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Book Review : 'Soul Storm': Fractured Tales of Abused Women

June 23, 1989|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Soul Storm by Clarice Lispector; translated from Portuguese by Alexis Levitin (New Directions: $19.95; 174 pages)

For Christianity, redemption required incarnation; a scandalous arrangement whereby a universal and immaterial God put on the flesh, sweat, facial hair and other material indignities of the forked biped. He was redeeming.

Clarice Lispector, the great Brazilian, has approached her subject through a like transformation. In these stories and poetic sketches, she writes about women; undistinguished, pretentious, abused women. Women you might pass on the street and think: there goes a bored housewife, a dumpy office worker, a bar girl, a widow with more money than occupation--one who wears Harlequin glasses and goes on cruises.

Lispector has not lodged her own poetic and subtle qualities in them; she has found their "ordinariness" in herself. She hasn't given them spunk, or fight or hidden wit. She hasn't brought them, one by one, to her writer's table and made them unforgettable by processing them with art. She has stripped herself of art and gone to them. She has made herself as foolish and uncertain at her typewriter as they are in the street, cabaret or bedroom.

Sketches of Life

The 29 pieces in this collection, most of them only three or four pages long, are written in a whole variety of styles. Some are prose poems, most are rather rickety tales, others are sketches or bits of what seems to be a writer's journal. Occasionally, the full grace of Lispector's prose is allowed to flow. Far more often, the pieces are crimped, slashed, sabotaged with awkwardness, distressed with platitudes and banalities. The translator, Alexis Levitin, has met a formidable challenge in rendering this damaged style.

It is the sacrifice of an artist and a feminist. To clasp hands with--to redeem, if you like-- Senhora Jorge B. Xavier, who is 74, rich and fuzzy, and who lusts after her favorite TV star, Lispector strips herself of the artist's privilege and gift of beauty.

Accordingly, the stories can be baffling to read, especially at first glance; they are the writer's equivalent of the scandal of the Incarnation. Singly, many of them are deliberately creaky. But taken together, they suggest a piercing transformation.

Lispector mingles with her characters. Many of them think in terms of soap operas and melodramas; she writes a few soap operas for them, always making sure that the worm turns. In "Miss Algrave," a beautiful but repressed spinster is visited on a full moon night by a being from Saturn.

"I am an I," he announces and makes thrilling love all night long. Miss Algrave is transformed; she goes about in a state of perpetual inflammation or, as Lispector writes, "she was like a wolf's howl." Using this state to its best advantage, she seduces her boss and gets a whopping raise.

Maria Angelica, in her 60s, buys the services of a 19-year-old but has to give him up when his financial demands become exorbitant. Trite enough, we think; but what are we to make of the last lines? "She looked like someone wounded in battle. But there was no Red Cross to help here. She was quiet, motionless, without a word to say. 'It looks,' she thought, 'it looks as if it's going to rain.' "

Drained, Beaten

Lispector, who provides quick sketches of herself--drained, beaten ("But if God made us so, then so be it. With empty hands. With nothing to talk about."), and switching the TV on in despair ("Sometimes one dies.")--opens herself to the rain as well. If she had not taken the tortuous path of a writer, she tells us:

"I would always have been what in fact I really am: a country girl in a field where it is raining. Not even thanking God or nature. The rain too expresses no gratitude. I am not a thing that is thankful for having been transformed into something else. I am a woman, I am a person, I am an attention. I am a body looking out through the window. Just as the rain is not grateful for not being a stone. It is rain."

That passage, which at full length may remind us of the great snow at the end of Joyce's "The Dead," is Lispector in all her art. Such passages provide a golden framework for her rougher incarnation in the abused tales of abused women. Such as Aurelia, a bar girl who, stripped of her makeup by a jealous friend, thinks for a moment she has disappeared. She looks in the mirror, sees nothing, slaps herself hard.

"And then it really happened! In the mirror she finally saw a human face. Sad. Delicate. She was Aurelia Nascimento. She had just been born. Nas-ci-men-to."

It is, in a sense, the heart of these pieces. Lispector, a radiant beauty of a writer, peels off her art for a moment and deals herself a blow. As readers, we feel as if we've been slapped as well; and then, that something brave and dangerous has been born.

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