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The Man Who Loves Women

Having brought author Clarice Lispector back into the public eye, biographer Ben Moser turns to Susan Sontag

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Benjamin Moser was staying in an anonymous apartment, with white walls bare of adornment save for picture windows that didn’t open. The room contained a couch, a coffee table, and the chair on which Moser was perched, his long legs folded beneath him. On the coffee table in the center of the white room lay Why This World, Moser’s 2009 biography of one of the 20th century’s most compelling, if mysterious, women: Clarice Lispector, the Jewish Brazilian author who died in 1977. Lispector’s face gazed out at us from the dust jacket, a wounding presence that claimed the room and everything in it as her own.

Before Moser, Lispector was little-known outside of Brazilian or academic circles. Now, in the wake of Moser’s biography, and Moser’s new translations of her work, to English from Lispector’s bizarre, immigrant-inflected Portuguese, she is an author with a significant, growing following. Which is as Moser wants it. He is more than a biographer: He is a devotee, bringing the gospel of his subject wherever he goes. “I think it will become clear, as the dust settles, that she’s the great figure of Jewish literature in the 20th century,” he said, when I visited him in May.

In the meantime, Moser has started work on another great figure of Jewish literature in the 20th century. In possibly the only second act that could match his first, Moser has begun work on a biography of Susan Sontag, after being approached to do so by Sontag’s son, the writer David Rieff, and the literary agent Andrew Wylie. He is three years into the work.

Writing a biography of Sontag poses new challenges. When Moser set out to write about Lispector, he was met with suspicion. “Everybody thought I was crazy,” he said. “Because they said, nobody’s ever heard of her. I said that’s the whole point, that you haven’t heard of her. That’s the fun of it. With Sontag it’s different. With Sontag, you think you’ve heard of her, but you haven’t. You’ve heard of her, you’ve seen her picture, she has the white streak in her hair. But when you go beyond that, there’s a completely different person.”

What Blake Bailey—biographer of Richard Yates, John Cheever, and Charles Jackson—has become for postwar American male fiction writers, Benjamin Moser is becoming for eccentric, international-minded, postwar Jewish woman writers. Moser adores his subjects. He loves their inscrutability, sees it as a challenge. And it’s his delight in the challenge, coupled with a sense of mission, that makes him such a worthy partner, despite death and the passage of time, for his august subjects.

***

Moser is tall and slim, with big blue eyes and a thick lock of dark hair that falls across his forehead. When we met in his apartment, which he was granted as part of a fellowship at NYU, he was dressed in a black shirt and dark corduroy pants, both of which looked soft, and black socks. His conversation is soft and meandering, his voice deep; he gives the impression of being both youthful and wise beyond his 37 years.

When he is not traveling to interview his subjects’ acquaintances, Moser lives with his partner, the novelist Arthur Japin, in a historic house in Utrecht, Netherlands. Moser is originally from Houston. His father’s family, one of the older families of Houston Jews, has lived there since the 19th century. “My grandmother knew every single Jewish person in Houston,” Moser told me. “If she didn’t know them, they were very suspicious.” His mother, who is from Dallas and owned a children’s bookstore when Moser was young, converted to Judaism “to annoy her racist relatives in the ’70s.”

“Since I’m half WASPy and half Jewish, I always feel really Jewish around non-Jews, and I feel really not Jewish around real Jews,” Moser said. “Maybe that’s what I liked about her”—“her” being of course, Lispector. “She was always on the margins, even though she looked like she wasn’t because she was pretty and blonde and had Chanel suits. But she was very much a marginal person.” Some of the best moments in her work, Moser says, are when “[s]omeone walks into a room and doesn’t know anybody and is just like, ‘Who do I talk to at this party?’ That is an incredibly Jewish historical feeling, but it’s also just a human feeling.”

“Clarice was just the love of my life,” Moser said. He first encountered her work when he was 19, in a college class he took because it fit his schedule. He remembers opening the assigned book, The Hour of the Star, which Lispector had dedicated to Robert and Clara Schumann: “So I dedicate this thing here to old Schumann and his sweet Clara who today alas are bones.” “And, well, I was sold,” Moser wrote in an email. “I don’t know why. I could hardly read the language!” In the apartment, he explained further: “Some things you think are a great idea, like, lovers can look like a great idea in the dark, smoky bar, but then you get to know them and it’s not a great idea. But some loves are real, some last, and hers and me—I never got over it. I’m amazed by it.”

After college, Moser worked briefly in publishing, but, still obsessed with Lispector’s writing, he quit his job at 25 and spent the next five years paying his own way and pursuing the story of Clarice’s life through family, friends, and archives. “I thought, people go into debt to go to law school, or whatever,” he said. “I have an American Express card. I can go to Brazil. So I did, and I kind of bet my life on it.”

It took him five years until he had a completed manuscript of his biography. The book was rejected by 10 houses before it was accepted by Oxford University Press, which offered Moser $8,500 for five years of work. But the book was acclaimed in the New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, and it was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. It was translated into seven languages and was a best-seller in Brazil. Moser believes he broke even, eventually. “I think if I would have worked at Starbucks, I would have made more money,” he said. “But it gave me a job, being her spokesman, her ambassador. You know, people need ambassadors.”

***

Moser reveres Lispector, both for her writing and for her struggles through a troubled life. Her family fled pogroms in Ukraine when she was 9 months old and moved to Brazil. In Moser’s rendering, Lispector never climbed out of the shadow cast by that early struggle, despite her brilliance and her relative success. One strength of Why This World is Moser’s commitment to portraying both Lispector’s glorious work and her shattered life; there is in the book a refusal to allow any one side to prevail. While Moser was interviewing someone for his Sontag biography, the person pointed to the Lispector biography on the coffee table—with Lispector’s image on the cover—and said, “You have to put that book out of the way, because I keep looking at it, and the pain in her face is too much for me.”

But for Moser, the photograph is about so much more than just pain. “I mean, I do see it when he says it, but I also see somebody posing for a picture,” he says. “I see somebody in a studio with make-up and hair.” It’s that combination that kept him coming back for more. “I just felt something, in an erotic sense I would say; I mean erotic in the sense of a longing, a desire to come closer.”

In Why This World, Moser paints Lispector as fascinating, beautiful, and tragedy-ridden. Lispector’s family originated in Chechelnik, in the western Ukrainian province of Podolia. There Clarice’s mother was raped during a pogrom and contracted syphilis. Due to the mistaken belief that pregnancy could cure genital chancres, Clarice was conceived to cure her mother, and the family emigrated to Brazil in 1921, when Clarice, then Chaya, was a baby. But Clarice was to fail in her impossible mission—her mother died before her 10th birthday, and Clarice lived in the shadow of this failure for the rest of her life.

“Her mother was brutally raped and died of a wound inflicted at the very locus of her sexuality,” Moser said. “I think that it’s clear that sexuality was never an easy thing for her”—“her” being Lispector. But for Moser, there is something sublime in this unrealized sexuality, for Lispector redirects her eroticism into her writing. “That’s the current you feel, and that’s what allows her to attach her readers to her so unforgettably,” Moser says.

In Why This World, Moser is especially moving on the subject of Clarice’s father, a brilliant but unrealized mathematician who became a failed peddler in Brazil. “I think that’s the reality of most people’s lives,” said Moser. “So much of American literature is about failure. ‘Here I am in the golden land, and I fucked it up. I’m not Rockefeller, I’m just struggling to get by, like most people.’ That’s the American Dream and the reality of American literature—it’s Melville, it’s Joan Didion, you know? Joan Didion’s books are all about people who come to California or Hollywood with a dream and they completely fail, they get murdered. That’s most American literature.

“And it’s about the shame that causes. It’s not that bad if you fucked it up in Belarus, you know? But like, in California, in Texas, in Chicago, the narrative is, ‘We come from our shtetl and we make it better.’ But that’s very few people, and I think in America the presence of those people oppresses, you know, the awareness of what you should have been, versus what you actually are. There’s a huge gulf, and in cultures that idolize success like that, that’s more oppressive. You’re supposed to own the factory. Not everyone owns the factory. Not even all smart Jewish kids own the factory.”

Lispector’s work features heavily in Moser’s critical biography. Her heroines are trapped—they all possess an intense yearning for safety, usually represented by a man of great stability and middling intelligence, and yet they remain incapable of enjoying the coveted security. They are too keenly, even physically, aware of an existential abyss, which exists too close for comfort to their daily routine, which threatens to invade at every moment. As Adam Kirsch put it in a review of Lispector’s works, Lispector turns heroine after heroine “into a force of nature, a Nietzschean figure whose vitality puts her beyond ordinary judgments of good and evil.”

“You can be a really nice person and obey all the 613 commandments and whatever, and you’re still going to get raped and killed,” Moser said. “You’re a roach. You’re a roach. You’re an animal. You’re going to be crushed and destroyed inevitably. People in shtetls in the Ukraine kept kosher and they did everything and they obeyed all those rules, and look what happened to them. They were absolutely destroyed.”

For Moser, there’s all the proof you need of the world’s amorality. “It’s actually insulting to the memory of these people to think that the world is such that God is something you can appease,” he said.

Shtetls, pogroms, and mysticism are the proof for Moser of Lispector’s abiding Jewishness. She stems from a particularly Jewish suffering that, in Moser’s reading, she continued to engage her entire life.

“She is the writer,” he said, “who answers the question that Adorno poses that he later took back, that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz. She’s the one that answers that question, and she answers it in a positive way.”

Take, for instance, Lispector’s most well-known work, The Passion According to G.H. The book tells the story of a well-to-do Rio housewife who, after firing a maid, finds herself face to face with a cockroach in a cupboard the maid’s room. The woman—G.H.—slams the cupboard door on the roach and proceeds to have a mystical encounter, finding the pureness of being, stripped of its pretensions and personalities, in the white goo which oozes from the roach’s body. G.H. realizes that she, too, is a random eruption, like an animal, or a rock, and in recognition of this realization, brings the goo to her lips and tastes of it.

For Moser, this is what’s left when the world is lawless and God is unappeasable by ritual or prayer. “What’s left is this vocation for the divine and the state of grace and this desire to discover inside oneself the breath of life,” he said. “And that’s the roach. She approaches God with disgust and with fear and trembling, not philosophically but really in her guts.”

And for Moser, this is a post-Auschwitz theology. “She is staring Auschwitz in the face her whole life,” Moser said. “She remembers that mother, paralyzed and dying in that chair, staring out the window, exiled to the New World, but that was the reality of Jewish history until—last week. Really. My grandfather was a German refugee, so I know that story, I know what that does to people.”

Moser was very close to his grandmother—Bitsy, she was called—until she died his freshman year of college. “She had a lot of hangers on, sort of like Susan Sontag did, she liked younger gay men who thought she was hilarious and would take her to brunch and stuff.” She was that kind of woman, he explained. “She was attractive, she was funny, she was smart, and she was kind of bitchy, you know what I mean?”

Bitsy’s story actually coincided—somewhat mystically, one might think—with Lispector’s, Moser discovered. In 1928, Bitsy married her doctoral adviser, a man named Jacob Nachbin. Shortly thereafter, while doing research in the Mexican National Archives, Nachbin was caught attempting to purloin documents, and the couple was extradited back to the United States. As fate would have it, the episode was covered by the Yiddish papers in Buenos Aires, which was what Brazilian Jews read at the time. The story of Nachbin’s extradition was read by one Brazilian in particular, a woman who turned out to be Nachbin’s wife, whom he had abandoned with a son, Leopoldo, in Recife, Brazil, before moving to Chicago and reinventing himself. It turned out that Nachbin was a complete fraud, a brilliant, chameleonic self-creation, an orphan from a shtetl who had made himself into a professor, first in Brazil and then in Chicago.

Moser found all this out when he was in high school, when he and his mother had car trouble on the way back from a summer vacation in Colorado. They got stuck in Las Vegas, New Mexico, waiting for a car part. “I ended up spending three days with my mom in this horrible roachy motel in Las Vegas, New Mexico,” Moser recalled. When he got back, he said to his grandmother, “You’re not going to believe where we ended up spending three days. This horrible place. Have you ever heard of Las Vegas, New Mexico?” To which Bitsy replied,  “Of course I’ve heard of it, I used to live there! My husband was teaching at a university there! My husband Nachbin!” “And I had never heard of him,” Moser said. Turns out, Bitsy had three husbands more than Moser knew about. “So I said, ‘Oh! Do tell!’ And she said, ‘Oh he was a Latin American or a Pole or something.’ Which is exactly what he was!”

Nachbin’s story ends on a tragic note. After being expelled from the United States and going back to Europe, Nachbin was eventually killed in the Holocaust. But Bitsy’s ill-advised marriage to Nachbin ended up creating a family link between Moser and his muse. Nachbin’s son, Leopoldo, was Clarice Lispector’s best childhood friend in Recife.

Bitsy left her grandson with another legacy, too, a more political one. She was a staunch Democrat her entire life. “If there’s anything that the pogroms of Podolia can teach us,” Moser said, “it’s that Jews of all people should not be in the business of racial oppression, and discriminating against people because of their nationality. If Jews didn’t learn that, there’s no point to Jewish history. There’s no point to Jewish suffering. That’s why my grandmother hated Jewish Republicans.”

***

Moser is scathing on the subject of the indignities visited upon female writers. He recalled with disgust a literary critic, “a very respectable, illustrious, Harold Bloom type, in São Paulo,” who told him, “You know, people say she was really pretty, but they never point out that she actually had a really fat butt.” Moser shook his head. “Boy, when you write biographies of women, you realize,” he said, that “women are always second-class citizens. Always. So if you have the, like, big shlong, dude, that guy is always going to get—“ he cut himself off. “Who do people in America think are great Jewish writers? Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, or Bernard Malamud. You can keep adding to the list.” He shook his head. “I don’t think they hold a candle to her, for the range of what she did. It’s a huge range of work, a huge range. I think once people get that, they’re going to get a sense of the panorama of this mind. The mystical power of it. Has anybody in America written a book like The Passion According to G.H.? I can’t think of anything.”

Moser’s hope that Lispector will get the recognition she deserves is fortified by his new subject, Sontag. “Sontag really believed,” he said, “that the great works, the great artists would eventually be recognized and be celebrated and understood, even if they weren’t in their own times, and I think that will prove right with [Lispector]. That’s one of the great things about Sontag, she was absolutely dedicated to digging those people up, and using her fame and her prestige to shed light.”

Sontag’s legacy, Moser says, is both broader and narrower than Lispector’s: “This incredible belief in the importance of art and culture, and the belief in standards, the belief in seriousness, the belief that books matter and that paintings matter and the human spirit that makes those things matters.”

But above all, Lispector relates to Sontag as a great admirer. “She made it sort of sexy to be an intellectual, too,” Moser said. “She was good-looking, she was glamorous, she knew how to pose for the camera, so she used those post-modern trashy tools. Yeah, she was self-promoting, I mean, who isn’t? But she used that image of herself to bring all sorts of stuff to the attention of the world, and she managed to do it for 50 years, and it’s inspiring. It makes me want to do so much more in that. So, like what I’ve done with Clarice? She did with 50 people. It’s incredible.”

***

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The Man Who Loves Women

Having brought author Clarice Lispector back into the public eye, biographer Ben Moser turns to Susan Sontag