Colm Tóibín has written of the Brazilian author Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) that she “had an ability to write as though no one had ever written before.” This enigmatic, style-conscious Greta Garbo of Brazilian letters wrote of women's lives, lives that were often stultified in marriage, but she also delved deep into the human psyche.

Recently Penguin have issued a number of titles by the novelist and short story, including her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart (1943) and her final novella, Hour of the Star (1977). In The Hour of The Star, you may find yourself pausing over the peculiar phrasing and the images. Or you might have a tendency to break up the sentences and imagine individual clauses as lines of poetry, such is their peculiar potency and charm. 

Some of Lispector’s stories explore with striking perception the role of women in twentieth century Brazilian society, but she also appeared to delve deep in the psyche, to come up with something primal and unsettling about the human condition.

Take Dry Sketch of Horses, a strikingly vivid sketches of  horses in various situations, under headings like On the Sun-Baked Street, At Sunset, In the Mystery of the Night. The narrative posits that there is something in the young woman of the piece who has to restrain the horse - clearly a metaphor for physical desire - within her. “I have a horse inside me that rarely manifests itself. But when I see another horse then mine expresses itself. Its form speaks.”

The opening story,The Triumph, concerns Luisa who wakes to discover that her writer husband has departed the home and marriage as he had threatened to do. “He’s gone,” she thought. “He’s gone.” Never had this expression struck her as so full of meaning, though she’s read it many times before in romantic novels.

However, when Luisa discovers in a note on her husband's desk that he is tormented by feelings of mediocrity in his work, she concludes that she is 'the stronger one’ and that he will return. In Obsession, the protagonist recalls her affair with Daniel who exerted such a strange power over her that she left her dull, conventional husband for him, although Daniel at base despises her naivete. But there is many a slip between the cup and the lip and the author handles the drama magnificently in the 34-page story. In similar terrain, The Escape is the engaging tale of a young wife who sets out to leave another loveless marriage on a night of incessant rain.

On reflection, perhaps Lispector just wrote without being conscious of any delving into any psyche, although certainly there was an exceptional degree of family trauma to deal with. She was born into a Jewish family in Ukraine at a time of  famine and racial tensions - her grandfather was murdered, her mother was raped and following her father's banishment, the family emigrated to Brazil in 1922.

Father subsequently earned a living selling rags and further tragedy struck when Clarice’s mother died when her daughter was only nine. Yet despite the terrible upheaval experienced in her young life, she would thrive academically. Her father spurred both herself and her sister on, wishing them both to gain everything that he could not attain in life. Clarice enrolled at the National Law Faculty of the University of Brazil when there were no Jews and only three women students.

She became a news and fashion journalist before her first forays into fiction and that first novel, Near to the Wild Heart was published when she was 23. She was subsequently awarded the prestigious Graça Aranha Prize for best first novel. Marriage to a diplomat brought her to domicle in Italy, the UK, Switzerland and the USA, but she never could accept the role of diplomat's wife, being introverted and inclined to her own company. In 1959, she returned to Brazil with her children, where she would finally write the novels which established her reputation. Her short stories were translated into English by the celebrated poet Elizabeth Bishop, which eased her introduction to readers in the USA. 

Tóibín has also described Lispector as " one of the hidden geniuses of the twentieth century." Sample her genius for yourself in Katrina Dodson's translations from the Portuguese. 

Paddy Kehoe