Clarice Lispector was born in 1920 to Jewish parents, in the small town of Chechelnik in Ukraine. It was hoped that the pregnancy would cure her mother’s syphilis, contracted when she was raped by a gang of Russian soldiers. The attempted cure failed. In 1921, the family made their way to Romania and eventually to Brazil. There, her father pushed a cart through the poorest parts of Recife, buying and selling used clothing. Her mother, by now partially paralysed, sat in a rocking chair on the porch. She died when Clarice was nine; her father died following gall bladder surgery before she was twenty.
The few times she spoke of her childhood, Lispector insisted it was a happy one. She was a bright student, went to law school, worked as a journalist and married a handsome diplomat. At 23, she published her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart (1943), to tremendous acclaim. A critic in O Jornal described it as combining the ‘intellectual lucidity of Dostoevsky with the purity of a child’. Another critic in Jornal de Alagoas described the book as ‘the greatest novel a woman has ever written in the Portuguese language’. A year later, Lispector’s publisher rejected her second novel, The Chandelier. A small Catholic publishing house, Editora Agir, took it on instead. This time there were few plaudits. Her third novel, The Besieged City, was turned down by Editora Agir and many other publishers. ‘What I want is to get the book out of here,’ Lispector wrote to her sister. ‘It’s impossible to improve it.’ (The book was eventually published by A Noite, who had published Near to the Wild Heart.) These two books, her second and third, are the least celebrated of Lispector’s nine novels and numerous story collections, and are now available in new English translations.
Despite its title, The Besieged City has no battle scenes; instead it’s a wobbly version of a classic courtship novel. The main character, Lucrécia Neves, dates a visiting soldier, Felipe; then Perseu, a sweet student of marine biology; she marries the wealthy Mateus, a doctor, and moves with him to a big city where she struggles to adjust to urban life. In ‘a few days the recently married woman felt it had been a year since she’d seen a cow or a horse’. She visits an aquarium, where she feels a special connection to the fish trapped in their tanks. The Besieged City has been called the Lispector novel with the happy ending. Lucrécia, we’re told, ‘wasn’t some sacrificed innocent. Lucrécia Neves wanted to be rich, own things and move up in the world.’ And she does. At the end of the book, when she is a widow, another suitor shows up. His identity doesn’t much matter. Her mother tells her that someone has fallen in love with her photograph, and in the last few pages Lucrécia decides to marry the man in order ‘to be reunited with her picture’.
Lispector isn’t interested in plot. Her first novel was praised instead for its ‘bewildering verbal richness’. So what is it about this novel – also weird, also dense – that proved even more bewildering than the rest of her work? Part of The Besieged City’s difficulty is its haziness. Lucrécia’s world sharpens up only briefly and intermittently, when looked at directly: ‘When she raised her head she decided not to forget to look at the narrowest house, the smallest shadow. The closed shops with their rolling gates of iron.’ Of her hometown, whose location is never made clear, we are told: ‘You could hardly make out its radiant and peaceful moistness that on certain mornings would come from the mist and emerge from the nostrils of the horses – the radiant moistness was one of the hardest realities to distinguish in the township.’ Little feels substantial. Most of Perseu’s observations are about sea creatures he has never seen. He tries to think in an orderly way, but ‘it was in his nature to be able to possess an idea and not know how to think it: obfuscated, persistent, tossing seeds, that’s how he’d explain it.’
The haziness of The Chandelier has to do with time rather than space. The main character, Virginia, is, like Lucrécia, a girl who leaves the countryside for the city. She returns to the countryside as an adult, trying to catch sight of her childhood, but her early life seems alien. ‘She was trying to feel her past like a paralytic who uselessly gropes the unfeeling flesh of a limb’ (the image calls to mind Lispector’s mother). At another point, ‘she was trying to think how she had emerged from childhood towards the ground, she was trying to orient herself to no avail; in an odd moment it would seem to her that she’d lived the same instant in another age, in another colour and in another sound.’
Both books describe absence, sometimes of solidity, sometimes of knowledge. And the characters themselves never seem entirely present. This isn’t only autobiographical, but it is at least also autobiographical. Lispector hardly ever wrote about her childhood directly – not about her parents, or about being a Jewish refugee – but her oldest sister, Elisa, wrote an unpublished memoir and novel in which she claims that, after their mother’s miserable death from syphilis, the family ‘tacitly agreed to avoid the subject, omitting her name, because she was present in all their thoughts and actions’.
Belonging to another species is a common expression of alienation in Lispector’s work. ‘I identified more strongly with the black horse than with Barbara Laage,’ she said of a French movie she had been urged to see because of her resemblance to its star. In The Besieged City equine imagery is often used to describe Lucrécia. (‘On her big horse face a tear was running down’; ‘Lucrécia was seeing and stomping her hoof.’) But she becomes increasingly tame, just as horses become less important to her home town when new forms of transport appear. ‘When she’d go out she was shocked by São Geraldo’s leap of progress, terrified in the traffic like a hen who’d fled the yard. The streets no longer smelled of the stable but of a weapon fired – steel and gunpowder.’ The arc of her storyline is a happy one, but the subplot shows her becoming diminished, not a woman, or a horse, but a frightened hen.
In The Chandelier Virginia, after marrying and moving to the city, goes back to her small town:
how fatal it was to have lived. For the first time she was aware of a time behind her and the restless notion of something she could never touch, of something that no longer belonged to her because it was complete but that she still clung to because of her incapacity to create another life and a new time. Her entire childhood had been wrinkled by the cold air that was hurting inside her nose with icy ardour.
Her past is a thing apart, but the novel never gives her a chance to ‘create another life and a new time’. Virginia is no longer her childhood self, but neither has she escaped its ‘cold air’.
Lispector finished The Chandelier in Naples in 1944, and wrote The Besieged City in Bern, where her husband was posted to the Brazilian Embassy. She was lonely, but found solace in the city’s medieval architecture: ‘What saved me from the monotony of Bern was living in the Middle Ages,’ she said.
It was waiting for the snow to pass and for the red geraniums to be reflected once again in the water, it was having a son born there, it was writing one of my least liked books, The Besieged City … my gratitude to that book is enormous: the effort of writing it kept me busy, saved me from the appalling silence of Bern, and when I finished the last chapter I went to the hospital to give birth to the boy.
It was her first child. Lispector was rare among female artists of her generation in publicly embracing motherhood: ‘I was born to love others, I was born to write, and I was born to raise my children.’ Later, when her husband was posted to Washington, and she had two young boys to care for: ‘I didn’t want my children to feel that I was a mother-writer, a busy woman, without time for them … I would sit on the sofa, with the typewriter on my lap, and write.’
She sounds less grown up in a letter written from Paris in 1947:
You can’t go to the theatre without having to say if you liked it or not, and why you liked it, and why you didn’t. I learned to say ‘I don’t know’ which I was proud of, as a defence and a bad habit, because I end up really not wanting to think, besides just not wanting to say what I think.
This kind of irritability seems to me at the heart of the distinctive appeal, and lack of appeal, of Lispector’s second and third novels. Why did such a worldly woman sound so adolescent in her late twenties? It might be related to the unexamined loss of both her parents. The Chandelier and The Besieged City are books of mourning that don’t admit it. They are novels written by someone who has lived an immeasurably safer, healthier and more comfortable life than her parents, but who imagines worlds in which that success turns out to be a bad thing. It’s a form of fidelity to a tragic fate that isn’t quite Lispector’s own. ‘How fatal it was to have lived.’
Doesn’t all modernism have a streak of angry adolescence, a pride in being difficult? The Chandelier and The Besieged City aren’t books written on a typewriter on a lap in a noisy room. That is both their strength and their weakness. In these novels, the prose brokers no compromise. The ending of The Chandelier – spoiler: Virginia steps out in front of a car and is killed – is repeated in The Hour of the Star, the last book Lispector published in her lifetime, although the endings differ tonally. Virginia’s death can be read as volitional. Like everything in the book, it’s ambiguous. Her lover finds her ‘lying on the ground with white and peaceful lips’. In The Hour of the Star, Macabéa is hit by a Mercedes shortly after being told wonderful news by a fortune-teller. ‘I could wrap it up by taking the easiest route, killing the infant-girl,’ the book’s narrator says, ‘but I want the worst thing of all: life. So let those who read me get punched in the stomach to see if it’s good. Life is a punch in the stomach.’
My first encounter with Lispector’s work was in a Latin American fiction seminar taught by a translator of Borges who was deaf in one ear. It was a small class; the professor sat halfway along the table and gave his attention to the students who sat on his right, ignoring those on his left. We read The Hour of the Star in between a novel narrated from the perspective of a stone and a short story about a supernatural child wreaking havoc at a birthday party. In the context, Lispector’s work seemed legible, charming, even easy.
One minor comedy in that sonically tilted classroom was that the only student who consistently said something interesting was the engineering major. He related Borges’s story ‘The Aleph’ to the different varieties of infinity. He usually said the most straightforward thing, but when thinking about such cracked work, it was also the most illuminating. I remember what he said about The Hour of the Star: ‘It’s funny, because she has this beautiful prophecy from the fortune-teller, and then she gets hit by a car on the way out.’ He said her fate was the forked path, the wrong turn. This course took place before the internet was the internet, but I now know that he echoed Lispector’s own comments. She herself had visited a fortune-teller. (She had ovarian cancer, though she was never told that by her doctors.) In a TV interview she gave near the end of her life she said: ‘I went to a fortune-teller who told me about all kinds of good things that were about to happen to me and on the way home I thought it would be really funny if a taxi hit me and ran me over after hearing all those good things.’ It is a rhyme for her own life, the startling punch in the stomach, the unexpected good turn.