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Mystic Goddess of Brazil

Writer Clarice Lispector’s exoticism had much to do with her Jewishness; her literary vocabulary did not

Adam Kirsch
July 23, 2012
Clarice Lispector in Rio de Janeiro.(Courtesy of Instituto Moreira Salles, Rio de Janeiro, and Paulo Gurgel Valente.)
Clarice Lispector in Rio de Janeiro.(Courtesy of Instituto Moreira Salles, Rio de Janeiro, and Paulo Gurgel Valente.)

If you take the four volumes of Clarice Lispector’s fiction recently published by New Directions and put them side by side, their covers join to make up a single image of Lispector’s face. It is a clever allusion to, and example of, the way so much commentary on Lispector focuses on her appearance. In a much-quoted sentence, the translator Gregory Rabassa called her “that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.” This kind of focus on a woman writer’s appearance is all too common—it happens with Virginia Woolf as well—but in the case of Lispector, her exotic beauty was just one element in a larger myth that she herself did much to cultivate. As Benjamin Moser, who edited these four books, showed in his 2009 biography Why This World, even during her lifetime Lispector was the subject of wild rumors and speculation by her fellow Brazilians. She was said to be a foreigner, or maybe a man writing under a pseudonym; “reading accounts of her at different points in her life,” Moser writes, “one can hardly believe they concern the same person.”

In fact, as Moser demonstrated, the exoticism of Clarice—née Chaya—Lispector had much to do with her Jewishness. She was born in Ukraine in 1920, which, excepting the Holocaust itself, was one of the worst times and places a Jew could be born in the 20th century. In the civil wars and foreign invasions that swept repeatedly across Ukraine during and after World War I, the one constant was the readiness of all sides to murder Jews: Some 250,000 were killed during this period, and many more were raped, robbed, or driven from their homes. The Lispector family was among them. According to the story Clarice told later in life, her mother contracted syphilis after being raped by Russian soldiers, and she herself was conceived in the folk belief that a pregnancy could cure a woman of the disease. The failure of this cure—her mother would die a few years later of advanced syphilitic paralysis—left Lispector with a lifelong burden of guilt.

The Lispector family were luckier than most Jews, however, in managing to escape Eastern Europe. After many hardships, their odyssey ended in the town of Recife in northern Brazil, where several relatives had emigrated earlier. Clarice, who was just 1 year old when she came to Brazil, grew up in a fairly cloistered Jewish environment, surrounded by Jewish immigrant families, and she attended Hebrew school. Growing up in the 1930s and ’40s, when fascistic and anti-Semitic parties had a significant presence in Brazil, must have made her acutely conscious of being Jewish. Yet after her father died, she drifted away from Judaism, and there is not one explicit reference to Jewishness in the four newly translated books—Near to the Wild Heart, The Passion According to G.H., Água Viva, and A Breath of Life. On the contrary, Moser writes, she went out of her way to proclaim her Brazilianness and to repudiate the foreignness her looks, accent, and overall presence often suggested.

Few writers have ever tried so hard to record the tremulous, instant-by-instant consciousness of living wholly in the moment.

The appearance of these four novels gives the American reader an opportunity to discover the substance behind the legend of Clarice Lispector; but it also helps to explain why that legend could thrive. If Lispector’s Brazilian readers were driven to mythologize and idolize her—Moser tells the story of one reader who, on meeting the writer, threw herself at Lispector’s feet and cried, “My goddess!”—they were only responding to an invitation that Lispector issues in her writing. These strange, paradoxical novels—which are not really novels at all, but hybrids of dramatic monologue and religious treatise—are all about the exceptionalness of their author, whose mind and character form their primary subject. Few books work so hard to give the illusion of intimate contact with their creator, and few are as unapologetically self-dramatizing. Indeed, the emotional melodrama and self-obsession of these difficult books frequently makes them sound adolescent—until their rigorous philosophical curiosity and mystical insight make them sound suddenly like the work of a Spinoza or a saint.


Lispector was barely out of adolescence when she wrote her first book, Near to the Wild Heart. Published in 1943, when she was 23 years old, the book became a sensation and made its author famous, in large part because Lispector brought to Portuguese-language literature the fragmentary, stream-of-consciousness techniques invented by the Modernists. (The title is a quotation from Joyce.) The opening of the novel conjures childhood with a naïve immediacy reminiscent of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Her father’s typewriter went clack-clack … clack-clack-clack … The clock awoke in dustless tin-dlen. The silence dragged out zzzzz. What did the wardrobe say? clothes-clothes-clothes. No, no. … The three sounds were connected by the daylight and the squeaking of the tree’s little leaves rubbing against one another radiant.

Lispector maintains this evocative, oblique style as she tells, in fragments and flashbacks, the story of the heroine, Joana. And in this case the word “heroine” is more fitting than the neutral “protagonist.” Joana is portrayed as a larger-than-life figure, whose waywardness stems from her insatiable appetite for experience and sensation. From the very beginning, this desire for something higher and deeper than ordinary life is Joana’s defining characteristic:

Between her and the objects there was something, but whenever she caught that something in her hand, like a fly, and then peeked at it—though she was careful not to let anything escape—she only found her own hand, very pink and disappointed. Yes, I know, the air, the air! But it was no use, it didn’t explain things. That was one of her secrets. She would never allow herself to say, even to her father, that she never managed to catch “the thing.”

It’s not necessary to know—as Lispector’s first readers of course did not know—that Joana’s story resembles her creator’s in several details (both are motherless; both have a trusted teacher; both grow up to have ill-fated love affairs) in order to sense the very close identification between author and character. Lispector writes besottedly about Joana, turning her into a force of nature, a Nietzschean figure whose vitality puts her beyond ordinary judgments of good and evil. “The certainty that evil is my calling, thought Joana,” begins one chapter, but this evil has nothing to do with cruelty and so is never actually repellent. On the contrary, it is a willfulness that makes Joana seductive and admirable, especially compared to the pious aunt who raises her after her father’s death. “Goodness was lukewarm and light,” writes Lispector, “It smelled of raw meat kept for too long.” Compared to that, anyone would prefer, as Joana does, “the taste of evil—chewing red, swallowing sugary fire.”

The events of Near to the Wild Heart are few and ambiguously told. After these scenes of childhood, we suddenly jump to Joana as a young woman, married to a man named Otavio. Otavio is still seeing the bovine, devoted Lidia, who was his lover before he met Joana, and in time he gets her pregnant. When Joana finds out about this, her response is not jealous rage or heartbreak: Rather, she goes to visit Lidia and declares that she is ready to give Otavio up, but only after he has gotten her pregnant as well. Then she goes on to take a strange man as a lover. In the conservative Brazil of the 1940s, this must have read as a deeply shocking piece of immorality. It is Lispector’s bid to place Joana outside the pale of conventional morality, while still insisting that we admire her personal integrity and force.

What Joana does, however, matters much less to our sense of her than her thoughts, to which Lispector gives us intimate and unremitting access. Indeed, Near to the Wild Heart feels like a book still emerging from an old-fashioned conception of what a novel is, still clinging to the armature of a love story, when what really interests Lispector is simply the moment-by-moment evocation of a “wild” consciousness. For long stretches, in fact, the book reads like a surreal prose poem:

I get up soft as a breath of air, raise my sleepy flower head, my feet light, I cross fields beyond the earth, world, time, God. I dive under and then emerge, as if from clouds, from lands still not possible, ah still not possible. … I don’t feel madness in my wish to bite stars, but the earth still exists.

A little of this goes a long way, and there is more than a little of it in Near to the Wild Heart. The poeticisms and clichés, the breathlessly heightened emotions, the narrator’s entirely unironic sense of her own specialness—these are all the kinds of vices that usually disappear from a writer’s work at a very early stage. The progress of most writers is in the direction of objectivity; they learn not to declare emotions but to embody them in characters and situations.

The strange thing about Lispector is that she seems immune to this kind of growth. If you turn from her first book to Água Viva, one of her last, the approach is fundamentally the same, only purified. Now there is not even the shadow of a plot, and there is no character interposing between reader and author. We have what appear to be the meditations of Clarice Lispector as she sits at her desk, writing bulletins from each moment as it passes. (The Portuguese title literally means “living water,” Moser writes in his introduction, and Lispector wanted it to convey “a thing that bubbles. At the source.”)

What she ends up writing about, however, is the impossibility of grasping the moment as it passes—the very same problem that preoccupied Joana, who “never managed to grasp ‘the thing.’ ” Now we hear Lispector making the same lament:

Let me tell you: I’m trying to seize the fourth dimension of this instant-now so fleeting that it’s already gone because it’s already become a new instant-now that’s also already gone. Every thing has an instant in which it is. I want to grab hold of the is of the thing. … I want to possess the atoms of time. And to capture the present, forbidden by its very nature: the present slips away and the instant too.

Água Viva, at just 88 pages, feels like a long book, because it constantly circles back to this initial frustration. The impossibility of living wholly in the moment, of seizing the thing-in-itself through the veils of perception, is a venerable Romantic theme, dating back to the German Idealist philosophers of the early 19th century, and Lispector often seems to be in dialogue with philosophy more than with literature. Yet few writers have ever tried so hard to record the tremulous, instant-by-instant consciousness of this impossibility; Lispector never tires of reenacting the world’s elusiveness before the mind’s grasp. As a result, what matters is not so much what Lispector writes as the act of writing itself:

So writing is the method of using the word as bait: the word fishing for whatever is not the word. When this non-word—between the lines—takes the bait, something has been written. Once whatever is between the lines is caught, the word can be tossed away in relief.

Ironically, while the powerlessness of writing is Lispector’s ostensible theme, the effect of Água Viva, as of Near to the Wild Heart, is actually to glamorize the writer as a figure of unusual power—as a person more sensitive, tumultuous, and exposed than the common run of humanity. Many passages in Água Viva are pure self-mythologizing, so naïve and grandiose that it disarms criticism. When a writer tells you, “I have a gift for passion, in the bonfire of a dry trunk I contort in the blaze”; or “I am still the cruel Queen of the Medes and the Persians. … My aura is the mystery of life”; or “I walk on a tightrope up to the edge of my dream,” there is no possible response except to fall down and say, “My Goddess!” or to close the book and smile.

And even Água Viva seems restrained next to A Breath of Life, which was compiled from Lispestor’s manuscript notes after her death in 1977. “I am making a really bad book on purpose in order to drive off the profane who want to ‘like,’ ” Lispector writes early on. “But a small group will see that this ‘liking’ is superficial and will enter inside what I am truly writing, which is neither ‘bad’ nor ‘good.’ ” This captures something of the perfect self-regard of the book, which is structured as a poetic dialogue between a male “author” and the character he creates, named Angela Pralini. Angela has much in common with Joana—she is another force of nature (“My heart is life. My electronic energy is magic of divine origin”), though this is asserted rather than dramatized. She provides a foil for the author to raise such vital questions as, “Is Angela my edge? or am I the edge of Angela? Is Angela my mistake? Is Angela my variation?” The least disciplined of these four books, A Breath of Life best shows how completely devoid of irony Lispector’s writing is. The slightest smile would puncture the iridescent bubble of her language.

The Passion According to G.H. displays the same kind of vulnerability as all of Lispector’s writing; but more than the other three books it also gives evidence of great strength. The action of this novel, first published in 1964, is reduced to a minimum. It tells the story of a well-to-do woman who walks into the maid’s room in her large apartment, sees a cockroach in the wardrobe, and undergoes a nervous breakdown that is also an existential crisis and a mystical revelation.

All the energy of the book lies in the minute evocation of G.H.’s train of thoughts and emotions during that experience. As in Lispector’s other books, she sets herself the challenge of getting as close as possible to a moment-by-moment transcript of mental experience. But here, that experience has a rigor and conceptual content that is lacking in Água Viva or The Breath of Life. Seeing the roach precipitates in G.H. a realization of the unity of all living matter, the kinship between human and insect, which makes a mockery of human pretensions to civilization:

How could I describe that crude and horrible, raw matter and dry plasma, that was there, as I shrank into myself with dry nausea, I falling centuries and centuries inside a mud—it was mud, and not even dried mud but mud still damp and still alive, it was a mud in which the roots of my identity were still shifting with unbearable slowness. Take it, take all this for yourself, I don’t want to be a living person!

Personal identity, the sense of being a self, has vanished. (Significantly, we never learn G.H.’s name, and her initials appear only as the monogram on a piece of luggage, a trivial and vain assertion of individuality.) At first, this seems like the kind of existential dread that Sartre evoked in Nausea, where it is the sight of a tree’s roots that leads to a revelation of the meaninglessness of all being. But Lispector is after a deeper and subtler insight, which, as she develops it, seems to head in the direction of classic mysticism. Everything living, she writes, is an aspect of God; the body of God is the world, and if we could only realize that we too are part of this body, we would know an ultimate contentment and consolation. What makes human beings unlike cockroaches, alas, is that we demand not just to be God, but to know God:

Only through an anomaly of nature, instead of being the God, as other beings are He, instead of being He, we wanted to see Him. It would not hurt to see Him, if we were as great as He. A roach is greater than I because its life is so given over to Him that it comes from the infinite and goes toward the infinite without noticing, it doesn’t miss a beat.

Finally, G.H. decides that the only way to demonstrate her embrace of the unity of being, her rejection of human separateness and pride, is to literally join herself to the roach—by eating it. It is a deliberately shocking denouement to a story in which almost nothing external happens, but it doesn’t feel exploitative, because it is such an appropriate conclusion to the mystical logic Lispector has laid out. “Through the living roach,” Lispector writes near the end of the book, “I am coming to understand that I too am whatever is alive.”

The Passion According to G.H. is the most philosophically and religiously acute of these four books, and for that reason, it raises most sharply the question of whether Lispector, a Jewish woman, can be considered a Jewish writer. In Why This World, Moser makes much of the fact that Lispector was born in the same part of Ukraine responsible for the birth of Hasidism and suggests that her work was shaped by the same experience of historical rupture and trauma that produced the great Jewish mystics. “She recounted her quest [for God],” Moser writes, “in terms that … necessarily hearkened back to the world she had left, describing the soul of a Jewish mystic who knows that God is dead and, in the kind of paradox that recurs throughout her work, is determined to find Him anyway.”

This is a tempting thesis, but it runs up against the fact that Lispector’s mystical vocabulary, in The Passion According to G.H., is much more Christian than Jewish. There is the title, which assimilates G.H.’s experience to the Crucifixion; there is the eating of the roach, a parody of Communion. More fundamentally, Lispector’s vision of transcendence through abasement seems indebted to the paradoxical mysticism of Spanish Catholic writers like Saint Teresa of Ávila (who was herself the descendant of converted Jews). Whether Lispector was directly influenced by Catholicism or not, she lived and wrote in a Catholic culture, which seems to have provided her with much of her spiritual vocabulary. To read her as a Jewish mystic requires more knowledge of her biography than she allows into her work itself. But there can be no doubt that The Passion According to G.H. is the work of a writer with genuine metaphysical gifts—the sort of book that deserves to give birth to a legend.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.