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 …