Clarice Lispector - A 20th Century Genius

Is life a three-act structure like in stories? We are born, live and die? Or is life more fluid, spontaneous and random? Is life a journey, in which we go through a well-trodden path? Or is life more like swimming in a thick soup of unpredictability and randomness?

8/28/202313 min read

Clarice Lispector was one of the 20th century’s geniuses of literature. She noticed that the structure we give life is just our own invention. It’s like a mental cage to make us feel safer. In reality, there is little or no structure to life. The clear path we create in our imagination, we are born, we go to school, we become adults, we get married, we grow old and die, is nothing but out of human’s innate need for order.

The human condition is so volatile that we need this order, at least in our head. This is why we crave stories, because stories give us order, predictability with a clear beginning, middle and end. However, Clarice Lispector pushed those boundaries and found that the human condition is endless, depthless, bottomless and most importantly chaotic.

As we will see, her writing mimicked the fluidity of life and the spontaneity of the human condition. So today, I will discuss her life, a child born in the Russian empire who conquered Brazilian and Portuguese literature, and her novels that have bewitched millions of readers throughout the world. So get yourself a strong cup of Brazilian coffee and let Clarice bring some clarity to literature and life.


Clarice Lispector was born as Chaya Pinkhasivna Lispector, into a Jewish family in the west of Ukraine, back then part of Soviet Russia. She was born in 1920, only three years after the Bolshevik October Revolution of 1917. Ayn Rand whom I have discussed here was also born in the Russian Empire, a few years earlier. While Rand went to the United States, Lispector’s family moved to Brazil when she was one year old. In 1930, her mother who was paralysed, died when Lispector was just 9. Later the family moved to Rio de Janeiro.

Instead of partying in the beautiful beaches Rio is known for, she studied very hard. She excelled in school and in 1937 managed to attend one of the most prestigious universities in Brazil to study law. 3 years later, her father died in 1940. Now, aged 20, without a father and mother, she was alone. In the meantime she also worked as a journalist to support herself and her siblings.

She became famous with the publication of her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart when she was only 23. In her writing, she was heavily influenced by Hermann Hesse’s novel, Steppenwolf, which deals with our inner animal. I talked about Steppenwolf in great detail in my video on Hermann Hesse. Near to the Wild Heart was written in an interior monologue style, a free-flowing psychological expression, which was new in the Portuguese language at the time. It was considered one of the greatest novels written in Portuguese.

In 1943, she married a young diplomat and a year later they moved to Europe, living in Italy, Switzerland and the UK. Later they moved to the US, where she would spend about 16 years of her life.

In 1959, when she was in her 40s, she returned to Rio to focus on her writing. In 1966, she had an accident. While on a sleeping pill, a fire caused by her own cigarette badly burned her right arm. This accident had a profound influence on her life as well as her writing, in a similar fashion that another giant of South American literature, Jorge Luis Borges’s writing changed enormously after an accident that caused him a head injury. A few years after this fire accident, Lispector published one of the greatest works of Portuguese literature. In Agua Viva, she revolutionised storytelling, in which the “living water” becomes a metaphor for the energy for life to flourish as well as burning and destruction. More on this book later.

Just like Hermann Hesse, Lispector also painted. While her parents spoke Russian, she excelled in Portuguese and English. To support herself, she also translated books from English to Portuguese.

In 1977, she died of cancer, aged 56. She wrote 9 novels, 10 short story collections, 5 children’s books and many works of nonfiction. She has been compared to Franz Kafka, partly due to her Jewish heritage but mostly due to her style, which is deeply dark in which dreams, nightmares and reality mingle freely in a kind of Freudian unconscious. In the next section, I will discuss four of her books in more detail, so you get a picture of her writing.


Near to the Wild Heart

Published in 1943, Near to the Wild Heart, Lispector’s first novel tells the story of Joana, a young woman who has a wild animalistic side that challenges society’s morality and expectation. It is told through flashbacks in a stream of consciousness style akin to Virginia Woolf or James Joyce’s novels.

The novel expresses her childhood wild tendencies in two ways. On the one hand through her linguistic creativity being able to write poems but on the other hand through her violence and pain that she inflicts on others. Despite being a human, Joana has a lot of the animalistic qualities, which is similar to Hesse’s 1929 novel, Steppenwolf which is about a man who thinks he’s a wolf of the steppes stuck inside the skin of a man. Lispector read Hesse’s novel before writing her novel, so we can see the influence it had on her.

The protagonist rarely cares about morality of what’s right or wrong. For example, she throws a book at an old man with no regrets or apology. You could say she is a psychopath, but that would be too simplistic. Lispector takes us back to our evolutionary wiring that given the right condition, it emerges in us at any given moment. This is very similar to Agota Kristof’s masterpiece, the Notebook Trilogy which I have already discussed. In that novel, too, two young boys growing up in wartime become amoral surviving machines.

Lispector’s protagonist is also indifferent to her husband’s affair, just like in the Stranger by Albert Camus, Meursault doesn’t care about anything. In this novel, Lispector captures the inner emotional complexities of a modern woman, liberated to return to her wildness as an amoral animal. Some people have labelled the novel as a modern-day Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert who left her husband in pursuit of her own happiness and pleasures. The novel is like a volcano erupting, revealing the inner psyche of a woman.

In this first novel, Lispector looks into the depth of the human psyche that has no limit, has no structure and that has no end. Here’s an excerpt from the novel in which the protagonist reflects and ponders her being, her existence. Quote: “When I suddenly see myself in the depths of the mirror, I take fright. I can scarcely believe that I have limits, that I am outlined and defined. I feel myself to be dispersed in the atmosphere, thinking inside other creatures, living inside things beyond myself. When I suddenly see myself in the mirror, I am not startled because I find myself ugly or beautiful. I discover, in fact, that I possess another quality. When I haven't looked at myself for some time, I almost forget that I am human, I tend to forget my past, and I find myself with the same deliverance from purpose and conscience as something that is barely alive. I am also surprised to find as I gaze into the pale mirror with open eyes that there is so much in me beyond what is known, so much that remains ever silent.” Clarice Lispector, Near to the Wild Heart.

Near to the Wild Heart is a stab into the raw nature of human life. On the one hand we are made up of matter, a bunch of atoms, molecules, cells and body parts, but on the other hand, a limitless, bottomless well of consciousness. We fight and struggle to reconcile our material makeup which is finite with our infinite imagination and the unconscious. In other words, our consciousness is as limiting as our material cells we are made of. It is in the unconscious where all possibilities lie. This is a perfect metaphor that most inventors and discoverers are like sleepwalkers. They would often stumble upon new things without consciously seeking such discovery or invention.

The Passion According to G.H.

Published in 1964, The Passion According to G.H. tells the story of G.H. a wealthy woman who under a powerful mystical spell eats a cockroach. After her maid quits, G.H. decides to clean the maid’s room. Much to her shock, she finds the room to be spotlessly clean, except some drawings on the wall, which have the sketches of a man, a woman and a dog. It’s not a picture of a man and a woman with a child, but a domestic animal, a dog.

At this point, she also realises that the maid must have hated her, which suddenly makes her really furious. Opening a wardrobe, a cockroach emerges and she slams the door, crashing the insect. She’s so disgusted by the dead cockroach that she wants to scream. But not just that, the horrific sight breaks down something inside her, her human foundation is shaken. Her identity crumbles down. She comes to the realisation that the crashed body of the cockroach contains essential elemental things that also make her own body. It’s the same matter. This physical and spiritual realisation is so intense that at that moment that she grabs parts of the cockroach and eats it, just like an insectivorous animal like a lizard would devour an insect for food. Quote: “What I want is to live of that initial and primordial something that was what made some things reach the point of aspiring to be human.” Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H.

Again, just as in her previous novel, Lispector takes us back to our animal past when we roamed around in search of insects to eat. The sight of a dead cockroach might repulse us now, but in our deeper past, our ancestral creatures ate them for survival. This also reminded me of Franz Kafka’s novel, the Metamorphosis, in which a human turns into an insect, which also questions the whole idea of humanity as some high horse, almost god-like and different from other animals. In reality, however, we’re cousins with cockroaches. This realisation sometimes comes to us in our dreams, just as it came to Zhuang Zhou who dreamt he was a butterfly and woke up to question whether he was a butterfly dreaming or he was Zhuang Zhou dreaming he was a butterfly. He found no clear answer. Lispector, too, moves between the conscious reality and the unconscious sleep. Here is a quote: “Holding someone's hand was always my idea of joy. Often before falling asleep—in that small struggle not to lose consciousness and enter the greater world—often, before having the courage to go toward the greatness of sleep, I pretend that someone is holding my hand and I go, go toward the enormous absence of form that is sleep. And when even then I can't find the courage, then I dream.”Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H.

Another element is order. The house is clean. The room is clean. Her life is almost perfect. She lives in a very posh apartment. But this is just a facade. With a smallest of incidents, first the maid quitting and then a dead cockroach everything crumbles for her. The modern world runs on predictability. Deep inside, we want things to work like clockworks. But no matter how predictable we make society and life, the evolutionary baggage we have accumulated over millions of years are always inside us and they come out in a form of freedom every now and then to shock us.

The novel confronts us with this idea that our mystical experiences are perhaps when these deeper evolutionary past triggers something inside us which can be transformative. So this experience of seeing a crashed cockroach may appear insignificant, but it has a transformative impact of connecting her to millions of years of our evolutionary past, in which we have eaten each other for survival.

Água viva (The Stream of Life)

Published in 1973, considered her best work, Agua viva is the interior monologue of an unnamed first person narrator addressing an unnamed second person. The title in Portuguese means living water. A spring that bubbles out of inner earth. Unlike a volcano which can be extremely violent, this novel is a linguistic musical and expression of an inner turmoil sung in a song or played through an instrument.

It’s hard to define the book as a novel or a book or poetry, fiction or non-fiction. It breaks those boundaries. A good metaphor to describe this book is perhaps a reed that sings every time a wind blows through it. Or a tumbleweed that rolls around in the wind. The unnamed narrator talks about everything and nothing. Quote: “I want the following word: splendor, splendor is fruit in all its succulence, fruit without sadness. I want vast distances. My savage intuition of myself.” ―Clarice Lispector, Agua Viva.

If Aristotle tried to give stories a structure, Lispector breaks that. If Aristotle tried to give rationality the ultimate power in which science brings order to the chaos of life, Lispector celebrates the chaos of life. Quote: “But I welcome the darkness where the two eyes of that soft panther glow. The darkness is my cultural broth. The enchanted darkness. I go on speaking to you, risking disconnection: I’m subterraneously unattainable because of what I know.”Clarice Lispector, Agua Viva.

In this book, the feeling you get is this. The more you know, the more limited your horizon becomes. The less you know, the wider your possibilities are. Life’s water. We are like water. We bubbles out of earth. We crawl like a stream. We tumble like a waterfall. We scream and roar like a torrent. We are the ocean. We are limitless, boundless and endless. As soon as you define it, you limit it.

It’s written in steam of consciousness style, that anything goes. The unconsciousness is without a limit and it is consciousness that puts a limit to it. The stream of consciousness is actually like a furrow that channels the wild unconscious into comprehension. Agua Viva is a window into another world. It’s a song from another realm. Quote: “What beautiful music I can hear in the depths of me. It is made of geometric lines crisscrossing in the air. It is chamber music. Chamber music has no melody. It is a way of expressing the silence. I’m sending you chamber writing.”Clarice Lispector, Agua Viva.

The Hour of the Star

Published in 1977, just before her death in the same year, her most famous novel, The Hour of the Star, tells the story of a poor typist, considered as one of the most iconic characters in Brazilian literature. Despite her harsh life, she makes no fuss about it. But luck is not on her side. Her boyfriend mistreats her and to make matters even worse, he leaves her for her best friend. Think of the heart-break.

Upon her friend’s insistence, she goes to a fortune-teller who tells her of a bright future with lots of money, a good German husband and happiness. German husband? This is self-evident. Germans make great husbands because they are reliable and hard-working. Ivan Goncharov said that 150 years ago in his masterpiece, Oblomov. But unfortunately in this story, none of them come true. It’s all over when a German car hits her. Instead of a German husband, a masterpiece of German engineering ends it all for her.

The novel has a lot of autobiographical elements such as the Brazilian dream of rural people looking for a better life in the big cities like Rio and Sao Paulo, which Lispector did herself moving from the Northeast to Rio. The final car accident at the end also shows Lispector’s own premonition about her own death, which took place in the same year as this novel was published. In many ways, great novelists are like fortune tellers who convey deeper messages from the subconscious through their writings. The novel also has a fortune teller who claims to predict the future. This same situation took place among her Russian forefathers like Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov who wrote about duels in their novels which ultimately ended their own lives. As well as Nikolai Gogol who wrote about the madness which inflicted him at the end.

Novel writing is like consulting with someone deep inside you, the inner subconscious or the collective unconscious as Carl Jung pointed out that we often dream the dreams of millions of people who came before us. We might think we are unique, one of a kind, in reality we are copies of our ancestors DNA and storytelling. Quote: “All the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of the prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It was ever so. I don’t know why, but I do know that the universe never began. Make no mistake, I only achieve simplicity with enormous effort.”―Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star.


Clarice Lispector’s own background, born in Ukraine of the Russian Empire and ended up on the other side of the globe, must have given her a sharper pair of eyes to peer into human existence. An outsider who moved from Eastern Europe to South America, then moved to western Europe and the United States and back in Brazil must have felt an outsider in all these cultures. Being an outsider allowed her introspection and to see things clearly. In my previous video, I talked about Ayn Rand who was also born in Russia but moved to the US. The two couldn’t be more different. Ayn Rand went political and philosophical while Lispector went psychological. Ayn Rand was like a classical physicist while Lispector was like a quantum physicist.

Reading Lispector’s work is almost a mystical experience. You feel you’re connected to everything in the universe. You’re everything in the universe but at the same time, you’re so insignificant in the grand scheme of things.


Music is very prominent in her work. It was Schopenhauer who said that in our human condition, we are prisoners of the blind will that forces us to do things in life. For example our urge for sex is the will that forces us to procreate. For Schopenhauer there are two ways we can escape the blind will. We either achieve salvation through a high level of consciousness achieved through meditation and asceticism as is the case with mystics and hermits. The second way we can escape our human condition is through music or art in general. Nietzsche built his philosophical worldview on the foundation of art as the ultimate purpose of life. Lispector, while has no philosophical arguments of her own, because she was an artist, she does put music as some mystical force that takes us back to our natural roots. It’s through music that we break down the solid, rigid structures we create for ourselves. Everything melts with music. It reaches places that nothing else can penetrate. This is why music is universal, not only among different human cultures, but also among different species.

Separation Anxiety

A third element in her writing is our separation from nature. It was a German psychologist Erich Fromm who argued that a lot of modern psychological problems is because of our separation from nature as well as other people. He argued that our rationality moved us away from other animals and we considered ourselves to be almost from a different planet, so this was our first moment of separation anxiety. To calm us down, we invented gods as our creators. The second separation happened with modernity. Modernity broke down traditions and religious worldview and made us into individuals scattered around. So now we were no longer connected to nature or a community. These separations cause us anxiety. In other words, we are all suffering from separation anxiety. In Lispector’s writing, she shows how we are truly connected to other animals as well as other people. By accepting our fate as an animal, a wild one for that matter, we can liberate ourselves, at least in our imagination.

The ultimate message Lispector depicts in her writing was that we are all connected with all the other animals and plants. The separation is nothing but an illusion. This might sound very eastern, in that Buddhists and Hindus knew this thousands of years ago. For Lispector, that image of a woman eating a cockroach shows that we are cousins, albeit, a few million years of evolution has given us the illusion that we are from different planets. Deep down we’re all the same.