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Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector
     

Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector

4.0 2
by Benjamin Moser
 

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"That rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf," Clarice Lispector is one of the most popular but least understood of Latin American writers. Now, after years of research on three continents, drawing on previously unknown manuscripts and dozens of interviews, Benjamin Moser demonstrates how Lispector's development as a

Overview

"That rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf," Clarice Lispector is one of the most popular but least understood of Latin American writers. Now, after years of research on three continents, drawing on previously unknown manuscripts and dozens of interviews, Benjamin Moser demonstrates how Lispector's development as a writer was directly connected to the story of her turbulent life. Born in the nightmarish landscape of post-World War I Ukraine, Clarice became, virtually from adolescence, a person whose beauty, genius, and eccentricity intrigued Brazil. Why This World tells how this precocious girl, through long exile abroad and difficult personal struggles, matured into a great writer. It also asserts, for the first time, the deep roots in the Jewish mystical tradition that make her the true heir to Kafka as well as the unlikely author of "perhaps the greatest spiritual autobiography of the twentieth century." From Chechelnik to Recife, from Naples and Berne to Washington and Rio de Janeiro, Why This World strips away the mythology surrounding this extraordinary figure and shows how Clarice Lispector transformed one woman's struggles into a universally resonant art.

Editorial Reviews

Fernanda Eberstadt
Benjamin Moser's lively, ardent and intellectually rigorous biography…places her firmly in the tradition of Jewish mystics who were driven by historical cataclysm and personal trauma to create their own theology from God's absence. His energetically researched, finely argued biography will surely win Lispector the English-language readership she deserves.
—The New York Times Book Review
Dwight Garner
This is rich biographical material that gets only richer as Mr. Moser…begins to unpeel the layers of [Lispector's] complicated life. Why This World sucks you…into its subject's strange vortex…Mr. Moser, for the most part, is a lucid and very learned tour guide, and his book is a fascinating and welcome introduction to a writer whose best work should be better known in this country.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

This pioneering biography of Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (1920-1977)-a genius of character as much as a literary magician-captures the luminescent and singular author for an English-speaking audience that may not be familiar with her. She was born Chaya Pinkhasovna in 1921; soon after, her family left pogrom-torn Ukraine, arriving in Brazil in 1922. She became a law student seeking justice for prisoners and then a journalist, and in 1943, around the time of her marriage to a career diplomat, Lispector published her first book, the critically esteemed Near to the Wild Heart. The life of the roving diplomatic wife took its toll on the visionary and strikingly beautiful Lispector, who also had a longtime love for the homosexual poet Lúcio Cardoso among others. One of her sons was diagnosed as schizophrenic, which further fostered Lispector's sense of isolation. Among her champions was Elizabeth Bishop, but Lispector remains under the Anglo-American literary radar. This well-researched biography by Moser, New Books columnist for Harper's, should send readers in search of this indescribable author, whose work in many ways is closer to cabalistic writing than to more contemporary modernists like Woolf, Kafka or Joyce. 37 b&w photos. (Aug.)

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Library Journal
Feminist issues, metaphysical concepts of love and death, stream of consciousness—all emerge in the crisp, engaging fiction of Brazilian author Clarice Lispector (e.g., Near to the Wild Heart). Widely read in South America, Lispector is not well known in the United States, although most academic libraries have carried her works and critiques of her writing for years. Now Moser, a book columnist at Harper's and a contributor to the New York Review of Books, presents a biography for nonacademic readers. Moser shows how turbulence in Lispector's life appears in her writing. Her Ukrainian Jewish family migrated to Brazil in 1921 when she was an infant, victims of the brutal pogroms following the Russian Revolution. Brazil's troubled politics and her role as a diplomat's wife also influenced her work. Moser's numerous sources include Lispector's own novels, interviews, and personal correspondence; histories of Ukraine and of the Jewish people during the 20th century; and family narratives. VERDICT Readers wanting a straightforward biography may be distracted by the layers of history Moser inserts, but historians of South American and Jewish cultures will appreciate Moser's research. A good introduction to an author worth knowing about.—Nedra Crowe Evers, Sonoma Cty. Lib., CA
From the Publisher
"Lively, ardent and intellectually rigorous." —The New York Times Book Review

"Why This World treats Clarice and her many mysteries very gently. Moser carefully unwraps the very raw, intimate character behind her very introspective books... An excellent feat of portraiture "—Los Angeles Times

"This is rich biographical material that gets only richer as Mr. Moser, a translator and a book critic for Harper's Magazine, begins to unpeel the layers of her complicated life. 'Why This World' sucks you into its subject's stange vortex." —The New York Times

"Benjamin Moser's Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector uncovers the iconic author's double life: the diplomat's wife in war-shattered Europe and the elusive genius who dramatized a fractured interior world in rich synthetic prose . . . her work lives on, still striking near to the wild heart." —Megan O'Grady, Vogue

"[A] Pioneering biography of Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (1920-1977). This well-researched biography by Moser, New Books columnist for Harper's, should send readers in search of this indescribable author." —Publishers Weekly

"Beautifully rendered... Moser's richly contextualized, uniquely insightful, and haunting biography of mystic and writer Lispector resurrects a 'penetrating genius.'" —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

"A smart, passionate portrait of a truly remarkable writer. Lispector is a great subject, and Moser is the perfect biographer for her." — Jonathan Franzen

"A biography worthy of its great subject ... One of the twentieth century's most mysterious writers is finally revealed in all her vibrant colors." — Orhan Pamuk

"Rich in detail and original research and filled with sympathy for what must remain hidden and what must be understood. [Moser] has written a great book about a Jewish heroine whose family lived through some of the worst episodes of the last century in Europe; he has given also a fascinating account of modern Brazil where Lispector's work is treasured and her genius recognized." —Colm Tóibín

"Benjamin Moser has recreated all the psychological and cultural context needed to understand this great writer, and brought to life her essentially tragic nature in all its complexity." —Edmund White

"In Ben Moser, [Lispector] has found a gifted young biographer, social historian, and prose stylist who is able to take her elusive measure. This book is enthralling." —Judith Thurman

"Elegantly written, carefully researched, [Moser's] complex and nuanced biography allows Lispector her essential mystery." —The New Leader

"[An] absorbing and perceptive biography of a fascinating writer." —The Economist

"A good introduction to an author worth knowing about." —Library Journal

"Comprehensive, inspired, respectful of necessary silences Why This World does what Lispector set as a goal for her own writing: to leave unexplained what cannot be explained." —Forward.com

"A comprehensive portrait." —TexasMonthly.com

"In his stimulating new work, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, Houston native Benjamin Moser recounts the extraordinary life story of a woman who is a legend in her beloved Brazil but barely known, much less read, in the United States. She is, Moser convincingly argues, unique—in Brazilian or any other literature." —Houston Chronicle

"The attraction of a life story bouncing so wildly between the antipodes of high and low culture is obvious. However, while there have been a plethora of books, movies and TV shows about Lispector and her novels in Brazil, she has never made her mark in the United States. So the American publishing world must be a bit bemused that 'Why This World,' Benjamin Moser's recent biography of Lispector, has received more attention in major review outlets—The New York Times, the New York Review of Books, Texas Monthly, etc.—than has been given to the whole of her works translated into English." —Austin American-Statesman

"Lispector lived a large, glamorous and difficult life, which Benjamin Moser evokes in expressive detail, against a finely constructed historic and political backdrop. The biographer dives into the philosophical and theological concerns of his subject's literary output without skimping on the travails, pleasures and idiosyncrasies of her everyday life." —Moment

"Latin America's premier female writer, Clarice Lispector, spent most of her fifty-seven years in Brazil, where she is a cult figure affectionately known today by her first name alone. Although Clarice's major works have been available in English translation for many years, that cult will undoubtedly receive a boost in North America with the publication of the first biography of her in English, Benjamin Moser's superbly documented, meticulously researched Why This World." —Brown Alumni Magazine

"Benjamin Moser's contribution to the commentary is Why This World, a major biography that identifies Lispector as a mystic in the tradition of her Jewish forebears. Interlaid with brilliant quotations from Lispector's fiction, letters, and interviews, the book offers plenty of evidence of her passionate and sometimes desperate spiritual search." —Rain Taxi

"Moser is clearly in love with Lispector, a condition that infuses the biography with an almost romantic spirit. As Clarice would have it, Moser learns from her, apprentices under her. While the level of research carried out is impressive, there is still a slight tentativeness about the biography that makes it more endearing. In these little uncertainties, Moser's love for Lispector emerges, and the passion for certain knowledge of his idol—paixão for Clarice—shines through." —The World

"A remarkable achievement...Benjamin Moser's beautifully written, sensitive, and impeccably researched biography unlocks the secret of the so-called Sphinx of Rio de Janeiro, bringing this complex, mysterious individual into precise focus, albeit without unsettling Lispector's allegiance to the unknowable. Moser strikes a balance between life chronology, social history, and literary criticism, which will appeal to longtime fans of Lispector and novice readers alike...An eloquent tribute to this author, who, in part due to Moser's admirable accomplishments, will justly join the ranks of the world's greats." —Women's Review of Books

"The main strength of Why This World is its ability to impart an understanding of the significance of Clarice's literary innovation and the enigma of her personality. Moser, enchanted by the beautiful, secretive novelist and her mysterious writing, infuses his biography with a spell-binding quality, skillfully convincing readers of his subject's appeal." —SHOFAR

"Moser's biography helps enlarge the audience for Lispector in English-language cultures...His empathy for Lispector renders her whole life of interest, without completely erasing the mystery that gained her the epithet of Sphinx. Tracing the multiple Clarices, Moser has enriched our ways of knowing not only her life but her work as well." —Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas

"Moser's richly layered book chronicles the genius, the brilliance, and the mystery of Lispector. His splendid biography provides not only a portrait of a woman as an artist but also a first-rate social history of twentieth century Brazil and a brilliant history of Brazilian literature and the impulses of literary modernism as they are illustrated in Lispector's writings...Epic." —Magill's Literary Annual

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780199895823
Publisher:
Oxford University Press
Publication date:
05/01/2012
Pages:
496
Sales rank:
734,439
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

1
Fun vonen is a yid?
"Clarice was called alienated, cerebral, 'intimist' and tedious by hard-line Communist critics. She only reacted when offended by the stupid accusation that she was a foreigner." "She always got very annoyed when people suggested she wasn't entirely Brazilian," her closest friend wrote. "True, she was born in Russia, but she had come here when she was only two months old. She wanted to be Brazilian in every way." "I am Brazilian," she declared, "and that is that." "I was born in the Ukraine, my parents' country. I was born in a village called Chechelnik, so small and insignificant that it isn't even on the map. When my mother was pregnant with me, my parents were heading toward the United States or Brazil, they still hadn't decided. They stopped in Chechelnik so I could be born and then continued on their journey. I arrived in Brazil when I was only two months old." Though she had arrived in earliest infancy, Clarice Lispector always struck many Brazilians as foreign, not because of her European birth or the many years she spent abroad, but because of the way she spoke. She lisped, and her rasping, throaty r's gave her an odd accent. "I am not French," she explained, which is how she sounded. "This r of mine is a speech defect: I simply have a tongue-tie. Now that my Brazilianness has been cleared up . . ."

She claimed that her friend Pedro Bloch, a pioneer Brazilian speech therapist, had offered to carry out an operation that would fix the problem. But Dr. Bloch said her pronunciation was natural enough for a child who had imitated her foreign parents' speech: the throaty r's, if not the lisp, were, in fact, common among the children of Jewish immigrants in Brazil. It was through training, not surgery, that Dr. Bloch managed to correct the problem. But only temporarily. Despite her constant disavowals, she stubbornly refused to shed this immediately noticeable sign of her foreignness. She would struggle throughout her life between a need to belong and a dogged insistence on maintaining her apartness.

A few months after his successful treatment, Dr. Bloch ran into Clarice. He noted that she had started using her old r's again. Her explanation was simple. "She told him she didn't like losing her characteristics."

There was no characteristic Clarice Lispector might have wanted to lose more than her place of birth. For this reason, despite the tongue that tied her to it, despite the sometimes horrifying honesty of her writing, she has a reputation for being something of a liar. White lies, such as the few years she was given to shaving off her age, are seen as a beautiful woman's coquettishness. Yet almost every lie she told has to do with the circumstances of her birth. In her published writings Clarice was more concerned about the metaphysical meaning of birth than the actual topographical circumstances of her own. Still, those circumstances haunted her. In interviews she insisted that she knew nothing about the place she came from. In the 1960s she gave an interview to the writer Renard Perez, the longest one she ever granted; the kind and gentle Perez surely put her at ease. Before publishing the piece he gave it to her for approval. Her single objection was to the first sentence: "When, shortly after the Revolution, the Lispectors decided to emigrate from Russia to America . . ." "It wasn't shortly afterwards! It was many, many years afterwards!" she protested. Perez obliged, and the published piece began, "When the Lispectors decided to emigrate from Russia to America (this, many years after the Revolution) . . ."

And she lied about how old she was when she came to Brazil. In the passage cited earlier she italicizes her insistence that she was only two months old when her family disembarked. As she well knew, however, she was over a year old. It is a small difference-too young, either way, to remember any other homeland-but her insistence on shaving it down to the smallest credible integer is odd. Why bother?

Clarice Lispector wanted nothing more than to rewrite the story of her birth. In private notes composed when she was in her thirties and living abroad, she wrote, "I am going back to the place where I come from. The ideal would be to go to the little town in Russia, and to be born in other circumstances." The thought occurred to her as she was falling asleep. She then dreamed that she had been banned from Russia in a public trial. A man says "only feminine women were allowed in Russia-and I was not feminine." Two gestures had inadvertently betrayed her, the judge explains: "1st I had lighted my own cigarette, but a woman should wait with her cigarette in her hand until a man lights it. 2nd I had pushed my own chair to the table though I should have waited for a man to do it for me."

And so she was forbidden to return. In her second novel, perhaps thinking of the finality of her departure, she wrote, "The place she was born-she was vaguely surprised it still existed, as if it too were something she had lost."

In a novel based on her family's emigration, Elisa Lispector, Clarice's oldest sister, repeatedly poses a question: Fun vonen is a yid? Literally, it means "Where is a Jew from?" and is the polite way a Yiddish-speaker asks where another comes from. Throughout her life Clarice struggled to answer. "The question of origin," one critic wrote, "is so obsessive that one can say that Clarice Lispector's entire body of work is built around it."

In photographs she hardly looks like she could be from anywhere but Brazil. Perfectly at home on Copacabana Beach, she wore the dramatic makeup and the loud jewelry of the grande Rio dame of her day. There was no hungry ghetto waif in the woman hitting the slopes in Switzerland or wafting down the Grand Canal in a gondola. In one photograph she stands next to Carolina Maria de Jesus, a black woman whose harrowing memoir of Brazilian poverty, Child of the Dark, was one of the literary revelations of 1960. Beside the famously beautiful Clarice, whose tailored suit and wraparound sunglasses make her look like a movie star, Carolina looks tense and out of place, as if someone dragged Clarice's maid into the picture. No one would guess that Clarice's background was even more miserable than Carolina's.

Yet in real life Clarice often gave the impression of foreignness. Memoirs frequently mention her strangeness. There was that odd voice, and that odd name, so unusual in Brazil that when her first book appeared a critic referred to "this unpleasant name, likely a pseudonym." There was the strange way she dressed; after separating from her husband, she had little money to update her wardrobe, and she wore the old clothes, purchased abroad, that for years afterward made her look "foreign, out of season."

Her oddness disturbed people. "They accuse her of being alienated," one critic wrote in 1969, "of dealing with motifs and themes that have nothing to do with her homeland, in a language that recalls the English writers. There are no chandeliers in Brazil, and nobody knows where that besieged city is." (The Chandelier is the title of her second novel; The Besieged City of her third.)

"I must seem stubborn, with the eye of a foreigner who doesn't speak the language of the country," she wrote.15 Yet her attachment to the country that had saved her family, where she spent her life, and whose language was the medium of her art, was natural and genuine. More remarkable is how often others insist on her attachment to Brazil. One never sees writers on Machado de Assis, for example, asserting that he was truly Brazilian. In writing on Clarice Lispector, such assertions are almost inevitable. The editors of the popular paperback series "Our Classics" chose, as one of only two extracts from Clarice's five-hundred-plus-page book of newspaper columns, a few short paragraphs she wrote in response to a question about her nationality. "I belong to Brazil," was her answer. A full third of the flap copy of one biography is dedicated to insisting that she was Brazilian: "This mark of her origin, [i.e., her foreign birth] however, is the contrary of what she tried to live, and what this biography asserts, based upon a vast correspondence and dozens of interviews: Brazil was more than her adoptive country, it was her true home." On the popular social-networking Web site Orkut, the Clarice Lispector group, with more than 210,000 members, announces that it is a "community dedicated to the greatest and most intense BRAZILIAN writer ever. I said: BRAZILIAN."

But readers understood that she was an outsider from the very beginning. "Clarice Lispector," writes Carlos Mendes de Sousa, "is the first, most radical affirmation of a non-place in Brazilian literature." She is both Brazil's greatest modern writer and, in a profound sense, not a Brazilian writer at all. The poet Lêdo Ivo captured this paradox: "There will probably never be a tangible and acceptable explanation for the language and style of Clarice Lispector. The foreignness of her prose is one of the most overwhelming facts of our literary history, and, even, of the history of our language. This borderland prose, of immigrants and emigrants, has nothing to do with any of our illustrious predecessors. . . . You could say that she, a naturalized Brazilian, naturalized a language."

"My homeland left no trace on me, except through the blood heritage. I never set foot in Russia," Clarice Lispector said.20 In public she referred to her family's origins no more than a handful of times. When she did, it was either vaguely -- "I asked my father how long there had been Lispectors in the Ukraine, and he said: generations and generations" -- or falsely. Her published references to her ethnicity are so sparse that many imagined she was ashamed of it.

Fun vonen is a yid? It is not surprising that she longed to rewrite the story of her origin, in the winter of 1920 in the goubernia of Podolia, which until shortly before had been part of the Russian Empire and which is today in the southwestern part of the Republic of Ukraine. "I am sure that in the cradle my first wish was to belong," she wrote. "For reasons that do not matter here, I must have somehow felt that I didn't belong to anything or anyone."

The emphasis is added: she never explained those reasons. But the least one can say about the time and place of her birth is that they were badly chosen. Even in the panoply of murder and epidemic and war that passes for Ukrainian history, from the Mongol sack of Kiev in 1240 through the nuclear explosion in Chernobyl in 1986, 1920 stands out as a particularly horrifying year.

Worse was still to come: twelve years later, Stalin began his systematic starvation of the country's peasants, killing more people than died during the First World War on all sides put together. Nine years after that, Hitler's invasion killed 5.3 million people, one inhabitant in six. "Ukraine is not yet dead," the national anthem marvels.

In this bleak panorama not every catastrophe can be duly commemorated. But though mostly forgotten today, what befell the Jews of the Ukraine around the time of Clarice Lispector's birth was a disaster on a scale never before imagined. Perhaps 250,000 were killed: excepting the Holocaust, the worst anti-Semitic episode in history.

In 1919 a writer declared that during the First World War, "what the Jews of Eastern Europe were threatened with was not the temporary suffering and decimation inevitable in war, but the total extermination by ingenious and rapid torture of a whole race." When that sentence was published, the writer believed that horror to be in the past. The real drama was about to begin.

Meet the Author

Benjamin Moser is a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine and a contributor to the New York Review of Books and Condé Nast Traveler. His translation of The Hour of the Star inaugurated New Directions' Clarice Lispector series, of which he is the Editor. He lives in the Netherlands.

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Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Its so geat.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago