This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Amanda Nelson, BTBA judge and managing editor of Book Riot. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson (Brazil, New Directions)
The two kinds of literature I most gravitate to are: 1) epic, sweeping, generations-long East-of-Eden-War-and-Peace-ish narratives; you know, old-fashioned stories that draw you in and shove you deep into the lives of the characters and 2) shorter, more introspective, less plot driven punch-in-the-gut books that use words and sentences like a razor to cut out your heart; you know, the ones you have to read with a pen so you can underline each perfectly crafted thought. The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector is somehow (miraculously) both of these things. That is why it should win.
It’s odd to think of a huge collection of short stories as in any way comparable to the multi-threaded Steinbecks and Tolstoys (and Dickenses and George Eliots and etc.), and it’s true that the characters in Lispector’s stories don’t appear and re-appear. You’re not following a single person or family from birth to death, but you are following Lispector from (artistic) birth to (actual) death, and her characters are so human, so vivid and flawed and normal and strange and real, the stories could be and are about everyone and no one. All the happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
One of the most remarkable things about this collection is that it is so complete. You can follow the writer’s development from the beginning of her career through her artistic maturity and into and out of the more experimental phases, accompanying her along all the twists and turns of her mind until she died. There are so few female authors (especially from the middle class, especially mothers) with a body of work that begins at young adulthood and continues into old age, that isn’t interrupted by the necessities of marriage or children or caring for aging parents. There is nothing at all wrong with a writer not writing anymore or taking pauses to do those things—it’s just notable that the gaps you so often find in the work of women because of necessity is not really present here. Editor Benjamin Moser says it best in his introduction: Clarice was a “woman who was not interrupted: a woman who did not start writing late, or stop for marriage or children, or succumb to drugs or suicide. A woman who, like so many male writers, began in her teens and carried on to the end.”
That inherent feminist thing happening in the book is also notable in the stories themselves, and while we judges have spent time debating just how accidentally (or maybe not) misogynistic some of the long list might or might not be, there’s no ignoring that the Lispector is simply better at portraying women than pretty much any other candidate (the Ferrante and Nettel being the only real competitors). Lispector gives us the inner lives of women from childhood through very old age. Not only are women underrepresented in literature in general and literature in translation specifically, but when they are present it’s so often as a plot prop or object through which the male characters (or authors) can discover things about themselves. That is not Lispector’s game: her women are real, they wrestle with marriage, they struggle with motherhood, they make art, they are bored, they have affairs, get old, play the “cool girl” game long before Gillian Flynn’s Amy gave it a name in Gone Girl. Lispector’s stories all in one place say: we have always been here.
That’s the macro, now about the micro: Lispector is precise at a word-for-word level. To put on my I-Was-Raised-Southern-Baptist hat, I was constantly put in mind of a verse in the book of Hebrews about the word of God being a double-edged sword that cuts between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow, while reading these stories. She’s doing surgery with sentences. A few tidbits:
Not being devoured is the most perfect of feelings. Not being devoured is the secret goal of an entire life. (“The Smallest Woman in the World”)
I also knew that only a mother can resolve birth, and ours was the love of those who rejoice in loving: I was caught up in the grace of having been allowed to love, bells, bells ringing because I know how to worship. (“The Foreign Legion”)
And out of a whole lifetime, by God, sometimes the only thing that saves a person is error, and I know that we shall not be saved so long as our error is not precious to us. (“Mineirinho”)
I’m going to tell you all a secret; life is fatal. We keep this secret in muteness each faced with ourselves because it’s convenient, otherwise we would make every instant fatal. (“Soul Storm”)
And on the translation: well, what an undertaking. To translate the work of a lifetime, to maintain its uniformity without losing the nuances of what changed about her style or tone or voice over time? It’s an admirable feat. Dodson catches that slight, off-kilter weirdness that Lispector’s language has, that low-level-buzz of unease, without being awkward or missing a word or leaving a verbal pothole for the reader to stumble over and cause you to fall out of the story. It’s seamless, it’s strange, it is very, very good.
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