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The Brazilian Sphinx

Near to the Wild Heart

translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero
New Directions, 192 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Selected Crônicas

translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero
New Directions, 212 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Family Ties

translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero
University of Texas Press, 156 pp., $22.95 (paper)

The Apple in the Dark

translated from the Portuguese and with an introduction by Gregory Rabassa
University of Texas Press, 361 pp. (1986)

The Hour of the Star

translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero
New Directions, 96 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Reading with Clarice Lispector

by Hélène Cixous, edited, translated from the French, and with an introduction by Verena Andermatt Conley
University of Minnesota Press, 169 pp., $19.50 (paper)

Before beginning this review, I took a quick unscientific survey: Who had read the work of the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector? When I consulted with Latin American scholars (well, only four of them) they grew breathless in their praise. She was a goddess; she was Brazilian literature’s greatest writer. Further inquiry revealed some misunderstandings about her life, a life that clearly had reached mythic proportions, with a myth’s errors and idiosyncratic details. Still, Lispector was held in reverent esteem by all four, though one believed she had died tragically in a fire (not so, although in her forties Lispector was burned on one side of her body, including her right hand, by a fire she accidentally started by smoking a cigarette in bed). Others were under the impression that she was a lifelong lesbian (also not so).

On the other hand, when I asked American and British writers (nine) whether they had read Lispector’s work, I could find very few who had even heard of her. Some had heard of her—they thought—but knew nothing about her and had not read her. Some had read her novels and recalled them as “intense.” Others had read a short story or two in some anthology or other. (I myself have spent most of my life in this last, somewhat dishonorable category.) I then went to Amazon .com—is there a more coarsely ironic place to assess the public reception of a Brazilian woman writer?—where the customer reviews from Brasília and São Paulo were glowing. But the American responses were often tepid, including one that suggested giving Lispector’s novel The Hour of the Star as an April Fool’s gift to a person you don’t like very much, telling that person it’s the best book you’ve ever read.

Even a devoted Lispector scholar named Nadia Battella Gotlib has titled an essay “Readers of Clarice, Who Are You?” (in the collection Closer to the Wild Heart: Essays on Clarice Lispector), and has compared Lispector’s simultaneously resistant and ingenuous texts to the sweetened plaster that is used to kill cockroaches, a substance that lures the creature then hardens it from within, killing from the inside out. (This image is Lispector’s own.) To be a Lispector reader, Gotlib implies, one must necessarily be caught off guard and then taken up, as if in a beam of light, toward a place that is not death exactly but a kind of not-life. It is an “enchanted sacrifice”—though understandably perhaps not to everyone’s taste.

From the start Clarice Lispector, despite the South American sun, lived in the clouds and in cloudiness. She was to the public a charismatic obscurity, a witch, a recluse, a mystery: the “Brazilian Sphinx.” Her odd name made people think she was a man or working under a nom de plume (which she sometimes did, but Lispector was her actual name). She was a kind of feminist, but as someone who also at times wrote beauty advice columns and had a closet full of designer dresses, she was not a feminist’s feminist. When later in life her work was called hermetic and she herself a “sacred monster,” it was to her own great dismay. Elizabeth Bishop, who lived for decades in Brazil, thought Lispector was a gifted primitive, essentially self-taught and suffering from what Bishop thought of as Brazilian lassitude and unreliability. Though Bishop believed that Lispector’s novels were bad and that Lispector had read nothing (except Hesse, Spinoza, Flaubert, and Agatha Christie), Bishop admired Lispector’s short stories and translated several of them.

There was a whiff of the diva about Lispector: restless in a marriage that had no place for a sorceress’s eye (hard on the nannies), she was just as restless in an art form that didn’t really traffic in divas. She was a stern and prickly beauty: Slavic-boned and almond-eyed, a watchful expression of sex and hauteur residing simultaneously, as in the face of a cat. “Her eyes had the dull dazzle of the mystic,” wrote a friend. At the end of her life several portraits of her hung over her sofa in her Rio apartment, including one by de Chirico, painted in war-torn Italy when de Chirico needed money and Lispector was still a young diplomat’s wife. (Neither painter nor writer seems to have known who the other was.) Mid-life she abandoned niceties. A demanding friend, she phoned people at all hours, including the middle of the night. She exhausted her psychoanalyst after six years of analysis and befriended his young daughter instead. She cultivated an unnerving stare. When she confronted a Brazilian publisher over unpaid royalties, right in his office, after waiting for him to return from lunch, she was handed cash of such a small amount that she left the building in a fury and gave all the money to a beggar.

She was mildly interested in the poor and wrote of them—ventriloquizing in their direction—as existential symbols. She spoke in an unconventional Portuguese that included a lisp, the correction of which she attempted but then shed, returning to the lisp. Her writing did not sound like the Portuguese anyone else was writing. “The foreignness of her prose is one of the most overwhelming facts of our literary history, and even of the history of our language,” wrote her friend the poet Lêdo Ivo. She was a fragmentist in a “shipwreck of introspection” though her subjects were nothing less than the nature of time, the nature of the self, and the nature of language communicating these natures. In France she was viewed as a philosopher—and at times it does seem that calling her a novelist is a little like calling Plato a playwright—but when she attended a literary conference where her work was discussed in theoretical terms (she was a darling of deconstructionists; the renowned critic Hélène Cixous remains a Lispector devotee and, like many, refers to her as simply “Clarice”), Lispector left the panel early, saying later that not understanding a word that was being said about her own work made her so hungry that she had to go home and eat an entire chicken.

She was a quiet torment to her translators, insisting that in her virtually untranslatable prose every comma be preserved. Ronald Sousa prefaces his translation of her 1964 novel The Passion According to G.H. by throwing up his hands. Lispector violated traditional expectations and

such violation has robbed me of useful ways of structuring my presentation…. This result may or may not be called “translation,” but then that undecidability is only fitting in regard to a work that may or may not be called a “novel.”

First-time readers might be advised to start with the Giovanni Pontiero translations, which have been enthusiastically praised and do seem successfully to capture a real voice on the page. Oddly, Lispector’s own translations—of Agatha Christie, of Anne Rice—were widely considered careless and second-rate and done for the rather little money they paid.

Much of this is set forth in the impressively researched new biography of Lispector Why This World by Benjamin Moser, a cultural journalist who for one intense period of his life forsook his day jobs (at Random House and Harper’s) and made Lispector his raison d’être, traveling the world to every place she had been, and creating an international history of the years 1920, when Lispector was born, to 1977, when she died. Moser’s is a well-written and remarkable book, and almost everything I can now say about Lispector’s life derives from it.

Lispector, the youngest of three beautiful and brilliant girls, came to Recife in the northeastern part of Brazil when she was five, a self-described “Russian immigrant” (actually Ukrainian) with her syphilitic mother and would-be mathematician father. They were escaping the Jewish pogroms that in the 1910s persisted in the villages and woods of the countryside of her birth. Her mother’s disease was contracted when she was raped by a gang of Russian soldiers. Only at the end of Lispector’s life did she discover that her mother, who died when Clarice was nine, wrote too, keeping private journals. Lispector’s older sisters were writers as well. Nonetheless, she began as a law student and then a journalist, and remained a journalist throughout her life and in some ways remained a lawyer as well, in that much of her fiction involves seeking the precise words for crimes and interrogating the moral intricacies of facts.

She married a career diplomat who was stationed both in northeastern Brazil (which was a strategic Allied base in World War II) and then later in Naples, Bern, southern England, and Washington, D.C. Though the life of a diplomat’s wife might seem the perfect one for a writer—did it not work for Mary McCarthy?—with its travels and staff, its only burdens being residence away from home and having to be polite all the time, she chafed both as a dutiful diplomatic wife, and, later, as an intellectual among intellectuals. She learned to say “Isn’t that nice” as the former and “I don’t know” as the latter. And although she was initially good at polite appearances, after two decades it all proved a kind of soul-death (freedom versus duty is an early theme in her work). Her private life as a writer was not entirely taken seriously by her husband, and so she left him and with their two sons went back to Brazil, the only country that knew her work, and where her first book, Near to the Wild Heart (drawn largely from her own childhood), had been a critical sensation just before she left.

In many ways, she did not return soon enough for happiness. She arrived in Rio as a divorced middle-aged woman with two sons, one of whom was schizophrenic. Solitude, social awkwardness, and concern for her son, all infected her well-being. She became obsessed with an almost childlike desire “to belong,” and friends were driven away. Brazilian culture in the 1960s was heating up and everything from bossa nova to political activism made Rio an exciting place to be. But fiction writers could not make a living there. Nonetheless, Lispector lived in a fashionable part of Rio at one end of Ipanema Beach, with a live-in maid. She collected a generous amount of alimony, wrote journalism, ghost-wrote a starlet’s glamour column. Also under a pseudonym she became a paid agent of Pond’s, using a beauty advice column to extol the virtues of their skin cream. (There: I’ve buried the lead.)

Lispector’s uncategorizable work causes the reader to mimic her own processes: that is, her sentences are often in search of themselves and are constructed from the very casting about that a reader may undergo in having to find a term that is suitable to describe them. Zadie Smith, in these pages, has proposed “constructive deconstruction” (opposed to a tradition of “lyrical realism”).* I would suggest “epiphanic collage.” (Or on less receptive days, “expressionist journaling.”) The Jewish mysticism that is sometimes attributed to Lispector has much to do with the feeling in her work of chasing after a fleeing God, though her most compelling deity was language in service of the mind’s self—from which language too, for Lispector, has stepped away and requires summoning back. Language, for her, was the self’s light. (Moser never once uses the word “narcissism.”) She worried it with self-consciousness, like a cat with a slippery mouse:

The great, neutral reality of what I was experiencing outstripped me in its extreme objectivity. I felt unable to be as real as the reality that was reaching me—could I be starting in contortions to be as nakedly real as what I was seeing?

—The Passion According to G.H.

Even in her first book, published when she was nineteen, she was fond of the exquisite abstraction:

The dark, murky night was cut in half, separated into two sombre blocks of sleep. Where was she? Between the two halves, seeing them—the half she had already slept and the half she still had to sleep—isolated in the timeless and in the spaceless, in an empty gap. That interval would be discounted from the years of life.

—Near to the Wild Heart

Furthermore, her relationship to animals grew increasingly spiritual, taking Spinoza’s pantheism into the heart of both her life (dogs were often her closest friends) and her work. In some of her narratives animals seem a stay against the abyss; other times they reflect that abyss in their eyes, in a manner resembling a destroying lover. She sometimes pits an animal and a person in a dialectic of mutual assassination. She is interested in the complexity of a creature: the eyes of a cockroach; the mute, humid hippopotamus; cats mistaken for suckling pigs. Theirs is a world that “saw no danger in being nude.” One of her finest stories, “The Buffalo,” from her collection Family Ties, takes place in a zoo (its closing notes of love-maddened self-mutilation are reminiscent of the brutal ending in Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher). “Careful, Nature thinks” is one of her oft-quoted lines. As is “Do not mourn the dead: they know what they are doing.”

Lispector reads as a lively intelligence sometimes veering toward hysteria then falling back, as if in a faint, and flattening to aphorism and pronouncement. Psychology and setting by and large remain vague; such modernisms are dispensed with in favor of starkness, tragicomic paralysis, and crying out. She is a postmodernist of some sort, but Moser, perhaps wisely, does not attempt any label at all. He discusses her work in great detail, book after book, with sympathy and insight, and admirably eschews jargon though he underemphasizes her wit. Lispector was terrifically funny but it seems this is not made much of by anyone writing of her, though it is essential to the vitality of much of her prose. Near to the Wild Heart begins its second paragraph:

Resting her head again the cold, shiny window-pane, she looked into the neighbor’s yard, at the great world of the chickens-that-did-not-know-they-were-about-to-die.

In The Hour of the Star the narrator announces:

The action of this story will result in my transfiguration into someone else and in my ultimate materialization into an object. Perhaps I might even acquire the sweet tones of the flute and become entwined in a creeper vine.

In The Apple in the Dark, written in Chevy Chase, Maryland, just before she left her marriage, a black humor, conveyed through decrescendo and juxtaposition, is the offsetting fruit:

Ah, she said with simplicity, it’s like this: let’s say someone is screaming and then someone else puts a pillow in their mouth so they don’t have to hear the scream. Because when I take a pill, I don’t hear my scream, I know I’m screaming but I don’t hear it, that’s how it is, she said adjusting her skirt.

Even her letters are witty. Of a negative review, she wrote that that particular critic “acts like the man who beats his wife every day because she must have done something.” From Bern, the land of cuckoo clocks and snow, she wrote her sister, “This Switzerland is a cemetery of sensations.”

If there are other weaknesses in Moser’s biography, they are largely organizational: there are repetitions, as well as subjects that once begun are then dropped. The character and nature of her marriage seems almost completely missing for twenty-two chapters; as is, to a lesser degree, her relationship to her sons. Although we do see her observing her boys and writing down their cute remarks in notebooks, her relationship to mothering veers from being primary to less than secondary and then back again in a flash. Her love life seems to go almost completely out after the fire in her forties, and her lifelong attachment to the handsome gay poet Lucio Cardoso has unexplained hiatuses. Also the smitten translator Gregory Rabassa’s much-reprinted line, that Lispector was “that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf,” is never questioned for its sexism, i.e., is beauty a contraindication of an intellectual life? Would anyone say this of Hawthorne, Fitzgerald, or Camus? The remark irritated Lispector mostly because she had never read any Woolf.

Moser is impressive, however, in his interest and take on Brazilian politics. Providing authoritative historical backdrop is his forte. And though Lispector wasn’t especially political, after the military coup of the 1960s she joined in protest with other artists and with young people, with whom she felt like-minded on everything. She clung to young people. The strongly anti- Communist Elizabeth Bishop, on the other hand, seemed to distrust the young and supported the military coup—which may come as a surprise to her admirers.

Moser would like us to see Lispector’s death at fifty-seven of ovarian cancer as a literary symbol—he places it in a metaphorical system of eggs that runs through Lispector’s work. “The chicken exists so that the egg may traverse the ages,” she wrote in “The Egg and the Chicken (I).” “This is what a mother is for.” But her illness seems less significant as figuration than it does as a disease that disproportionately afflicts Ashkenazy Jewish women. In other words, despite everything, a Jewish death. As was her own mother’s, which Lispector never stopped mourning, and this, according to her latest biographer, more than anything else, informed the long artful wail of her work.

  1. *

    Zadie Smith, “<a href=”/articles/archives/2008/nov/20/two-paths-for-the-novel/”Two Paths for the Novel,” The New York Review, November 20, 2008.

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