Clarice Lispector, Brazilian Novelist and Journalist

Clarice Lispector

Clarice Lispector (December 10, 1920 — December 9, 1977) was one of the foremost Brazilian writers of her generation. Most famous for her novels and short stories, almost all of which experiment with form and language, she was also a journalist and wrote several high-profile columns for national newspapers.

Her works have been internationally acclaimed and widely translated, and she has often been placed alongside writers such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.

Born Chaya Pinkhasivna Lispector, Clarice Lispector was a Ukraine native. Her parents, Mania and Pinkhas Lispector were Jewish emigrants fleeing from the Russian pogroms. Mania gave birth to Clarice as the family made their way to Europe, and from there, to South America.

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Lispector Family Photo

Photo courtesy of: Criacria.wordpress.com
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Emigration and early years

With their two older daughters Leah and Tânia, and now Chaya, the Lispector family arrived in Brazil together in 1922, when Chaya was no more than one year old. All except Tânia changed their names: Pinkhas became Pedro, Mania became Marieta, Leah became Elisa and Chaya became Clarice.

These first years in Brazil’s northeast were ones of extreme poverty for the Lispectors, and the plight of the urban and rural poor was a theme that would emerge in Clarice’s later novels. They arrived in the country with almost nothing. Pedro, despite being a progressive man who had a love of the arts, worked first as a peddler and then as a merchant to support his family. In 1925, they moved to the coastal city of Recife.

Yiddish was the language spoken at home, although having arrived in the country at such a young age, Clarice’s first language would always be Brazilian-Portuguese. From 1930-1931 she attended the Colégio Hebreo-Idisch-Brasileiro (Hebrew-Yiddish-Brazilian school), and in 1932 gained admission to the Ginásio Pernambucano, the most prestigious secondary school in the state.

Pedro, in particular, encouraged all three of his daughters in their studies, and Leah and Tânia would also go on to become writers, although neither would ever be so famous or successful as Clarice.

Marieta’s health was not in good shape after the trip from her homeland, and despite now being settled somewhere relatively safe, her physical and mental conditions continued to deteriorate. She died in September 1930, and in 1935 Pedro moved with his daughters to Rio de Janeiro.

 

Law School and Early Works

Clarice began writing stories as a young teenager, inspired by the novels of Dostoyevsky, Hermann Hesse, and the Brazilian modernist Monteiro Lobato. She continued to write throughout her studies at the National School of Law in Rio. Her acceptance into the Law School was no small accomplishment: at the time, there were no other Jewish students and only two other women.

She supported herself by working first as a copy editor and then as a journalist for various newspapers. As a glamorous, fashionable young woman who had a talent for writing, she quickly made her mark: one of her editors wrote that she was “a smart girl, an excellent reporter, and in contrast to almost all women, actually knows how to write.”

Her first published short story, “Triunfo,” appeared in the magazine Pan in May 1940. Shortly after, in August, her father, Pedro, died during a botched gallbladder operation.

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Clarice Lispector and Maury

Photo courtesy of: Gazetadopovo.com
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An unexpected marriage

Although Clarice graduated from law school, she never actually practiced. However, in 1942 she fell in love unexpectedly with one of her fellow students, Maury Gurgel Valente. Maury was a Catholic and a member of the Brazilian Foreign Service. In order to marry a diplomat, Clarice had to become a naturalized citizen, which she did in January 1943.

Eleven days later, the couple were married, and there followed a period of several years in which Maury’s international postings kept them both away from Brazil. Until 1959, Clarice would return only for short annual visits.

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Near to the Wild Heart

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The first of many novels

In December of 1943, Clarice published her first novel Perto do Coração Selvagem (Near to the Wild Heart), which she had written during a feverish ten months in 1942. It had a huge impact, both critically and in popular opinion. It was awarded the Graça Aranha Prize for fiction in 1944, and critic Antonio Candido called it “an impressive attempt at taking our awkward language style to realms barely explored.”

Many of Clarice’s hallmarks were already evident in this first novel: a strong female protagonist, a process of “ontological questioning” that blurs the lines between reality and fiction, and a preoccupation with the ideas of being and consciousness.

She was also experimenting with language, with the form of the novel and with structures of interior monologues and stream-of-consciousness: experiments that would later be compared to the work of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, but that Benjamin Moser, in his biography Why This World, would attribute to Clarice’s roots in Jewish mysticism and the spiritual impulse that she inherited from her father.

 

Spiritual and religious influences

While in law school, Clarice began to read the work of Jewish mystical philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and this was also a major influence of hers. Like the Kabbalists, who explored divinity by rearranging letters, using nonsensical words, and decrying the rational, so too did Clarice attempt to explore new subjects, sometimes overtly spiritual, sometimes not, with new language.

“In painting as in music and literature,” she wrote, “what is called abstract so often seems to me the figurative of a more delicate and difficult reality, less visible to the naked eye.”

She also resented the comparison to Virginia Woolf, whose work, she said, she had only read after Near to the Wild Heart had been published. “I don’t like when they say I have an affinity with Virginia Woolf. I don’t want to forgive her for committing suicide,” she wrote later in one of her newspaper columns. “The terrible duty is to go on to the end.”

Later, she would be criticized for appearing to be reticent about her Jewish identity in her writing. Recently, however, scholars have argued that in fact, her Jewishness was apparent in her constant explorations of exile and of identity. There is also the fact that Brazil, in the 1930s and 1940s was an intensely nationalistic state: although safer for Jews than Europe, there were still outbursts of fascism, antisemitism, and racism. And, having been assimilated into the country before she was even a year old, Clarice was, more than anything, Brazilian.

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Clarice Lispector 2

Photo: LitHub.com
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Years abroad in Europe, the “cemetery of sensations”

During her time in Europe as a diplomat’s wife, Clarice lived in Italy, Switzerland, and England. She played the role reluctantly: one of her friends said that “she was incapable of being conventional,” and the restrictions placed upon her in her situation were, at times, intolerable.

She found Italy bearable, mostly because she was busy. She volunteered at the military hospital in Naples, caring for wounded Brazilian troops, and completed her second novel O Lustre (variously translated as The Chandelier or The Candelabrum) in 1946.

But Maury’s second European posting, to Berne in Switzerland, was a time of considerable boredom and depression for Clarice. “This Switzerland is a cemetery of sensations,” she wrote to her sister Tânia, and not even the publication of her third novel A Cidade Sitiada (The Besieged City) in 1946, nor the birth of her first son Pedro, in September 1948, could lift her gloom.

Both of these European novels, like Near to the Wild Heart, featured women searching for their own identities and self-enlightenment. While The Chandelier received another enthusiastic critical reception, The Besieged City turned out to be probably the least loved and the least understood of all Clarice’s novels.

But despite the critical ambivalence, the sensation that Near to the Wild Heart had caused only grew during Clarice’s years abroad. Absence seemed to give her an aura of mystery and glamour. Rumors abounded about her foreign-sounding name, which some critics suggested was a pseudonym, while others wondered whether she was in fact a man.

This was the beginning of what the New Yorker has called “the spell” of Clarice Lispector: the sense of mystery, glamour, and slight unease that seems to accompany her name and her work even today.

 

Washington, D.C. and the end of a marriage

From 1952 -1959 Maury’s work took the family to Washington, D.C., and Clarice’s second son Paulo was born in February 1953. They bought a house in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and as well as working on a collection of short stories, Clarice was publishing work in Brazilian magazines and newspapers. But she was growing increasingly unhappy and discontented with the diplomatic way of life.

“I hated it, but I did what I had to…I gave dinner parties, I did everything you’re supposed to, but with a disgust…” Finally, in June 1959, she left her husband and took her sons back to Rio, where she would live for the rest of her life.

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Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

Clarice Lispector page on Amazon*
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Productive years in Brazil

Once back in Brazil, Clarice struggled financially and often had to work as a journalist to support herself and her sons. In addition to her fiction, she wrote a regular column for a national daily newspaper, O Jornal do Brasil, from 1967 to 1973. These “Saturday conversations,” as she called them, were later compiled into a book, Discovering the World, published after her death in 1984.

She also sometimes wrote under pseudonyms: as Helen Palmer, for example, she offered lifestyle and beauty advice, possibly paid by the American beauty brand Pond’s. But the 1960s and 1970s were also productive years for her fiction. The collection of short stories that she had begun in Washington was published in 1960, under the title “Laços de Família” (Family Ties).

The stories focused on the conventional familial bonds which can so often trap and stifle women, particularly middle-class women, although Clarice would always firmly reject the label of “feminist writer” that the stories encouraged. The collection was hailed by Fernando Sabino as “exactly, sincerely, indisputably, and even humbly, the best book of stories ever published in Brazil.”

The following year A Maçã No Escuro (The Apple in the Dark), which she had begun in England, and which was repeatedly rejected by publishers, was published by the same house that had published Family Ties, the Livraria Francisco Alves in São Paulo.

It was awarded the Carmen Dolores Barbosa Prize for best novel, despite it being her longest and probably most perplexing novel. Unusually, it also had a male protagonist, Martim, who believes he has killed his wife and flees to start a new life as a farm laborer deep in the Brazilian interior.

Two of her most famous books followed: A Paixão Segundo G.H. (The Passion According to G.H.) in 1964, in which a woman goes through a mystical experience that leads to her eating a cockroach, and Água viva (The Stream of Life) in 1973, the interior monologue of an unnamed narrator that many came to consider her finest book.

Her own preoccupations with belonging, displacement, and otherness (preoccupations that she often claimed stemmed from having been born “in flight”) were apparent in these later works: the female narrator of her novel Água viva states that, “I can’t sum myself up because it’s impossible to add up a chair and two apples. I’m a chair and two apples. And I don’t add up.”

The critic Leo Gilson Ribeiro wrote that “With this fiction, Clarice Lispector awakens the literature currently being produced in Brazil from a depressing and degrading lethargy and elevates it to a level of universal perennity and perfection.”

Clarice, however, struggled to complete Água viva: her friend Olga Borelli later recalled that “She was insecure and asked a few people for their opinion. With other books, Clarice didn’t show that insecurity. That was the only time I saw Clarice hesitate before handing a book into the publisher.”

During the intervening years, she also wrote seven collections of short stories and four children’s books and worked also as a translator from English into Portuguese, publishing translations of Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe, and Oscar Wilde.

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Clarice Lispector 3

Photo: TheParisReview.org
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An extremely private life

Even during these years of increasing success, Clarice was notoriously guarded about her life. She granted very few interviews, and repeatedly bent the facts in the equally few autobiographical columns that she wrote, leaving the press and reading public unsure, exactly, of who she really was.

In recalling a visit to the Sphinx in Egypt during World War Two, she wrote: “I didn’t decipher her. But she didn’t decipher me, either. She accepted me, I accepted her. Each one with her own mystery.”

In September of 1966, she suffered an accident in her apartment when she fell asleep in bed with a lit cigarette. The resulting burns were so bad that her right hand almost had to be amputated, and she had permanent scars on her legs. She rarely talked about it later, saying only that, “… I spent three days in hell, where — so they say — bad people go after death. I don’t consider myself bad and I experienced it while still alive.” But an increasing dependence on sleeping pills made her behavior more and more erratic.

While she decried the press for portraying her as eccentric, it was an image that she also cultivated: in 1975 she accepted an invitation to appear at the First World Congress of Sorcery in Colombia. The aura of mystery, of something almost supernatural, continued even after her death.

When the French-Canadian Clare Varin began researching Clarice’s life in the 1980s, she received a warning letter from Brazilian author Otto Lara Resende: “Be careful with Clarice,” he wrote, “It’s not literature. It’s witchcraft.”

 

The Hour of the Star

Her final book, A Hora da Estrela (The Hour of the Star) was published in 1977. The story revolves around a male narrator, who reflects on the life and death of a young girl from Alagoas, the poor northeastern state in which the Lispector’s had lived when they first arrived in the country. Shortly after the book was published, Clarice gave her only television interview, and told the interviewer, “When I don’t write, I am dead … I’m speaking from my tomb.”

Later that year she was admitted to the hospital after suffering a hemorrhage. She was never told the official diagnosis of ovarian cancer and died on December 9, 1977. She was buried in the Jewish Cemetery of Caju in Rio.

Several of her works have been turned into films, and since Benjamin Moser’s 2009 biography Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, her work has undergone an extensive retranslation, published by New Directions Publishing and Penguin Modern Classics.

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Contributed by Elodie Barnes. Elodie is a writer and editor with a serious case of wanderlust. Her short fiction has been widely published online, and is included in the Best Small Fictions 2022 Anthology published by Sonder Press. She is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform, she is also co-facilitating What the Water Gave Us, an Arts Council England-funded anthology of emerging women writers from migrant backgrounds. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, and when not writing can usually be found planning the next trip abroad, or daydreaming her way back to 1920s Paris. Find her online at  Elodie Rose Barnes. 


More about Clarice Lispector

Novels

  • Near to the Wild Heart (1943)
  • The Chandelier (1946)
  • The Besieged City (1949)
  • The Passion According to G.H (1964)
  • An Apprenticeship, or The Book of Pleasures (1968)
  • Agua Viva (1973)
  • The Hour of the Star (1977)
  • Breath of Life (1977)

Short story collections

  • Alguns contos (1952) – Some Stories
  • Laços de Família (1960) – Family Ties
  • A Legião Estrangeira (1964) – The Foreign Legion
  • Felicidade Clandestina (1971) – Covert Joy
  • A Imitação da Rosa (1973) – The Imitation of the Rose
  • A Via Crucis do Corpo (1974) – The Via Crucis of the Body
  • Onde Estivestes de Noite (1974) – Where You Were at Night
  • Para Não Esquecer (1978) – Not to Forget
  • A Bela e a Fera (1979) – Beauty and the Beast
  • The Complete Stories (2015) 

Biographies

  • Reading With Clarice Lispector by Hélène Cixous (1990)
  • Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector by Benjamin Moser (2014)

More information on Clarice Lispesctor

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