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Brazilian writer's lyrical prose in English

The Foreign Legion: Stories and Chronicles, by Clarice Lispector. Translated by Giovanni Pontiero. Manchester, England: Carcanet. 219 pp. $20 cloth, $8.50 paperback. Since the publication of her first novel in 1944, ``Close to the Savage Heart,'' Clarice Lispector has become known as one of Brazil's most innovative writers. While not as well known as her contemporaries, Gabriel Garc'ia M'arquez, Julio Cort'azar, Carlos Fuentes, and others, she began to renovate the Latin American novel as early as the 1940s. At the time of her death in 1977, Lispector was one of the most highly regarded Brazilian authors, with an attentive and select audience both in Brazil and throughout Latin America. She was also well known in England, France, and Germany through translations of her books.

Lispector wrote nine novels, six collections of short stories, and an abundant production of nonfiction. She did most of her writing in the early 1940s when working as a journalist for Brazil's leading newspapers. A brief examination of her work reveals a writer whose preoccupations revolve around the anxieties, the feelings of deep isolation, and the urge toward self-identification common to the existentialist literature being written in Europe at the time.

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One of the most distinguishing characteristics of Lispector's writings is a poetical and often experimental prose style that employs very elaborate and intricate imagery. Her poetic structures often revolve around interior monologues that reveal the inmost part of her characters, for Lispector was more interested in the creation of unconventional prose and syntactic structures than she was in constructing a conventional plot.

Often compared to Virginia Woolf and Andr'e Gide, Lispector was a breath of fresh air when she appeared on the Brazilian literary scene at a time when it was dominated by regionalism.

``The Foreign Legion,'' first published in 1964, is a welcome addition to the few works of Lispector translated into English. Including short stories, chronicles, and essays, it demonstrates the versatility of this writer. The short stories (for the most part) deal with existential self-discovery, with alienation, and with the fragmentation of lives of ordinary human beings. We also find stories dealing with the conflicts between daily life and fantasy.

One of the most interesting stories is ``The Journey to Petropolis,'' where the loneliness of old age is clearly portrayed through the female protagonist, Missy, who is incapable of comprehending her deep isolation: ``She was a tiny, shriveled-up old woman who, sweet and obstinate, did not seem to understand that she was all alone in the world.''

The ``Misfortunes of Sofia'' is a fascinating study in child psychology written from the point of view of a young girl as yet unaware of the mysteries of love. Uncomprehending of her ambivalent feelings for her school teacher, she senses that she has been changed forever because of the experience of being loved: ``I slowly began to learn how to be loved, while enduring the sacrifice of not being worthy, if only to lessen the pain of one who does not love.''

There are many other stories of haunting and lyrical beauty. A story called ``Friendship'' explores the vulnerability of human beings. The protagonists refuse at first to be left alone in the world and then they struggle to accept their aloneness.

Lispector's deep understanding of people - their actions and reactions - together with her unusual prose style, makes ``The Foreign Legion'' a captivating and refreshing book.

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The second part of the book consists of a series of narratives, or essays, of varying length having to do with artists such as Paul Klee, with art, poetry, and also with Lispector's own art of fiction, her own process of writing. Essays such as ``Since One Feels Obliged to Write,'' ``Creation Humility Technique,'' and ``The Woman Writer'' all speak eloquently and poetically about Lispector's own writing process. For example, in ``Writing'' she says: ``I should avoid using words. This might prove to be my solution. And as such it would be most welcome.'' Or this marvelous and precise sentence: ``If one is obliged to write, let it be without obscuring the space between the lines with words.''

``The Foreign Legion'' is an important book. Mirrorlike, it reflects Lispector's most enduring creations and her perception of her own writings. It is a book to treasure, a book of dazzling insights.

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