[Paleopsych] NYTDBR: An Enigmatic Author Who Can Be Addictive
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Sun Apr 17 16:02:30 UTC 2005
An Enigmatic Author Who Can Be Addictive
New York Times Daily Book Review, 5.3.11
By JULIE SALAMON
When Gregory Rabassa talks about Clarice Lispector, it is evident
that his infatuation with her isn't purely literary. "Those blue eyes,
right out of Thomas Mann, 'The Magic Mountain,' " he sighed, during a
recent interview. "She was so beautiful."
Mr. Rabassa is a renowned translator, of Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge
Amado and Mario Vargas Llosa - and of Lispector, who became, in the
mid-20th century, one of Brazil's most influential writers, described
as the Kafka of Latin American fiction. Her works have been translated
into film and dance and she is famous in literary circles. But she is
almost unknown outside of them, particularly in the United States,
where all her books combined sell a few thousand copies a year, mainly
in Latin American studies courses on college campuses.
After her death from cancer in 1977, at 56 (more or less), she
acquired the mystique of a character she might have created: a
beautiful woman who was intense, philosophical, idiosyncratic, tragic
- and murky on mundane facts like her exact date of birth. Like her
writing, which is blunt and pungent yet also intellectual and
abstract, she is hard to pin down.
Mr. Rabassa will be discussing the enigmatic Lispector and her work
this Sunday at the Center for Jewish History, along with Earl Fitz, a
professor of comparative literature at Vanderbilt University.
In his memoir, "If This Be Treason," due out next month from New
Directions, Mr. Rabassa, who was born in Yonkers in 1922, describes
his first encounter with Lispector, 40 years ago, at a conference on
Brazilian literature in Texas. "I was flabbergasted to meet that rare
person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia
Woolf," he recalls.
Lispector was rarefied in other ways. She was born in Ukraine to
Jewish parents, but immigrated as a baby to Brazil. Her mother died
when she was 9. Though she and her two older sisters were raised as
Jews, she identified herself as a Brazilian, and called Portuguese the
language of her soul. For years she was a diplomat's wife, traveling
the world until the marriage ended and she returned to Brazil with the
couple's two sons. She wrote an intimate newspaper column, yet
regarded herself as a recluse. She was beautiful, yes, then badly
scarred by a fire started when she went to bed smoking a cigarette.
By the time she died she had written nine novels, eight collections of
short stories, four works for children and a Portuguese translation of
Oscar Wilde's novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray." Lispector grappled
with contradictions as she searched for nothing less than the
essential meaning of human existence. For her, however, basic facts
were no less elusive.
"She was an incorrigible liar," said Professor Fitz, a former student
of Mr. Rabassa, who says he has been obsessed with the writer and her
work since he read her novel "The Apple in the Dark" in the spring of
1971. He has devoted much of his academic career to Lispector, having
written two books about her, and is now working on a third in which
she figures prominently.
"She wanted to be thought of as a writer though she pretended she
wasn't a professional," he said. "She told different people different
things about what town she lived in and when she was born. 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."
This inability - or refusal - to settle on a single identity is
reflected in Lispector's work, which churns with life but offers few
resolutions. Her characters are mostly middle-class women contending
with unhappy marriages, frustrated love affairs, strong-willed
children, stifled ambition, sexual ambiguity. "Her characters lack a
certain kind of cohesiveness and even when they have cohesiveness it
doesn't lead to happiness," Professor Fitz said.
She could also be very funny, most pointedly in her "crônicas,"
newspaper columns (literally "chronicles") that she published in the
Saturday edition of a national daily newspaper, O Jornal do Brasil,
from August 1967 until December 1973. (A fine sampling is available in
English in "Selected Crônicas," published by New Directions and
translated by Giovanni Pontiero.) This genre is a Brazilian specialty,
a newspaper column that allows poets and writers wide latitude. They
can write a kind of diary one week, an essay the next, a story or
simply a random thought. Think of them as literary blogs, but on
Lispector began writing crônicas to make money, but also thrived in
this idiosyncratic form, which gave rise to profound reflection as
well as amusing riffs on social convention and family relations. "When
mothers of Russian descent start to kiss their children, instead of
being content with one kiss they want to give them 40," she wrote. "I
tried to explain this to one of my sons but he told me I was just
looking for an excuse to justify all those kisses."
These newspaper columns frequently offered their readers a more potent
brew, as jolting as Brazilian coffee. Lispector's imagery could be
intense, mystical and often violent, seeming sometimes like the
brilliant ravings of a madwoman. One of her shortest crônicas, at
least as reprinted in the book, was called "A Challenge for the
Psychoanalysts." The entire story went like this: "I dreamed that a
fish was taking its clothes off and remained naked."
Perhaps it is a fitting paradox for this paradoxical writer to be
presented by the Center for Jewish History, given her apparent
ambivalence toward the religion of her family. The Lispectors landed
not in southern Brazil, where most Jews settled, but in the northeast,
the poorest region of the country, moving to Rio de Janeiro only when
Clarice was 12. Her parents spoke Yiddish and she attended Hebrew
school, but the many spiritual references in her work tend to be
Christian or nondenominational. She lived with her diplomat-husband in
Europe just after World War II, yet she avoided references to the
"She didn't deny her Jewishness, but she didn't push it," said Moacyr
Scliar, the Brazilian-Jewish novelist whose work has dealt explicitly
with the Jewish Diaspora. "The reason why this happened is still a
subject of discussion here in Brazil."
Speaking by telephone from his home in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Mr.
Scliar speculated on possible reasons for the absence of Jewish
characters and themes from Lispector's work. "At that time there was
not anti-Semitism in Brazil but some rejection of foreign people, not
only in relationship to Jews but also Italians, Germans and Russians,"
he said. "Also, she was married to a diplomat. It was not very good
for this husband of Clarice's to be married to a Jewish woman who was
Yet Mr. Scliar recalled a conversation he had had with Lispector just
before she went to a television station for an interview. "I was much
younger than she, but she knew my work and asked about my literature,
my Jewishness," he said. "I told her I like to write about Jewish
subjects and that I didn't feel humiliated or inferior because of
this. She said, 'I wish I could write about those subjects.' But she
didn't explain what she meant by that."
In her final book, a novella called "The Hour of the Star," Lispector
named her main character Macabéa, which many scholars believe refers
to the Maccabees, the fierce Jewish warriors celebrated for defeating
the Hellenizing Syrians. Lispector's Macabéa is hardly heroic by
Bible-story standards. She is a poor young woman from the backwoods of
Brazil, who comes to the slums of Rio with big dreams but can't avoid
the kind of grim fate Lispector writes for so many of her characters.
Yet for Lispector, who died the year the novel was published,
Macabéa's struggles are part of a lyrical, existential dance between
imagination and reality. After Macabéa's story is finished, Lispector
offers a quick, meditative postscript on life and death: "And now -
now it only remains for me to light a cigarette and go home. Dear God,
only now am I remembering that people die. Does that include me?
"Don't forget, in the meantime, that this is the season for
In her introduction to a 1989 translation of "Soulstorm," a collection
of Lispector's short stories, Grace Paley ruminated on possible
connections between Lispector's Ukrainian-Jewish origins and her
writing. She concluded: "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."
For Lispector, that longing was bound to language as vitally as plasma
to blood. Sunday's program at the Center for Jewish History will
include the screening of a television interview with Lispector from
February 1977, which she asked not to be broadcast until after her
death. She told the interviewer, "When I am not writing, I am dead."
Yet as she herself observed so many times, the meaning of death is
ephemeral. Lispector died shortly after that interview, but almost 30
years later her work remains in season.
"The Cultural Politics of Dislocation: Clarice Lispector and Ways of
Being Jewish in Brazil" will take place on Sunday at 5 p.m. at the
Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street, Manhattan. Admission:
$15; $10 for students, 65+ and members of Yivo, Americas Society and
Congregation Beth Simchat Torah. Box office: (917) 606-8200.
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