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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Monday, June 20, 2016

What makes and unmakes Clarice Lispector

As the translator's note at the end of Clarice Lispector's collection (her final?) of "stories," Soulstorm, notes, it's hard if not impossible to classify her work. None of these short pieces is conventional, though a few follow the traditional narrative arc of a story and some are more like fables - but even the more traditional stories have an edge and an anxiety or desperation, and many include a few authorial asides or comments on her own work, that mark these as from the postmodern era (and yet: none is a clever trick like a John Barth story nor is any a mysterious parable a la her contemporary, Borges). A few - and these are often her best - are like meditations on a theme, essays or pensees more than fiction: one is a reflection on silence, one in its entirely describes the sensation of entering a chilly ocean for a swim. Many of the stories are violent, almost all involve sexual desire, often unfulfilled. Among the best is the relatively long story of 2 women, strangers, traveling by train away from the city on to a new stage in their lives - Lispector moving back and forth between the consciousness of the 2: every traveler holds secrets. The weaker pieces - and this may be in part a problem of translation - are those that seem like prose poems, dime-store Baudelaire, or the lengthy dream-like story that seems like a 60s drug experience and today seems very tedious - that said, the prose poems may be better designed for performance or public reading. Notably, she doesn't seem drawn to the magic realism that during her lifetime was the life's blood of so many (male) Latin American writers. The variety of style and the extremes of emotion and violence in one way are makes Lispector - 30+ years after her death her name still keeps coming up - but her inconsistency and experimentation with form has also unmade her: it's much easier to categorize a writer like Borges of Garcia Marquez and you like them or you don't and those who do so are true devotees, but with Lispector there inevitably will be some pieces you like, others not, which has made her elusive and I think has kept her on the margins - a writer with some great works, maybe many, but not one who appears on many reading lists or bookstore shelves (or library shelves, for that matter), at least not today.

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