Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
In September 1994, when I walked into a faux colonial building in Providence, Rhode Island, I had no idea that the modest trip from my dormitory marked the start of a journey that would take me to the graveyards of Ukraine, the apartments of Copacabana, the libraries of Manhattan and the suburbs of Manchester, on the trail of a glamorous and elusive artist.
I had gone to university determined to study Chinese. But after a few weeks of grunting despairingly in the language lab, where the professor told us that the most dutiful among us could hope to read a Chinese newspaper in a decade, I concluded that I needed something easier, something with an alphabet. As it was so late in the semester, the more popular languages were booked, so I found myself turning up for my first Portuguese class.
That unexpected encounter brought me friends I never would have met and took me to places I never would have seen. Yes, the same would have been true with Russian or Arabic or Greek: every new culture brings its food, its music, its beaches. But what Portuguese gave me that nothing else could have was Brazil’s great mystic writer, Clarice Lispector, a person so dazzling that she was reputed to be that rare woman who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.
There were no faux colonial buildings in her background: despite her alluring reputation, she was born in a Ukrainian shtetl, a tiny town where people shat in ditches, even in good times. 1920, the year of her birth, was not a good time. In the aftermath of the first world war and the Russian Revolution, the country was starving. The Red Cross reported that people commonly ate their dead relatives and Jews were being massacred in a devastating, and today nearly entirely forgotten, wave of pogroms. Against incredible odds (her mother was raped in one of those pogroms) her parents managed to reach Brazil when Clarice was just over a year old.
She grew up in the Jewish neighbourhood of Recife, where she lost her beloved mother when she was nine. As a teenager Lispector migrated with her father and sisters to Rio de Janeiro. By the time she reached university she was already renowned as one of the most beautiful women in Brazil, and when she published her first book, "Near to the Wild Heart", at age 23, it was acclaimed as the greatest novel a woman had ever written in the Portuguese language. The judgment would still hold if Clarice Lispector had not continually surpassed her first book with her own subsequent works.
One of those was "The Passion According to G.H.", a novel I picked up during a lengthy backpacking trip I took as a student on my first visit to Brazil. The weeks-long journey took me through four countries; Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay in addition to Brazil; but of everything I saw on that trip--the boulevards of Buenos Aires, the Uruguayan pampas, the ruined Jesuit missions of Paraguay, the thunderous waterfalls of Iguau--the most thunderous impression of all came from reading "G.H.", the shocking story of a well-to-do woman who, at the height of a mystic crisis, puts a dying roach into her mouth.
The roach is not the only echo of Kafka in Clarice Lispector’s work. If for many Brazilians she is an icon of their national literature, for me she is the most important Jewish writer since Kafka. She is a woman who asked, and answered, all the essentially Jewish questions: about the beauty and absurdity of a world in which God is dead, and the mad people who are determined to seek Him out anyway.
This great figure is duly 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. At the very least they went to her funeral in 1977.
Outside Latin America, I found to my dismay very few people knew her, and I long wondered why. 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 that the man on the street does not know Clarice Lispector, I started discovering, once I embarked on the half-decade project of writing her biography, "Why This World", 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 got the same crazed glint in their eye that I got when speaking of her. Colm Tóibín, at a wedding in Italy, rushed up to me to proclaim his love for her, and said he would do "anything anything!" to get more people to read her. Orhan Pamuk, who had read "The Passion According to G.H." in Turkish, confessed at breakfast in Stockholm one morning 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, as Elizabeth Bishop wrote Robert Lowell, 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".
(Benjamin Moser is the author of "Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector". Clarice Lispector’s fourth novel, "The Apple in the Dark", will be reissued in Britain in October.)