22 August 2018

Clarice Lispector Reimagines the World

"Be careful with Clarice.  It's not literature.  It's witchcraft." - anonymous

Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) was a writer whose work is as central to the literature of Brazil as Borges is to Argentina or Garcia Marquez to Colombia.  Now, thanks to new translations of her books and an excellent biography by Benjamin Moser, we can read Lispector in English.

Lispector's writing can be difficult to describe.  She draws on Kabbalah and mysticism, more generally, and its volatility is sometimes surreal.  Her humor is mordant and deadly serious at the same time: she can teach us lessons we may not be tough enough to learn.   Elizabeth Bishop, the austere American poet who lived for decades in Brazil, was surely an odd match when she chose to translate five of Lispector's stories into English in 1963.  Two of them  - The Hen and The Smallest Woman in the World were published in Kenyon Review in 1964.  Helene Cixous, the French philosopher, says that Lispector's keen interest in Kabbalah and mysticism made her what Kafka would have been if he had been a woman, and "if Rilke had been a Jewish Brazilian born in the Ukraine. If Rimbaud had been a mother, if he had reached the age of fifty.  If Heidegger could have ceased being German."  
Lispector often despaired but she never stopped searching for the God she believed had abandoned her.

Her first novel Near to the Wild Heart was published in 1943 when Lispector was a twenty-three year old university student; her last novel The Hour of the Star was published two months before her death in 1977.   In between there were several novels, short story collections, children's books, and journalism written from locations in Italy, Switzerland, England, and the United States.  Both her sons were born abroad.

To be born in a shtetl in the Ukraine might not seem an auspicious beginning for a writer but the great storyteller Isaac Babel had been born in a nearby village a generation earlier and, by the time Lispector came into the world he was following the Bolshevik army around chronicling its every horrid move.  Chaya Pinkhasovna Lispector was the youngest of three daughters.  Mania Lispecctor, her mother, was raped  during the pogroms that raged unchecked in the aftermath  of the Russian Revolution of 1917.  In fear for their lives the family fled, first overland to Romania and then by sea to Brazil where Lispector's mother already had relatives living.  Her health broken, Mania was paralyzed by her injuries, dying when she was only forty-two and daughter Clarice was nine.

Changing her name from Chaya to Clarice, Lispector grew up in Recife, the capital of the northeastern province of Pernambuco.   You can taste the flavor of this hard, dry region in the poems of  the great Joao Cabral de Melo Neto.  Born in the same year as Lispector, Cabral de Melo Neto  became a diplomat, whereas Lispector married one.  At twenty-three, she became a naturalized citizen of Brazil, married Maury Valente, and published her first novel Near to the Wild Heart to immediate acclaim.

As the wife of a diplomat, Lispector watched the retreat of Hitler's armies from Italy in 1944 while  tending wounded Brazilian troupes in Naples, and reading Katherine Mansfield's stories (in Italian) in her spare time. Other postings to Bern, Switzerland in 1946 and England in 1949 were always interspersed with trips home to Brazil.  The exception was seven years spent living in Washington, D.C. from 1952 to 1959.

With such a history, death is often a presence in Lispector's stories and she imagined her own death in many of them, as in this excerpt from An Apprenticeship (1969):  "She had never read dying before - what an opening she had before her."   Nevertheless Lispector warned readers not to  mistake her work  as mere autobiography.  They were, she explained, "true but invented."

According to those who knew her,  The Hour of the Star is the truest expression of Lispector's  personality.  Its protagonist Macabea, is named for a hero of early Jewish history.  Born in Alagoas  where Lispector's family had lived, the climate  is so  harsh and dry that the the local patron saint is Our Lady of the Good Death.  Macabea shares her creator's fascination with the void: "Was she a saint?  So it seems.  She didn't know that she was meditating because she didn't know what the word meant. It seems to me that her life was one of contemplation of nothing."  Macabea is an orphan who leaves home to look for work in the big city, as un-self conscious as she is unschooled.

When the story begins,  Macabea  is working as a typist in Rio, so poor that she makes less than the minimum wage.  She makes mistakes at work every day because she is shriveling from hunger yet she takes pleasure in her job and she enjoys Coca-Cola.  When she acquires a boyfriend, he is a ne'er-do-well who drops her for a more affluent girl. Gloria deigns to offer Macabea advice, sending her  to a psychic who assures Macabea that her life will be changed forever by this visit.   Believing the fortune teller means that Jesus has finally come to take care of her, Macabea walks out the door with a smile on her face, only to be struck by a big yellow Mercedes.

The Hour of the Star was published in October, 1977.   Lispector died on  the day before her fifty-seventh birthday in December, 1977 from an untreatable ovarian cancer.  She was never informed of her diagnosis when she was admitted to the hospital in Rio.
About the artist:  Lygia Clark (1920-1988) was an artist from Belo Horizonte in northern Brazil 
who studied  in Rio de Janeiro  with the ecologically-minded landscape architect Roberto Burle Marz (1909-1994).  Like other South American artists, she was influenced by the Russian Constructivists  who fled Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. Her desire to erase the demarcation between two and three dimensional works gradually drew her from painting to sculpture.   During the 1960s she took part in the Tropicalia movement of theater, art, and music, that included Caetano Veloso,  Gilberto Gul, Tom Ze, and Gal Costa.  Whether in combining geometry and organic forms or healing and abstraction, Clark was always searching for new combinations in her work.

For further reading:
1. Why This World: a Biography of Clarice Lispector by Benjamin Moser, New York, Oxford University Press: 2009.
2. Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispecotr, translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser, New York, New Directions: 2011.
3. Education By Stone by Joao Cabral de Melo Neto, translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith, Brooklyn, Archipelago Books: 2005.

And more about Clarice Lispector in translation from Three Percent.

1. Lygia  Clark - Bicho (Critter) or Maquino (Machine), 1962, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
2. Lygia Clark - Superficie Modulada, 1956, Associacao Cultural, Rio de Janeiro.


Tania said...

She was just a name for me, I shall look for her books the next time when I go to a bookshop.

Jane said...

Tania, I hope you enjoy Them.
Just to think that three such talents were born in the same year of 1920 - Clarice Lispector, the writer, Joao Cabral de Melo Neto, the poet, and Lygia Clark, the artist.

Rouchswalwe said...

Oh my goodness, Jane. Thank you for this intro ... I am intrigued!

Jane said...

Rouchwalwe, I find Lispector's short stories fascinating - so different from what we are used to. There's no formula I can name that fits, but they are not obscure either. You might dip into the "Collected Stories." Many libraries have it and there's always the interlibrary loan service.
Happy reading!

Rouchswalwe said...

I'll check the local libraries. Merci, Jane!

Klemperer said...

I read Clarice Lispector since 1984, she was very well translated into german. "Nahe dem wilden Herzen",her first book the title sounds even wonderful in german^^.
I have to admit for me the a bit pompous descriptions by Cixous would have hindered me from reading Lispector. She does really not need such comparisons, Cixous is talking about Cisoux here, (Heidegger! My goodness!) and what she herself prefers.

I think it is best to read Lispector in her original language - if possible... - and without such distortions. Literature is most lively without such comparisons. She is just too wonderful, Clarice Lispector! Read for yourself and find out that she does not need Rimbaud or Heidegger. She is herself.

Jane said...

Klemperer, thank you for your thoughtful comments.
Portuguese is such a beautiful language; songs sung in Portuguese are some of my favorites.
When I used to be a jazz programmer on a National Public Radio Station, I often played Simone, Bebel Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, and Milton Nascimento and I owe what correct pronunciation I learned from their music.