Why this World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector.
by Benjamin Moser
Oxford University Press, 2009. 496 pages
What does a woman writer want? Who is she? Such questions, triggered by curiosity about women assumed to have strayed from societal norms and expectations, move us to read through their works in order to uncover an elusive, hypothetical self. The interest in those who commit suicide such as Virginia Wolf and Alejandra Pizarnik, those who drink to excess like Jean Rhys and others, is rooted in a sense of the exceptionality of their writing and the uniqueness of their lives. Their work is so good that there must be something else, dark, to be explained. Thus, life and work feed on each other's mystery, unearthing a path not taken by most. If the woman writer is Latin American, the interest includes a territory not particularly known for its nurturing of female intellectuals. The way in which the lives of Maria Luisa Bombal, Silvina Ocampo, or Marisa di Giorgio are conceived weaves narratives about oblique experiences, special situations for women who flourish and are thus portrayed as exceptions to the mainstream.
The disquieting nature of their writing is paralleled by their existence. Thus, the suspicion of imbalance is superseded by a sense that they are part of a peculiar aristocracy of the spirit. They suffer but produce unique pieces that embody the way their lives are presented.
Benjamin Moser's gripping biography of Clarice Lispector has the elements of a novel. It features a woman of irreducible strangeness seen through the lens of a writer/translator eager to preserve a supplement that refuses definition. The reader of the biography senses that the book is perhaps as much a journey of self-discovery for the author as the result of scholarship. At the same time, we never lose sight of the fact that if we want to have a sense of the thread that holds the different moments of Lispector's existence together, we must become her readers. The fact that Moser is, as well, one of her translators and a strong voice for the importance of her writing in the larger international context, signals that he is aware that the companion volumes to this biography must be Lispector's books themselves.
To what extent can one find an author's inner life in his/her writing? In a calm voice, with words both precise and austere, Lispector, shortly before passing away, says in her last recorded interview (1977) that she is speaking from her grave. She feels dead in the hiatus between books. The moment preserved on the screen is eerie. Her almost expressionless face invites us to feel that one can indeed suspend life, exist intermittently. While we might think that she uses the image of momentary death between books to evoke a passing hiatus, we would do well to recall that she asked that the interview be broadcast after her actual death.
Perched on a slippery cliff, she tempts us to work against metaphor, for literality.
Mosers challenge was finding a way to write against the emptiness with which the "real" is perceived by Lispector without betraying her peculiar detachment. She appears to deny that there is anything to her but books. Her mood is reluctant. She does not want to engage.
Lispector is a forerunner and contemporary of the period known as the "boom" of Latin American literature. It is a time in which Latin American writers renewed fiction with a creativity that has no parallel in Spanish other than the one known as the "El siglo de oro," the era that gave us Cervantes.
While Gabriel Garda Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jose Donoso, and Julio Cortazar, among the best known "boom writers," were celebrated, others who wrote slightly earlier or were not part of the marketing campaign that united them as a group in the public imagination--in spite of their important differences--were not as famous. Nevertheless and perhaps because of that fact, they triggered an impulse to re-read the tradition and reshape the present to effect a recasting of the history of Latin American fiction.
"Boom" writers took on leading roles in political discourse, establishing their credentials as public intellectuals. Much was said about the relationship between ideological positions and the impact of literature in effecting change. Some writers were cast aside as decadent and counterrevolutionary. Borges was suspected of aloofness at first, and accused (rightly) in the seventies of aligning himself with the military dictatorships of Chile and Argentina. Paradoxically, then, the highly sophisticated works of the "boom" with their ties to the avant-garde, were judged according to a bottom line grounded in their social role. Discussions about whether subverting the canon and traditional forms of representation were equivalent to political revolutionary action abounded, with echoes of the French preoccupation with the subject from Sartre to Julia Kristeva and other members of the Tel Quel group.
In this context, Lispector was a private discovery, a treasure that reminded the initiates of the strength of silence. Chirico perceived the magnetism of her face when he painted her portrait. Helene Cixous wrote about her. Photographers sought to take her picture. In contrast to today's images that tend to reveal day-to-day lives by catching spontaneous expressions, she beckons us with an uncompromisingly unsentimental gaze. She chose a surface for herself in which she would show the what, and the how, of her existence. Lispector performed Lispector and turned us into an alien public.
Lispector was simultaneously popular in Brazil, admired as a special find by Julio Cortazar, commended by the influential critic Emir Rodriguez Monegal and--unlike the shunned Elena Garro--granted a place among the best. Nevertheless, the thought that accompanied the mention of her name (and still does for some) is that she was part of the "raros," not a member of the mainstream. Felisberto Hernandez, Macedonio Fernandez, Maria Luisa Bombal, and Silvina Ocampo are often grouped among those whose very discovery is fueled by the enthusiasm of followers who have made them, in turn, a vehicle for self-discovery. These figures have the power of authenticating those in the mainstream by proving that they may also be connected to the secret thread that sustains literary and artistic life. In so doing, they somehow erase the suspicion triggered by popular success. They become part of an elusive, more substantial creative endeavor.
Moser's book delves into several layers of Lispector s life. He highlights how Lispector referred to her birth in Chechelnik, Ukraine, as no more than a stop her parents made on the way to exile either in Brazil or the United States. There is no mention of an "American" or "Latin American" dream here. It just happened. But while the location of Lispector's birth may not be important, her being Jewish plays a crucial role in Moser's sketching of her life. Being displaced is not about religion but about the intricacies of Jewish life in Europe and Brazil, as it moves toward secularity.
Just as in the case of the Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik (who was also Jewish with Eastern European ancestry), Lispector's speech was perceived as foreign because of her lisp and the way she pronounced the "r." Was it because she was Jewish--like Pizarnik--and was imitating her parents's accents? Was it a speech impediment as in Cortazar's case? The drama of national belonging is played time and again to interpret Lispector as a character in her own life. She exudes foreignness and detachment, holding an exilic pose in spite of not wishing to be thought of as anything but Brazilian. The fact that she is Jewish, like Pizarnik, contributes for some to the illusion that she may not be completely there, or that her being there is compounded by a second layer in which the past of a people colors a new territory. The illusion that Jews carry a nomadic residue plays a role in shaping this perspective, ever present in Moser's biography.
Fun Vonen is aYid? (Where is a Jew from?) is the title of the first chapter of Moser's book. For Moser, the answer is to be found in the towns in which Lispector's parents were born, their upbringing in Jewish communities that cherished knowledge, their fluid relationship to religion, the brilliance of their intelligence. Moser describes the rich fabric of Jewish life in Europe--mystics, unbelievers, readers and the strategies of survival for not succumbing to anti-Semitism--and places them in the context of European history and politics.
While children of immigrants who arrived in Latin America when very young grew up with imprecise notions of their parents' travails because of these parents' unwillingness to tell stories of their humiliations, Moser uses his research to draw a picture of Lispector through the lens of pogroms and the subsequent support offered by Baron de Hirsch to form new communities outside of Europe. Jewish gauchos in Argentina and Brazil, discussions about Zionism, socialism and religion are part of a rich tapestry that Moser draws with a refined sense of detail.
Moser contextualizes Lispector's life in Brazil as well with the history of Brazilian anti-Semitism and the multiple negotiations that allowed, for example, one notable anti-Semite to help her family with jobs. Moser is subtle and knowledgeable. The picture that he draws of Jewish life in Brazil and earlier in Europe does not fall into either the picturesque or fatalistic victimization.
But to what extent was Lispector informed by her origins? Did she carry her provenance as part of her self-styling? Lispector did not go back to her birthplace; her reflections during her stay in Warsaw, where she went following her husband as she refused the Soviet Union's invitation to visit, are telling. She thinks that the place of her birth was not relevant because she did not choose it: "I literally never set foot there; I was carried. But I remember one evening, in Poland, at the home of one of the secretaries of the embassy, I went out onto the terrace alone: a great black forest movingly pointed me the way to the Ukraine. I felt the call. Russia had me too. But I belong to Brazil" (37).
Moser eloquently represents the enduring fracture of Jewish exile. Lispector will not go to the Soviet Union. Sentimental stories of attachment to the land and the perils of the woods traversed by Jews are not her identifying mark. She'd rather say that she belongs to Brazil. Still, her accent was questioned in Latin America, and Moser argues the pertinence of a Jewish angle to characterize her diction. Jewish-sounding or not, the question to be addressed is the one asked of Jews: where are you from?
Lispector is not haughty when she refuses the invitation to the Soviet Union. She simply does not want to convey that she is a victim whose legacy resides in the expulsion from her apparent roots. Better to create one's own homeland. She belongs to Brazil. The theatre for her detachment is Brazil. She is not a patriot, not a citizen involved in social causes but a writer who claims a place in a country's literary history.
Borges suggested that national literary histories are pious. They have to include an exhaustive list of authors and thus, many make it who would otherwise be forgotten. Lispector wanted to be a Brazilian writer. She was a naturalized Brazilian who wished to have no denial of her role in shaping the language. Brazil, like France in the cases of Nathalie Sarraute and Marguerite Duras, has as one of its main authors someone with the extremely contemporary mark of the transnational become local.
Moser portrays Lispector as inhabiting fluid and vanishing borders between the lived and the read. She felt that she had discovered literature with Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf, and Moser tells us--as he delves without sentimentality into the frustrations entailed in Lispector's attachment to a homosexual man--how the love for the talented and tormented Lucio Cardoso was akin to the passion for Hesse.
After her father's death, Lispector drifts away from institutionalized Judaism. But rather than seeing in that a refusal of her Jewishness, Moser points out that "it is in Kafka where one feels with the greatest intensity the Jewish despair at the loss of God. Clarice Lispector's renunciation of God, in this context, was no more than a reflection of a loss that the Jewish world as a whole had experienced. And it was all the more cruelly ironic that they were singled out for persecution just as they had lost their old faith" (107). Thus, Lispector's despair and sense of being orphaned from God becomes a confirmation of the opposite: the state of belonging to a people. The extreme loneliness of her voice connects her with a Judaism that must articulate itself in the aftermath of the announced death of God.
Moser's evidence is not merely historical or sociological. He adduces readings of Lispector's novels and stories both to explain and to be explained by the circumstances of her birth, societal issues in Brazil and in Europe, and various misadventures in love and friendship. One has the impression that Lispector has awakened Moser to a web of connections that allow him to interpret obscure mystical points and find a key for thinking through the tease of Lispector's images, the way that they frequently beckon to be deciphered. For Moser, the possibilities opened up by Lispector are symbolic: "Now the richness of Clarice Lispector's thought, rather than being merely daunting, takes on an array of symbolic possibilities that are, along with her incredible linguistic invention, the glory of this novel. Even without the references to apples, crimes and falls, it is obviously an allegory of creation through the word" (225).
Moser follows this comment about Lispector's Apple in the Dark with Lispector's opinion that the book is a Jewish parable. Moser is very good at discovering connections between books, signaling Jewish motifs in Lispector's work while still making us aware that she stopped attending synagogue and did not study sacred Jewish texts after her twenties. He provides compelling evidence for her Jewishness by interpreting her texts in such a way that their specific deviation from traditional Judaism becomes an affirmation of the situation of Jews in the world. Judaism, in his account, forms a shadowy component of her texts, just as she feels the presence of Ukraine as she peers out the balcony through the woods of Poland.
In sharp contrast to his own outlook Moser, who sees a pulsating culture in Lispector's work, quotes Elizabeth Bishop in the biography. Bishop--who lived in Brazil--thought that Lispector was like a primitive painter, somebody who had not read, and worked out of intuition. The hypothesis of unschooled genius is frequently condescending and Bishop's statement offers no exception. Moser unsurprisingly asserts that Bishop is "spectacularly off the mark" (227). His biography attests to the fact that Lispector was widely read, kept a lively correspondence, and was closely involved with other writers and artists of her time. She was moved and transformed by literature and art.
Reading Lispector, though, opens up the possibility of entering a realm that is beyond literature, a place that refuses to be contextualized in bibliographies or made dependent on other sources. Hers is a radically orphaned writing. But although her work is unique in its dark humor and its oscillation between mysticism and the rough edges of everyday life, others can share in the privileged isolation evoked by this writing. Is it a kind of writing? It is certainly a kind of reading. It takes us to Alejandra Pizarnik's discovery of how one day, as she says in a poem, a boat took her away from herself, to the perverse games of La furia by Silvina Ocampo and Nathalie Sarraute's Fools Say--to name a few works whose authors play hide and seek with the idea that what they are writing is post-literary.
Lispector puts us in contact with something basic, the very material that shapes experience, She is never naive, primitive. Her writing is the result of a filtering out, a cleansing of language. It is a feat that she achieves without the arrogance of undue austerity. What sounds pre-literary to Elizabeth Bishop is in fact post-literary. Bashevis Singer wonders about the wisdom of his character Shosha: is she dim-witted or wise? Garcia Marquez says of Remedios, the Beauty, in One Hundred Years of Solitude that what seemed sheer ignorance to some was for others deep wisdom. Lispector generates the same musings because in her trans-historicity she also takes part in a contemporary questioning of literary representation.
Moser's biography is an effort to understand her in the world, to take her out of an orphaned state and give her experiences a framework. He makes her part of a community. The beauty of the biography is that he has also accomplished that status for himself as a reader. He has fought the passionate apathy of her gaze in the last interview, refused the invitation to keep his distance through the reconstruction of what he sees as Lispector's world.
The result is an admirable book. This reader, though, accepts her silence as a puzzle not to be put together, wishing to remain faithful to the darker moments in which there is nothing but death between books. Lispector's refusal of empathy pulls us into the unsaid, an enigmatic legacy.
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|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2013|
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