In January 1963 Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Robert Lowell from Rio de Janeiro about the stories of Clarice Lispector. ‘I have translated five of Clarice’s stories,’ she wrote, ‘all the short ones & one longer one. The New Yorker is intererested—I think she needs money, so that would be good, the $ being what it is … But at the moment—just when I was ready to send off the batch, except for one, she has vanished on me—completely—and for about six weeks!… I am mystified … It is “temperament,” maybe, or more likely just the usual “massive inertia” that one runs into at every turn … Her novels are NOT good … but in the stories she has awfully good things and they do sound pretty good in English, and I was quite pleased with them.’

In June 1963 Bishop wrote again about Lispector: ‘Clarice has been asked to another literary congress, at the University of Texas, and is being very coy & complicated—but I think is secretly very proud—and is going, of course. I’ll help her with her speech. I suppose we are going to be “friends”—but she’s the most non-literary writer I’ve ever known, and “never cracks a book” as we used to say. She’s never read anything, that I can discover—I think she’s a “self-taught” writer, like a primitive painter.’

In Bishop’s Poems, Prose, and Letters, published by the Library of America, there are three translations from Lispector, including the astonishing story ‘The Smallest Woman in the World,’ which has both the primitive power which Bishop noted, but also a real and artful knowingness, a sense of what can be done with tone, with paragraph endings, with dialogue, that could only belong to someone deeply literary. Lispector had, in common with Borges in his fiction, an ability to write as though no one had ever written before, as though the work’s orginality and freshness arrived in the world quite unexpected, like the egg laid in Lispector’s story ‘A Hen,’ which Bishop also translated.

The idea of Lispector as fleeting, oddly unreliable, complicated, someone who could vanish, as Bishop would have it, is essential to her work and her reputation. Clarice Lispector (1920–1977) was born in the Ukraine but arrived as a child in Brazil. Her background in the Ukraine and her Jewish family’s escape from there are described in harrowing detail by Benjamin Moser in his brilliant biography, Why This World. What Moser calls ‘her inflexible individuality’ made Lispector a subject of fascination to those around her, and to readers, but there was always a sense that she was deeply mystified by the world, and uncomfortable with life itself, as indeed with narrative.

In October 1977, shortly before her death, she published the novella The Hour of the Star in which all her talents and eccentricities merged and folded in a densely self-conscious narrative which dealt with the difficulty and odd pleasures of story-telling itself and then proceeded, when it could, to tell the story of Macabea, a woman who, Lispector told an interviewer, ‘was so poor that all she ate were hot dogs.’ But she made clear that this was ‘not the story, though. The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery.’

The Hour of the Star is like being brought backstage during the performance of a play and allowed odd glimpses of the actors and the audience, and further and more intense glimpses of the mechanics of the theatre—the scene and costume changes, the creation of artifice—with many interruptions by the backstage staff.

Nothing is stable in the text. The voice of the narrator moves from the darkest wondering about existence and God to almost comic wandering around his character—watching her, entering her mind, listening to her. He is filled with pity and sympathy for her case—her poverty, her innocence, how much she does not know and cannot imagine—but he is also alert to the the writing of fiction itself as an activity which demands tricks which he, the poor narrator, simply does not possess, or does not find useful. It is hard to decide who to feel more sorry for, Macabea or the narrator, the innocent victim of life, or the highly-self conscious victim of his own failure. The one who knows too little, or the one who knows too much.

The narrative moves from a set of broad strokes about character and scene, with throw-away moments and casual statements which sum up and analyse, to aphorisms about life and death and the mystery of time and God. It moves from a deep awareness about the tragedy of being alive to a sly allowance for the fact that existence is a comedy. The story is set both in a Brazil that is almost too real in the limit it sets on the characters’ lives and a Brazil of the mind and the imagination, made vast by the way in which words and images, and shifts of tone and texture, are deployed by Lispector in her mysterious swan-song.

Most late work has a spectral beauty, a sense of form and content dancing a slow and skillful waltz with each other. Lispector, on the other hand, as she came to the end of her life, wrote as though her life was beginning, with a sense of a need to stir and shake narrative itself to see where it might take her as the bewildered and original writer that she was, and us, her bewildered and excited readers.