I HAVE BEEN walking around for the past few days with a song stuck in my head. The refrain that haunts me is from a show my son likes to watch. He is nearly two years old and nonverbal, save for the word “cheese.” I speak French to him, my husband English, but neither is catching on just yet. The show is a spin-off of one from my own childhood, an uncanny twist that makes the haunting more literal. The tune goes like this:
“Use your wo-o-o-ords, use your words.”
It seems like a simple dictum; it is not. I imagine my son having difficulty not only articulating sharp sounds but also understanding their nuances. I worry that he may not be able to say in English exactly what he can in French; I wonder if, sometimes, no word at his disposal in either language will be able to express exactly what he means. Right now, his needs are few, and clearly communicated through direct gestures that require no interpretation.
In his biography of the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, Why This World, Benjamin Moser recounts the following story: one evening, the writer’s son, Pedro, calls her to his bed. “— Mother,” he says, “I’m sad.”
“Why?” she asks.
“Because it’s night and I love you.”
I imagine Lispector writing down this memory, aware of the way in which her precocious son’s words unwittingly imitate the unsettling power of those in her own writing.
It would be a stretch to say Lispector is internationally popular, but there has certainly been a recent surge of interest in her work. In 2009, Oxford University Press published Moser’s biography; and in 2012, New Directions released new translations from four different translators of Lispector novels: Near to the Wild Heart, A Breath of Life, Água Viva, and The Passion According to G.H. New Directions has now published Lispector’s Complete Stories, a collection of 86 works, the first written when Lispector was a teenager, the last just before her death in 1977, in a new translation by Katrina Dodson.
So many different translators: one wonders if the task of rendering this particular author in English has proven so challenging that no single person can fairly be expected to take on her entire oeuvre. Lispector uses her words carefully, endeavoring to find something close to “reality,” all the time knowing she will not. This struggle recurs again and again throughout her work — both explicitly, as a theme in her stories, and implicitly, in the deliberately odd language she chooses. She constructs melodic, haunting linguistic arrangements in which grammar and syntax combine to lend the resulting prose a foreign quality. Think of Marina Warner on Samuel Beckett and Stéphane Mallarmé, two writers who chose to write in a language other than their native tongues, and who often deployed self-canceling idioms, “an estrangement through the foreign tongue.”
Lispector does not write in a second language; she does, however, treat her words as if they were foreign, which makes sense when one considers her avowed status as an outsider. Lispector was born in the Ukraine and fled to Brazil with her Jewish family at a young age. No surprise then that she is intrigued by the quest to belong, a quest encouraged by a Jewish heritage rich in cabalistic probing of the nature of the world — a world in which God is absent but still creator. By Jewish tradition, the very name of God is one that cannot be written or spoken. God is unknowable and therefore unnamable; uncontainable in written characters. The three-letter word for God in English, then, functions as a kind of a symbol, standing in for that which can never be known or said. Lispector is always in search of “the symbol of the thing in the thing itself,” as she wrote in Near to the Wild Heart. She seeks the abstraction, somehow embodied in the concrete.
In The Passion According to G.H., Lispector writes, “When art is good it is because it touch[es] upon the inexpressive.” As Moser notes in his biography, Lispector came to understand music and abstract painting as a way to access truth — even though (or perhaps because) these forms are explicitly nonfigurative. In a later work, Água Viva, Lispector clarifies this conceit. The novel itself has no plot; or rather, any plot exists in a series of sensory experiences — sounds and visions — that reaches beyond the connotations of the words themselves. “This text I am giving you,” Lispector writes, “is not to be seen from close by: it gains its previously invisible secret roundedness when seen from a plane in high flight.”
Beyond language, Lispector deftly navigates the paradoxical interior landscape common to all women sorting through questions of societal expectation and identity. This concern draws me most intimately to Lispector’s work, this concern that provokes a feeling of recognition and understanding. Lispector felt uncomfortable in the world; she was unsettled by the two dueling sides of her fundamentally female self, obsessed with that which in its very existence is irreconcilable. In the story “The Disasters of Sofia,” part of the new volume, the nine-year-old protagonist shows seeds of this instinct. She is a flippant girl who goads a teacher to whom she is attracted and ends up impressing him with her work. At the end, she realizes the world of grown-ups is imperfect, that “everything worthless in me was my treasure.”
The same story reveals Lispector’s inclination to be suspicious of codes of human behavior through the young girl’s rhythmic, almost trancelike narrative; she is too wise, unleashing a list of her grievances at things she does not yet understand: “Only much later, after having settled into my body and feeling fundamentally more assured, could I venture out and study a bit.”
Lispector looks to the ritual of tasks in an attempt to find answers, however unsatisfactory. At the start of the story, Sofia claims a certain self-knowledge:
Unaware that I was obeying old traditions, but with a wisdom that the evil are born with … I was playing the prostitute and he the saint. No, maybe that wasn’t it. Words precede and surpass me, they tempt and alter me, and if I’m not careful it will be too late: things will be said without my having said them.
Lispector’s work often explores the specific domestic conventions to which women are expected to adhere — and not because, as one might expect, she necessarily wishes to destroy them. In fact, Lispector seems to wish she could be one of the happy housewives satisfied by days occupied with decorative arrangements. Except, she is plagued by knowledge and a mystic talent for words. Sofia is, in effect, a little Clarice, possessed with the ability to use her words without realizing their power. The story unfolds as the teacher asks his students to transcribe a story in their own words. Sofia writes, “Since I knew only how ‘to use my own words,’ writing was simple.”
Once the teacher reads her paper, which reverses the moral in the original exercise, he is taken with her. She sees his reaction and recounts it as the dissolution of his face (a scene reminiscent of a screaming Francis Bacon portrait), a motif that will reappear in many of the stories, symbolizing a loss of earthly control. Sofia is upset that she is not being scolded for what she perceives as insolence: “What I didn’t want was this gratitude that was not only my worst punishment, because I didn’t deserve it, as much as it also encouraged my wayward life that I so feared, living waywardly attracted me.”
This scene is the precursor of Lispector’s acute awareness of her own inability to find bourgeois contentment in domesticity. She seems to wish, at times, that she were ignorant, unaware of her own vibrating, sensitive nature — a nature that makes such contentment impossible. If only she were not so aware of the madness of the universe; if only she could put away the cutlery in peace.
In Near to the Wild Heart, Joana, a kind of amoral wild woman, has a “fear of not loving, worse than the fear of not being loved,” which juts up against the possibility of being content with a stable man, marriage, and motherhood. In “The Triumph,” a short story, Luisa is content as the lover of an artistic, troubled man (a character who, despite being male, seems to be the Lispector stand-in). When this lover, a writer, leaves, she notes this absence through the lack of banal details: “footsteps, laughter, the clattering of dishes.” Luisa toys with feeling mediocre, with having nothing to do, scared to be faced with “the torture of ideas,” which her love for the artist had momentarily awakened her to. But by the end of the story, Luisa has decided he will return: “She laughed. He’d be back, because she was the stronger one.” Her ability to transcend thought in order to be at ease makes Luisa quite rare among Lispector’s protagonists.
In later stories in the new collection, the key player seems to get further and further from Luisa and closer and closer to Lispector. In “Obsession,” Cristina starts out content with her “happy blindness.” Then she meets the tortured Daniel at a home where she is recovering from typhoid fever. She falls in love with him and leaves her husband Jamie, with his “not very impassioned temperament,” only to have the romance devolve. She ends up returning to Jamie, but with a new awareness that she will always be alone. Having crossed the line, she cannot return to a Luisa-like existence.
In “Love,” the protagonist is Ana, a woman who has known since she was young that she possessed a frightening kind of knowledge, which she tries to disavow by “making the days fulfilled and beautiful” for her family. “Her taste for the decorative,” Lispector writes, “had developed and supplanted her inner disorder.” Still, Ana concedes there is one hour in every afternoon that proves dangerous to this equilibrium. Her serenity is momentarily ruptured by an encounter on the train with a blind man chewing gum. (It is no accident that Lispector figures literal blindness — in both “Love” and other of her works — as a trait both desirable and not. “Happy blindness” is being content with never lapsing into the unsettling unconscious — but also never knowing the difference between what is seen and knowable, and what is not.) The story ends with a paragraph that begins, “And, if she passed through love and its hell, she was now combing her hair before the mirror […].” Here, as she would elsewhere, Lispector presents the preservation of one’s appearance, the task of beautification, as a way to escape the dangerous desire to pursue the artistic life, a way to avoid being swallowed by the pull of the (maddening) unconscious.
“Clarice had always hovered between imperatives of the mystic and the artist and the sincere desire to excel as a wife and a mother,” writes Moser. This struggle is personified in characters like Joana, Luisa, Cristina, and Ana. Lispector sees the clash between having a talent for living — when “living” might mean simply keeping a well-appointed house — and being plagued by an artistic tug toward spiritual rebellion.
If Lispector’s work is defined by contrast — the knowable and unknowable — so too is, surprisingly (or not, considering that she is a woman), her personal life. Or rather, so too is her appearance, and its (apparent) incompatibility with her work. Lispector likened herself to a sphinx, and she was indeed tricky, not least of all in her physical presentation. When she rose to prominence at the age of 23 with the publication of Near to the Wild Heart, people were taken aback by her glamorous, movie-star attire: a little sweater top, a fitted skirt, wrap-around sunglasses, a cigarette in her nail-polished hand. In one of my favorite pictures, she is sitting on the beach with her son Pedro, looking more like a swimsuit model than one of the 20th century’s greatest writers.
Being famous for her striking beauty did not make her popular, which mattered to a woman whose talent was proportional to her sensitivity. In his biography, Moser reveals that editors considered her difficult to work with, which may have contributed to the trouble she had getting published during her years living in Washington with her diplomat husband. Her presence was so captivating that even her friends (and there were few true ones) agreed her intensity sucked up their energy. She was rebellious, cavalier, so different from the diplomatic wives that surrounded her throughout much of her adult life. Moser cites a letter Lispector wrote to her friends back in Rio: “I’ve never heard so much serious and irremediable nonsense as over the month of this trip / People full of certainties and judgments, whose empty lives are filled up with social pleasures and daintiness.”
At the age of 39, this scene would prove too much — or too little; Moser explains that Lispector divorced her husband and returned to Brazil as a single parent of two sons. To bring in money for her family, she began working as a fashion journalist, both under her own name and under pseudonyms. For Pond’s beauty products, she was Helen Palmer; for a Rio paper, she was a ghostwriter for the starlet Ilka Soares. She produced slapdash translations of writers like Edgar Allan Poe. Through these gigs, she continued to write fiction.
In a way, the rituals and customs necessary to maintaining an attractive appearance were Lispector’s way of holding on to a reality she often felt slipping through her fingers. She had to present something solid to the visible world, even as all of her mental energy was occupied by less tenable matters. Throughout her work, as Moser notes in his biography, there are moments when makeup and beauty figure as the real, the solid, in the category of knowable. These seeming superficialities are actually conduits or tools, masking — protecting — the unknowable soul; they are links to sanity.
Lispector’s particular brilliance as a woman and as a writer is here: she refuses to accept that her talents might seem incongruous against the backdrop of her appearance. In fact, she sees her appearance as in a sense necessary to the flourishing of her talent. Having a great sensitivity to others — always being aware of their eyes and judgment on you — exacerbates an inability to inhabit oneself. Lispector’s own instability led her to wield the power of her own appearance in order to mask her problematic, amorphous soul.
Despite the importance Lispector gave so-called frivolities, she also abhorred any sign of pretension, going so far as to lament being called intelligent, seeing it as antithetical to her spiritual, mystic nature. The story of Lispector choosing the title Near to the Wild Heart is a representative one. A friend of hers suggested it — the reference is to a line from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man — and Lispector decided to use it, though purportedly she had not yet read Joyce’s work. While she dressed well, she was committed to not appearing affected (she even criticized her portrait by Giorgio de Chirico for lending her false airs). Elizabeth Bishop famously said Lispector was the least literary writer she’d ever known. She also noted that Lispector had little, if any, formal training.
Lispector floated above these implied critiques — or seemed to. She was unafraid — guileless — when confronted with her colleagues’ tendency to consider her apparent concern with the superficial incompatible with literary work. She has, in any case, gotten the last word: while she dismissed overintellectualization, her work is, now, undoubtedly considered heavyweight.
There is a universality in her work that is more striking, not less, because it comes from a beautiful woman who spent half her life trying to fit in with diplomatic wives. She does not claim to be special — rather the opposite. She does not want to be called an intellectual, but she also does not want to be dismissed for clinging to what has helped her navigate the world: lipstick and sweater sets and flared skirts. As a mother and wife, she admits to being confused, tugged in opposing directions by animal urges and artistic desires, which she tries to reconcile with the queasy comfort of the appearance of a well-lived life. She makes this confession, for example, in her continued creation of plagued, introspective females, like Ana or Sofia. But there is no pure, happy ending. People call Lispector strange, and she remains so. She does not fight them. Instead, she does what feels natural when everything else does not: she uses her words.
I think of Lispector’s notes about that night with Pedro and wonder what my son may say when he is able to speak with more words. He recently surprised me outside on the street. We had watched a few dogs walk by in succession with their owners, and then, when no more came for a few minutes, he turned to me and said simply, “More.” He looked at me expectantly, and waited for me to make more dogs appear.