Clarice Lispector (leh-SPEHKT-ur) is considered not only one of Brazil’s most innovative writers but also one of the giants of twentieth century fiction. Born in 1925 in the Ukraine, she emigrated to Brazil with her parents and two older sisters when she was two months old. The family settled first in the Northeast of Brazil but moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1937. From the time she was a child, Lispector read widely, starting with Brazilian classics such as José de Alencar, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, and Graciliano Ramos, and gradually adding such foreign writers as Fyodor Dostoevski, Hermann Hesse, James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf. While attending the National Faculty of Law, she began a career in journalism, developed close friendships with several of Brazil’s leading writers, and started work on the novel Near to the Wild Heart, which was published in 1944 and was awarded the Brazilian PEN Club’s prestigious Graça Aranha Prize. A surprisingly mature first novel, this probing, anguished tale centering on a woman’s search for self-identity set the direction that the author’s fiction was to follow for the next thirty years.
In 1943, the year before she finished law school, Lispector married her classmate Mauri Gurgel Valente, who joined the Brazilian diplomatic corps upon their graduation. For the next fifteen years, Lispector accompanied her diplomat husband to posts in Europe and the United States. During that time, Lispector wrote two more novels and turned her attention increasingly to the short story, a genre in which she was to set new standards of excellence. After she was separated from her husband in 1959, Lispector returned with the couple’s children to Rio de Janeiro, her home for the rest of her life. The late 1950’s and the early 1960’s were extremely creative periods, during which Lispector produced perhaps her most accomplished work. Two thematically complex and stylistically innovative novels, The Apple in the Dark and The Passion According to G. H., date from these years. Written in a slow-moving, poetic prose, they are evidence that, by this time, Lispector had achieved a thorough command of narrative technique and had matured into one of the most sophisticated practitioners of the “lyrical novel.” It was also during this period that Lispector published what are arguably her two finest volumes of short fiction, Family Ties, which includes some of her most frequently anthologized pieces, such as “Love” and “The Imitation of the Rose,” and The Foreign Legion, a collection of short stories, chronicles, and several nonfiction pieces, including a few in which she discusses her ideas about what literature is and what writing means to her.
By the late 1960’s, Lispector’s reputation was firmly established in Brazil. As her works were translated into several languages, she quickly gained international recognition. Although in general her fiction grew more hermetic, some of her late work is quite accessible. Such is the case with Soulstorm, a collection of stories revolving around erotic themes and written in a subtly ironic and at times humorous style. Lispector’s novel The Hour of the Star, published shortly before her death from cancer in 1977, can be interpreted, at least in part, as an answer to those who accused the writer of being indifferent to Brazil’s social problems. Centering on the pathetic Macabéa, the novel alludes to the plight of migrants from the impoverished Northeast, who are attracted to the richer cities of the South. Nevertheless, even in this novel Lispector’s primary interest lies not in social issues at large but in the questions of human suffering and failure. An overtly self-conscious narrative, The Hour of the Star can be considered an example of metafiction and can be read as Lispector’s personal statement about the relationship between life and literature.
Influenced by the existentialist philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre, Lispector returned again and again to the question of human beings’ place in an indifferent, contingent, and absurd universe. Lispector’s work revolves around a relatively small number of obsessive themes, including the quest for self-identity, humankind’s ontological loneliness, human beings’ difficulty in establishing connections with one another, and the conflict between the inauthentic existence imposed by social constraints and the individual’s search for an authentic existence. Most of her protagonists are middle-class women living in an urban environment. Nevertheless, although Lispector displays great talent in depicting the specific situation of women, her fiction is not only about the female condition but about the human condition as well. It is not surprising, then, that the issues confronting her male protagonists, such as Martim in The Apple in the Dark, are not significantly different from those confronting her female protagonists.
Lispector developed an original narrative style that was perfectly suited to her themes. Lispector was not overly concerned with plot and character development; her novels have an open-ended quality and rely on a delicate, rhythmic pattern of images, designed to represent the fluidity of consciousness and to record an ineffable, deeper dimension of existence. Her best short stories evolve from an outwardly insignificant occurrence, which functions, nevertheless, as a catalyst for an existential crisis. Borrowing from Woolf and Joyce, Lispector makes consistent use of stream of consciousness and the epiphany. Together with her contemporary João Guimarães Rosa, Lispector is responsible for moving Brazilian fiction away from a somewhat parochial dependence on regionalism. Since the late 1970’s, Lispector has attracted much attention from feminist critics, particularly in Europe and the United States, who have hailed her texts as representing the best in “feminine writing.” Nevertheless, as the extensive bibliography on Lispector demonstrates, her work can be successfully approached from a variety of critical perspectives. A master of the modern narrative, Lispector possesses a well-deserved reputation as one of the most original writers in the twentieth century.