I ride the rails in Barcelona several times a week now. By that I mean the suburban railways, not the drugs.
In exchange for a 30 minute sit down on a train (i.e. free bonus reading time!) I can catch a substantial improvement on the fees available for doing the same job in the city. It sounds bizarre, it sounds almost unbelievable, but there are surprisingly long lengths people will go to in order to lure English-speakers out to suburban Catalunya just to, for example, explain the difference between how you pronounce “beach” and “bitch”. But, it’s fine, it’s good, it’s great. And in this newfound bonus reading time, I’m trying to plough through books; read read read, because reading IS what I love to do. Today, I read another of the cute little Penguin Moderns, Daydream and Drunkenness of a Young Lady by the Ukraine-born Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, who lived between 1920 and 1977. So she’d have been publishing from the forties through until death, I imagine? That’s a guess: if you want facts, go to Wikipedia, if you want impressions and asides, come to TriumphoftheNow.com.
The 50-page mini-book contains three short stories, all taken from the 1960 collection, Family Ties (Laços de Família), which is available from Penguin as part of their MASSIVE Complete Stories: Clarice Lispector.
I love these little taster books, these opportunities for a tiny introduction to a writer, but they do feel somewhat more cynical when everything they contain is ripped from the same single volume (albeit a 700 page one). The Chinua Achebe book from this range, Africa’s Tarnished Named, similarly includes work from one collection, whereas that one is less than 200 pages. With Lispector, were I to buy Complete Stories I’d find much less familiar. I don’t really know what my point is here. These little books are too much like cinematic trailers? Or too much like a non-plot-driven excerpt? I like reading little books, but I didn’t read this one and need to run to a bookstore for more Lispector, I felt like I’d had a pleasing, yeah, introduction.
The three Lispector stories are all translated by Katrina Dodson, and all focus on the imperfect lives of the middle class. The first piece, ‘Daydream and Drunkenness of a Young Lady’ is from the tight third-person perspective of a married woman bored of childcare and housework who gets super smashed (in the Collected Letters of Malcolm Lowry, which I’ve been reading this week, he regularly uses the Spanglish term “plasterando” to mean drunken, which I enjoyed) at a works do with her husband (he is one of the least successful people there), and on hungover reflection the morning after, she realises that a powerful, successful man was propositioning her, and she feels sexy and desirable and better as a consequence. It’s nice.
The second story, ‘Love’, is also about a bored woman, this time a bourgeois housewife who heads to the market to buy supplies for a big meal for her extended family. On the tram home, she starts staring at and empathising with a blind man sat opposite her, so much so that she drops her eggs and they smash on the floor of the tram. She then, in a panic, focusing on the pain and misery of others, goes to a beautiful park and wows and marvels at the gorgeous plant life on show, and then has a crisis of conscience about whether or not it is (or should be) acceptable to engage with beauty in a world so full of sorrow? She concludes that it’s probably fine, and disengages. Which I think, really, is what all of us decide to do, those of us who have the leisure time to a) read literary fiction, b) rashly write about it or c) rashly read about some sad bald man writing about it. If we think about how directly we could be helping desperate people with this time, everything collapses. While people are literally starving, probably none of us should be chilling out. But, hey, I’m not gonna become a firefighter/trauma nurse, so don’t feel bad for whatever it is you’re not contributing either. Any carers, medical professionals, emergency workers, snakekillers, etc, you’re allowed to feel smug here. Though not if you’re reading this instead of performing an essential emergency response.
To return to the little book, the final story is about a depressed wife with a young son. She, Catarina, is dropping her mother off at the station after a prolonged summer visit. Her husband does not get on with his mother-in-law and visa versa, and Catarina is happy to be alone, again, with her son. She wanders off for a pleasant walk with her boy, choosing to engage with the positive relationship she has in her life, in opposition to all the negativity that’s floating around. The narratorial (third person) perspective switches to that of Catarina’s dull husband, whose neglect of his family comes from a selfish, detached, place, and he whinges to his lonely self about having to spend an afternoon without his wife, silent and bored, sitting near him.
As a set of three pieces, they evoke the trappings and the horrors of dull domesticity. They dramatise the ease with which we allow underwhelming normalcy and a careening adherence to the status quo dictate our long term lives. They are crisply written, but tonally and thematically – as well as in terms of message – very similar. I’ve read too many mid 20th century pieces about the bored middle classes, and though Lispector’s oeuvre might be more complex and more complicated and more varied than this collection implies, the stories here all felt much more familiar than the ways in which I’ve heard Lispector spoken about had led me to expect. Enjoyable, strong, good: but nothing excitingly fresh. Maybe I should try one of her novels. I rarely love short stories tbh. They’re usually too long or too short, and none of these three pieces changed that general (and, I know, “ignorant”) dismissive opinion.
Something bigger next.
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the two Lispecter novels I’ve read were excellent and not cosy or comfy middle class reads at all. The Hour Of The Star is about the crippling effects of poverty on the soul and Agua Viva a brilliant meditation on trying to represent life as a painter turns to words to try and express herself. I don’t know how you feel about meditative books, but there’s quite a fair bit of rage that comes through the latter too.
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Yeh, they sound much more interesting than the stories in that little mini collection. I should give a novel a go. I’m not Latin American, I prefer novels to short stories anyway…