Mystic Goddess of Brazil

Writer Clarice Lispector’s exoticism had much to do with her Jewishness; her literary vocabulary did not

If you take the four volumes of Clarice Lispector’s fiction recently published by New Directions and put them side by side, their covers join to make up a single image of Lispector’s face. It is a clever allusion to, and example of, the way so much commentary on Lispector focuses on her appearance. In a much-quoted sentence, the translator Gregory Rabassa called her “that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.” This kind of focus on a woman writer’s appearance is all too common—it happens with Virginia Woolf as well—but in the case of Lispector, her exotic beauty was just one element in a larger myth that she herself did much to cultivate. As Benjamin Moser, who edited these four books, showed in his 2009 biography Why This World, even during her lifetime Lispector was the subject of wild rumors and speculation by her fellow Brazilians. She was said to be a foreigner, or maybe a man writing under a pseudonym; “reading accounts of her at different points in her life,” Moser writes, “one can hardly believe they concern the same person.”

In fact, as Moser demonstrated, the exoticism of Clarice—née Chaya—Lispector had much to do with her Jewishness. She was born in Ukraine in 1920, which, excepting the Holocaust itself, was one of the worst times and places a Jew could be born in the 20th century. In the civil wars and foreign invasions that swept repeatedly across Ukraine during and after World War I, the one constant was the readiness of all sides to murder Jews: Some 250,000 were killed during this period, and many more were raped, robbed, or driven from their homes. The Lispector family was among them. According to the story Clarice told later in life, her mother contracted syphilis after being raped by Russian soldiers, and she herself was conceived in the folk belief that a pregnancy could cure a woman of the disease. The failure of this cure—her mother would die a few years later of advanced syphilitic paralysis—left Lispector with a lifelong burden of guilt.

The Lispector family were luckier than most Jews, however, in managing to escape Eastern Europe. After many hardships, their odyssey ended in the town of Recife in northern Brazil, where several relatives had emigrated earlier. Clarice, who was just 1 year old when she came to Brazil, grew up in a fairly cloistered Jewish environment, surrounded by Jewish immigrant families, and she attended Hebrew school. Growing up in the 1930s and ’40s, when fascistic and anti-Semitic parties had a significant presence in Brazil, must have made her acutely conscious of being Jewish. Yet after her father died, she drifted away from Judaism, and there is not one explicit reference to Jewishness in the four newly translated books—Near to the Wild Heart, The Passion According to G.H., Água Viva, and A Breath of Life. On the contrary, Moser writes, she went out of her way to proclaim her Brazilianness and to repudiate the foreignness her looks, accent, and overall presence often suggested.

Few writers have ever tried so hard to record the tremulous, instant-by-instant consciousness of living wholly in the moment.

The appearance of these four novels gives the American reader an opportunity to discover the substance behind the legend of Clarice Lispector; but it also helps to explain why that legend could thrive. If Lispector’s Brazilian readers were driven to mythologize and idolize her—Moser tells the story of one reader who, on meeting the writer, threw herself at Lispector’s feet and cried, “My goddess!”—they were only responding to an invitation that Lispector issues in her writing. These strange, paradoxical novels—which are not really novels at all, but hybrids of dramatic monologue and religious treatise—are all about the exceptionalness of their author, whose mind and character form their primary subject. Few books work so hard to give the illusion of intimate contact with their creator, and few are as unapologetically self-dramatizing. Indeed, the emotional melodrama and self-obsession of these difficult books frequently makes them sound adolescent—until their rigorous philosophical curiosity and mystical insight make them sound suddenly like the work of a Spinoza or a saint.

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Lispector was barely out of adolescence when she wrote her first book, Near to the Wild Heart. Published in 1943, when she was 23 years old, the book became a sensation and made its author famous, in large part because Lispector brought to Portuguese-language literature the fragmentary, stream-of-consciousness techniques invented by the Modernists. (The title is a quotation from Joyce.) The opening of the novel conjures childhood with a naïve immediacy reminiscent of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Her father’s typewriter went clack-clack … clack-clack-clack … The clock awoke in dustless tin-dlen. The silence dragged out zzzzz. What did the wardrobe say? clothes-clothes-clothes. No, no. … The three sounds were connected by the daylight and the squeaking of the tree’s little leaves rubbing against one another radiant.

Lispector maintains this evocative, oblique style as she tells, in fragments and flashbacks, the story of the heroine, Joana. And in this case the word “heroine” is more fitting than the neutral “protagonist.” Joana is portrayed as a larger-than-life figure, whose waywardness stems from her insatiable appetite for experience and sensation. From the very beginning, this desire for something higher and deeper than ordinary life is Joana’s defining characteristic:

Between her and the objects there was something, but whenever she caught that something in her hand, like a fly, and then peeked at it—though she was careful not to let anything escape—she only found her own hand, very pink and disappointed. Yes, I know, the air, the air! But it was no use, it didn’t explain things. That was one of her secrets. She would never allow herself to say, even to her father, that she never managed to catch “the thing.”

It’s not necessary to know—as Lispector’s first readers of course did not know—that Joana’s story resembles her creator’s in several details (both are motherless; both have a trusted teacher; both grow up to have ill-fated love affairs) in order to sense the very close identification between author and character. Lispector writes besottedly about Joana, turning her into a force of nature, a Nietzschean figure whose vitality puts her beyond ordinary judgments of good and evil. “The certainty that evil is my calling, thought Joana,” begins one chapter, but this evil has nothing to do with cruelty and so is never actually repellent. On the contrary, it is a willfulness that makes Joana seductive and admirable, especially compared to the pious aunt who raises her after her father’s death. “Goodness was lukewarm and light,” writes Lispector, “It smelled of raw meat kept for too long.” Compared to that, anyone would prefer, as Joana does, “the taste of evil—chewing red, swallowing sugary fire.”