The Jewish Queen of Brazilian Letters

Article excerpt

Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector

By Benjamin Moser

Oxford University Press

2009, $29.95, pp. 496

"I was flabbergasted to meet that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf," said Gregory Rabassa, the renowned literary translator, of his first encounter with Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. Born in 1920, Lispector was a baby when her parents emigrated from Ukraine to Brazil, where their daughter remains a literary icon, often referred to, like a rock star, simply as Clarice. This rare creature is so well-regarded her face adorns postage stamps, and she has a sizable following in Europe. Lispector has been compared to Kafka and James Joyce, but in the United States she has been a hidden genius, known mainly to serious students of Latin American literature.

The 1989 translation of Soulstorm, a collection of short stories by Lispector, carries an introduction by Grace Paley, the beloved New Yorker whose work is infused with a Jewish blend of toughness, warmth and urgency. Paley considered--and rejected--the importance of Lispector's Ukrainian-Jewish origins in her writing.

"I thought at one point in my reading that there was some longing for Europe, the Old World, but decided I was wrong," wrote Paley, who died in 2007. "It was simply longing."

Paley's conclusion was reasonable. Brazil was the homeland for which Lispector ached when she lived abroad as a diplomat's wife; she called Portuguese the language of her soul.

She wrote novels, short stories and "cronicas"--literary newspaper columns popular in Brazil. She specialized in the mystical, lyrical, brilliant and strange. One cronica, titled "A Challenge for the Psychoanalysts," contains only one sentence: "I dreamed that a fish was taking its clothes off and remained naked." After her death from cancer, just before her 57th birthday in 1977, the mystique surrounding her flourished, her literary legacy enhanced by her tragic life and exotic beauty.

Her work is spiritual, but almost pointedly secular. Yet Why This World, Benjamin Moser's fascinating biography of the enigmatic author, strongly urges a particularly Jewish evaluation of a writer whose work is as empty of Jews as an old-fashioned restricted neighborhood. For Moser, a columnist for Harper's and contributor to The New York Review of Books and Conde Nast Traveler, Lispector's association to the Old World isn't longing but fear. The often grim, existential dance with fate that runs through so much of her work, he argues, is inexorably linked to her family's persecution in Europe and the devastating reverberations that followed them to their haven in Brazil.

Moser finds the Jewish connection even in a short story Lispector wrote about a hen who escapes her fate as a family's lunch by laying an egg, thereby proving her worth--at least for a while. "The reference to the 'old fright of her species' suggests the ancestral Jewish fear of persecution," he writes, and "the phrase 'remnants of the great escape,' coupled with the spectacle of a helpless, flightless, pregnant female running for her life, can be read as a memory of her mother's desperate escape from Europe."

The book opens with a map of the Western Ukraine, circa 1920, rooting Why This World in the Lispector family's dark Eastern European history. As the Czarist empire crashed and the First World War ended, thousands of Jews were murdered. These pogroms affected millions, including Mania and Pinkhas Lispector and their older daughters, Tania and Elisa. Mania was raped by Russian soldiers and contracted syphilis. She subsequently gave birth to a third daughter, Chaya, who would become Clarice when the family arrived in Brazil. Mania eventually became paralyzed from her disease and died when Clarice was nine years old.

The Lispectors settled in Recife, an impoverished region in northeastern Brazil, where Pinkhas became Pedro and Mania was Marieta. …