Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Dizzy With Life

Clarice Lispector’s gorgeous, vibrant writings made one writer’s head—and heart—spin

Anderson Tepper
January 30, 2008

There was a time, in my early 20s, when I teetered on the edge: I was living in Harlem like a squatter; I was drifting between magazine jobs (publications all seemed to fold soon after I joined); I was looking for signs—signs of meaning and depth, something deeper, at least, than the rattling, old, C local train running below my apartment. I hungered for books and literary voyages, and I found a few to feast on: Julio Cortázar’s Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, García Lorca’s A Poet in New York (his paean to the city and Harlem). And then, between jobs, I returned to Columbia University and audited a class called “Female Sexuality in the Twentieth-Century Latin American Novel.” Everything about that course title intrigued me, how can I deny it? And that’s where I discovered her, the Brazilian-Jewish writer Clarice Lispector.

Had I been preparing myself for Lispector? Had I been waiting for her, inventing her? Whatever the answers, there she was, staring out from the book jacket of her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, published in 1944 when she was just 24 (or thereabouts), her gaze looking right through me. As the translator Gregory Rabassa famously put it: “I was flabbergasted to meet that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.” My infatuation was total: the name—Clarice Lispector—the pure, icy alliteration of it; the eyes, with their magnetic, almost clairvoyant intensity; the title itself, which echoed my own mood, my reckless longing.

But it was the writing that froze me in my tracks. The story of a middle-class girl’s cloistered childhood and loveless marriage, Near to the Wild Heart shimmers with a rich interior life, a bursting, exuberant explosion of language and imagery. With each new passage in Joana’s life, each inch of self-realization she achieves, it thrums, it levitates. “She fell silent once more, peering into herself,” Lispector writes. “She remembered: I am the tiny wave that has no other region except the sea, I tussle with myself, I glide, I fly, laughing, giving, sleeping, but alas, always within myself, always within myself.” Her writing struck a chord in me. The language she spoke—stripped-down, breathless, soul-baring, poised at the brink of breakdown or revelation—was mine. Was I projecting? Was I reaching for her books with the desperation, the hunger, of a lover? Of course I was.

And so I carried on, and was bewitched by the rest of her fiction as well—eerie, existential vignettes, savant-like parables and prophesies of modern angst seared by the Brazilian sun. Her work called to mind a tropical, female Kafka with sensory overload. As the French literary critic and philosopher Hélène Cixous put it: “I discovered an immense writer, the equivalent for me of Kafka, with something more: This was a woman, writing as a woman. I discovered Kafka and it was a woman.” Unlike Kafka’s however, Lispector’s work—though obsessed with Brazilianness and a sense of belonging—had little to say about its own Jewishness. As Grace Paley writes in the introduction to Lispector’s book of stories, Soulstorm: “I thought at one point in my reading that there was some longing for Europe, the Old World; but decided I was wrong. It was simply longing.” And according to Moacyr Scliar, Brazil’s foremost Jewish writer, Lispector “didn’t deny her Jewishness, but she didn’t push it. The reason why this happened is still the subject of discussion here in Brazil.” Perhaps this, too, fueled my fascination with Lispector: What traces of my own Jewishness did I find there, reflected by the dazzling surfaces of her work?

I was hooked; I sought out all of her works in translation. And yet, the more I read and learned of her, the more the mystery of her grew. Who exactly was Clarice Lispector, this strange, iconoclastic figure of Brazilian letters, this woman who wrote as if in a trance, her words burning off the page? Here is where I should delve into her biography, I know, and describe it for you—her immigration, when she was just two months old, from a Ukrainian shtetl to Recife, in the northeast of Brazil; her teenage years in Rio de Janeiro; her marriage to a diplomat, with postings around Europe in the 1940s and 1950s; her divorce and solitary writing life, again in Rio; her death from cancer in 1977.

But, the truth is, each time I read of it, it’s different. Was it in 1920, or 1924, that the family made their voyage to Brazil? Was their home village called Tchechelnik, Checkelnik, or something else? Was her first language Yiddish, which the Lispectors (Pedro and Marietta and their three daughters, Clarice, Elisa, and Tanya) spoke at home—or Portuguese, as Clarice insisted? (“It was the Portuguese language which influenced my spiritual life and innermost thoughts, and this was the language I used to utter words of love,” she wrote.) “She told different people different things about what town she lived in and when she was born,” the scholar Earl Fritz has said. “She wore a lot of masks, and when she would take one off you’d think she was revealing something, but all she was revealing was another mask.”

And so I formed a hazy picture of her from her books and their varying prefaces and afterwords. There were the collections of stories, Soulstorm and Family Ties: short, precise character studies—of daughters, wives, lonely and rebellious women—pierced with fleeting epiphanies, glimpses of life caught askew, unhinged, refracted as if in shards of glass and mirrors. The novels, full of rambling metaphysics and streams and streams of consciousness, ranged from the slim and whispery, like An Apprenticeship or The Book of Delights and The Hour of the Star, to the dense and unwieldy, like The Apple in the Dark (her magnum opus). And then there were the unclassifiable, the pastiches of fiction and reverie: The Stream of Life, The Passion According to G.H. “This is not simply a narrative,” Lispector writes in The Hour of the Star, “but above all primary life that breathes, breathes, breathes.”

The Hour of the Star, in fact, manages to compress most of Lispector’s obsessions into one tiny thumbnail of a book. Macabéa, a driftless immigrant from the northeast, shuttles to and from her job as a typist, her boarding house, and a soulless love affair in Rio, while slowly gaining inklings of her own freedom and ultimately finding redemption. In Macabéa, too, one can find perhaps a touch of Jewish symbolism: Does the name refer to the Maccabees, the Jewish warriors who recaptured Jerusalem from the Greeks in 164 BCE? There are few overt references to Judaism in her work—rather, she gives us priests, cathedrals, angels, and the almost divine powers of writing and “the word” itself. In the hallucinatory story “Where Were You at Night,” however, Lispector writes of a “poor Jew” who lives in a “dirt-cheap boarding house” surrounded by prostitutes and cockroaches. But he is just one of the collection’s many characters—teachers, seamstresses, architects, transvestites, erotic dancers—searching for salvation in cities real and imagined.

But most revealing of Lispector herself were her crônicas, or chronicles, the short newspaper columns she wrote between 1967 and 1973 that followed her every whim and fancy—brief, intense meditations on a myriad of subjects, from her housemaid and dinner parties to race, marriage, Carnival, love, travel, motherhood, and the anxieties of her craft. Selected Crônicas and The Foreign Legion capture a Brazil refracted through the prism of Lispector’s heightened sensitivity, a combination of daydreams, confessions, sketches, and aphorisms. “One Final Clarification,” an entry from 1970, offers, for once, more than just an oblique, fragmentary self-portrait: “From time to time I receive letters asking me if I am Russian or Brazilian and people invent all sorts of myths about me,” she declares, before going on to dispute claims of her foreignness and insist upon her native Brazilian roots.

How many layers deep, then, is her Jewishness embedded, I wonder, and why? (Her sister Elisa, incidentally, went on to write several novels and stories focused on Jewish family life.) I don’t know the answer, yet I like to think that her Jewishness (like mine?) exists just beneath the surface, imprinted somehow in her words, her search for meaning, her ache, her soulstorm.

My discovery of Lispector, of course, was bound up in so many other discoveries. The books themselves were wonders: the small New Directions editions, with their abstract cover art by Paul Klee; the university presses that spoke of the hushed, hermetic world of academia; the British copies, doubly exotic in their foreignness. And the independent bookshops I found her in, now gone or fast-disappearing: Endicott Books on the Upper West Side; the university bookstore on 14th street; and Coliseum Books, then at Columbus Circle. (I distinctly remember reaching up for the spines of her New Directions paperbacks—a row or two above Henry Miller’s—as the first Gulf War was announced over the radio at Coliseum.)

But, in time, I lost track of Lispector, my passion for her overrun by other books, other adventures. I vaguely recall the growing frustration, too, of reading some of her more experimental, elliptical prose. As Cixous cautioned in the foreword to The Stream of Life: “Is this text readable? One may have to find other modes, other ways of approaching it: one can sing it. One is in another world.” I couldn’t sing, alas, and I had entered other worlds. I no longer lived in a heatless Harlem apartment; I had found a steady job with a magazine that seemed likely to stick around for a while. I now reviewed books as well, though without any of the freedom and abandon of Lispector’s classic crônicas.

In short, I’d moved on, and heard little further mention of Lispector, whom I assumed was heading towards an ever deeper obscurity in the U.S. When I did occasionally stumble onto her books, there was a tingle of recognition, a jolt from the past. I remember excitedly seeing new editions of her works popping up in the small Portuguese-language section at the Spanish bookstore on 14th street. Later, a Brazilian friend told me of her cultish following in Brazil, her bizarre reputation for sorcery and hysteria, and my picture of her deepened.

Then, slowly, I began to see signs of a coming revival. Or was I imagining that, too? The Spanish bookstore suddenly displayed books of hers I had never heard of (a second novel, La Araña, or The Lamp, as well as a posthumous work, Un Soplo de Vida, or A Breath of Life). And last year, the Center for Jewish History’s YIVO Institute, in New York, hosted an overflowing program entitled “The Cultural Powers of Dislocation: Clarice Lispector and Ways of Being Jewish in Brazil,” with reminiscences and lectures by Rabassa and Fritz, as well as a video of Lispector herself. Eerily, in February 1977, just ten months before her death, she tells a television interviewer: “When I am not writing, I am dead.” (She is buried, by the way, in the Jewish Cemetary of Caju, in Rio.)

As I recently reached again for her books on the shelves and slowly waded back into them, I felt that old familiar rush. I was surprised by how raw they were, how freshly they still struck me, how “dizzy with life” her work remained. Yes, Lispector’s writing still breathes, breathes, breathes. “In no sense an intellectual, I write with my body. And what I write is like a dank haze,” she declares in The Hour of the Star, published just before she died. I missed that dank haze—and, revisiting it, I was reminded how much she had meant to me and how much her work still survives. “Long live me! Still alive!” she exclaims at the end of the story “Day by Day.” Yes, still alive, still thrumming—and still so near to the wild heart!

Anderson Tepper‘s last piece for Tablet Magazine was about the Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector