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The other of others.

Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector

By Benjamin Moser

New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, 479 pp., $29.95, hardcover

Why This World is a remarkable achievement, describing the life and inner universe of an indescribable woman, the Ukrainian-born, Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector. In praise of Lispector s place within world literature, the French feminist critic Helene Cixous likened her to a female Katka and a Jewish Rilke. Elizabeth Bishop proclaimed her better than the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. After meeting Lispector, renowned translator Gregory Rabassa described her as "that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf."

Benjamin Moser's beautifully written, sensitive, and impeccably researched biography unlocks the secret of the so-called Sphinx of Rio de Janeiro, bringing this complex, mysterious individual into precise focus, albeit without unsettling Lispector's allegiance to the unknowable. Moser strikes a satisfying balance between life chronology, social histor36 and literary criticism, which will appeal to longtime fans of Lispector and novice readers alike. In addition to recounting Lispector's fascinating and often tormented existence, Why This World inspires readings and rereadings of her resplendent, elliptical fiction.


Born in 1920, Clarice Lispector lived a dense and troubled life from the start. Moser immediately plunges readers into the terrifying pogroms of early twentieth-century Ukraine. He portrays in vivid detail the atrocities Lispector's family faced, along with thousands of other Jews, and the traumatic effect of these horrors on her early childhood. The young girl turned to storytelling as a means to save others, in particular her mother, who was gang-raped by Russian soldiers and subsequently paralyzed by disease. Lispector's literary trajectory develops out of her inability to save her mother; her adult life appears to be a constant attempt to compensate for this personal failure, as well as for a devastating sense of inadequacy and loss.

This sense of loss inexorably extends to place. At a young age Lispector was uprooted multiple times. Fleeing Ukrainian genocide, her family sought refuge in northeast Brazil first in Maceio and then Recife, before settling in Rio de Janeiro, the city that eventually became Lispector's permanent home. In adulthood she lived a significant portion of her life as a diplomat's wife, temporarily residing in Naples, Italy; Bern, Switzerland; and Washington, DC. During her years abroad, Moser reveals, Lispector was a recalcitrant appendage of the diplomatic corps and a reluctant traveler, who assiduously claimed her adopted country as her own. In 1956 she wrote, "As time goes by, I feel that I live nowhere and that no place 'wants' me." Belonging--coupled with the piercing anguish of nonbelonging--became a characteristic theme of her life and work, along with grief about motherlessness and the fervent embrace of motherhood. Although she sought peace through writing, she was disillusioned. "My literature is in no sense a catharsis that would do me good and is useless as a form of liberation," she wrote.


Lispector's disillusionment aside, Moser intelligently and intricately links his subject's life stories and her literary production, enabling readers to appreciate her ongoing personal struggles and the existential questioning reflected in her experimental fiction. This is no small feat, considering that Lispector's first, groundbreaking novel Near to the Wild Heart (1953), was published when she was only 23 years old, and that she subsequently maintained an active writing regimen until her death from ovarian cancer in 1977, a day before she turned 57.

It is striking how Lispector's life is reflected in her fiction, yet with neither the palpable correspondence of autobiography nor the surrender of "deliberate anonymity." Moser's fine-tuned, graceful analysis underscores the parallels between Lispector herself and her (mostly) female characters, touching upon such universal themes as love and sexuality, marriage and motherhood, madness and language, fantasy and transcendence. Lispector's protagonists are, for the most part, ordinary women, often housewives, who are in some way alienated from everyday reality. In their interior journeys, they find themselves on the brink of either existential despair or mystical discovery--what Lispector called "brainstorm." Her character G.H.'s haunting, visceral encounter with a cockroach in The Passion According to G.H. (1964) is a dear example of one such transformative discover~ as G.H. is at first terrified of and then identifies with the cockroach. She accidentally squashes it and then tastes its yellow ooze, in the process exchanging her individual self for a transcendent union with all sentient, organic matter--symbolic of the author's quest for a confrontation, or perhaps reconciliation, with God. Lispector insisted on the connection between human beings and other animals (she was an avid animal lover), and her occasional venires into children's literature demonstrate her nostalgia for childhood.

Most striking in Moser's portrayal of Lispector is his firm placement of her within the Jewish literary and philosophical tradition. Inspired by her mathematician father, Lispector found numerology and abstraction conduits to the divine, as they are in Jewish mysticism. She saw her writing as a spiritual quest, a search for a God who had abandoned her.

Much of what we learn about Clarice Lispector's life in this book is distressing, even if it renders her increasingly sympathetic. She experienced multiple setbacks and some insurmountable challenges in relation to the publishing world, even after she had become a nationally acclaimed author. She was one of the first women newspaper columnists in Brazil, a job she grudgingly pursued to support her two young sons after her failed marriage. She suffered from anxiety, depression, and dependency on prescription drugs, and her relationship with her schizophrenic son was turbulent. Late in life, when the eccentric, vain Lispector had lost her prized glamor, she became a near recluse, albeit without surrendering her dependence on an intimate circle of friends. Yet through it all, the act of writing fiction was essential to Lispector, who, Moser says, was always pushing "against the limits of language," while seeking "comprehensible meaning, a human grammar." Writing was her lifeline. Shortly before her death she wrote: "I write as if to save somebody's life...Probably my own life." Writing enabled her to step out of herself while still preserving her "inflexible individuality." In her words,
   I used to want to be others: to learn about what wasn't me. Then I
   understood that I had already been others and it was easy. My
   greatest experience would be to be the other of others; and the
   other of others was me.

In Lispector's final works, A Breath of Life (Pulsations) (1977, published posthumously) and The Hour of the Star (1977), she intentionally splits herself into two separate beings. Both books feature a female protagonist and a male character who is an author. In A Breath of Life, both Angela, a painter, and Angela's anonymous creator represent Lispector; similarly, in The Hour of the Star she is both Macab4a, a simple typist, and the author Rodrigo S. M., who narrates Macab4a's story. Moser highlights these last works, especially the novella The Hour of the Star, Lispector's most popular work, as "bring[ing] together all the strands of her writing and of her life." The Hour of the Star indeed reconciles the fractured components of her life, from birth to death. As Moser explains,
   Explicitly Jewish and explicitly Brazilian, joining the northeast
   of her childhood with the Rio de Janeiro of her adulthood, "social"
   and abstract, tragic and comic, uniting her religious and
   linguistic questions with the narrative drive of her finest
   stories, The Hour of the Star is a fitting monument to its author's
   "unbearable genius."

To reinforce the power of his verbal portrait of Lispector, Moser provides photographs of her taken throughout her life. These visual renderings--the cover image for starters---are arresting and draw the reader into Lispector's world. In addition to the illustrations, Moser supplies a long list of acknowledgments and chapter endnotes, which together add up to almost fifty pages, listing countless interviews, travel accounts, correspondence, and manuscripts. These confirm the biographer's meticulousness. Through a vast array of contacts, including family members, friends, journalists, and scholars, Moser pieces together Lispector's varied existence--material and ethereal--in a seamless, spellbinding fashion.

Moser's biography of Clarice Lispector is an eloquent tribute to this author, who, in part due to Moser's admirable accomplishments, will justly join the ranks of the world's greats. Moser dispels the notion of Lispector as an "unknowable mystical genius," yet upholds her passion for the void. Lispector was always a bit of the perplexed adolescent, perpetually inquiring, "What is the world like?" and "Why this world?"

Marguerite Itamar Harrison is associate professor of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Smith College.
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Title Annotation:Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector
Author:Harrison, Marguerite Itamar
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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