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Becoming Brazilian

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The Brazilian author Clarice Lispector is not well known in the United States, but in her native land she is considered part of a Latin American vanguard that includes Gabriel García Márquez, Pablo Neruda and Jorge Borges. Lispector’s prose—with its open form, lyricism, and mystical metaphors—transcended narrative and meaning and suggested the presence of magical narratives in everyday life. In Why This World, Benjamin Moser sets out to explain how Lispector became the emblem of Brazil’s mid-20th-century cultural revolution through her peculiar prose, mysterious personality and legendary physical beauty.

Moser attributes Lispector’s fame largely to the very thing she tried to squelch: her desperate origins. Her parents, Ukrainian Jews, were driven from their home in 1919 by the pogroms that terrorized Eastern Europe. Lispector, born during her family’s escape, would have no memory of Europe, arriving in Brazil before she was 2 years old. But Moser argues that, nonetheless, her background gave her writing a distinctly European flavor that made her stand out among her contemporaries. Lispector’s first book, Near to the Wild Heart, became a sensation because of what Moser calls the “strange voice and foreign climate” of her language. Clarice tells the story of Joana, who, through a series of episodic flashes, relates her intense emotional state and conflicted outlook on marriage, life and society.

“There will be no space inside me for me to know that time, men, dimensions, exist, there will be no space inside me to so much as notice that I will be creating instant by instant, no instant by instant: always molten, because then I shall live, only then shall I live more fully than childhood …”

Lispector’s writing was different from that of any Brazilian author, comparisons were made to to Joyce, Woolf and Dostoevsky. However, Lispector’s lush stream-of-consciousness style would later become, as Moser says, “naturalized as that of a great Brazilian writer.”

Moser notes that her unusual prose incited a fascination with Lispector’s personality and origins. He cites Brazilian poet Lêdo Ivo, who said, “There will probably never be a tangible and acceptable explanation for the language and style of Clarice Lispector. The foreignness of her prose is one of the most overwhelming facts of our literary history, and, even, of the history of our language.”

Lispector, on the other hand, resented being labeled a foreigner, even if it was said in praise. Moser writes that “there was no characteristic Clarice Lispector might have wanted to lose more than the place of her birth.” Lispector even took speech lessons to correct a slight accent inherited from her parents. When readers attempted to draw autobiographical information from Lispector’s novels, she would respond with linguistic puzzles: “The I who appears in this book is not I. It is not autobiographical, you all know nothing of me. I never have told you and I never shall tell you who I am. I am all of yourselves.”

If Lispector resented the speculation about her early escape from Europe, it’s also clear that she also loved to draw from her past in elaborate paradoxes, such as this one from her novel Àgua viva: “this is not a story because I don’t know any stories like this, but all I know how to do is go along saying and doing: it is the story of instants that flee like fugitive tracks seen from the window of a train.”

Moser claims that what makes Lispector’s literature so enigmatic is a “fundamentally different conception of art.” But Clarice distanced herself from the academic critique of her work. When her books were applauded for their poststructuralist elements, she said, “I don’t even have any idea what that is.”

Moser spends a considerable amount of time describing the aura around Lispector’s beauty. Merely meeting Lispector evidently tongue-tied men, who were unable to put their finger on what made her unique. The translator Gregory Rabassa recalled being “flabbergasted to meet that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.” Men would throw themselves at her feet, as Lispector recalled, “There was an American poet who threatened to commit suicide because I wasn’t interested.”Sadly, this mystique made it difficult for Lispector to age gracefully. In 1966, at age 45, Lispector badly burned her right arm when she fell asleep smoking. After the accident, she became embarrassed to be seen in public. Moser describes Lispector’s later life as a series of struggles with lost beauty, drug addiction and loneliness.

As Lispector became increasingly reclusive, her work became more mystical and more popular. She appeared at the First World Congress of Sorcery in Colombia in 1974, and though her presence was treated as a spectacle, it solidified her own mythology. Her cult following would continue to grow after her death in 1977.

Today, Lispector’s likeness is issued on postage stamps in Brazil. She is a hero to so many Brazilians precisely because her work, and her identity, is open to interpretation. As Moser says, “Clarice Lispector has been described as just about everything: a woman and a man, a native and foreigner, a Jew and a Christian, a child and an adult, an animal and a person, a lesbian and a housewife, a witch and a saint. Because she described so much of her intimate experience she could credibly be everything for everyone, venerated by those who found in her expressive genius a mirror of their own souls. As she said, ‘I am all of yourselves.’ “

Ryland Barton is an Observer intern and a graduate student at the University of Texas School of Journalism.