‘You killed my character!’ Clarice Lispector said angrily to the nurse who stopped her from marching out of hospital the day before she died of ovarian cancer, aged 57, in 1977. The Brazilian writer and her characters had always been close, and it seems that self and creation had finally merged in her mind. Others had already made the connection. After she left her husband in 1959, he poured out his regrets to her in a letter that addressed her as both of the women in her first novel – the untamed, amoral Joana and the placid, domestic Lídia – while casting himself as the dumb man in between: ‘I rejected Joana because her world frightened me, instead of reaching out to her. I accepted, too much, the role of Otávio … Forgive me, my darling, for … not knowing how to convince Joana that she and Lídia were, and are, the same person in Clarice.’ That novel, Near to the Wild Heart, had shocked Brazil’s timid literary world in 1943. It wasn’t so much the classic dichotomy of freedom v. social bondage, here figured as freedom v. marriage, as the ecstatic modernity and vitality of Lispector’s writing that impressed and appalled her contemporaries.
Whatever I say shall resound fatal and entire! … always molten, because then I shall live, only then shall I live more fully than in childhood, I shall be as brutal and misshapen as a stone, I shall be light and vague as something felt and not understood, I shall surpass myself in waves, ah, God, and may everything come and fall upon me.
This is Joana’s voice. As her husband recognised, Lispector was 90 per cent Joana. The pity was that time and place, and her own diffidence, caused her to live more like a slightly petulant Lídia, even after their separation. By the end of Benjamin Moser’s biography, one feels that the intensity of the annihilation and rebirth traced in her novels and stories was matched in her life only when, in middle age, she was badly burned in a fire caused by smoking in bed. ‘I vaguely felt that, while I suffered physically in such an unendurable way, that would be proof of living to the maximum,’ she wrote. But she was never, by her own account, to live ‘more fully than in childhood’.
Moser’s fascinating and intricate biography tries to wrest Lispector from feminists like Hélène Cixous (who celebrated her plotless, fluid, subjective allegories as a model of ‘écriture féminine’). According to Moser, the destiny of Chaya Pinkhasovna Lispector, born in Chechelnik, western Ukraine in 1920, was inscribed in the circumstances of her birth. Her mother, who had two daughters already, contracted syphilis after being raped by Russian soldiers at the height of the pogroms; Clarice was conceived in the belief that pregnancy would act as a cure. ‘Except I didn’t cure my mother. And to this day that guilt weighs on me.’ Ten years later the child tried, consciously now, to save her mother by writing little plays and stories which she hoped would have a healing magic. And for the rest of her life she continued to write ‘as if to save somebody’s life. Probably my own’, as she wrote shortly before her death. There are many images of resuscitation in her work, as if death happened only in dreams. Determined to play down the Cixousian reading, Moser sees all the sacrificed women in Lispector’s books merely as versions of the Mother, rather than representatives of women more generally. Even the hens which are the protagonists of several stories are seen as mother figures.
The other decisive factor, as Moser sees it, was that Lispector was born in a region ‘famed for its great mystics’; her grandfather was a studious Hasid. This spiritual legacy was reinforced, Moser writes, by the pogroms that eventually drove the Lispectors to emigrate when Clarice was about a year old. Although she was too young to remember them, Moser believes that persecution, as a manifestation of God’s withdrawal, triggered her mysticism while her failure to talk about it indicates that, in a characteristically Jewish way, she internalised the trauma.
Moser overstates his case here too. She undoubtedly was a mystic, but in no single tradition. Her adult reading remains largely a matter of rumour, but her work seems to be marked by Christian symbolism, Daoist dialectics, Zen paradox and a range of fanciful esoterics as much as it is by the kabbalistic quest for the unspeakable ‘holy name, synonymous with God’. In Lispector’s existentialism – perhaps the best one-word summary of her philosophy – ‘God’ is shorthand for various speculative cul-de-sacs, from dissolution in organic being to intimations of an abstract, inhuman absolute.
In 1935, after her mother’s death, the family moved from Recife to Rio. At 13, reading Dostoevsky and Hesse, Lispector realised that it was permissible to write about ‘sensations’ instead of ‘fairies or pirates’, and determined secretly to pursue what she thought of as a vocation, a quest for self-knowledge. Grown up, she was extraordinary-looking, all eyeliner, cheekbones and pout: Gloria Grahame crossed with Sophia Loren. Men fell for her, but she seems to have been above such things. The love of her life was Lúcio Cardoso, a charismatic young writer whom she failed to ‘save’ from homosexuality. Against her better judgment she then settled on a fellow law student, Maury Gurgel Valente, who was petrified of her from the start. In response to an earnest letter about evil and individuality, he pleaded: ‘I’m much simpler than that. My wretched little worrying has nothing to do with great problems. Oh! Goddess Clarice! … Don’t terrorise me with your anti-aircraft guns – I fly too close to the ground.’ They should perhaps have heeded their incompatibility, spelled out by Joana-figures in several short stories before Near to the Wild Heart. But they married in 1943, the year the novel came out. Lispector was now a diplomat’s wife, obliged to leave the country just as it was fêting her.
Liberated Naples in 1944 was mildly interesting, and she was an angel at soldiers’ sickbeds. But she was too inward-looking to get much out of being abroad, and the tedium of diplomatic society is transformed and magnified in the violent subjection of Virginia in The Chandelier (1946), one of her most difficult books in its search for an originary language, stripped of accretions. As Moser puts it, ‘she identifies the point at which a thing is named as the point where that thing comes to exist.’ It is one of her most exhausting modes.
En poste in Switzerland, Lispector sank into a profound depression, not least because The Chandelier baffled her admirers ‘and left most critics speechless’. She moaned in letters home about the stultifying environment, compared herself to a castrated bull and found it hard to work. Her next alter ego, Lucrécia, in The Besieged City (1949), duly ‘achieves the ultimate in muteness and unreflection’. But at least Lucrécia manages to adapt to married life, to forget her village boyfriend, and to accept exile, for material reasons. Clarice couldn’t do the same.
After the birth of a first child and a happier year back in Rio, the family set off again, this time to Washington, where Maury was second secretary at the embassy. Lispector took sedatives and did her best to be gracious. Ironically for one who was always seen as vaguely foreign at home – with her speech impediment, clothes bought abroad, funny name, outlandish themes and weird syntax – she was sapped by homesickness, and tired of being Lídia. In 1959 she left Maury and took her two sons home to the swinging Brazil of the early 1960s, where she could be relevant again. But a woman separated from her husband was still seen as a problem. Lispector grew imperious and needy, addicted to pills and fortune-tellers. Her brilliant elder child was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and she had to earn a living churning out columns in women’s magazines and ghosting memoirs for starlets. At the same time the contradictory myths growing around her turned her into a monstre sacré, which she hated. Fame didn’t mean glamour, either:
When The Apple in the Dark won the Carmen Dolores Barbosa Prize … Clarice travelled to São Paulo to accept the award … The ceremony was presided over by no one less than Jânio Quadros, former president of Brazil … His folksy image included a drooping moustache and even, the story goes, fake dandruff spread on the shoulders of his jackets. As if that were not enough, he was also missing an eye.
After proffering an endless speech at Mrs Barbosa’s gracious home, His Excellency invited Clarice into a private chamber, where he proceeded to grope her so passionately that in the course of fighting him off her dress was ripped … On the way back to Maria’s house, a final indignity awaited the rattled laureate. Inside the prize envelope, the cash award: a grand total of 20 cruzeiros [about 30 cents].
And yet the inglorious life suits a mystic. The Apple in the Dark, like many of her works from the 1960s on, confronts renunciation and detachment on the switchback path to an always deferred truth, and, citing Jesus this time, explores the closeness of the humble to the divine. Lispector’s alter egos are no longer hungry romantics, but martyrs. The plot, if it can be called one, is as follows. A man called Martin has committed a crime, the nature of which he has repressed. Fleeing a German who might be after him, he finds himself in a desert where he relinquishes the signs of his humanity – language, intelligence – in order to try to rebuild himself and his world, searching blindly for what it means to be a man after the liberation from conventional moral codes that his crime has signified. He wanders onto a farm run by an angry woman and her dreamy, deceitful young cousin, and is taken on as a labourer. Martin’s tenuous presence sets off painful changes in both women. He has an affair with the girl, a meeting of solipsistic desires and misunderstandings. The boss-woman turns him over to the police, via a ‘professor’ who represents everything Lispector despises about the glib, abstract knowledge authority uses as armour. By the end, God has been invented, forgiven and sent packing: only irrational hope and impersonal love remain.
Plot, of course, is secondary: what matters are the fluctuating perceptions (looking and listening are portrayed as creative experiments), and the metaphysical quest that becomes ever more elaborate, paradoxical and unattainable. Mini-climaxes and revelations are quickly rescinded, as the characters continually fall back (or rise, it’s never clear) towards some sort of purer, pre-human being:
what he loved in her had already become mixed in with the freshness there was among the shining flowers, mixed in with the smell of rotting wood, the good smell of the damp earth that comes from logs – as if he had been thrown into his first human love. In the woodshed the incandescent flowers lost their sway. There it was like a stable, and people became slower and larger, like animals who do not accuse or pardon themselves. He looked at her, and she seemed to have been storing her body in a cool, dark place, like a fruit that must get through an adverse season without damage.
The writing is propelled by similes, as if the homely and familiar can help us through the sense of estrangement. Lispector is the kind of visionary in whom loftiness is inseparable from unselfconscious absurdity, and some of the most effective images are the most awkward: ‘he was walking faster and faster holding the bird in front of him as if he were running to the post office with it before it closed.’
Lispector was not interested in literature as such. Art was a branch of life. In 1963 she gave a lecture at the University of Texas, where she argued that all real art was avant-garde ‘since all real life is experimentation’. Too many young Brazilian writers were inspired not ‘by, shall we say, “the thing itself”, but by other literature, “the thing already literalised”’. Her most religious novel, The Passion according to G.H. (1964), is also the most physical in its climax – one that has, pace Moser, a stark relationship to the communion rite. ‘Only God does not feel disgust,’ she had written in The Apple in the Dark. Here, an upper-class woman, cleaning her former maid’s room on a whim, is condemned to acknowledge the divinity in herself and in all life by eating the oozing cockroach she has just squashed in the wardrobe door. This takes Kafka several steps further; it also marks the peak, or the most punishing dead end, of Lispector’s search for ‘the thing itself’.
In the years that followed, despite the horrors of the fire in which she felt she’d lost her looks, and increasingly prickly personal relationships, she stepped back from the radical brink, making the ‘great sacrifice of not being mad’, as she wrote in one of the newspaper columns in which she tried to reach out to ordinary life and other people. Her subsequent novels and stories, now often mixing fiction with an unmediated first-person voice, were easier to parse. She acquired a wife-figure, Olga Borelli, who also helped structure the patchwork chaos of the late books. Her last completed work, The Hour of the Star (1977), brings together her nostalgia for her childhood in Recife with the social conscience she never knew what to do with (‘The problem of justice is in me a feeling so obvious and so basic that I can’t surprise myself with it – and, without surprising myself, I can’t write’), for a story of final existential reckoning. This tale of an ignorant girl from the backwoods, devoured by the big city, belongs to a traditional Brazilian genre. But here, with startling postmodernity, the innocent’s consciousness is accessible only through the moods of a narrator who veers from the ironic to the histrionic, from the sentimental to the surreal. At the end, and with some regret, Lispector kills off her character:
As she lay there, she felt the warmth of supreme happiness, for she had been born for death’s embrace. Death is my favourite character in this story. Was Macabéa about to bid herself goodbye? I don’t believe that she is going to die, for she has so much will to live.
Six weeks later Lispector died.
The mystery of what turned a pedlar’s daughter from Recife into such an original writer is never dispelled by Moser’s book. This would please her. When she went into analysis, for example, she told a friend that she didn’t want people to know, because it would be too easy to explain her in that light. Her language was slippery, protean, always conjuring new provisionalities, as if to evade the ‘definitiveness’ that stops Martin from writing in The Apple in the Dark: ‘so treacherous was the power of the simplest word over the broadest thought’.
This is not the first time Lispector has been sprung on the Anglo-Saxon market as an undiscovered 20th-century genius. In 1986, The Hour of the Star was greeted as ‘the literary discovery of the decade’. There aren’t too many hidden geniuses left, of course, but this one remains a minority taste even in Brazil; such a singular body of work will always be more raved about than read.