Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector

Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector

by Benjamin Moser
Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector

Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector

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 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780199895823
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication date: 05/01/2012
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 539,395
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.30(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

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.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Sphinx
1: Fun vonen is a yid?
2. That Irrational Something
3. The Average Pogrom
4. The Missing Name
5. Statue of Liberty
6. Griene Gringos
7. The Magical Stories
8. National Melodrama
9.Only for Madmen
10. Flying Down to Rio
11. God Stirs the Waters
12. Straight from the Zoo
13. Hurricane Clarice
14. Trampoline to Victory
15. Naples
16. The Society of Shadows
17. Volume in the Brain
18. The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace
19. The Public Statue
20. The Third Experience
21. Her Empty Necklaces
22. Marble Mausoleum
23. The Intimate Balance
24. Redemption Through Sin
25. The Worst Temptation
26. Belonging to Brazil
27. Better than Borges
28. The Cockroach
29. And Revolution!
30. The Egg Really Is White
31. A Coarse Cactus
32. Possible Dialogues
33. Cultural Terror
34. I Humanized Myself
35. Monstre Sacre
36. The story of instants that flee: Água viva
37. Purged
38. Batuba Jantiram Lecoli
39. Hen in Black Sauce
40. Pornography
41. The Witch
42. The Thing Itself
43. Lispectorian Silence
44. Speaking from the Tomb
45. Our Lady of the Good Death


Introduction: The Sphinx
In 1946 the young Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector was returning from Rio de Janeiro to Italy, where her husband was vice consul in Naples. She had traveled home as a diplomatic courier, carrying dispatches to the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Relations, but with the usual routes between Europe and South America disrupted by the war, her journey to rejoin her husband followed an unconventional itinerary. From Rio she flew to Natal, on the northeastern tip of Brazil, then onward to the British base at Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, to the American air station in Liberia, to the French bases in Rabat and Casablanca, and then via Cairo and Athens to Rome.

Before each leg of the trip she had a few hours, or days, to look around. In Cairo the Brazilian consul and his wife invited her to a cabaret, where they were amazed to see the exotic belly dance performed to the familiar strains of a hit of Rio's 1937 Carnival, Carmen Miranda's "I Want Mommy."

Egypt itself failed to impress her, she wrote a friend back in Rio de Janeiro. "I saw the pyramids, the Sphinx-a Mohammedan read my palm in the 'desert sands' and said I had a pure heart. . . . Speaking of sphinxes, pyramids, piasters, it's all in horribly bad taste. It's almost immodest to live in Cairo. The problem is trying to feel anything that hasn't been accounted for by a guide."

Clarice Lispector never returned to Egypt. But many years later she recalled her brief sightseeing tour, when, in the "desert sands," she stared down no one less than the Sphinx herself.

"I did not decipher her," wrote the proud, beautiful Clarice. "But neither did she decipher me."

By the time she died in 1977, Clarice Lispector was one of the mythical figures of Brazil, the Sphinx of Rio de Janeiro, a woman who fascinated her countrymen virtually from adolescence. "The sight of her was a shock," the poet Ferreira Gullar remembered of their first meeting. "Her green almond eyes, her high cheekbones, she looked like a she-wolf, a fascinating wolf. . . . I thought that if I saw her again I would fall hopelessly in love with her." "There were men who couldn't forget me for ten years," she admitted. "There was an American poet who threatened to commit suicide because I wasn't interested." The translator Gregory Rabassa recalled being "flabbergasted to meet that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf."

In Brazil today her arresting face adorns postage stamps. Her name lends class to luxury condominiums. Her works, often dismissed during her lifetime as hermetic or incomprehensible, are sold in vending machines in subway stations. The Internet is alight with hundreds of thousands of her fans, and a month rarely goes by without the appearance of a book examining one side or another of her life and work. Her first name is enough to identify her to educated Brazilians, who, a Spanish publisher noticed, "all knew her, had been to her house, and have some anecdote to tell about her, as the Argentines do with Borges. Or at the very least they went to her funeral."

The French writer Hélène Cixous declared that Clarice Lispector was what Kafka would have been had he been a woman, or "if Rilke had been a Jewish Brazilian born in the Ukraine. If Rimbaud had been a mother, if he had reached the age of fifty. If Heidegger could have ceased being German." The attempts to describe this indescribable woman often go on in this vein, grasping at superlatives, though those who knew her, either in person or from her books, also insist that the most striking aspect of her personality, her aura of mystery, evades description. "Clarice," the poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade wrote when she died, "came from one mystery / and departed for another."

Her indecipherable air fascinated and disquieted all who encountered her. After her death, a friend wrote that "Clarice was a foreigner on earth, going through the world as if she'd arrived in the dead of night in an unknown city amidst a general transport strike."

"Maybe her closest friends and the friends of those friends know something about her life," an interviewer wrote in 1961. "Where she came from, where she was born, how old she is, how she lives. But she never talks about that, 'since it's very personal.' " She gave very little away. A decade later another frustrated journalist summed up Clarice's responses to an interview: "I don't know, I'm not familiar with it, I've never heard of it, I'm not aware, That's not my area, It's hard to explain, I don't know, I don't consider, I've never heard, I'm not familiar with, There isn't, I don't think." The year before her death a reporter who had come all the way from Argentina tried to draw her out. "They say you're evasive, difficult, that you don't talk. It doesn't seem that way to me." Clarice answered, "Obviously they were right." After extracting monosyllabic replies, the reporter filled the silence with a story about another writer.

But she said nothing. I don't even know if she looked at me. She stood up and said: "I might go to Buenos Aires this winter. Don't forget to take the book I gave you. There you'll find material for your article." [She was] very tall, with auburn hair and skin, [and] I remember her wearing a long brown silk dress. But I could be wrong. As we were leaving I paused in front of an oil portrait of her face. "De Chirico," she said before I could ask. And then, at the elevator: "Sorry, I don't like to talk."

In this void of information a whole mythology sprang up. Reading accounts of her at different points in her life, one can hardly believe they concern the same person. The points of disagreement were not trivial. "Clarice Lispector" was once thought to be a pseudonym, and her original name was not known until after her death. Where exactly she was born and how old she was were also unclear. Her nationality was questioned and the identity of her native language was obscure. One authority will testify that she was right-wing and another will hint that she was a Communist. One will insist that she was a pious Catholic, though she was actually a Jew. Rumor will sometimes have it that she was a lesbian, though at one point rumor also had it that she was, in fact, a man.

What makes this tangle of contradictions so odd is that Clarice Lispector is not a hazy figure known from shreds of antique papyrus. She has been dead hardly thirty years. Many people survive who knew her well. She was prominent virtually from adolescence, her life was extensively documented in the press, and she left behind an extensive correspondence. Still, few great modern artists are quite as fundamentally unfamiliar. How can a person who lived in a large Western city in the middle of the twentieth century, who gave interviews, lived in high-rise apartments, and traveled by air, remain so enigmatic?

She herself once wrote, "I am so mysterious that I don't even understand myself."

"My mystery," she insisted elsewhere, "is that I have no mystery."14 Clarice Lispector could be chatty and forthcoming as frequently as she was silent and incomprehensible. To general bemusement she insisted that she was a simple housewife, and those who arrived expecting to encounter a Sphinx just as often found a Jewish mother offering them cake and Coca-Cola. "I need money," she told one journalist. "The position of a myth is not very comfortable."15 Late in life, explaining why she gave up on interviews, she said, "They wouldn't understand a Clarice Lispector who paints her toenails red."16 More than anything she wanted to be respected as a human being. She was mortified when the famous singer Maria Bethânia threw herself at her feet, exclaiming, "My goddess!" "My God," exclaimed one of Clarice's protagonists, "but it was easier to be a saint than a person!" In a melancholy piece called "Profile of a Chosen Being," she describes her rebellion against her image: "The being attempted an underground work of destroying the photograph: he did or said things so opposite to the photograph that it bristled in the drawer. His hope was to make himself more vivid than the photograph. But what happened? It happened that everything the being did only retouched the portrait, embellished it."

The legend was stronger than she was. Toward the end of her life she was asked about an unkind comment that appeared in a newspaper. "I got pretty annoyed," she admitted, "but then I got over it. If I ran into [its author] the only thing I would say is: listen, when you write about me, it's Clarice with a c, not with two s's, all right?" Still, she never entirely gave up hope of being seen as a real person, and her protests against her own mythology surface in unexpected places. In a newspaper piece that she wrote about-of all things-the new capital of Brasília, an odd exclamation appears: "The sacred monster has died: in her place was born a little girl who lost her mother."

"Facts and particulars annoy me," she wrote, presumably including those surrounding her own curriculum vitae. She went to lengths, in her life and her writing, to rub them out. Yet on the other hand few people have exposed themselves so completely. Through all the many facets of her work-in novels, stories, correspondence, and journalism, in the splendid prose that made her "the princess of the Portuguese language" -- a single personality is relentlessly dissected and fascinatingly revealed in perhaps the greatest spiritual autobiography of the twentieth century.

"Alongside my desire to defend my privacy, I have the intense desire to confess in public and not to a priest." Her brand of confession was concerned with the inner truths she painstakingly unearthed throughout a life of unceasing meditation. This is the reason Clarice Lispector has been compared less often to other writers than to mystics and saints. "The novels of Clarice Lispector often make us think of the autobiography of St. Teresa," Le Monde wrote. Like the reader of St. Teresa or St. John of the Cross, the reader of Clarice Lispector sees a soul turned inside out.

She emerged from the world of the Eastern European Jews, a world of holy men and miracles that had already experienced its first intimations of doom. She brought that dying society's burning religious vocation into a new world, a world in which God was dead. Like Kafka, she despaired; but unlike Kafka she eventually, and excruciatingly, struck out in search of the God that had abandoned her. She recounted her quest in terms that, like Kafka's, necessarily hearkened back to the world she had left, describing the soul of a Jewish mystic who knows that God is dead and, in the kind of paradox that recurs throughout her work, is determined to find Him anyway.

The soul exposed in her work is the soul of a single woman, but within it one finds the full range of human experience. This is why Clarice Lispector has been described as just about everything: a woman and a man, a native and a foreigner, a Jew and a Christian, a child and an adult, an animal and a person, a lesbian and a housewife, a witch and a saint. Because she described so much of her intimate experience she could credibly be everything for everyone, venerated by those who found in her expressive genius a mirror of their own souls. As she said, "I am all of yourselves."

"There is much I cannot tell you. I am not going to be autobiographical. I want to be 'bio.' " But even a universal artist emerges from a specific context, and the context that produced Clarice Lispector was unimaginable for most Brazilians, and certainly for her middle-class readers. It is no wonder that she never spoke of it. Born thousands of miles from Brazil amid a horrifying civil war, her mother condemned to death by an act of unspeakable violence, Clarice's background was unimaginably poor and violent.

By adolescence she seemed to have triumphed over her origins, and for the rest of her life she avoided even the vaguest reference to them. Perhaps she feared that nobody would understand. And so she held her tongue, a "monument," a "sacred monster," bound to a legend she knew would outlive her and which she reluctantly, ironically embraced. Twenty-eight years after her first meeting with the Sphinx, she wrote that she was considering paying another visit: "I'll see who devours whom."
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