual style of the various volumes. I feel that I will have to return to this book many times over many years, and each time learn something new and question what I know and what I think I know.

Chris Fox is a Circulation Assistant at May Memorial Library. Contact him at: cfox@alamancelibraries.org