Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector
by Benjamin Moser
Reviewed by Rachel Aviv
Clarice Lispector doted on the ugly, dull and superfluous. Over the course of her fifty years as a novelist, her characters became less intelligent. She began with self-conscious and lonely heroines and moved on to less pensive creatures: dogs, chickens, cockroaches and the smallest woman in the world. The triumph of her career is a dimwitted virgin named Macabea, who subsists on hot dogs. Macabea's "story is so banal that I can scarcely bear to go on writing," Lispector notes in her finest book, The Hour of the Star, published a few months before her death in 1977. Macabea works as a typist in Rio de Janeiro but knows the meaning of few of the words she commits to the page. She sleeps in cheap cotton underwear, with her mouth wide open, and then rushes to work in the morning, smiling dumbly at everyone she passes. Her few moments of leisure are spent drinking Coca-Cola -- a refreshment she adores "with servility and subservience" -- and watching horror films in which women get shot in the heart.
Lispector was fascinated by the possibility of extinguishing self-consciousness; she idealized animals and idiots because they were free of the desire to translate their experiences into words. Macabea is the perfect fool, whose life has been reduced to a "tiny essential flame": she does nothing more than exist, without wondering why. Then she gets hit by a car and dies. The novella's drama derives not from Macabea's pitiful story but from Lispector's struggle to render in full a life so mundane. "I feel so nervous about writing," she admits, "that I might explode into a fit of uncontrollable laughter."
Unlike writers who make a game of their creative angst, Lispector appeared as if at any moment she might stop midsentence and abandon her typewriter. She was forbiddingly quiet -- fans called her "the sacred monster" and "the great witch of Brazilian literature" -- and she worried that her penchant for writing had become a pointless tic, a way to stave off loneliness. In Why This World, the first English-language biography of Lispector's life, Benjamin Moser describes a surprisingly tedious adulthood oriented almost entirely around writing. Lispector wrote to escape from herself, as if by spilling enough words onto the page she could slake the need for self-expression, an impulse she deemed gross and irresponsible.
Moser, a book critic at Harper's magazine, thinks that Lispector took less pride in her writing than in her looks, a theory she would have likely appreciated. She had long limbs, a sullen feline face and pouty lips. She applied makeup meticulously. Gregory Rabassa, one of her English-language translators, remarked that he was "astonished to meet that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf." Even Elizabeth Bishop, who translated several of Lispector's stories, seemed seduced by the writer, calling her "better than J.L. Borges." When Bishop was living in Rio de Janeiro in the early 1960s, she confided to Robert Lowell that the two were getting to be "friends" -- she used quotation marks -- but the relationship never took off. In the end, Bishop found Lispector "very coy and complicated" as well as hopelessly shy and indolent.
Moser, too, seems to want to get closer to Lispector than she allows. Despite the wealth of revealing anecdotes he summons, Lispector still feels out of his reach, almost unreal. Moser argues that Lispector moved closer to God with each book, and he calls her body of work, which is explicitly self-referential, "perhaps the greatest spiritual autobiography of the twentieth century." He often returns to the fact that Lispector was born in Chechelnik, Ukraine, a town with a tradition of mystics dating to the eighteenth century. Though her family immigrated to Brazil when she was a year old and she later proudly claimed that she never set foot in Eastern Europe (as an infant, she was carried), Moser writes that Lispector resembled the saints of her homeland -- the Hasidic zaddikim, "bearers of that irrational something" -- and that, like other Jews, she "sought the eternal amid crisis and exile." Moser is not the first to call her a Jewish mystic (she has also been dubbed a Christian mystic and a "mystical atheist"), but the claim is difficult to sustain across a full-length biography. Lispector did not read Jewish holy texts, nor did she pray. One of her few known public references to her religion was to correct "this nonsense about the Jews being God's chosen people. That's ridiculous."
In Moser's hands, Lispector is most "mystical" when she describes her longing for silence and her belief that she could never express in words what she called her "truest life." She was obsessed by the inaccuracy and dullness of language: it dooms us to become common, to repeat what others have already said. In her ability to bring these anxieties to life, Lispector is more terrifying than Samuel Beckett. By placing her in a religious lineage, Moser pushes beyond a more conventional reading of Lispector as a Modernist, but he also privileges the least impressive part of her work. Lispector was willfully enigmatic and flirtatious when she alluded to the divine (which she does far more frequently in her novels than in her short stories), and she treats God as a kind of intellectual exotica. She seemed to admire the idea of faith in part because she found it impossible. "I don't know what it is I'm calling God, but it can be called that," she allowed. It is never quite clear that it is God she is seeking, as Moser suggests, nor is it evident how she could have been a "mystic." Moser wants the word to encompass so much that it loses its meaning. It seems to describe less a belief system than a species of women: pained and introspective, prone to silence, hunger and self-loathing.
If Lispector was truly a mystic, she would have renounced the medium she found so degraded and degrading. But she was unable to stop writing. In addition to her short stories and novels, she supported herself by writing perky cronicas, newspaper columns that focused on women's issues like gift-giving and cosmetics. Her aversion to language seems to have derived as much from principle -- the conviction that silence is truer than speech -- as from anxiety. An insomniac, she took sleeping pills even for her afternoon naps. She rarely left her home and endured social engagements only in pain. In a column she described partygoing as a "dangerous sport." The goal: to avoid faux pas. Who will make the mistake? Who will destroy the meal? Rather than wait and see, Lispector was said to ruin dinner parties by leaving a few minutes after arriving. When asked by an interviewer to describe the role of the Brazilian novelist, she replied, "To speak as little as possible."
Lispector's birth in 1920 was supposed to have caused a miracle. Her mother had contracted syphilis after being raped (before getting pregnant) by a gang of Russian soldiers. It was thought that having a child might cure her, but her health only deteriorated after the birth of Chaya. By the time of the move to Brazil (at which point Chaya's name was changed to Clarice), the illness had left her paralyzed and mute; she sat inert in her rocking chair while the rest of her family began new lives.
In her early 20s, Clarice Lispector abandoned the Judaism of her youth, in part because she felt the religion had failed her. Despite her childhood prayers, her parents died young and without dignity (her father was killed in a botched gallbladder operation). Lispector almost never talked about her past or homeland, and she claimed it had left no trace on her; she hired a speech therapist to tame her lingering Russian accent. At 22 she was naturalized as a Brazilian citizen -- in her formal request to the government, she described herself as someone who feels "in no way connected to the country [I] came from" -- and married a Brazilian diplomat, Maury Gurgel Valente, with whom she never seemed particularly impressed. She followed him unhappily to posts throughout Europe and the United States for sixteen years. Her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, which she published to great acclaim at 23, is a coming-of-age tale about a cold and selfish woman suffering through a loveless marriage and unaware of her effect on her husband. "She is never actively malicious," Moser explains. "She simply inhabits another world, beyond good and evil, like a pet uncomprehendingly shitting on the carpet."
Much of Brazilian literature until that time had been patriotic and sweeping in scope -- Machado de Assis wrote that Brazilian poems and novels always "dress themselves in the colors of the country" -- and Lispector's strange, lyrical syntax and introspective style was heralded as a much-needed break in tradition. Reviewers in Rio and Sao Paulo compared Lispector to Joyce, Proust and Woolf, none of whose novels she had read. (As an adult, she read few modern novels.) She said the word "literature" made her "bristle like a cat," and she wasn't concerned about whether she was following or abandoning a literary tradition. Still, she shared with contemporaries like Woolf a suspicion of language, a sense of deep alienation and a fear of madness that led to heightened self-consciousness. Perhaps a difference in vocabulary, more than subject matter, explains Moser's tendency to classify Lispector as a mystic. Woolf, too, imagined the possibility of a world where language would regain sublime intensity and meaning. But she was an intellectual and didn't dare use words like "salvation" or "God." She dismissed mysticism as embarrassing and silly, attributing the impulse to "lack of a good head."
Lispector had less regard for social norms, and she seemed to give up on the idea of herself as a social creature when she finally left her husband, whose constant presence she had found unnatural and invasive, in 1959. She returned to Rio and became increasingly solitary and alienated from other writers and even old friends. Her writing has the quality of a woman who talks to herself: circular and fragmented and uncomfortably personal. Her characters rarely speak (and don't even move much), but they are constantly exhausting themselves by thinking. In one of her most disturbing stories, "The Imitation of the Rose," Lispector chronicles a young woman's excruciating decision to send a friend flowers. While preparing for dinner, the story's heroine, Laura, is struck by the sight of a bouquet of roses in her apartment. "Really, I have never seen such pretty roses," she thinks. "How lovely they are!" She tries to assure herself that, by gazing at these flowers, she is having a pleasurable experience. When that fails, she decides to send the bouquet to her friend. With nervous glee, she imagines a scenario in which her friend refuses the gift and Laura modestly and appropriately insists. "What exactly would she say? It was important not to forget." She rehearses the scene until she finds the perfect remark: "It is because the roses are so lovely that I felt the impulse to give them to you!" As soon as she tells her maid to deliver the roses, though, she is devastated by the loss. She never meant to give them away; she simply got carried away by the cascade of well-constructed phrases.
Laura's need to fashion every flicker of a thought into a proper sentence is comically familiar -- we all bore ourselves by narrating our lives in this way -- but Lispector focuses so closely on the habit that it appears compulsive and sick. She transcribes Laura's thoughts before they can even be called that. If there is a spiritual dimension to Lispector's writing, it is her effort to eradicate that inner voice: to hold on to a sensation before it is transformed into a phrase. And yet she recognized that to live without language -- to stop calling things "salty or sweet, sad or happy or painful" -- would be dangerous. "I do not believe the state of grace should be bestowed on us too often," she wrote in one of her crônicas. "Otherwise we might pass forever on to the other side of life, which is also real but no one would understand us any more."
Lispector may have been speaking from experience. She was unnerved by the precocity of her first son, Pedro, who as a young boy picked up his foreign nanny's language in only a week. Soon he could no longer communicate with other children his age. He strung together nonsensical words or thought so hard about what he wanted to say that he said nothing at all. He was consumed by the ambiguities and inadequacies of language, but his anxiety did not take the form of "mysticism." He was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. He had passed to the other side of life. As an adult, he would follow Lispector around the house calling out unceasingly: Mother, Mother, Mother! Lispector was terrified by this kind of linguistic alienation even as she inched toward it herself. She shared her son's suspicion of the arbitrary link between the sound of a word and its meaning. She fantasized about discovering some authentic means of expression, but instead she clung to the one she had. Writing was salvation in the most literal sense, and she could never do without it. She called herself an "audacious coward."
Lispector's fifth novel, The Passion According to G.H., begins as a seemingly dainty tale: a well-dressed, sophisticated lady sees a cockroach in the maid's quarters of her apartment and is overwhelmed by fear. She tries to crush it but is too repulsed to follow through. We expect her to get on with her day, but she can't take her eyes off the insect. A bit of the cockroach's back is missing, and she examines the creature on her hands and knees, inching closer and closer, until finally -- daring herself to overcome her revulsion -- she scoops up some puss from the cockroach's back and puts it in her mouth.
"Oh God, I felt baptized by the world," cries the narrator, G.H. "I had finally performed the lowest of all acts." There are no words to describe the taste of the cockroach's secretions, and she feels she has escaped the burden of her consciousness. Of all of Lispector's books, The Passion According to G.H. comes closest to a mystical text, and yet a shade of irony hangs over the novel. G.H. is constantly undermining the drama of the story by stepping outside it. She'll eat the cockroach, but tomorrow, she tells us in a parenthetical note, she'll be so relieved to have accomplished this feat that she'll put on a new dress and go dancing at the Top-Bambino, a nightclub, and flirt and eat shrimp.
Even in her most radical moments, Lispector can never abandon language or self-consciousness. Her characters may achieve a kind of wordless purity, but as a "mystic" she always fails. Opinions and insecurities come rushing in from outside the fiction, and the author seems to be hovering over the page, drawing attention to herself. G.H.'s revelation seems forced and inauthentic because she is never able to find the words to convey what happened -- only that it was something wild, transgressive and profound. Lispector is far more persuasive in her portrayal of pathology than in imagining its resolution, perhaps because she wrote best from personal experience. She craved freedom from her hyperactive consciousness, but she never achieved it. When her characters reach this state of grace, it feels contrived, an obvious fiction.
Lispector makes a difficult, often lurid subject, and Moser's account of her life is riveting -- he draws extensively on previously untranslated letters and criticism (he does the translations himself, from Yiddish, German, French and Portuguese); at times the book reads like a gothic horror story. But he seems to take Lispector's religious inclinations too earnestly, portraying her anxieties about writing and self-expression as exotic, cosmic and timeless. "Few great modern artists are quite as fundamentally unfamiliar," he writes. "How can a person who lived in a large Western city in the middle of the twentieth century, who gave interviews, lived in high-rise apartments, and traveled by air, remain so enigmatic?" Because Lispector is a modern woman whose life revolved around the articulation of thoughts, Moser assumes she will somehow be understandable, knowable. And when she is not, it is because she is mystical. By portraying her as a spiritual figure, he turns her life into a mystery that can be solved.
But it is hard to imagine Lispector ever considering herself a "saint," particularly a Jewish one. She longed to believe but couldn't, and her best stories dramatize the moment when her characters collide with the limits of what they can understand. They make "terrifying contact with the fabric of life," and they are reminded of their own helplessness and obedience, their inability to comprehend. They suffer without ever learning from their misfortunes. In one tale, a chicken escapes from its cage, only to be captured and slaughtered for dinner. In another, a young teacher hears two men talking in pig Latin about how they want to rape her. Instead of waiting to be attacked, the woman unbuttons her blouse, exposes her breasts and pretends to be a prostitute. The men immediately lose interest and rape the next girl who steps on the train. And yet the woman longs for what should have been hers. "Fate is implacable," she thinks: "Atefay siay placableimay." Pig Latin is the language of superfluousness, born purely from the desire to use words, make noise -- regardless of what that noise means. Lispector may have understood all of language in roughly these terms. To create meaning when there is none, to string together a story out of chaos, is the impulse Lispector finds most distasteful and hardest to resist.
Lispector was always haunted by the memory of her mother's affliction, which could not be rationalized or mitigated with any amount of storytelling. (Did that brittle shell of a woman inspire Lispector's fondness for cockroaches?) "Something deep down tells me that we are all semi-paralyzed," she wrote in one of her crônicas. "And we die without so much as an explanation. And worst of all -- we live without so much as an explanation." Lispector once complained of the "intolerable burden of not being a plant." The world is empty, she knew, but it had gone on for so long, with so little reason, that there must be something sacred in submitting, like a plant, to its rhythms.
In her later years, Lispector underwent her own version of paralysis, as she became increasingly withdrawn, taciturn and needy; she was dependent on a close female friend, who served as a kind of personal secretary, assistant and nurse. When Lispector was 47 she fell asleep while smoking in bed and awoke with her room in flames, her nightgown melted to her body. It was a tragicomic end to a life of such beauty. For the rest of her years, her body was scarred and her right hand deformed.
After the fire, she mostly stayed indoors. She felt it was in bad taste to be seen outside with an aged body and flesh that was wrinkled and loose and thick; it disrupted the city's symmetry. She hired an aesthetician to come once a month and apply permanent makeup to her face and fake lashes to her eyes. By the time she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, at 56, she had been waiting for death for many years. Dying was seductive, a direct confrontation with an unknown so enormous it could never be captured in words. In one of her last interviews, given a year before she died, a television journalist asked if she felt "born and refreshed" each time she wrote a new work. The reporter must have wanted her to provide a cheerful narrative about her writing process, but her response was impassive and casually nonsensical. She never could commit to this kind of tale. "For now I'm dead. We'll see if I can be born again. For now I'm dead," she repeated. "I'm speaking from my tomb."
Rachel Aviv is a Rosalynn Carter Fellow in mental health journalism at the Carter Center.