Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector
By Benjamin Moser
(Oxford University Press, 479 pp., $29.95)
No one has ever known quite how to understand Clarice Lispector. Though she considered herself fully a Brazilian, having lived in the country since infancy, both her critics and her admirers often described her accent and her diction as “foreign”—perhaps unsure how else to characterize her unconventional wrestlings with the Portuguese language. Her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, created a sensation, but she struggled to find publishers for nearly all of her subsequent work—nine novels, as well as collections of short stories, essays, and journalism. The English translator of her most celebrated novel confesses that her language defies his best attempts to render it, and wonders if the book can even be called a novel at all. Hélène Cixous, one of Lispector’s most devoted readers, came up with an oft-cited yet exceedingly ambiguous paean to her genius: imagine, Cixous proclaimed, “if Kafka had been a woman. 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 had been able to stop being German.”
What exactly does all that name-dropping mean? Benjamin Moser quotes these lines in the introduction to his ambitious biography, which amounts to his own attempt at the massive project of trying to understand Lispector. The work is challenging enough: Moser must contend also with her life, which included an unhappy, poverty-stricken childhood; early literary success followed by years of writing beauty columns for money; an itinerant decade and a half as the wife of a diplomat; and a pathetic finale marked by increasingly unsettled behavior until her death, the day before her fifty-seventh birthday, from ovarian cancer. Moser shows no signs of biographer’s fatigue with his subject—a woman whose friends often complained about the exhausting demands she made on their time and their sympathy. Indeed, he leaves no room to doubt his admiration for Lispector, delighting in repeating (sometimes more than once) the numerous superlatives that have been conferred on her. Elizabeth Bishop said she was “better than Borges.” A Brazilian journalist remarked at the height of her fame that “Clarice Lispector has ceased to be a name and become a phenomenon in our literature.” Moser himself writes that she had “one of the most extraordinary careers in twentieth-century literature” and that her work, taken as a whole, constitutes “perhaps the greatest spiritual autobiography of the twentieth century.”
Better than Borges? This seems a bit much to say about a writer whose most celebrated work treats at considerable length a woman’s thoughts in the act of killing a cockroach. The rest of Bishop’s statement, made in a letter to Ilse and Kit Barber Lowell in 1962, is rarely quoted: “Actually I think she is better than JL Borges—who is good, but not all that good!” Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible for a non-Portuguese-speaker to evaluate Lispector’s achievement, because not much of her extremely varied body of work is available in English. The “sensational” first novel was only recently reissued after a long period out of print. English readers without access to a university library are left with a scattering of her late books, including the uncategorizable non-novel The Passion According to G.H., the work that so flummoxed its translator. But what there is gives a sense of an exceedingly diffuse talent, in which sharp turns of description and speech are eventually drowned out by a muffled metaphysics.
Lispector seems to have wanted to be perceived as a philosopher first and a novelist second. Her novels play with different forms of existential philosophy, and her fans have often seen mystical currents in her work. Moser ties this element, altogether unconvincingly, to her birthplace, the Ukrainian province of Podolia, which happens also to have been the birthplace of the Hasidic movement; two of the legendary Jewish mystics, the Baal Shem Tov and Nachman of Breslov, died nearby. Pinkhas, her father, was a shopkeeper who in his spare time studied Talmud (not the most mystical of Jewish intellectual pursuits) and, more unusually, read literature. He was also interested in mathematics, and may have inspired his daughter’s appreciation for the mystical values of numbers, which she was known to consider while planning out the length of her books. His wife Mania cared for their three daughters (Clarice was the youngest) with some difficulty, as she suffered from a disabling illness that led to her paralysis and finally to her early death in 1930, when Clarice was not yet ten. The specifics of this illness remain unclear, but Moser makes a convincing case that it was syphilis, contracted when she was raped by Russian soldiers during one of the many pogroms inflicted upon Jewish villages in that area during the tumultuous interwar period.
The family left Ukraine shortly after Clarice’s birth, in the winter of 1920–1921, traveling via Kishinev, Bucharest, and Prague to Hamburg, where they boarded a ship bound for Brazil. They settled in the northeastern city of Maceió, where Mania’s sister and her husband had already emigrated, and the family all took Brazilian names. (Clarice had been born Chaya.) In Moser’s view, the trauma of her early childhood was responsible for one of Lispector’s primary philosophical ideas: her belief that, in Moser’s words, “there was no more reason for her existence than there was for the cockroach’s. Blind luck was the only reason she had survived the Ukrainian horrors when so many millions of others had perished. .... To understand the random animal nature of the world was necessarily to reject ... conventional morality.”
Lispector decided to become a writer as a teenager. “I was a confused and perplexed adolescent who had a mute and intense question: ‘what is the world like? and why this world?’” she would later write in one of her columns. “Later I learned many things. But the adolescent’s question remained, mute and nagging.” Like so many adolescents, she fell under the spell of Hesse’s Steppenwolf, with its romantic vision of the artist’s dual, dueling nature. “These people all have two souls,” Hesse wrote, “two beings inside them, in whom the divine and the diabolic, the mother’s blood and the father’s, the capacity for happiness and for suffering, are as tightly and inimically bound as the wolf and the man were inside Harry [the ‘Steppenwolf’].” (This sentiment was hardly original to Hesse; he lifted the “two souls” line directly from Faust.)
The motif of two clashing characters, whether embodied by one person or played out in the dynamic between two people, would be a common one in Lispector’s work, beginning with her first known published story, which appeared in a Brazilian magazine in 1940. The story presents a young male writer viewed from the perspective of his female lover, whom he has rejected for the sake of his art: “He said he needed special conditions in order to produce.... He went off to try to find the ‘atmosphere.’” But at the end of the story the girl, taking a bath, exults in the sensuality of the water on her body and realizes that her lover would return to her, that (as Moser paraphrases) “she—the animal, the body, the woman—was stronger than his doubts.”
Steppenwolf, not quite a novel itself, also inspired the structure of Lispector’s works, in Moser’s view. “Like many of Clarice’s own future books,” he writes, it is “a philosophical meditation hung on a fantastic, loosely constructed story.” Her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, takes up the two-souls theme again, but this time with what Moser calls a “Spinozistic conception.” Artistic, passionate Joana is married to a “mediocre intellectual.” Her husband has an affair with Lídia, a previous girlfriend, who becomes pregnant. The two women are continually contrasted: Joana is impetuous and animalistic, Lídia conventional and maternal. (The book’s title comes from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life.”) Joana’s amoral nature brings her to a state close to transcendence. “Just as there is no meaningful separation between man and animal, between Joana and the cat or the snake, neither man nor animal is separate from God, the single, infinite, and eternal ‘one substance’ that is synonymous with Nature: one substance in constant transition,” Moser explains. He traces much of this to Spinoza, noting that Lispector transcribed some of the novel’s philosophic flights directly from the notes she had made in an anthology of his writings.
This may well be the case, but Lispector is always more engaging and more original when she turns her attention to characters rather than abstractions. In one of the novel’s climactic scenes, Joana delivers a passionate indictment of married life. “I bet you’ve spent your whole life wanting to get married,” she says to Lídia. Lídia begins to reply—“Yes. Every woman ...”—and Joana cuts her off:
Not me. I didn’t plan to marry.... Imagine: always having someone next to you, never to be alone—My God!... Even the fatigue of life has a certain beauty when borne alone and desperately.... But together, eating every day the same saltless bread, watching one’s own defeat in the defeat of the other.... Not to mention the weight of the habits reflected in the habits of the other, the weight of the shared bed, the shared table, the shared life, preparing and threatening the shared death.
Like Irène Némirovsky, Lispector excels at the carefully chosen domestic detail that swells to encompass an entire life: the “saltless bread,” the “weight of the shared bed.” Interestingly, their lives and careers had similar beginnings: both writers were born in Ukraine and emigrated as children. And both fought tenaciously to throw off their origin and be recognized as full citizens of their adopted countries and cultures: Lispector, petitioning the president for Brazilian citizenship at the age of twenty-one, wrote that if she were “forced to return to Russia, [she] would feel irredeemably foreign there, without a friend, without a profession, without a hope.”
And both had sensational debuts at remarkably young ages. Near to the Wild Heart was published in December 1943, when Lispector had just turned twenty-three, and it created what Moser describes as a “furor.” “As I devoured the chapters the author was typing, it slowly dawned on me that this was an extraordinary literary revelation,” said Francisco de Assis Barbosa, her colleague at the newspaper A Noite. “The excitement of Clarice, hurricane Clarice.” The journalist Joel Silveira later said that “everyone wanted to know who that girl was.” The book won a prize for the best debut novel of 1943, but the accolades did not stop there. One newspaper called it “the greatest debut novel a woman has ever written in all of Brazilian literature.” Lêdo Ivo, a poet and friend of Lispector’s, went further, describing it, in another oft-quoted remark, as “the greatest novel a woman has ever written in the Portuguese language.” He was, however, only nineteen at the time.
All biographers mine their subjects’ work for clues to their personal life, and Moser is forced to do so as well, especially since Lispector, intensely private, rarely spoke of her personal life to anyone but her close friends. It is impossible not to notice that she wrote Near to the Wild Heart, which takes as its subject the impossibility of marriage, during the year preceding her own marriage to the future diplomat Maury Gurgel Valente. Moser describes her married life as a “wobbly poise” between the figures of Joana and Lídia. “If, as Clarice said in reference to Joana, Madame Bovary c’est moi, Clarice was also Lídia, a conventional woman, a wife and a mother, a person who wished to live in peace with the world,” he writes.
While Lispector seems to have been often happy in marriage and motherhood—the couple had two sons, born in 1948 and 1953—the diplomatic life took a toll on her professionally. Maury’s postings included Naples, Bern, and Washington, D.C., and as she trailed after him around the world, she suffered from homesickness and lack of inspiration. “This Switzerland is a cemetery of sensations,” she wrote in a letter to one of her sisters. Washington was a “vague and inorganic city.... It’s beautiful, according to various laws of beauty that are not my own.” Despite the sensation of her debut, she was unable to keep up the necessary contacts that could have made her publishing career a little smoother. Once they finally appeared, her second and third novels, The Chandelier and The Besieged City, bombed with reviewers, who found them too abstruse and allegorical. “Its hermeticism has the texture of the hermeticism of dreams,” the Portuguese critic João Gaspar Simões wrote of The Besieged City. “May someone find the key.” Even Moser can muster only that The Chandelier has a “glacial intensity.”
In these novels Lispector was starting to experiment with the metaphysical obsessions that would come to dominate her prose. Her later works all strive to realize the same impossible challenge: how to express in writing her mystical vision of the union of words and things. “If I had to give a title to my life it would be: in search of the thing itself,” she wrote in 1964. In The Chandelier, a character named Virginia shapes figurines out of mud, “a clear and tender material from which she could shape a world.... Little forms that meant nothing but which were in reality mysterious and calm. Sometimes tall like a tall tree, but they weren’t trees, they weren’t anything.... A work that would never end: that was the most beautiful and careful thing she had ever known.” Lispector was well aware of the difficulty of her project—for her readers as well as for herself. But she showed a complete lack of interest in the experience of the reader. “It would be more attractive if I made it more attractive,” she wrote in a short piece called “Novel” that is as close to a manifesto as anything she wrote. “Using, for example, some of the things that frame a life or a thing or a novel or a character. It is perfectly acceptable to make something attractive, except for the danger that a painting is a painting because it is in a frame. For reading, of course, I prefer something attractive, it fatigues me less.... In my writing, though, I must do without it. The experience was worthwhile, even if only for the person who wrote it.” This could be called artistic purity, but it contains an undeniable element of perversity.
This technique reaches its epitome in The Passion According to G.H., which Lispector wrote in “a quick outburst” at the end of 1963. The book is easy to summarize—a woman kills a cockroach and finds God—but impossible to define. Moser calls it “one of the great novels of the twentieth century,” arguing that “in its ambition and eccentricity, in its sweeping redefinition of what a novel can be, Passion recalls peculiar masterpieces such as Moby-Dick and Tristram Shandy.” Yet he continues, strangely, that “it is not, at least not in the first place, literature.” Surely he means “fiction” rather than “literature.” But even so, he leaves unexamined the question of how a book that may well not really be a novel can nonetheless be considered to be a great novel. Moby-Dick and Tristram Shandy, in their own ways, transformed conventional wisdom about the novel’s form, yet both books are undeniably novels; they worked their transformations from within. “Are we to take G.H.’s story as fiction or as speculation on philosophical problems in and through the narration of what we would traditionally call a ‘plot’?” Ronald W. Sousa asks in the introduction to his translation of the book. “Where does literature end and philosophy begin?”
But in a true philosophical novel—The Magic Mountain, say, or The Plague—neither literature nor philosophy should have to end anywhere. The interconnectedness of the two is the point of the form: the philosophical novel explores philosophy via the medium of literature. But not the other way around. This is why Plato’s dialogues, though invented, are not philosophical novels: the literary elements are secondary to the philosophy. And this is also why The Passion According to G.H. should not be considered exactly a novel, but rather something more akin to the Platonic dialogues: a dramatic monologue chronicling a woman’s existential crisis.
It starts off like a novel, though with distinct metaphysical undertones. The narrator says that she is going to “create what happened to me. Only because living isn’t tellable.... I shall have to create upon life.” She begins with the basics. She lives in an elegant penthouse apartment, but feels that she is living a “nonexistent life,” as if within quotation marks: “All the while I was, more than just clean and correct, I was a pretty riposte.” She recognizes herself only through external signs, such as the initials G.H. monogrammed on her luggage. On the day the novel takes place, she goes into the room of her maid, who has recently quit, and finds a charcoal mural that distresses her: a drawing of a nude man, a nude woman, and “a dog more nude than dogs really are.” It violates her sense of decorum, “the quotation marks that made me a reference to myself.”
In this agitated state she opens the door of the wardrobe and discovers the cockroach. It pokes its head out, and she slams the wardrobe door, trapping it but not killing it. As she goes to deal it the death blow, she sees the expression on its face, level with her own. “What I saw,” the narrator says, “with a compulsiveness so painful and so frightening and so innocent, what I saw was life looking back at me.... I had looked upon the live cockroach and had discovered in it my deepest life identity.” And here the mystical element takes over:
Then, all at once, I opened my eyes and saw full-on the room’s limitless vastness, that room that resounded in silence—Hellish laboratory.
The room, the unexpected room. My entrance into it had finally become complete.
This room had only one way in, and it was a narrow one: through the cockroach. The cockroach that filled the room with a resonance that was in the last analysis open, the resonances of its rattlesnake bells in the desert. By a perilous road I had reached the deep breach in the wall that was that room ... and the break formed a wide natural hall like in a cave.... And in this desert of great seductions, the creatures: I and the live cockroach. Life, my love, is one great seduction where everything that exists is seduced. That room that was desert and therefore primitively alive. I had reached nothingness, and the nothingness was live and moist.
And so on in this vein for a hundred more pages. Lispector later said of this book that of all her novels, it was the one that best corresponded to her own demands as a writer—the one that best embodies the union of words and things. But while there are moments of exquisite writing—the narrator says of the cockroach that it was “as old as a fossilized fish ... as old as salamanders, and chimeras, and leviathans”—the metaphysics is impossible to follow in this form, and thus also impossible to take seriously. To quote bits and pieces from it would be absurd; but to quote entire passages would be even more absurd. In trying to be at once a novel and a philosophical treatise, the book succeeds at neither.
During the early ’60s, Lispector seems to have undergone a personality change. In 1959 she separated from her husband and returned to Brazil with their sons. To support them on her own, she took on all sorts of newspaper work, including a beauty column that was secretly underwritten by Pond’s and another six-day-a-week column that she ghost-wrote for a celebrity. It was during this period, perhaps owing to the stress of needing to generate income, that her behavior became erratic: she was known for calling her friends (including a married lover) at all hours of the night, and for wearing “scandalous” makeup. To make matters more difficult, her elder son began showing signs of schizophrenia and required increasingly more serious treatment. Moser repeats a heartbreaking anecdote about a dinner party she gave at which her son spent the entire evening walking around the table with his hands covering his face. “Clarice pretended that she didn’t notice him and continued on diplomatically with the conversation. But she did notice, and the guests knew she did, because though they sat there for hours, Clarice forgot to serve the food.”
At around the same time she met Elizabeth Bishop, who wrote enthusiastically about her to Robert Lowell, though with reservations. “Her novels are NOT good,” Bishop judged, but she loved Lispector’s short stories: “almost like the stories I’ve always thought should be written about Brazil—Tchekovian, slightly sinister and fantastic.” Bishop translated five of the stories herself and promoted them to American publishers, but just as she was about to submit them, Lispector vanished—typical of her increasingly unpredictable behavior.
Later published in the Kenyon Review, two of the stories justify Bishop’s estimation. “A Hen” is a short parable about a hen who flies away just as the family that keeps her is about to cook her for dinner. After they catch her and carry her into the kitchen, she suddenly lays an egg, which transforms the family’s attitude toward her: “Her heart, so small on a plate, made the feathers rise and fall, and filled that which would never be more than an egg with warmth.... Everyone ran to the kitchen again and, silent, stood in a circle around the new mother.” The hen becomes “the queen of the house,” a state of things that continues for an indeterminate period of time. The story’s conclusion comes brutally, without warning: “Until one day they killed her and ate her and the years went by.” In a passage that could almost be a parody of biographical criticism and its limitations, Moser reads this story as a fairly direct allegory of Lispector’s own life: “The reference to the ‘old fright of her species’ suggests the ancestral Jewish fear of persecution, and the phrase ‘remnants of the great escape,’ coupled with the spectacle of a helpless, flightless, pregnant female running for her life, may refer to her mother’s desperate escape from Europe.” Such clunky analogies virtually destroy the experience of reading this story, since it derives its unique quality precisely from its sense of mystery—the thematic counterpoint that runs deeply below its surface, only occasionally breaking through.
This is even truer of “The Smallest Woman in the World,” a beautiful and incomparably strange tale about love and motherhood. A French explorer in the Congo discovers a tribe of the world’s smallest pygmies: “And—like a box within a box—obedient, perhaps, to the necessity nature sometimes feels of outdoing herself—among the smallest pygmies in the world there was the smallest of the smallest pygmies in the world.” She is “seventeen and three-quarter inches high”—a wonderfully exact detail—and the man names her Little Flower. A life-size photograph of her is reproduced in all the Sunday supplements, and we get glimpses of the reactions of some of those who see it. A little girl of five, who up till now had been the smallest person in her household, realizes that “if this was the source of all caresses, it was also the source of the first fear of the tyranny of love.” A little boy wants to keep her and play with her like a doll. His mother remembers a story she once heard about children in an orphanage:
The orphans had no dolls, and, with terrible maternity already throbbing in their hearts, the little girls had hidden the death of one of the children from the nun. They kept the body in a cupboard and when the nun went out they played with the dead child, giving her baths and things to eat, punishing her only to be able to kiss and console her. In the bathroom, the mother remembered this, and let fall her thoughtful hands, full of curlers. She considered the cruel necessity of loving. And she considered the malignity of our desire for happiness. She considered how ferociously we need to play. How many times we will kill for love. Then she looked at her clever child as if she were looking at a dangerous stranger. And she had a horror of her own soul that, more than her body, had engendered that being, adept at life and happiness. She looked at him attentively and with uncomfortable pride, that child who had already lost two front teeth, evolution evolving itself, teeth falling out to give place to those that could bite better. “I’m going to buy him a new suit,” she decided, looking at him, absorbed.
The language here is extraordinary: the vision of “terrible maternity” budding in the little girls, the mother’s “thoughtful hands,” the cruelty of evolution in its pursuit of teeth that can “bite better.” Even considering the possibility that Bishop may have had a strong hand in the language, these uncanny images alone are sufficient to distinguish this story and its vision of motherhood, at once so universal and so mysterious. And the story ends with another abrupt twist that is surely all Lispector: a poetic meditation on Little Flower’s own love for her discoverer, and then a final cut back to an old woman looking at the newspaper supplement: “God knows what He’s doing,” she remarks.
The end of Lispector’s life took on a surreal quality not unlike the uncanny atmosphere of her stories. She developed an interest in the occult, and a friend of hers warned away a critic researching her with the words “It’s not literature. It’s witchcraft.” Desperate for money, she quickly and sloppily translated popular novels, including Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. She astonished both her interviewer and the camera crew during her only TV appearance by telling them: “For now I’m dead ... I’m speaking from the tomb.” Always vain, she hired a makeup artist to visit her regularly and apply some sort of semi-permanent makeup: apparently, he was instructed to do it even if she was knocked out by the sleeping pills on which she had long been dependent.
Everyone who knew Lispector, it seems, was enthralled by her beauty. The most famous comment about her is Gregory Rabassa’s remark, upon meeting her in 1962, that she was “that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.” Moser remarks, cruelly, that “Clarice liked being attractive more than she liked being a great writer.” Whether or not this is true—and how could he know?—the relationship between her beauty and her writing was a complicated one. It seems meaningful, in this light, that she used the same word in her manifesto-essay “Novel,” rejecting the idea of “attractive” prose. Writing beautifully, for Lispector, might have been just as easy as being beautiful—and thus, to her, just as useless. “Like every writer, I am clearly tempted to use succulent terms: I have at my command magnificent adjectives, robust nouns, and verbs so agile that they glide through the atmosphere,” she wrote in The Hour of the Star, the last novel she published during her lifetime (another appeared posthumously).
But in deliberate ugliness there is no safety either. The Hour of the Star is, perhaps not coincidentally, one of Lispector’s more conventional novels: the story of an ugly girl, trapped in a miserable job as a typist, abused by her boyfriend, who winds up getting run over by a car. “Nothing would persuade me to contaminate with brilliant, mendacious words a life as frugal as that of my typist,” says the novel’s narrator, a man named Rodrigo S.M., clearly a stand-in for the novelist, who says that he has grown weary of literature. “Silence alone comforts me. If I continue to write, it’s because I have nothing more to accomplish in this world except to wait for death,” he says. So he attempts, “contrary to my normal method, to write a story with a beginning, a middle, and a grand finale followed by silence and falling rain.” It is the last resort of an exhausted man. But it is an apt ending to the career of a woman who tried to push fiction beyond its breaking point, and occasionally succeeded.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor of The New Republic.