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Sunday Book Review

Untamed Creature

Published: August 19, 2009

Here’s a riddle for literary sleuths. Which 20th-century writer was described by the eminent French critic Hélène Cixous as being what Rilke might have been, if he were a “Jewish Brazilian born in the Ukraine”? By the poet Elizabeth Bishop as “better than J. L. Borges”? And by the Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso as one of the chief revelations of his adolescence, along with sex and love and bossa nova? The answer is Clarice Lispector, a Portuguese-language novelist who died in Rio de Janeiro in 1977, and who, despite a cult following of artists and scholars, has yet to gain her rightful place in the literary canon.

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Photograph from “Why This World”

Clarice Lispector


A Biography of Clarice Lispector

By Benjamin Moser

Illustrated. 479 pp. Oxford University Press. $29.95

Benjamin Moser’s lively, ardent and intellectually rigorous biography promises to redress this wrong.

During her lifetime, Lispector, a catlike blond beauty with movie-star magnetism and an indefinably foreign accent, enjoyed an enormous succès d’estime in Brazil. Her fiction, which combines jewel-like language, deadpan humor, philosophical profundity and an almost psychotically lucid understanding of the human condition, was lauded for having introduced European modernism to a national literature felt to be pretty parochial.

Yet such was the mystery surrounding this reclusive author, Moser writes, that few people knew her true origins.

Moser, a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and Harper’s, describes a family story that is harrowing even by the standards of 20th-century European Jewry.

Lispector was born in 1920 in Podolia, the same fertile crescent in present-day Ukraine that produced a number of mystical movements, both Christian and Jewish. Her original first name was not Clarice, but Chaya. Her father, Pinkhas, barred from a career in mathematics by his Jewishness, came from a family of religious scholars; her mother, Mania, from prosperous merchants.

The trauma that scarred Lispector’s life occurred before her birth. During the civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution, Podolia was beset by a truly genocidal succession of pogroms. In 1918, Lispector’s grandfather was murdered, her family home destroyed, and shortly after, her mother, Mania, already the mother of two small children, was gang-raped by Russian soldiers — an assault that infected the young woman with syphilis. The Lispector family joined the hordes of starving refugees crisscrossing present-day Moldova and Ukraine seeking escape to the New World. Without access to medical treatment, Mania and her husband resorted to folk remedies. Clarice, Mania’s third and last daughter, was conceived in accordance with a folk belief that pregnancy could cure a woman of venereal disease. Clarice’s inability to save her mother’s life was a source of lacerating remorse: “They made me for a specific mission, and I let them down. As if they were counting on me in the trenches of a war and I had deserted.”

Eventually, the family won passage to Maceió, a port town in northeastern Brazil. Chaya, renamed Clarice, was barely a year old when they arrived. Although for the rest of her life fellow Brazilians regarded Lispector as unassimilably alien, she herself was adamant in claiming Brazil as her soul’s true home, the only place on earth where she could breathe free.

For her parents, however, fortunes did not improve. Mania, long mute and paralyzed, died when Clarice was 9; Pinkhas, now Pedro, struggled in vain to make a living as a peddler and died at age 55, leaving his children with the “unbearable” memory of a gifted mathematician and immensely moral man who was at every step thwarted by human evil and indifference.

Yet despite such beginnings, the Lispector daughters managed to forge valiant careers. Clarice’s eldest sister also became a novelist, the middle sister a civil servant. Clarice graduated from law school — a rare accomplishment for her time, not to mention her background — and went to work as a newspaper journalist.

Nineteen forty-three — the year after Stefan Zweig, another Jewish writer who hoped Brazil could offer redemption from Europe’s genocidal impulses, committed suicide in a mountain resort not far from Rio — saw the publication of the 23-year-old Lispector’s first novel. It was called “Near to the Wild Heart,” and it was an overnight sensation. The story is simple — a man torn between a homebody mistress and a wild-animal wife — and chillingly amoral, but Lispector uses it to address with brutal lucidity what will prove the central question of her work: What is the nature of God’s presence in the world?

Fernanda Eberstadt’s fifth novel, “Rat,” will be published in the winter of 2010.