but thousands of bells clanged inside me

Dear Clarice,

Rereading your stories after so long makes me feel as if I were looking through colour-stained glass: each story comes with the shadow of my previous reading of it. The shadow of how it felt like at the time; the stain of what I had not understood properly then, and do now; or the imprint of all that I understood at that time, and forgot, and cannot possibly recapture now.

I first came to you when I was thirteen. As with all the life-bending moments in my life, I came to you unaware, unprepared, and most probably, undeserving. I was thirteen and a librarian had recommended me the book First kiss and other stories (Primeiro Beijo e Outros Contos), a collection targeted at teenagers. The tomboy who lived in me (and always will) immediately dismissed the book by its title (and cheesy book cover).

However, I liked the librarian very much; she had already recommended me books I had loved; and, most importantly, she was nice. She seemed to enjoy what she was doing; she had a sincerity about it that I wasn’t used to finding in the grown-ups around me at that time. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, and didn’t want to hurt this thing in her that made her recommend me a book with her eyes gleaming; so, I took it. I had the intention of never taking it out of my backpack (that hideous cover!) and of returning it still unread, but with a smile and a harmless lie: Thank you, I enjoyed it very much.

I don’t remember why I opened the book and started reading it. I must have been pretty bored, probably out of other non-cheesy books to read. But I remember what it felt. I would feel it again and again, later, every time I came across a book that had something out of place about it. Fresh, like a small, newly opened wound, otherwise imperceptible but for the author and me. It felt like something we shared. It felt new.

I would come back to the library three days later and pick another collection of your stories, Family Ties. Then, Covert Joy. And, finally, The Via Crucis of the Body. At fourteen, I would stumble upon The Hour of the Star. At fifteen, I would puzzle over your novel The Chandelier. At sixteen, a friend would lend me Near to the Wild Heart. Later that year, I would fall head over heels for The Passion According to G.H. and An Apprenticeship or The Book of Pleasures. At seventeen, I would reread Covert Joy, and it would feel like I had never really read it.

And years later I would have a glimpse of how unprepared I was when I first came to you. None of my parents read books. None of them cared for books, really. In fact, they disregarded reading so much, that it was considered harmless. This frame of mind made me feel sometimes guilty for reading, but it also let me free. I could read anything I wanted; nothing was considered too complex or inappropriate, not even too important; there was nothing I should or should not read; there was nothing to be taught, no ritual of initiation. There was only the book, my desire of reading it, and me: nothing in-between. I was free to take from books whatever that made my eyes gleam. I had the ultimate luxury of following my desire.  I could do away with reading The Book of Pleasures at sixteen.

Years later, I would reread your stories after a long time of estrangement, and I would unearth this deeply rooted feeling that one should always come to a book unafraid, unprepared and undeserving, and let things unfold from there. One should always come to a book by the mere desire not to hurt this thing that makes someone’s eyes gleam. Or enter a book through the colour-stained glass of what was once read and loved and longed for. One should follow this thin line of bright desire.

I will begin with the first story then, and everything will follow from there. “The Triumph”, published in 1940, is your earliest known story. It will be thrilling to read from here, and see how your writing unfolds throughout this collection of your short stories.

“The Triumph” centers around a woman who is a lover of a troubled, frustrated writer. Luisa seems thoroughly domesticated and content with being the shadow of this man, who frequently says he despises her. As the story begins, her lover has just left their house after a fight. Terrified that he would never come back, she rifles through his papers. There, she finds a note in which he confesses that he is tortured by his own mediocrity. She is not the one to be despised. She was the stronger one, after all. And she knows her lover will come back.

This moment of self-discovery is mirrored, in the story, by the movement of the sun. When the story begins, the sun is rising; “the bright stain of sunlight lengthens little by little over the lawn.” The light climbs the wall, finds a window, and enters the room. Like the sun taking possession of the room, “little by little the day enters” Luisa’s body. When she wakes up, she becomes aware that her lover has left the house. She remembers their fight, the night before, when “the moonless night had gradually invaded the room”. This alternation between sun and moon gives us a hint that, even though she’s troubled by the parting, it will all end well: the sun has invaded the room, the sun has displaced the moon of the night before. When Luisa discovers that she’s not the one who is really mediocre, “the brightness penetrates all at once”. The lover’s departure has not robbed the things of their charm: “they had a life of their own”. Luisa discovers that she had a life of her own without him, too: the sun is blazing, and “a warm ray of sunshine enveloped her”.

The second story, “Obsession”, also deals with a moment of self-discovery. It is narrated by a recently wedded bourgeois woman. She is also, at first, thoroughly domesticated, content with her “happy blindness.” “What had kept me going until then were not convictions, but the people who held them”. However, when Cristina meets Daniel (who is also a troubled man), she finds herself tempted to stray away from the path of marriage, contentment, housekeeping, and blindness. “I wanted him as a thirsty person desires water, without feelings, without even wanting to be happy”.

As much as in the previous story, we have here a woman who anchors her existence upon a man who deems her mediocre and inferior. As much as in the previous story, in “Obsession” the man acts merely as an instrument to a woman’s moment of revelation, so that she later discovers she is the one who has the upper hand.

Cristina and Luisa are women who have crossed the line. They have been singled out; in a way, from this moment on, they will always be alone. Their love, desire or obsession for a man has acted as a catalyst. Have they mistaken love for yearning to be free? Either way, they will never come back to their previous blindness. However, differently from Luisa, who was to be “enveloped by the sun”, Cristina will taste a bitter note. She will find not only her own strength, but also her own violence. While we never get to see the moment when Luisa confronts her lover, with Cristina we see everything. You take your time at describing how the prey gradually becomes the main predator.

That tomboy of thirteen, so full of herself that she almost dismissed a pair of gleaming eyes and a book only because of its title (and hideous cover); that tomboy would also have some lines to cross, and some learning to do on being her own prey. She would always remember how it felt. She would write to you, many years later, and ask you if this same thing happens not only with reading, but with writing. If, at twenty-three, when you published your first novel, and later with every following book, you came to it so unprepared, and so ruthless, that it felt like I felt.

Fresh. Or like bells, clanging.

Yours truly,

J.


Albrecht Durer. Adam and Eve [detail}. 1507.
Albrecht Durer. Adam and Eve [detail}. 1507.

“I didn’t answer, but thousands of bells clanged inside me. My thoughts vibrated like a shriek: ‘Just this, just this: I’m going to free myself! I’m free!’” – Clarice Lispector, “Obsession”. Complete Stories.


About the book

  • Complete Stories, Penguin Classics, 2015, tr. Katrina Dodson, 645 p. Goodreads.
  • Complete Stories, New Directions, 2015, tr. Katrina Dodson, 640 p. Goodreads.
  • Stories first published from 1940 to 1977.
  • I am reading this book in weekly installments, as a readalong.
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8 Comments Add yours

  1. bookbii says:

    Beautiful review Juliana, I love how you weave your experience of Lispector into the review of this book. I suspect most of us readers have joyous memories of the library and the books that we encountered as children which left indelible marks upon us. It sounds like this is one of yours. I’m yet to read Lispector – I have The Passion According to G.H. sitting on my shelf and have been too scared to read it, but your passionate endorsement is swaying me towards it. Thanks 🙂

    Like

    1. juliana says:

      Thank you, Belinda! Yes, you are right – libraries leave marks on us. And Clarice was one of the most important marks on me. I really love The Passion According to G.H., and I hope you enjoy reading it! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Caroline says:

    This is beautiful, Juliana.
    I had no idea she was of Ukrainian origin. A truly lovely post. Thank you.

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    1. juliana says:

      Thank you, Caroline! Her life story is very interesting. 🙂

      Like

  3. I’m afraid I had a very different experience, and didn’t get past the first 100 pp of the Complete Stories (Penguin ed). Maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind: her style is dense and the structure of the stories impressionistic, fragmented. I was disappointed with this experience, having read other pieces as passionate as yours about her. I shall return, and maybe the scales will fall from my eyes. I hope so.

    Like

    1. juliana says:

      I hope you return to Lispector someday. 🙂 My favourite short-story collections are Family Ties and Covert Joy – have you tried the stories in them?

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      1. No, don’t think I have. Will give them a try, when I next pick up the volume. Got pre-Christmas Viragos to get through first! Just finishing a post on Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows.

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      2. juliana says:

        I hope you enjoy the stories 🙂 I might read The Fountain Overflows this month for the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics Club. I’ll save your review for later 🙂

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