Magazine article The Spectator

BOOKS 'The Most Important Jewish Writer since Kafka'

Magazine article The Spectator

BOOKS 'The Most Important Jewish Writer since Kafka'

Article excerpt

Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector by Benjamin Moser Penguin Books, £12.99, pp. 479, ISBN 9781846147814 Spectator Bookshop, £10.99 The Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector was a riddlesome and strange personality. Strikingly beautiful, with catlike green eyes, she died in Rio de Janeiro in 1977 at the age of only 57. Some said she wrote like Virginia Woolf (not necessarily a recommendation) and resembled Marlene Dietrich. She was 'very, very sexy', remembered a friend.

Yet she needed a great many cigarettes, painkillers, anti-depressants, as well as antipsychotics and sleeping pills to get through her final years. Lispector had great fortitude over her illness, it was said, and suffered the ravages of ovarian cancer equably and without complaint.

According to her biographer Benjamin Moser, Lispector's was a life fraught with the shadow of past failures and past sorrows. Born in 1920 in what is now Ukraine, she emerged from the world of East European orthodox Jewry with its sidelocks, kaftans and Talmudic mysticism. Dreadfully, her mother had been gang-raped by Russian soldiers during the pogroms that followed the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917; her grandfather had earlier been murdered. Even by the standards of Russian anti-Semitism, the family's was an unusually wretched story of immigration.

In the winter of 1921, harried by thieving Jew-baiters and other opportunists, the Lispectors fled their home for the New World.

On arrival in northeast Brazil, they scraped a pittance through teaching and odd jobs.

Clarice (born Chaya) Lispector was barely one year old when she reached Brazil; in her adult years, not surprisingly, she liked to claim the country as her spiritual home and the place where the Portuguese-language writer in her was born.

Her fiction is haunted by her family history of uprooting and exile, says Moser.

The atrocities and expulsions suffered by Ukrainian Jewry after the first world war had engendered a thoroughgoing scepticism and mistrustfulness in Lispector. In coming to Brazil with her parents and two older sisters she knew she had escaped a great danger.

Assimilation into Brazilian society promised an escape from the sorrows and derision of the past, so the Lispectors decided to change their names to sound less Yiddish and more Portuguese. Though Clarice would never again set foot in her native Ukraine, her writing gave covert expression to the displacement and wretchedness felt by emigres everywhere, Moser suggests.

Among the first to 'discover' Lispector had been the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, who in 1963 wrote to Robert Lowell: 'I not only like her stories very much but like her, too.' Bishop (who had been living in Brazil since 1951) proclaimed Lispector 'better' even than the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges, and set about translating her into English. Since then, Lispector has been championed by, among others, Edmund White, Orhan Pamuk and Colm Toibin. Yet she remains unknown to the general reader (I, for one, had never heard of her). Why is that? I asked my Brazilian friend Marcelo Bratke, the concert pianist, if he knew of Lispector. 'What? Lispector is highly regarded here. She's the most important Jewish writer since Kafka!'

Though Penguin are currently bringing out her novels as Modern Classics, Lispector has clearly not found her place in the literary canon. …

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