Untamed Creature

Aug 19, 2009

By FERNANDA EBERSTADT
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WHY THIS WORLD

A Biography of Clarice Lispector

By Benjamin Moser

Illustrated. 479 pp. Oxford University Press. $29.95

Here's a riddle for literary sleuths. Which 20th-century writer was described by the eminent French critic Hélène Cixous as being what Rilke might have been, if he were a "Jewish Brazilian born in the Ukraine"? By the poet Elizabeth Bishop as "better than J. L. Borges"? And by the Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso as one of the chief revelations of his adolescence, along with sex and love and bossa nova? The answer is Clarice Lispector, a Portuguese-language novelist who died in Rio de Janeiro in 1977, and who, despite a cult following of artists and scholars, has yet to gain her rightful place in the literary canon.

Benjamin Moser's lively, ardent and intellectually rigorous biography promises to redress this wrong.

During her lifetime, Lispector, a catlike blond beauty with movie-star magnetism and an indefinably foreign accent, enjoyed an enormous succès d'estime in Brazil. Her fiction, which combines jewel-like language, deadpan humor, philosophical profundity and an almost psychotically lucid understanding of the human condition, was lauded for having introduced European modernism to a national literature felt to be pretty parochial.

Yet such was the mystery surrounding this reclusive author, Moser writes, that few people knew her true origins.

Moser, a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and Harper's, describes a family story that is harrowing even by the standards of 20th-century European Jewry.

Lispector was born in 1920 in Podolia, the same fertile crescent in present-day Ukraine that produced a number of mystical movements, both Christian and Jewish. Her original first name was not Clarice, but Chaya. Her father, Pinkhas, barred from a career in mathematics by his Jewishness, came from a family of religious scholars; her mother, Mania, from prosperous merchants.

The trauma that scarred Lispector's life occurred before her birth. During the civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution, Podolia was beset by a truly genocidal succession of pogroms. In 1918, Lispector's grandfather was murdered, her family home destroyed, and shortly after, her mother, Mania, already the mother of two small children, was gang-raped by Russian soldiers — an assault that infected the young woman with syphilis. The Lispector family joined the hordes of starving refugees crisscrossing present-day Moldova and Ukraine seeking escape to the New World. Without access to medical treatment, Mania and her husband resorted to folk remedies. Clarice, Mania's third and last daughter, was conceived in accordance with a folk belief that pregnancy could cure a woman of venereal disease. Clarice's inability to save her mother's life was a source of lacerating remorse: "They made me for a specific mission, and I let them down. As if they were counting on me in the trenches of a war and I had deserted."

Eventually, the family won passage to Maceió, a port town in northeastern Brazil. Chaya, renamed Clarice, was barely a year old when they arrived. Although for the rest of her life fellow Brazilians regarded Lispector as unassimilably alien, she herself was adamant in claiming Brazil as her soul's true home, the only place on earth where she could breathe free.

For her parents, however, fortunes did not improve. Mania, long mute and paralyzed, died when Clarice was 9; Pinkhas, now Pedro, struggled in vain to make a living as a peddler and died at age 55, leaving his children with the "unbearable" memory of a gifted mathematician and immensely moral man who was at every step thwarted by human evil and indifference.

Yet despite such beginnings, the Lispector daughters managed to forge valiant careers. Clarice's eldest sister also became a novelist, the middle sister a civil servant. Clarice graduated from law school — a rare accomplishment for her time, not to mention her background — and went to work as a newspaper journalist.

Nineteen forty-three — the year after Stefan Zweig, another Jewish writer who hoped Brazil could offer redemption from Europe's genocidal impulses, committed suicide in a mountain resort not far from Rio — saw the publication of the 23-year-old Lispector's first novel. It was called "Near to the Wild Heart," and it was an overnight sensation. The story is simple — a man torn between a homebody mistress and a wild-animal wife — and chillingly amoral, but Lispector uses it to address with brutal lucidity what will prove the central question of her work: What is the nature of God's presence in the world?

Moser is persuasive in reading the novel both as an extended riff on Spinoza and as an allegory of Lispector's own dueling personalities. For, as Moser reveals, if she was a writer almost cabalistically bent on piercing the veil between "word" and "being," and not much convinced of the validity of such human categories as good and evil, she was also an orphan who longed to be a perfect wife and mother, and who wrote Miss Manners-type columns advising women not to draw attention to themselves with garish clothing or loud laughter.

Lispector soon married a fellow law student who became a diplomat. The untamed creature, whom one poet-friend described as "a she-wolf," was to spend much of her life serving tea sandwiches at embassy functions in Bern and Chevy Chase.

In a story that seems to symbolize her own perpetual sense of involuntary alienation, Lispector writes of encountering at a bus stop a man with a coati (a kind of raccoon) on a leash. "I imagine: if the man took him to play in the square, at some point the coati would grow uncomfortable: ‘But, good God, why are the dogs looking at me like that?' I also imagine that, after a perfect day of being a dog, the coati would feel melancholic, looking at the stars: ‘What's wrong with me, after all? . . . What is this anxiety, as if I only loved something I didn't know?' "

In 1959, a desperately homesick Lispector finally left her husband and Washington and brought her two young sons back to Brazil.

Her last two decades make a sad story: an addiction to sleeping pills, her son's schizophrenia and the no less painful quandary of a beauty who doesn't know how to survive the loss of her sexual allure. And although Lispector's fiction was continually being rediscovered, not least by the '60s generation of young Brazilians who found in it freedom from political dictatorship, she herself had become a near recluse. The coati, increasingly incapable of playing perfect dog, no longer wanted to live. The conflagration in which Lispector, falling asleep with a cigarette, set fire to her apartment and severely burned much of her body, including her writing hand, seems almost preordained.

Yet even as Lispector's physical existence became intolerable, her fiction soared. "The Hour of the Star," her last and perhaps finest novel, published in 1977, is a mystical treatise on the nature of love, the commonplace book of a martyr possessed of an earthy sense of the absurd.

Two months after its publication, on the day before her 57th birthday, Lispector died of ovarian cancer. Her devotees ("claricianos," Moser tells us they are called) have found many ways to approach this uncompromisingly complex writer. Moser, despite Lispector's avoidance of overt references to Jewishness, places her firmly in the tradition of Jewish mystics who were driven by historical cataclysm and personal trauma to create their own theology from God's absence. His energetically researched, finely argued biography will surely win Lispector the English-­language readership she deserves.

Fernanda Eberstadt's fifth novel, "Rat," will be published in the winter of 2010.

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