The “Cultura|s” magazine, from the La Vanguardia newspaper, recently celebrated the Spanish edition of Todos los cuentos, by Clarice Lispector. The book was translated by Cristina Peri Rossi, Elena Losada, Juan García Gayo, Marcelo Cohen, and Mario Morales, and there is a preface by Benjamin Moser, who is also the author of ¿Por qué este mundo?, a biography of Clarice also published by Siruela, in 2017.
In the article “Toda la vida de una mujer” (The whole life of a woman), written by Laura Freixas, the Brazilian writer is acclaimed as a myth, known in Brazil only by her first name. According to the journalist, Clarice not only enjoys academic prestige, but is also popular. Her works inspire songs, television series, theatrical plays, and choreographies. Nonetheless, international fame would only come posthumously, when the French feminist writer Hélène Cixous raised the Brazilian author to the highest exponent of women’s writing and awakened the interest of European publishers and American universities.
The journalist further stresses the Brazilian writer’s capacity to “explore women’s identity with a depth that no one has achieved until now.” Housewives, bourgeois ladies, matriarchs surrounded by the family clan; for her, Clarice’s female characters, who appear to be conventional and hardly interesting, hide beneath the surface the germ of nonconformity – “the women are wild,” she affirms. They are furthermore “cheerful, free, powerful, happy in their emotional and sensorial symbiosis with nature.” This feminine way of being in the world can be seen, according to the journalist, ever since Clarice’s first short story, “The Triumph,” which was published in 1940 in Pan magazine.
It is worth looking more carefully at this short story.
Luísa, the main character, awakens at her home under an unusual silence, interrupted by the loud and resonant striking of the clock, which sounds like a foreshadowing of what is to come.
From the beginning of the short story, the rhythm and the word choice describe Luísa’s awakening in an erotic communion with the new day. Beginning with the image of the “stain of sunlight,” which advances “little by little over the lawn” and encounters an opening in the window — “penetrates,” she writes. The verb, used in the present tense (which coincides with the second-person imperative, you), sounds potent, virile, all alone in the sentence. The “lawn,” in the Portuguese original “relva,” refers to the image of pubic hair. And when the sunlight reaches the room, the character, still lying in bed, “an arm here, another there, crucified by lassitude,” she curls her eyebrow and grimaces, evoking orgasmic pleasure. The day “enters her body.”
Luísa, however, perceived an absence: “… what about those domestic noises of every morning?”, she asks herself. For it is in their silencing that new sounds arise. She hears “footsteps in the distance, tiny and hurried,” “dry leaves crunching underfoot;” she thinks of a child running in the road. At this point, she still finds herself on the threshold between being asleep and awake, a state of consciousness called hypnagogia, when the senses are sharp and receptive and we can be stricken by illuminating oneiric visions.
Suddenly, the silence again, which is “absolute, like the silence of death.”
We find out that her husband had abandoned her the afternoon before, after a fight, another one, to which Luísa had always reacted with fear. Absorbed in the gravity of the empty house, she then goes to Jorge’s table, hoping to find a note for her that said something like: “In spite of everything, I love you. I’ll be back tomorrow.” Instead, she finds a sheet of paper on which he confessed to feeling mediocre for not being able to focus on the book that he was writing. A revealing Freudian slip occurs here. Luísa identifies with Jorge and takes his feeling as her own — “So he knew it, then?”, she asks herself. It was also what “she’d always felt, only vaguely: mediocrity.”
Before this, we accompany one of the couple’s fights, remembered by Luísa. He accuses her: “You, you trap me, you annihilate me! Keep your love, give it to someone who wants it, someone who has nothing better to do! Got it? Yes! Ever since I met you I haven’t produced a thing! I feel tied down. Tied down by your fussing, your caresses, your excessive zeal, by you yourself! I despise you!”
In previous fights, a pallid Luísa, normally “so full of dignity, so ironic and sure of herself” begged him not to abandon her. But, this time, according to him, Luísa had interrupted him “right when a new idea was stirring, luminous, in his brain. She’d cut off his inspiration at the very instant it was springing forth, with a silly comment about the weather, and concluding with a loathsome: ‘isn’t it, darling?’”
The scene reveals a common incompatibility between men and women. According to Simone de Beauvoir, man wishes to reach transcendence, and to do so, since he was born of a woman, of course, he seeks to detach himself from her to go ahead with the realization of a project. Woman, for her part, is bound to nature; she is the fountain that attracts man to immanence, to the earth. Thus, Luísa’s frugal and devoted love is, for Jorge, the reason for his great indignation; he says that he feels “tied down by your fussing, your caresses, your excessive zeal.”
Furthermore, for Simone de Beauvoir, the mother-woman has “a face of darkness: she is chaos, where everything comes from and must return to one day; she is Nothingness. (…) He aspires to the sky, to light, to sunny heights, to the pure and crystal clear cold of blue; and underfoot is a moist, hot, and dark gulf ready to swallow him; many legends have the hero falling and forever lost in maternal darkness: a cave, an abyss, hell.”
Another divergence that appears highlighted in the text is man’s inclination to reason, in contrast to woman’s sensuality. As Kierkegaard affirms, “woman is more sensuous than man.” Based on such a rationale, it would be possible to think that the menstrual cycle (and its possible consequences: pregnancy, childbirth), in concert with the movements of the moon and the tides, is, in itself, an evident manifestation of woman as a sensible part of a cosmic harmony.
It is also in this sense that Hélène Cixous, quoted in the article from “Cultura|s,” observes the incidence of characters in Clarice’s work who have impaired vision. For her, this aspect indicates a form of approximation to the world that does not occur through rational distancing, but through emotional and sensorial fusion. It is worth recalling that vision, since before Aristotle – even though, in Metaphysics, this had been the motive for deep reflection – has been a sense that is traditionally associated with reason.
There is, consequently, a praise of sensuality that pervades the whole narrative.
It is worth repeating that the motive for the fight that culminated in the couple’s separation was “a silly comment about the weather” spoken by Luísa. And that she had imprudently interrupted Jorge precisely “right when a new idea was stirring, luminous, in his brain..” Beforehand, the narrator describes the image of a scene with the couple that is often repeated: “She, silent, before him. He, the refined, superior intellectual.”
There are still other indications of this valorization throughout the text. When Luísa notices that Jorge has left, she wipes her head in order to “push away her thoughts.” In another moment, we read: “She seemed to hear his ironic laugh, quoting Schopenhauer, Plato, who thought and thought….” The act of thinking, which echoes here somewhat ironically – and which is also mirrored in words such as “idea,” “brain,” “thoughts,” and in the names of philosophers –, sounds blatantly opposed to the lack of sensibility of Jorge, who is incapable of receiving his wife’s loving gesture without thinking beyond his selfish interests.
Such a perspective appears in exemplary fashion in the role reserved for intuition. Intuition – understood as wisdom of the body over which there is no explanation – is the main driving force behind Luísa’s actions and will lead her to erotic ecstasy at the end of the short story. Intuition is a theme in other texts by Clarice, and is even a part of her creative process. In another of her chronicles [“Forma e conteúdo,” (Form and content) Todas crônicas], she writes: “Only intuition touches the truth without need content or form. Intuition is the deep unconscious that does without form, while it itself, works before surfacing.”
Thus, since waking, touched by the sunlight and absorbed by the street noises, Luísa synaesthetically surrenders herself to the surrounding stimuli. She weeps for her absent husband. Then (and here the short sentences accompany the character’s panting breath), goes to the sink and splashes her face. Sensation of coolness, release. She’s waking. She perks up. Braids her hair, pins it up. Scrubs her face with soap, until her skin feels taut, shiny.” Her gestures are impetuous, just like the movement of nature and of things: “throws open the windows;” “the new air enters swiftly;” “the clock seems to strike more vigorously.”
Luísa then begins to see with renewed freshness the intimate environment of the house, which seemed obscured, beforehand, by Jorge’s presence: “She’d always lived there with him. He was everything. He alone existed. He was gone. And things hadn’t entirely lost their charm. They had a life of their own.”
Allowing herself to feel swept away by some unknown force, “afraid of thinking” (again “thought” is bad), Luísa grabs a few items of clothing and begins to wash them in the large wash basin in the backyard. The description seems like a sexual act: “She rolled up her pajama sleeves and pants and started scrubbing everything with soap. Bent over like that, moving her arms vehemently, biting her lower lip from the effort, the blood pulsing strong throughout her body, she surprised herself.”
When she finished her chore, after a short break, a new wave finally leads Luísa to climax:
She looked at the large spigot, gushing clear water. She felt a wave of heat… Suddenly an idea came to her. She took off her clothes, opened the spigot all the way, and the cold water coursed over her body, making her shriek at the cold. That improvised bath made her laugh with pleasure.
It is important to note here that the “idea” which comes to her is not of a masculine nature; it is an action-idea, provoked by a consequent gesture that triggers it.
The journalist from La Vanguardia highlights the importance of Clarice’s feminine voice in a world in which women are habitually defined by men: “politicians, theologians, scientists, poets,” according to Laura Freixas. And it is precisely in this world of roles and chores defined by masculine authority that Clarice’s writing engenders a possibility of rupture. It is curious to observe, for example, that the most cliché chore of a housewife – washing clothes in a basin – comes to be decisive for the ecstatic experience that will lead the character to emancipation in relation to her husband – Luísa’s triumph. For the fear of being abandoned is a reiterated observation over the course of the narrative: “If he leaves, I’ll die, I’ll die”; or “How would she live now? (…) She kept repeating and repeating: what now?”
If one cannot say that Clarice was a feminist in the strict sense, the author, in her narratives, brings to the foreground common women who experience the tension between the yoke and autonomy in a society whose laws are predominantly created by men. In the apparent frailty of the female characters, it is possible to see the strength of those who know things through the senses, closely, on the inside.
This strength arises in an unprecedented manner at the end of the short story. The freedom attained by Luísa does not inspire, as it would be easy to suppose, autonomy or the desire to live alone (even though now it would be possible for her to do so), but rather the opposite, the serene and confident feeling that Jorge would return: “A warm ray of sunshine enveloped her. She laughed. He’d be back, because she was the stronger one.” Thus ends “The Triumph,” a debut writer’s first step.