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The Jewish queen of Brazilian letters.

Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector

By Benjamin Moser

Oxford University Press

2009, $29.95, pp. 496

"I was flabbergasted to meet that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf," said Gregory Rabassa, the renowned literary translator, of his first encounter with Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. Born in 1920, Lispector was a baby when her parents emigrated from Ukraine to Brazil, where their daughter remains a literary icon, often referred to, like a rock star, simply as Clarice. This rare creature is so well-regarded her face adorns postage stamps, and she has a sizable following in Europe. Lispector has been compared to Kafka and James Joyce, but in the United States she has been a hidden genius, known mainly to serious students of Latin American literature.

The 1989 translation of Soulstorm, a collection of short stories by Lispector, carries an introduction by Grace Paley, the beloved New Yorker whose work is infused with a Jewish blend of toughness, warmth and urgency. Paley considered--and rejected--the importance of Lispector's Ukrainian-Jewish origins in her writing.

"I thought at one point in my reading that there was some longing for Europe, the Old World, but decided I was wrong," wrote Paley, who died in 2007. "It was simply longing."

Paley's conclusion was reasonable. Brazil was the homeland for which Lispector ached when she lived abroad as a diplomat's wife; she called Portuguese the language of her soul.

She wrote novels, short stories and "cronicas"--literary newspaper columns popular in Brazil. She specialized in the mystical, lyrical, brilliant and strange. One cronica, titled "A Challenge for the Psychoanalysts," contains only one sentence: "I dreamed that a fish was taking its clothes off and remained naked." After her death from cancer, just before her 57th birthday in 1977, the mystique surrounding her flourished, her literary legacy enhanced by her tragic life and exotic beauty.

Her work is spiritual, but almost pointedly secular. Yet Why This World, Benjamin Moser's fascinating biography of the enigmatic author, strongly urges a particularly Jewish evaluation of a writer whose work is as empty of Jews as an old-fashioned restricted neighborhood. For Moser, a columnist for Harper's and contributor to The New York Review of Books and Conde Nast Traveler, Lispector's association to the Old World isn't longing but fear. The often grim, existential dance with fate that runs through so much of her work, he argues, is inexorably linked to her family's persecution in Europe and the devastating reverberations that followed them to their haven in Brazil.

Moser finds the Jewish connection even in a short story Lispector wrote about a hen who escapes her fate as a family's lunch by laying an egg, thereby proving her worth--at least for a while. "The reference to the 'old fright of her species' suggests the ancestral Jewish fear of persecution," he writes, and "the phrase 'remnants of the great escape,' coupled with the spectacle of a helpless, flightless, pregnant female running for her life, can be read as a memory of her mother's desperate escape from Europe."

The book opens with a map of the Western Ukraine, circa 1920, rooting Why This World in the Lispector family's dark Eastern European history. As the Czarist empire crashed and the First World War ended, thousands of Jews were murdered. These pogroms affected millions, including Mania and Pinkhas Lispector and their older daughters, Tania and Elisa. Mania was raped by Russian soldiers and contracted syphilis. She subsequently gave birth to a third daughter, Chaya, who would become Clarice when the family arrived in Brazil. Mania eventually became paralyzed from her disease and died when Clarice was nine years old.

The Lispectors settled in Recife, an impoverished region in northeastern Brazil, where Pinkhas became Pedro and Mania was Marieta. He struggled to earn a living; she slowly withered away. They sent their girls to Hebrew school, where Clarice responded to Biblical lore with provocative questions. When told about God giving the Torah to Moses, she asked: "How did it happen?" She kept asking those questions, Moser observes. "But there are questions that nobody can answer for me: Who made the world?" she wrote near the end of her life. "Was the world made? But where? In what place? And if it was 'God'--who made 'God'?"

While Moser returns time and again to his theme of Jewish haunting, he doesn't try to create a Yiddishe mama where none existed. (Lispector, however, could sometimes seem like one. "When mothers of Russian descent start to kiss their children, instead of being content with one kiss, they want to give them 40," she wrote in a newspaper column. "I tried to explain this to one of my sons but he told me I was just looking for an excuse to justify all those kisses.").

Lispector lived a large, glamorous and difficult life, which Benjamin Moser evokes in expressive detail, against a finely constructed historic and political backdrop. The biographer dives into the philosophical and theological concerns of his subject's literary output without skimping on the travails, pleasures and idiosyncrasies of her everyday life. As the wife of a Brazilian diplomat, Maury Gurgel Valente, she traveled in rarefied circles. They spent many years abroad. They had two sons, one of whom suffered from schizophrenia. Maury cheated on Clarice and then was distraught when she left him. She suffered the ups and downs of literary fame, then obscurity, and then fame again. She took anti-depressants, wrote a beauty column, smoked in bed--a habit that led to a fire that almost killed her, leaving scars that ruined her beauty in middle age.

In Lispector's work, there is a meeting and melding of kabbalist mysticism and Latin surrealism, Catholic shame and Jewish guilt, the universal feeling of persistent loss that follows the early death of a parent. "Seeing her parents' suffering, exile and ungratified toils, it was easy enough for Clarice Lispector to reject God, or, at the very most, to feel rejected by the God who had withdrawn from her family and her people," writes Moser. "'I am Jewish, you know,' she said in a rare declaration. 'But I don't believe this nonsense about the Jews being God's chosen people. That's ridiculous. The Germans ought to be because they did what they did. How did being chosen ever help the Jews?'"

Elisa Lispector, Clarice's sister born in 1911, was old enough to remember the pogroms firsthand. She, too, became an author. Moser draws valuable material about the family's story from Elisa's work, both published and unpublished, which is directly autobiographical and describes a specifically Jewish odyssey.

While the sisters were inspired--or driven--by the same background, the differences in age, temperament and talent informed the trajectory of their writing. Clarice was an artist, who drew on and transformed everything--history, family, loss, ecstasy, love, pain--into stories that transcended their sources.


She was deeply influenced by a variety of writers: Katherine Mansfield, Spinoza, Hermann Hesse (specifically by his novel Steppenwolf), Dostoevsky. Yet Moser believes that if Portuguese was indeed the language of Lispector's soul, Judaism--and her loss of faith--was the lifeblood of her creativity.

He writes: "... a few religious and artistic geniuses transfigure the horror of their people's history into their own individual creation. And when they do, because of the tragic consistency of the Jewish historical experience, they will find themselves recreating recreating the entire ethical and spiritual structure of Judaism. God had to withdraw from Clarice Lispector to allow her to begin her own work of creation."

In the end, though, Clarice was returned to her roots, laid to rest in an Orthodox ritual, with a tombstone engraved with her given name, Chaya.

Julie Salamon's books include Rambam's Ladder, The Devil's Candy and Hospital. She is currently working on a biography of Wendy Wasserstein.
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Author:Salamon, Julie
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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