I Am All of Yourselves
Ben Moser, who has written a biography of Clarice Lispector, explores his and others’ fascination with the Brazilian author. The is the second in a series of posts on Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, the first book chosen for PEN Reads.
Over the five years I worked on Why This World, my biography of Clarice Lispector, I got used to hearing people say: But I’ve never heard of her.
And I would say: That’s the whole point.
One of the fun things about being a writer or a critic or a journalist is the chance to steer other people toward your enthusiasms, and to help put artists on the map who haven’t received the attention they deserve. I hoped that my biography would make people see just how great Clarice Lispector was, and why I was ready to give up several years of my life in order to study and write about her.
I did, however, have a secret weapon: I knew I wasn’t the only one.
Clarice had fascinated writers and artists ever since she, a poor girl from a family of Jewish refugees in Brazil, had first appeared on the scene in 1943. That was the year when she published her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, which was acclaimed as the greatest novel a woman had ever written in the Portuguese language.
In Brazil, she had long been a rarified taste, a darling of intellectuals who, in her lifetime, never managed to earn more than a pittance from her books. By the time I came along, three decades after her death, she was celebrated in Brazil and throughout Latin America. Her arresting face adorns postage stamps. Her name lends class to luxury condominiums. Her works are sold in subway vending machines. One Spanish admirer wrote that educated Brazilians of a certain age all knew her, had been to her house, and have some anecdote to tell about her, much in the way Argentines do with Borges. Or “at the very least they went to her funeral” in 1977.
I wasn’t sure why, outside Latin America, so few people knew her. Was it because she wrote in Portuguese, a language whose literary productions were so invisible outside its own territory that it was once nicknamed “the tomb of thought”? Was it because nobody expects the greatest Jewish writer since Kafka to be a part-time beauty columnist whose Chanel suits and wraparound sunglasses made her look more like a Rio socialite than a mystic genius? Or was it precisely because she was a Jewish woman in a literary economy that expects a Latin American writer to be a mustachioed chronicler of jungles and slums?
Whatever the reason, I knew that Clarice was a secret passion that many people, often prominent writers, had cherished for years. Members of this hidden fraternity would pop up all over the world, and they promised to do what they could. One was Colm Tóibín, who had long been a fan, and who has started off this discussion at PEN Reads: Clarice, it seems, tends to inspire evangelists. Another was Orhan Pamuk, who had read The Passion According to G.H. in Turkish and confessed that he had been fascinated by her ever since. Guillermo Arriaga, a famous Mexican novelist and screenwriter, said that you can’t read Clarice Lispector without falling in love with her.
And that is exactly what I hoped I could make happen by writing Why This World: to get more people, not just the literati, but everyone who cares about art and literature, to fall in love with her. Not simply because she brought the old Jewish mystical tradition of Eastern Europe into a wild new world. Not just because Elizabeth Bishop wrote Robert Lowell that she was a greater writer than Borges. But because readers might, as I did, find in her expressive genius a mirror of their own souls. After all, she was right when she wrote at the end of her life that “I am all of yourselves.”
As several readers have pointed out, there are problems with many of the translations of Lispector in English. Like poetry, her writing is unusually dependent on the beauty of her odd, jarring, and surprising use of the Portuguese language, and that has not always been captured in English: she needed a poet to translate her, and it is too bad that, as Colm points out, Elizabeth Bishop did not translate more.
Still, one always hopes that something will come across, and that new editions of her works, as well as translations of the works that still remain to be translated, will not be long in coming.