The Headless Woman: On Susan Taubes and Clarice Lispector

February 26, 2021   •   By Julia Kornberg

“DER LETZTE TANZ” (“The Last Dance”) — a story by Hungarian American author Susan Taubes written in German and published posthumously — tells the story of Mary Ann, a young girl who has an on-and-off love affair with a man she calls Death. He visits her in dreams, for the first time at the age of 14, and kisses her. One night, Mary Ann waits up for her lover. “Next time,” she says to him, “I want you to take me while I am awake.” Death refuses her. She is too young, he argues, and her breasts are too small. He explains that they have to wait for the right moment since, if Death kisses her while she is awake, she will be taken back with him, like Persephone to the Underworld.


What follows is a series of encounters over the years in which either Mary Ann refuses Death (she just got married, she just had children, she is waiting for the pears in her orchard to ripen) or she is refused by Death (she is too old, too heavy to carry). The logic of the affair is that of deferral, until they meet at a solstice party and Mary Ann surrenders to him. Death, in Taubes’s story, is a figure of desire: he serves not only as a lover but also as a ghostly teacher, adjusting to Mary Ann’s needs as she grows older and forcing her, sometimes violently, to reflect upon them.


Intertwining sensual pleasure with death and intellectual inquiry is a rhetorical sport Susan Taubes performs skillfully. She did it most prominently in her only novel, Divorcing, published in 1969 and reprinted last year by NYRB Classics. The narrator, Sophie Blind, is a young woman dealing with her recent divorce from her husband, Ezra, a scholar living in New York City. Like Taubes herself, who fled Hungary at an early age, Sophie is haunted by her survival of the Holocaust. And, like Mary Ann, she constantly flirts with the idea of dying. The result is a story in which divorce and exile are indissociable, where national and emotional displacement are infused with the possibility of parting from life itself. Sophie imagines her body as a cadaver, performs the script of her own Shiva, and indulges in thanatoid images with a compulsive insistence. In the first pages of the book, she declares:


Yes, I’m dead. I knew I was dead when I came but I didn’t want to be the first to say it. Not just as I arrived. I wasn’t really sure, you see. Everything looked so new, the water tanks on the roofs, the wide avenues, and heavy glass doors; boys playing touch football on the sidewalk. As if I were in New York for the first time.


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It is striking, reading Taubes’s novel, to see the way her work echoes that of Clarice Lispector. In fact, their lives followed a similar timeline of exile. They were born eight years apart, Lispector in Ukraine in 1920 and Taubes in Hungary in 1928. Both fled antisemitism and fascism in Eastern Europe at an early age — the Lispectors fleeing the pogroms for Brazil when Clarice was still a toddler, and Taubes sailing to the United States with her father before the outbreak of World War II. Though both were brought up within traditional Jewish communities, they assimilated quickly to their educated, middle-class milieus. Yet there is a constant tension in their written work between the debris of a spiritual world and the confines of a modern, secular life. Both women also led somewhat nomadic lives, moving back and forth to Europe due to familial and professional obligations. They died a few years apart: Taubes died by suicide in 1969, shortly after publication of her novel, and Lispector died of cancer in a Rio de Janeiro clinic in 1977.


These biographical coincidences are further crystalized in their fiction. In An Apprenticeship, or The Book of Pleasures (to be published in April 2021 by New Directions, masterfully translated from the Portuguese by Stefan Tobler), Lispector’s narrator, Lóri, is a young woman from the provinces whose family has been economically disgraced. She has recently moved to Rio, where she works as a primary school teacher. Inhabiting the city cautiously, she examines all of her movements, as if urban assimilation were a costume she could wear. She meets and develops a relationship with Ulisses, a philosophy professor. The narrative is patient, slow: most of the story is a kind of preparation for their love affair, the mundane details of which are barely discussed. Instead, the couple talks poetry, math, and philosophy, while Ulisses — more Virgil than Odysseus — guides her through a series of spiritual questions.


As in Taubes’s novel, the book advances at its own pace, in a series of encounters that overlapping with long, poetic passages in which Lóri reflects on her own existence. Her relationship with Ulisses is as turbulent and violent as Sophie’s with Ezra Blind — in both cases, a narrative of intimacy papers over the fissures of an unresolved attachment. The two novels are strangely symmetrical, almost mirroring each other: Taubes depicts the savage ending of a woman’s marriage to a scholar, while Lispector portrays the beginning of one, a hopeful connection marked by a series of images of birth. (Toward the end, Lóri even asks herself, “How to stretch birth out for a whole lifetime?”) In this way, Taubes and Lispector perform a sort of duet in which the intellectual and the erotic play a symbiotic role, where being born and dying seem to be part of the same set of aesthetic obsessions.


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While Taubes was rather more intellectual in inclination than Lispector and lived openly as a Jew (Lispector assimilated deliberately, sometimes aggressively, to Brazil’s Catholic society), their styles both follow a modernist approach, crafting stylized internal dialogues that mix long meditations with a quest for literary and spiritual illumination. In Divorcing, Sophie submerges herself in a string of love affairs, psychoanalyzing her life story while searching for freedom from her estranged husband. In An Apprenticeship, Lóri likewise performs a sort of gonzo-philosophy, putting her body in service of an internal monologue in which she struggles to understand herself, her writing, and sexual desire as a whole.


As with any well-crafted character, sexuality is a complicated affair, with different forms of desire overlapping. Lóri’s apprenticeship is sexual but also philosophical, an attempt to engage with her contemporary world. She prophesies to Ulisses: “One day it will be the world with its haughty impersonality versus my extreme individuality as a person but we’ll be one and the same.” Sophie’s relationship with Ezra seems to point, similarly, to an escape from modernity. She longs for a tradition in which her husband is, seemingly, fluent. “My wife is distraught,” Ezra says at her funeral, “[she] was raised by an atheist father. She read the books of Moses for the first time in a literature course at Bryn Mawr.”


These relationships could be dismissed as merely reflecting a traditional division of literary labor, with the man as imparter of knowledge and the woman as passive receiver, or muse. But this would be a mistake, a flawed reading of the factors at play in Lispector’s and Taubes’s writing. Even if she comes from “a millennia of apparently passive women learning,” Lóri feasts vampirically on the apparent wisdom of Ulisses. Her movements as a young émigré in Rio, like those of many of Lispector’s characters, follow a logic of intellectual curiosity: from her own deep abjectness and self-denial, she constructs a landscape of the city in a search for revelation. She transcribes a series of poems for Ulisses, but she also writes herself, even when she composes fragmentary poetry or contradictory metaphysical essays. By the end, Lóri dictates the pace and frequency of their encounters, patiently waiting, as if she, too, now has the wisdom of deferral required for such an affair.


Sophie Blind of Divorcing is, like her counterpart, anything but submissive. She displays precociousness in her intellectual and sexual quests, devouring men as she delves into her own psychological and philosophical questions. Yet, her loyalty to Ezra persists, since he is the one to whom all her intricate questions are posed and upon whom they are projected. Within the chaos of her contemporary life, Ezra Blind functions not so much as the center the frame of her inquiries. A sizable part of these questions can be read as autobiographical. In a 1950 letter, Susan Taubes wrote to her husband, Jacob, upon whom the character of Ezra is loosely based: “[W]e must walk like priests through the world, homeless in the absence of temples and altars, through the daily toil, rush and disorder, always searching among the many crooked, distorting lines for the true and holy countenance of the day and season.”


Upset with the hypocrisy of modern religion, Sophie’s ambivalence toward Ezra can be read as parallel to Taubes’s complicated relationship with her own Judaism. In that sense, Divorcing mourns not only the end of a turbulent love affair but also the passing of a turbulent spiritual world. In her writing, Taubes seems haunted by a lack of purpose in modern life, for a vessel of meaning. Ezra’s image is an excuse — a tool — to expand on what she is really interested in: the challenge of inhabiting an earth without gods, a postwar tundra of the spirit. The figure of Ezra is a canvas upon which she projects the frustrations of exile and the impossibility of returning to her homeland. In this way, both Sophie and Lóri invert, radically, their apparently subdued roles. Indeed, they insert themselves into traditional roles in order to invert them — and, in doing so, they allow for the subversion of historical structures of knowledge as well.


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Taubes and Lispector share another key feature: their benighted treatment by the literary establishment. Reviewing Divorcing for The New York Times, Hugh Kenner damned the book with faint praise, saying that it “contains mild rewards once you fight down the rising gorge that’s coupled to your Sontag-detector.” Taubes, Kenner claimed, belonged to that modern cadre of avant-garde “lady novelists” who have the privilege of “transcending mere plausibilities.” This dismissive analysis seemed to influence many of the book’s future readings, being mentioned in most subsequent reviews and even recalled in the prologue David Rieff wrote for the 2020 reprint.


Lispector’s novels have encountered a different kind of critical spirit. In France, they were taken up by Hélène Cixous, who saw in them a way to advance her idea of écriture féminine, a type of writing that performs and expresses the biologically female body (a dated notion that reads as transphobic today, but which somehow remains canonical for studying Lispector). In the 1970s, Brazilian author Otto Lara Resende warned another scholar about her, saying, “Be careful with Clarice. It’s not literature. It’s witchcraft.” Similarly, the great translator of the Latin American Boom, Gregory Rabassa, described Lispector as “look[ing] like Marlene Dietrich and wr[iting] like Virginia Woolf.” The author is continuously described by the press as a rare, exotic animal — Parul Sehgal going so far as to call her a “sphinx, sorceress, sacred monster.”


What seems like praise here, however, is ultimately not dissimilar to Kenner’s dismissal of Taubes’s writing. Constructing the author as a sphinx, a witch, and a mystical figure reduces her literary accomplishment to the condition of her difference. By praising or dismissing Taubes and Lispector as women authors, critics marginalize them as inaccessible cult figures — ominous poets niche-marketed to sensitive (women) readers. What écriture féminine and similar modes of criticism create is not an opening of critical boundaries but a limitation, a segregated field to which only certain mystified or rarified identities are granted access.


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In response to their critical reception, Taubes and Lispector developed artful strategies. They hid from the press, deliberately endowing themselves with a secretive aura. Rather than making a spectacle of themselves, they put their lived experience in service of their literature, and crafted performances out of the very act of dying.


On November 6, 1969, a few days after the devastating Times review, Taubes walked into the ocean off Long Island and drowned. Susan Sontag identified the body. A Texas newspaper reported her death three days later, misnaming her novel The Divorce and morbidly setting her obituary next to a section stating that “[a]ll sea water contains gold in solution. The average amount is about one grain (five cents worth) of gold to one ton of water.” The prophecy of Sophie Blind was thus fulfilled in the actual fate of the corporeal author, her death transformed into an almost avant-garde gesture — literary and literal life perversely overlapping.


In 1977, Lispector gave a rare interview to the Brazilian TV channel Panorama. In her first live television appearance, she reluctantly answered questions about her stories, the process of literary creation, and her own life. The only condition she set for this singular conversation was that it would only be aired after her death (she was already sick with ovarian cancer). In the last few minutes, the interviewer, Júlio Lerner, asks if she ever throws her drafts away. Lispector answers uncomfortably, with an almost childlike expression, that she does, indeed, discard content all the time. The segment closes with the following exchange:


“I am a little bit tired. Of myself.”


“But you are not reborn and renovated with each new work of literature?”


“Well, as of now, I am dead. We will see if I’m reborn.”


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If you choose to read the works of Taubes and Lispector, you should do it with a helmet on. This recommendation is not mine, and it is not new. It comes directly from Lispector, who, in the dedication of The Passion According to G.H., says that her work should only be read by readers “whose souls are already formed.” This warning applies to all her writing, and to all good literature for that matter: reading should not be an easy experience, nor should it leave the soul unchanged. All writing, to be worth our time, should be challenging and defiant. Books like Divorcing and An Apprenticeship offer unresolved, sometimes frustrating narratives that, like the relationships depicted in their pages, demand more from us than they seem willing to give in return.


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Julia Kornberg is a writer from Buenos Aires currently living in New York. She is a PhD student in Latin American Literature at Princeton University.


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Banner image: “Clarice Lispector por Maureen Bisilliat em agosto de 1969. Acervo IMS” is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Photographer: Maureen Bisilliat/ Instituto Moreira Salles.