Clarice Lispector – reading guide

Johad Al Sharafi, New Hope, 2015, Palestinian Territory


Start with the short stories, continue with the chronicles, then reach the novels. Or reverse everything


Months before she died, in 1977, Clarice Lispector entrusted her TV Culture an interview that is replayed regularly. Journalist Júlio Lerner even asked what the profile of the writer's reader was, as at the time there was already a myth that a minority reached the Claritian narrative. Faced with the question, the author is categorical in asserting that she lacks an answer.

She says that a Portuguese teacher from Colégio Pedro II came to her apartment and confessed to having read it four times The passion according to GH, without the slightest success in understanding the text, while a young university student of just 17 years old revealed that this was her bedside work. The fiction writer reports that she received calls from people curious to know where to buy her books. And she warns that, if interest in her literature increased, this was not due to any concession to the public.

Therein lies a truth. From the debut prose, Close to the wild heart (1943), posthumously A breath of life: pulsações (1978), the ingredients that contribute to the density of its stories are reiterated. It can be seen, initially, that language contains resources that exhaustively explore tension, aiming at a tireless exhaustion of the verbal. Clarice Lispector's syntax, usually crisp and rushed, is occasionally tempered with a slow rhythm, in order to better reverberate the conflict that arises from limit experiences involving narrators and characters.

It is often invested in emptying the current meaning of the word by destabilizing the sentence and deviating from the form. Add to this the epiphany and nausea resulting from unexpected images that provoke a flow of strange associations, in which insects and animals gain presence. Everything, in short, offers writing a place of prominence and permanence, whether on Brazilian soil or on foreign territory.

The procedures and stratagems mentioned above clash with each other to a greater or lesser degree of complexity throughout the work. There are narratives that require double breathing from the reader determined to follow the evolution of the intrigue, to arm themselves with the strong taste of obscurity – sometimes with tendentiously sensorial digressions. The narrated object is costly due to the weight derived from the punctuation that extends irregularly, constituting a mesh adhering to lucubrations and combined phrases with a paradoxical effect, in a unique juggling act of strength and balance.

For this reason, it is suspicious that an unprepared reader will immediately abandon his novels based on the intensity of such characters. This is the case, above all, of The city under siege (1949) and The Apple in the Dark (1961), the enjoyment of which requires partnership and tolerance, there are so many areas of almost impermeability to incidents that they are entangled in a vocabulary that is not lean, but surplus, in an essay with a virtually unfinished design.

If the novels mentioned are not the most suitable for a beginning reader, which texts should I start with? Would this adventure be left out of this genre that Clarice invested in and that a large part of the critics chose, paradigmatically, to evaluate her? A priori, Yes. The stories, the chronicles and the novel star hour (1977) would be among those recommended at this initial stage. However, it would be nonsense to ensure that this group escapes completely unscathed from the then forceful fictional scheme responsible for the structure of the work. He models himself, at most, simply more disciplined in conducting the psychological thread and time that command the narration. From the outset, two volumes of short stories would come to hand: Family relationships (1960) and the foreign legion (1964)


Em Family relationships, the feminine joins the pole of convergence that guided, from beginning to end, Clarice Lispector's literature. It is the theme through which the fiction writer deals with domestic routine, cultural material cut from the daily life of a middle-class family. In this aspect, the short story “Love” is emblematic. In a short fraction of time, the world becomes chaotic and dangerous in the eyes of the protagonist.

Ana has an unusual experience on the way home. Surprised to see a blind man signaling the tram that takes her back to the safety of her home, she abandons the bag, breaking part of the eggs bought for family dinner. This concern applies to the image of this anonymous person who accidentally gestures a laugh while chewing gum. Disoriented, she misses the point, descending at random into the Botanical Gardens. Inside this space, sitting on a public bench, she engages with what is most hostile in nature, because her senses learn from this terrain, which diverts her from alienating tasks, a dynamic in wild animation never before glimpsed.

Behold, “dry lumps full of convolutions, like small rotting brains”, “luxurious legs of a spider”[I] nailed to the trunk of the tree, water lilies, “voluminous dahlias and tulips”[ii] they disgust the spectator projected onto the man with his eyes open to the darkness of the chewed gum. Return to the apartment in time for reception preparations. But not before realizing that a quiet and secret law also operates there. Towards him came his son “with long legs and a face like his”, the door handles of the room “shined clean, the window panes sparkled, the lamp shone – what new land was this?”[iii]

It is a serious land, substantial in other tales of Family relationships. Land equally receptive to the experience of otherness that displays feelings of love and hate. It is no coincidence that the protagonist of the story “The Buffalo” is surprised by vertigo on a trip to the zoo. Abandoned by her lover and with her fists clenched and placed in the pockets of her brown coat, she watches, with disgust, the hot and sensual correspondence between caged couples. This shaky identification between the character and the animals emerges as a life and death drive, analogous to the severe shaking of the roller coaster cart in the neighboring park that she decides to occupy.

No less exposed is Dona Anita, in “Feliz Aniversário”, a story also included in the book Family relationships.She turns 89 years old, sparkling with lucidity, surrounded by her sons, daughters-in-law, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in a kitchen decorated with childish motifs. In the apartment of the daughter who is burdened with the care of the birthday girl, the situation of the members of a family unsuccessful in their ties becomes pathetic, meeting, once a year, among frilly tablecloths, balloons and colorful napkins.

It should be noted that social criticism underlies Clarice Lispector's narrative – the plunge of existential grandeur in human and animal species comes to the fore (often, “with docility to [capture] the delicate abyss of disorder”[iv], according to the narrator of “The Foreign Legion”, the plot that gives the volume of stories its title). Hence the non-gratuitousness with which envy and perversion, for example, develop in this and other stories included in the brochure. By the way, eight-year-old Ofélia is cautious and energetic in her judgments. A miniature of a demure woman with a reproachful look, she kills a chick that the neighbor and narrator bought for her children at the street market. In this intrigue, the crime is the consequence of an immeasurable love – due to the desperation of not having what is close, alive and within reach of childhood, and the clumsiness in cuddling.

The passage in which the girl hears the chirping in the kitchen from the living room is indescribable, that is, the moment in which the adult Ophelia shrinks into the amazed child; The narrative episode opens as a sinister spectacle. A spectacle not very different from what occurs in “The Disasters of Sofia”, another tale of Foreign Legion whose protagonist, approximately in age to Ophelia, follows the metamorphosis of her teacher, when – face to face with him – she saw in this man “the eyes that, with the countless eyelashes, looked like two sweet cockroaches”[v], that is, “he saw something happening in front of his face”.[vi] And what he “saw was anonymous, like an open belly for an intestinal operation”.[vii]


Regarding the chronicles, they form a separate chapter in Clarice Lispector's poetics – the subject that moves them arises from the daily observations, or rather, from the daily lives of the multiple Clarices: mother, housewife, translator, writer, journalist (various working hours) narrated, a vast gallery of people elevated to characters). Countless conversations emerge from this repertoire: with neighbors, maids, taxi drivers, editors, intellectuals. Friends and family are remembered a lot. Parties, trips, tours, impressions gathered from the streets and newspapers, books covered, the creation process shared with readers, superstitions, accidents, outbursts; everything fits in these writings of free extension and spontaneous diction. Between the chatty humor, however, there are texts of scathing latitude.

“Living jelly as a placenta” is one of them – it is fabled as a nightmare driven by suicidal impulse, compromising the dawn of the chronicler who, newly awakened, reworks and materializes in words the viscous, gelatinous substance printed in her dream. If these chronicles signal a world prodigal in entertainment, not at all naive and less ruthless, the soap opera star hour (1977) achieves a different complexion: it parodies serial narratives, ironizing the content and form of this genre which, throughout the XNUMXth century, promoted excessive love scenes.

The author constructs a couple without reciprocity, on the margins, sterile for romanticism, given that the Northeasterners Olímpico de Jesus and Macabéa, living in the city of Rio de Janeiro, “had little shadow on the ground”. He: metalworker, brutal, willing to succeed in life at any cost. She: semi-literate typist, clueless about hygiene, malnourished. Olímpico dreams of being a deputy; Macabéa, oblivious to reality – a “by-product” that feeds on hot dogs and Coca-Cola – idealizes Marilyn Monroe.

The opening page of the book records 13 titles, including “The Hour of the Star”. They are vertical and linked by the conjunction or. Some of them: “Let her deal with it”, “I can’t do anything”, “Tearful story”, “Discreet exit through the back door”. They show contempt for the unfortunate 19-year-old from Alagoas. To relate this story, a male narrator is designed, with the intention of not weakening, being moved to tears in the face of the sad and perplexing fate of the heroine who goes through the novel with a toothache, sharing the bedroom, in a peripheral neighborhood, with young sales clerks at Lojas Americanas. His name is Rodrigo SM – he is a writer. The low-paying job distinguishes him and isolates him from the illiterate masses, consumers, at most, of photo-soap operas.

To resolve the character's drama that demands so much from him, he opts for a triumphant death, introducing a Mercedez-Benz car into the access road of the typist stunned by the optimistic predictions of the fortune teller she has just consulted. Madame Carlota announces to the girl a promising future alongside a foreign millionaire (Olímpico exchanges her for her office colleague from the Northeast; her name is Glória – in addition to being “fleshy”, her father works in a butcher shop and is a “peroxide blonde”). Glória is the one who offers the medium's address to Macabéa and lends her the money. The narrator-writer explains: “I could take the easy way out, kill the infant girl, but I want the worst: life. Those who read me, like this, get punched in the stomach to see if it's any good. Life is a punch in the stomach.”[viii]

Writing is self-contemplative in star hour: metalanguage through which life and death are intertwined, without the chain of narrated facts falling apart in parallel – otherwise, this plot would hardly be defined with a beginning, middle and end on cinema screens, in a 1985 feature film directed by Suzana Amaral.

At this point, Rodrigo SM's text is more figurative, softening the contours of abstract expression that blur, if compared, the pages of Jellyfish (1973), fiction whose network of words, freed from plot, loose, in an experimental exercise, pigments itself on the paper like thick paint thrown onto virgin canvas. The alphabet is color in Jellyfish: “I slowly get into writing just as I got into painting. It’s a tangled world of vines, syllables, honeysuckle, colors and words.”[ix]. Art is body, vibration: “I write to you completely and I feel a taste of being and the taste of you is abstract like the instant. It is also with the whole body that I paint my paintings and I fix the incorporeal on the canvas.”[X]


For a more enjoyable reading, perhaps a more relaxed, unrestrained, less conventional reader is needed, preferably aloof from institutionalized models. Because the writing that self-portraits, in Lispector, is choreographic – of continuous exhibitionism. Test yourself. Personify yourself. And it bursts into this representation like a dynamo. Hence the reader's reluctance when faced with that novel that stands out as a masterpiece: The passion according to GH (1964)

Sign up in first person. The woman who narrates the event of the previous day, identified by the initials GH, is a sculptor and is alone: ​​her lover abandoned her. She lives in a luxurious penthouse apartment and decides to organize herself, preferring the back room, previously occupied by the maid Janair. In this room whose walls are surprisingly white (lit bedroom), GH presses the wardrobe door against a cockroach that tries to escape through the gap. From then on, an absurd, mythical and mystical introjection of the protagonist into the heart of this semi-alive insect begins. The sculptor, in this retelling, creates several images, highlighting the decomposing cockroach, without that casing that hides its white, mucous juice: the mass. What GH try. She seeks, in madness, salvation through the palatable extreme of amorality, ecstasy with the dirty and the primitive – an entire allegorical cavity infuses itself in The passion according to GH.

Finally, if these excerpts from Clarice Lispector's work announce a sense of insubordination to what is conventionally taken for granted, why not heed the writer's call, the call of passion? Well, the reader could well, transgressing a classificatory order – the order of what to read before and what to read after –, surrender, immediately and without thinking, to the novel The passion according to GH. The risk is yours.[xi]

*Ricardo Iannace He is a professor of communication and semiotics at the Faculty of Technology of the State of São Paulo and of the Postgraduate Program in Comparative Studies of Portuguese Language Literatures at FFLCH-USP. Author, among other books, of Portraits in Clarice Lispector: literature, painting and photography (Ed. UFMG).


[I] Clarice Lispector, “Love”, Family relationships, Rio de Janeiro, Francisco Alves, 1993, p. 36.

[ii] Ditto, p. 36.

[iii] Idem, ibidem, p. 37.

[iv] Clarice Lispector, “The Foreign Legion”, the foreign legion, Rio de Janeiro, Editora do Autor, 1964, p. 106.

[v] Clarice Lispector, “Sofia’s Disasters”, the foreign legion, Rio de Janeiro, Editora do Autor, 1964, p. 20.

[vi] Ditto, p. 22.

[vii] Idem, ibidem, p. 22.

[viii] Clarice Lispector, star hour, Rio de Janeiro, Francisco Alves, 1993, p. 102.

[ix] Clarice Lispector, Jellyfish, Rio de Janeiro, Nova Fronteira, 1980, p. 15.

[X] Ditto, p. 10.

[xi] This text, which now receives slight changes, was originally published with the title “Guide to the Claricean adventure” in the dossier section of the now extinct magazine BetweenBooks, “A reading guide to decipher the Clarice Lispector enigma”, São Paulo, Duetto, Year 2, n. 21, Jan. 2007, p. 38-43.

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