The Spellbinding Genius of Brazilian Writer Clarice Lispector

One of the most original and underrated writers of the 20th century, we’re exploring the life and career of the incomparable Clarice Lispector!

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Black and white photo of a young Clarice Lispector wearing a white blouse with her hair pinned up

Clarice Lispector is a prolific novelist and short-story writer who is widely regarded as one of Brazil’s most influential literary figures. Known for her unique stream-of-consciousness style and her glamorous, enigmatic persona, Lispector has commanded the fascination of Brazilian and international readers since the publication of her first novel in 1943. She is considered one of the most original and inventive writers of the 20th century, with American novelist Edmund White praising her as an “emblematic” artist whose work “belongs in the same pantheon as Kafka and Joyce.”

Keep reading to learn more about the captivating life, career, and legacy of Clarice Lispector!

A Transnational Upbringing

Clarice Lispector was born on December 10, 1920, to a Jewish family in Chechelnyk, Ukraine, the youngest of three daughters to Mania and Pinkhas Lispector. However, in 1922, the Lispector family immigrated to Brazil to escape the anti-Semitic pogroms that spread across Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. Clarice’s mother died when she was only 9 years old, after which her father moved the family from Recife to Rio de Janeiro, where he worked as a rag peddler to keep his three daughters fed.

Lispector later remarked that her upbringing — which she described as being born in “flight” — had a profound impact on her sense of belonging.

Black and white photograph of Clarice Lispector as a child wearing a white dress and a beret in a garden

As a teenager, Clarice was inspired by the works of Dostoevsky, Herman Hesse, and Monteiro Lobato. She excelled in school, and with her father’s encouragement, she pursued an education at the University of Brazil’s law school while working as a copy editor and journalist for various Carioca newspapers.

She made her press debut in Pan Magazine when she was 20 years old with a short story entitled The Triumph in 1940, just three months before her father passed away due to complications from surgery.

Book cover for Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector, featuring a red-tinted photograph of Lispector and white text

In 1943, at the age of 23, Clarice published her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, a modernist work that explores the interior world of its protagonist, Joana, through key moments of her upbringing and marriage. Lispector’s ingenious unpredictability and striking stream-of-consciousness narration made the novel an instant sensation, and the book won several prizes and was lauded by critics and readers, who considered the work to be “the discovery of a genius.” Shortly after the release of Near to the Wild Heart, the writer Francisco de Assis Barbosa gave Lispector the fitting epithet “Hurricane Clarice.”

She wanted even more: to be reborn always, to sever everything that she had learned, that she had seen, and inaugurate herself in new terrain where every tiny act had a meaning, where the air was breathed as if for the first time.

Clarice Lispector, Near to the Wild Heart

The book inspired widespread public fascination with Lispector, who experienced rare success as a female author in Brazil’s male-dominated publishing world. However, shortly after the publication of Near to the Wild Heart, Lispector graduated from law school and married Maury Gurgel Valente, a classmate who became a diplomat, with whom she left Brazil and spent the next 15 years living abroad.

Lispector’s Expansive Collection of Work

After the success of Near to the Wild Heart, Lispector published an additional eight novels, a staggering 85 short stories, five children’s books, and countless newspaper articles. A few of her most significant works include the mystical novel The Passion According to G.H. (1964) and the meditative Água Viva (1973). Lispector’s novels typically feature memorable and complex female characters whom translator Katrina Dodson describes as women “on the verge of exaltation, greatness, dissolution, spiritual ecstasy.”

Black and white photograph of Clarice Lispector writing at her desk wearing a striped suit

Lispector’s multitude of short stories also provide examples of the mystifying writer’s intricate characters and experimental use of language. In 2015, New Directions Publishing Corporation released a compilation of Lispector’s stories — spanning her entire career from her teenage years to her death in 1977 — entitled Complete Stories. A review of the collection from Slate Magazine compared Lispector’s creative, evocative approach to writing to that of famed Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov, claiming that “life seems more vital, almost hyperreal, after reading Lispector, and it is harder to ignore the hidden life surging all around you, in all its many forms.”

Book cover for The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector featuring a Black and white photograph of Lispector covered by a pattern of tiny yellow stars

Lispector’s final novel, The Hour of the Star, was published in 1977, only a few months before the author’s death, and it is often considered her masterwork. The brief, eccentric book is set in Rio de Janeiro and follows a male narrator who contemplates the life and death of Macabéa, a poor young typist from Alagoas, Brazil. The novel is considered a “bewildering and brilliant” reflection on life, loneliness, the search for meaning, and on storytelling itself.

So long as I have questions to which there are no answers, I shall go on writing.

Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star

The Mesmerizing Appeal of Clarice Lispector

Brazilian writer Otto Lara Resende once famously remarked, “Be careful with Clarice. It’s not literature. It’s witchcraft.” Since her debut novel, Lispector has bewitched readers with her profound insights communicated through her unique, fluid stream-of-consciousness writing, and even today, she retains a small yet passionate following who admire her glamorous style and literary brilliance. Her works combine existentialist philosophy with deeply personal narrative details, which creates a unique appeal and allows readers across time and place to connect with her characters.

Black and white photograph of Clarice Lispector wearing a printed blouse with curled hair

Lispector remains one of the most influential Brazilian writers of all time, with The New Yorker describing her as a “caster of spells…haunting every branch of the Brazilian arts.” She captivates and inspires ardent devotion from her readers, which can be seen in the admiring online following with whom her work continues to resonate nearly 50 years after her passing. Although her stories and novels are fictional, they are filled with Lispector’s strikingly intimate meditations on life, which provide a unique glimpse into the remarkable mind of one of the most overlooked literary geniuses of the 20th century.

It is because I dove into the abyss that I am beginning to love the abyss I am made of.

Clarice Lispector

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