Clarice Lispector was like no other writer who has ever lived. This means, of course, she gets compared to every other writer who ever lived.
"Better than Borges," Elizabeth Bishop called her, after living for years in Lispector's native Brazil. The Los Angeles Times put Lispector—who died in 1977—on the shelf with Kafka and Joyce. Writer Colm Tóibín went with Flann O'Brien and Fernando Pessoa. Her onetime translator, Gregory Rabassa, said she wrote like Virginia Woolf—a comparison repeated by many, and which she resented.
In Brazil, where she is broadly considered the country's greatest writer, they just call her "Clarice"—like Pelé, or Ronaldinho.
But until a few years ago, Lispector's books were out of print in English. The Complete Stories (New Directions, 640 pages, $28.95) marks the first time her short fiction has ever been collected unabridged in any language, even Portuguese.
While reading them, one feels the loss of not knowing these stories sooner.
Lispector writes fictions every bit as fantastical and gnomic as those of Borges or Kafka, except they are possessed of almost painful empathy, a wounding immediacy.
In one of her most famous stories, "The Smallest Woman in the World," about a tiny tribeswoman nicknamed Little Flower whose photograph fits "life-size" in the Sunday papers, "a lady felt such perverse tenderness for the African woman's smallness that—prevention being better than cure—no one should ever leave Little Flower alone with the lady's tenderness. Who knows to what darkness of love affection can lead."
Lispector's stories inspire that same perverse tenderness, with the same darkness waiting in the wings. They are funny and sad and terrible, with no seams between these feelings—and though their touch is delicately light, they leave deep bruises.
"I didn't cry once in Brasilia; there was no place for it…they imprisoned me in freedom," she writes in "Brasilia," which stands perhaps as the book's opus, an ode to the sterile and terrifyingly beautiful capital carved out of Brazil's deep jungle in the '60s. "Brasilia is the failure of the most spectacular success in the world," she writes. "Brasilia smells like toothpaste."
The experience of reading Lispector is a bit like being slapped by a stranger, then kissed while the pain is fresh. You are abandoned to your own unsteadiness—in a world that seems less dependable, but filled with wonders.
GO: Clarice Lispector's translator, Katrina Dodson, will appear in conversation with author Lidia Yuknavitch at Powell's City of Books, Wednesday, January 27, at 7:30 pm. Free.