The Fuel of Art and Life

By Graham, Philip | The New Leader (Online), May-August 2009 | Go to article overview

The Fuel of Art and Life


Graham, Philip, The New Leader (Online)


The Fuel of Art and Life Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector By Benjamin Moser Oxford. 479 pp. $29.95.

CLARICE LISPECTOR, a giant of 20thcentury Brazilian - and world - literature, so coveted privacy and personal mystery that her various interviews over the years were filled with contradictory answers. Refusing to be pinned down in her fiction as well, she hid "behind her characters or inside her allegories," as Benjamin Moser aptly puts it in his elegantly written, carefully researched biography. He makes the most of his access to the author's letters; ofthe unpublished, highly autobiographical novel based on the family's escape from Ukraine and early years in Brazil, written by Elena, Clarice's older sister; and of Lispector's annotated copies ofthe philosopher Baruch Spinoza's work.

One of Moser's aims is to restore Lispector's relatively unknown Jewish roots. There are still editions of her books translated into English that refer to her as "Russian" or "Ukrainian." But the family suffered near starvation and horrific pogroms in the chaos of Eastern Europe following World War I. When they finally managed to immigrate to Brazil and settle in the northeastern city of Recife, Clarice was two years old.

Though she retained no direct memory ofthe deprivations her parents and two older sisters had endured, Clarice grew up in a shell-shocked family struggling to learn Portuguese and make do in an utterly foreign country. Her mother, moreover, had been gang-raped by Russian soldiers and was slowly dying from syphilis. Clarice invented magical stories to comfort her as her paralysis advanced. "A little girl's stories," unfortunately, "were not enough to save a woman from devastating terminal illness." Her mother died before Clarice's 1 Oth birthday.

Since Lispector was convinced at a young age of God's indifference, it was perhaps inevitable that in adulthood she turned her gaze inward. Influenced by Spinoza, she rejected "assigning human meanings to the inhuman world," the illusions we entertain that our world is under control. Moser acknowledges that "the Jewish motifs in Clarice Lispector's writings beg the question ofthe extent to which their inclusion was deliberate." Nevertheless, he maintains convincingly that, deliberate or not, her "personal experience was . . . a microcosm ofthe broader Jewish historical experience," and that this is reflected throughout her writing.

Although Moser develops parallel narratives of Jewish history in the 20th century (including outbreaks of antiSemitism in Brazil) and Lispector's life, to his credit he does not put the author in a narrow sociocultural mold. Rather, through close examination of her work he demonstrates eloquently that her greatest literary gift, what earned her distinction, was her exceptionally detailed understanding ofthe insistent lives we live inside ourselves. Lispector was nevermore powerful as a writer, Moser observes, than when "she sought the universal meaning within her particular experiences." The trademark of her often astonishing psychological candor can be seen in this single sentence from The Hour ofthe Star (1977): "Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what is means to be a person?"

FAME CAME to Lispector when she was still in her early 20s. Her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart (1943), was awarded the prestigious Graça Aranha Prize. The thrill ofthat book turns on the contrast between the amoral, wild Joana - "I will break all ofthe nos that exist inside me" - and the placid, conventional Lidia, who represented two warring forces within Lispector. This tension proved to be the ongoing fuel of her art and life.

Near to the Wild Heart warned ofthe ultimate impossibility of joy in marriage, but soon after its publication Clarice married Maury Gurgel Valente, a diplomat who was posted over the next 1 5 years in Italy, Switzerland, England, and the United States. …

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