Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector
by Benjamin Moser
Reviewed by Charisse Gendron
The novels and stories of Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector have enjoyed the commentary of many readers who seek out fiction that is profound, poetic, and challenging. These readers have interpreted her work in the contexts of the folk tales of northeastern Brazil, where she grew up; of the existentialist writers, particularly Kafka, who explore the vertigo of not knowing; of the modernists -- Joyce, Woolf, Mansfield -- who illuminate the subjective realm; and of the feminist and post-structuralist theorists who empathize with her struggles in the toils of gender and language. In fact, it was the influential French writer Helene Cixous who, in the late 1970s, drew the non-Portuguese-speaking world's attention to Lispector as a writer of l'ecriture feminine, a gesture which in turn moved others to reclaim Lispector from what they felt was Cixous's over-identification with her heroine.
Benjamin Moser's contribution to the commentary is Why This World, a major biography that identifies Lispector as a mystic in the tradition of her Jewish forebears. Interlaid with brilliant quotations from Lispector's fiction, letters, and interviews, the book offers plenty of evidence of her passionate and sometimes desperate spiritual search. "Writing can drive a person mad," she states in one of many examples. "You must shut your mouth and say nothing about what you know, and what you know is so much, and is so glorious. I know, for example, God." Less evidence exists for Lispector's engagement with a Jewish theological tradition; as Moser admits, she did not read the Talmud.
Perhaps her experience as the child of refugees from the Ukrainian pogroms following the Russian Revolution led her to the questions about the nature of God on which her ancestors meditated. In an attack on her family's shtetl before Clarice was born, syphilitic soldiers gang-raped her mother, who contracted the disease. Clarice believed that her parents conceived her because, according to superstition, a birth could cure a mother's illness. "And to this day that guilt weighs on me," she wrote: "they made me for a specific mission, and I let them down." Half paralyzed, her mother, supported by her husband and elder daughters, carried the infant Clarice over the long journey that finally took the family to Brazil. Moser tells this story with great patience, recreating in detail the history of Lispector's native Podalia and of the strange new world of Pernambuco. Strange, at least, to the older members of the family. For Clarice, the undeveloped Brazilian provinces of her precocious childhood were always home.
As an adolescent she discovered her vocation; as she later described it, "when I claimed the desire to write, I suddenly found myself in a void." It is as if writing forced her to recognize the need for self-creation that comes as a stunning revelation to many of her characters, characters who are rarely artists and more often housewives who have stumbled on a vision of themselves as no more unique than the animals, even the plants. When one of her characters notoriously eats a crushed cockroach -- that would be a substantial South American cockroach -- she accepts the indiscriminateness of the universe. Yet in Lispector's writing, the discovery of being as nothingness (quite different from nothingness as being) may signal not so much mystical attainment as the uncovering of a gaping narcissistic wound. "I see myself small, weak, and helpless in the enormous house of my childhood," she wrote, "where nobody could help me and where I felt abandoned by God."
Lispector did have to create herself, not only as a writer, but as a social actor. While a law student in Rio, she married Maury Gurgel Valente, a diplomat, on the rebound from a passion for her lifelong friend, the gay writer Lucio Cardoso. Maury's career took her to distant postings where she performed her duties as a hostess while deeply if not visibly depressed, cut off from her country and her sisters, wounded by small talk and anti-Semitic remarks. Celebrated for her glamour, a sort of Jewish Brazilian Jackie Kennedy, she played the role for a number of years, and bore two children, before her need for the solitude to write led to divorce. "I've reached the conclusion that writing is what I want more than anything else in the world, even more than love," she announced, and dedicated herself to the production of her luminous and demanding oeuvre.
Yet like other female geniuses -- Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Diane Arbus -- who on some level "accepted and wanted masculine protection," Lispector suffered when separated from her less extraordinary but more stable husband. "My truest life is unrecognizable extremely interior, and not a single word can describe it," she said. Nonetheless she pursued the depiction of that truest life, leaving behind the shell of personality and the tender of social intercourse. Late in her life, reclusive and addicted to sleeping pills, she admitted, "I've lost the knack of being a person."
In his close readings of Lispector's many and conflicting attempts to name the ineffable, Moser sometimes loses the reader in paradoxes about God -- the word, the symbol, and the thing itself -- that would delight a Talmudic scholar. But Lispector was the least scholarly of writers. Although enmeshed in the intellectual, political, and cultural life of mid-century Brazil, she did not read Joyce or Woolf until critics compared her work to theirs, and at a conference in her honor she commented to a companion, "I don't even have any idea what that is, structuralism." Elizabeth Bishop, a neighbor and early champion, was right to call her a primitive, in the sense that Lispector by her own admission wrote to save her own life, and not to debate philosophy or puzzle with semantics. When critics commented on her innovative use of language, she countered, "none of them, but absolutely none, of the words in the book was -- a game."
Similarly, compassion, and not principle, motivated Lispector's politics. She abhorred retributive justice -- "There is no right to punish. There is only the power to punish" -- and marched with other artists and intellectuals against the dictatorship of Costa e Silva in 1969. Yet she understood that to protest in fiction would not serve her ends of self-discovery. "The problem of justice is in me a feeling so obvious and so basic that I can't surprise myself with it," she wrote, " -- and, without surprising myself, I can't write."
The grapple with the forgotten, unscripted, perhaps prelinguistic part of the self can drive a person mad, or perhaps it is the other way around. Interestingly, Joyce and Lispector, who left sense behind without quite toppling into the abyss, each begat an extraordinary child whose promise spiraled into schizophrenia in young adulthood. Unlike Joyce, however, Lispector doubted the value of her journey into writing, often concluding, "all that's left for me is to bark at God."