At long last I have finished Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector by Benjamin Moser. It didn’t take me so long to read it because it was a slog or anything, far from it. It took so long because it was so very interesting and incredibly detailed.
For years I had heard the name Clarice Lispector but knew nothing about her. I even made the mistake of thinking she was French! Now I know better. Born Chaya Pinkhas on December 10, 1920 in Chechelnik, Ukraine, Clarice was the youngest of three daughters. Before Clarice was born her Jewish family got caught up in the turmoil of the pogroms in Russia. Sometime in 1919 Clarice’s mother was raped by Russian soldiers and contracted syphilis. As an adult Clarice explained it was a common belief then that a pregnancy would cure a woman of the illness. And so it was Clarice was conceived. In 1922 the Lispectors, who already had family in Brazil, were able to obtain passports. When they arrived at their new home in the very poor Brazilian town of Maceió, the family chose to change their name from Pinkhas to Lispector and and all but one of Clarice’s sisters, Tania, took new first names too. Brazil was their new home and they wanted to fit in.
Clarice’s mother grew increasingly ill and died when Clarice was nine-years-old. Her mother’s death had a great impact of Clarice who, for the rest of her life, looked for mother-figure stand-ins.
The family was poor but all was not doom and gloom. In 1932 Clarice, an extremely intelligent girl, was accepted to the most prestigious secondary school in the state. At the age of thirteen under the influence of Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Clarice decided she was going to become a writer. She immediately sat down and began to write a story. She wrote and wrote and wrote, but when she was finished she tore it all up because she didn’t want anyone to know she was writing. But in 1935 she went to university and studied law, her goal being that she would be able to then work to reform the prisons in Brazil.
Even though she graduated with a law degree, law was not her passion. During her first year at university she published her first story in a magazine. And not long after that she found work as a journalist.
In 1943 Clarice published her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart. It was a great success. He voice was new and fresh, there had not been a book like it published in Brazil before. 1943 was a big year for Clarice. Not only did she publish her first novel, on January 12th she became a naturalized Brazilian citizen. Then eleven days after that she married Maury Gurgel Valente. Maury was a colleague at the law school and after graduation took a job with the Brazilian Foreign Service. In 1944 Maury and Clarice left Rio for a posting at the Brazilian Consulate in Naples.
At first being a diplomat’s wife was a lark. Clarice threw herself into the role and did it to perfection. During the next ten years and several moves to different countries with only short visits back to Brazil, Clarice had two children and struggled to continue to write. Leading the life of a diplomat’s wife wore thin and she began to miss Brazil desperately. She published two more novels durning this time and wrote a fourth that she could not get published. Having been away from Brazil too long people were starting to forget who she was. After her first novel, her other books, while respected and praised by Brazil’s literary luminaries, were not popular with the general public.
Her prose is difficult and has an odd rhythm and her punctuation is unusual. It drove translators of her work crazy. Even the ones who knew Portuguese really well tried to smooth out the translations to make them sound more normal. In 1954 she received the proofs of the French translation of Near to the Wild heart and had a fit. The translator had removed entire chapters. It was not the first or the last time translations would go haywire. The thing is, no matter how odd Clarice’s prose sounded in translation, it sounds just as odd in the original Portuguese. But Clarice knew exactly what she was doing, all her punctuation is deliberate no matter how accidental it may seem and she was a rabid reviser, cutting and reworking until everything was to her satisfaction.
Homesick and tired of being a diplomat’s wife, Clarice and Maury separated in 1956. Maury still loved her and wrote her a heartbreaking letter asking for a second chance. But Clarice took the children and settled in to a new life in Rio. She received child support from Maury and needed every penny of it. Her eldest son Pedro was schizophrenic and Clarice had to employ a caretaker to help her look after him. She also had a difficult time making enough money from her writing.
Clarice herself suffered from depression. She was an insomniac who would call her friends at all hours of the night to chat and then, because she had taken a sleeping pill would suddenly fall asleep in the middle of the conversation. Her addiction to sleeping pills and cigarettes almost cost her her life. One night in 1966, after taking pills, she sat smoking in bed and fell asleep. She woke up to to find her bedroom in flames. She panicked, and in an attempt to save her papers, tried to put the fire out with her hands. Her youngest son Paulo got her out of the apartment. She was burned all over, her nylon night dress partly melted to her skin. For the next three days doctors were not sure whether she would live. She did, but her right hand, her writing hand, was so badly damaged doctors almost amputated it. She was in the hospital for three months and endured several surgeries, skin grafts, and physiotherapy.
Clarice didn’t just write novels for adults. In 1967 she published her first children’s book, The Mystery of the Thinking Rabbit. The book won the Calunga Prize for best children’s book of the year. She published four other books for children after that.
It was not easy being a friend of Clarice Lispector. Besides the late night phone calls, she was demanding and needy. She used up people until there was nothing left of them. She gained the reputation as a monstre scaré. She was not happy about this but neither did she take steps to correct it. She was lonely, a social outsider, generally unhappy. Not even years of psychotherapy helped her. She saw one particular therapist five days a week for an hour a day for six years. He was neither her first nor last therapist but he is the one she liked best.
She had been looking unwell for quite some time when, in October 1977, she was hospitalized and diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. After an exploratory operation, doctors diagnosed Clarice as terminal. Clarice, however, was not told of this diagnosis. Still, she was not stupid and knew she was dying. She continued growing weaker and was sedated more and more to help control the pain. Clarice died the morning of December 9, 1977, holding the hand of Olga Borelli, her dear friend and companion for seven years.
Clarice Lispector was a complicated and fascinating woman. She loved Agatha Christie and even translated Hercule Poirot’s final case into Portuguese. She told an interviewer once that
My ideal would be to write something that at least in the title recalled Agatha Christie.
But she never tried to be anyone other than herself, and what a struggle that was. Found in some notes she had written not long before her death:
Writing can drive a person mad. You must lead a serene life, well appointed, middle class. If you don’t the madness comes. It is dangerous. 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.
Moser’s is a fantastic biography. Thorough, well written and never boring. I worried that since I had only read The Hour of the Star immediately before beginning the biography that I might not get as much from it as I would if I had a better knowledge of the novels. But, given that so much of Clarice’s fiction, while not especially autobiographical, is related to her life, her Judaism, the loss of her mother when young, her own reading including the philosophy of Spinoza, I am glad I read the biography before spending a lot of time with her fiction. Now, I feel like I have a solid foundation for launching into reading the strange and beautiful novels of Clarice Lispector.