This week, two underappreciated masters of the weird and uncanny are finally getting their due attention. That’s right, we’re talking about Clarice Lispector and Shirley Jackson, two literary powerhouses who wrote contemporaneously in different styles, different languages, even different hemispheres, but who have some striking similarities.
With Tuesday’s release of a collection of previously unpublished Shirley Jackson stories and essays, Let Me Tell You, and the approaching release of Clarice Lispector’s The Complete Stories, most of which are translated into English for the first time, the literary Internet has been abuzz with exclusive excerpts, revisiting old favorites, and exploring the fascinating lives of these two mysterious women.
On Sunday, The Independent delved into the conflicting accounts of Shirley Jackson’s life (and also last week published a story from the collection, which, like “The Lottery” was the original Hunger Games, may be the original Groundhog Day). It’s not surprising that the queen of American Gothic would garner a reputation for being weird, especially in mid-century America, but Jackson leaned into it. According to The Independent, “she liked to say she was a witch, possibly in response to an Associated Press reporter who once said she wrote ‘not with a pen but with a broomstick,’” and on top of that she had multiple black cats and maybe believed in magic. That, combined with accounts of prescription drug and alcohol addiction, paints a fascinating picture of a playful, daring, but troubled woman. A picture that her children contest as they share memories of a dedicated mother and efficient housewife who strategically left notepads around the house so she could jot down ideas while she did her chores. The picture that emerges through contradictory accounts like this, and through Jackson’s fictional and non-fictional work (like this excerpt at Lit Hub), is one of a woman restless in her position in the world, a brilliant and unconventional mind trying to balance its reckless creativity with caring for a family, a condition Clarice Lispector would be familiar with.
Clarice Lispector’s life may actually be more interesting—and more fraught—than Jackson’s. Through essays in Los Angeles Review of Books and The New Republic, we learn of her troubled history: her family’s immigration to Brazil to escape the pogroms in Russia, the early loss of her mother, her unfulfilling marriage, her rumored drug and alcohol abuse, her splintered identity. At LARB, Stephanie LaCava writes:
Beyond language, Lispector deftly navigates the paradoxical interior landscape common to all women sorting through questions of societal expectation and identity . . . Lispector felt uncomfortable in the world; she was unsettled by the two dueling sides of her fundamentally female self, obsessed with that which in its very existence is irreconcilable.
This is apparent in the female characters of many of Lispector’s stories, no matter their age. In “Remnants of Carnival,” a story from the collection excerpted last week in Vogue, the little girl protagonist is able to dress up for Carnival for the first time ever when her friend has leftovers from her own costume. She is overjoyed because, she says, “for that Carnival, for the first time in my life I would get what I had always wanted: I would be something other than myself.” Here we have a girl of eight, and already she doesn’t feel right in her own skin, already she feels the need to dress up as a rose and don makeup to escape herself. However, at the same time, this is a young girl who understands the dichotomy between public persona and private identity, as she writes earlier in the story:
And the masks? I was afraid but it was a vital and necessary fear for it went along with my deepest suspicion that the human face was also a kind of mask. In my front stairwell, if someone in a mask spoke to me, I’d suddenly come into indispensable contact with my inner world, which was made not only of elves and enchanted princes, but of people with their mystery. Even my fright at the people in masks, then, was essential for me.
At the end of the story, you’re left uncertain as to whether you feel happy for the girl or sad. You’re not sure if donning the mask of makeup and costumery brings her joy because it enables her to hide who she is, or if, because the human face is itself a mask, the paint and crepe paper reveal her true self. And that’s one of Lispector’s—and also Jackson’s—best talents. They do it with their own individual style and slant, but they both lead you by the hand into uncertainty and leave you there to grapple with the truth for yourself. Perhaps because that’s a space with which both women were intimately familiar.