This week, Get to Know a Brazilian takes a look at Clarice Lispector, a unique voice in Brazilian literature with an ineffable style.
Clarice Lispector, was born Chaia Pinkhasnova Lispector to a Jewish family in the Ukraine. Facing Antisemitic persecution during the Russian Civil War, her family relocated to Brazil, where relatives of her mother lived, when Lispector was just an infant. Upon arriving in Brazil, the entire family changed their names to sound more Brazilian, and so “Chaia” became “Clarice.” The family settled in the Brazilian northeast, where Lispector’s mother died when Clarice was just short of 10 years old. In an attempt to find better job opportunities, her father relocated the family to Rio de Janeiro, then the capital of Brazil. There, Lispector’s abilities became apparent, and she entered the prestigious National Law School (although the Law School itself was founded in the 1880s, it had recently become part of the relatively-new University of Brazil, which had only formed in 1920 and was one of the first universities in Brazil). While a student, she began writing, with her first story, “Triunfo” (“Triumph”) being published in May of 1940; three months later, her father also passed away. While in law school, she continued to write, serving as a journalist for several newspapers; this experience would lead to some of her later writings for newspapers, in which she provided insights and analysis on Brazilian culture in a much more direct and specific way than her more allegorical and philosophical novels and stories did. Eventually, her weekly columns for the nationally-syndicated Jornal do Brasil made her a household name in Brazil, bringing her style to an audience much broader than the literary circles dedicated to her fiction.
In 1943, Lispector made a splash with her debut novel, Perto do Coração Selvagem (translated as Near to the Wild Heart). The book won awards and garnered immediate praise in Brazil; the story itself, a stream-of-conscious account of young Joana’s life. The book pointed to the styles and themes that would come to dominate Lispector’s fiction – a usage of language unique in Brazilian literature, a complex use of philosophy, psychology, and allegory, and a focus on women’s perspectives on the world. Indeed, it was this latter component that made Lispector unique in a literary world that men dominated. Her writing only added to her striking nature in Brazil; as translator Gregory Rabassa put it, she was a woman “who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.” Although there is much that distinguishes Lispector from Woolf, their unique styles and characterizations of fictional women makes the comparison apt.
In spite of the success of Perto do Coração Selvagem, Lispector’s career was not one of a constant upward trajectory. She married diplomat Maury Gurgel Valente in 1943, and was soon living in Italy, where she tended Brazilian troops in a hospital in Italy (Brazil joined the Allied forces in World War II and actually sent troops to fight in Italy, where her husband was stationed). Lispector continued to live in Europe after the war, going with her husband as he was transferred to different posts; although she continued writing, she found much about life in Europe to be stifling. Eventually, she moved to Washington D.C., where her husband was stationed. Though she continued to write for Brazilian journals, she found the diplomatic life increasingly dissatisfying, and in 1959, she returned to Brazil.
In Brazil, she returned to writing and publishing. In 1960, her first collection of stories, Laços de Família (Family Ties) was published. After several rejections, her novel A Maçã no Escuro (The Apple in the Dark) was published, and its focus on stream of consciousness rather than plot reinforced both Lispector’s style and her status as a unique voice in Brazilian literature. In 1964, she published perhaps one of her most famous works, A paixão segundo G.H. (The Passion According to G.H.), which focused on a well-off woman in Rio de Janeiro but which dealt with much broader philosophical and psychological issues; indeed, this work is perhaps the best example of why Lispector’s work is difficult to peg sometimes, being simultaneously not-remotely-Brazilian yet completely-Brazilian. In many of her stories and novels, Brazil as a setting is mentioned simply in passing, and Brazilian identity is not key to many of her characters the way it is in other authors’ works; at the same time, the ways in which she played with the Portuguese language and the philosophical and psychological tones of her work fit well within the broader tones of other 20th-century Brazilian authors.
By the mid-1960s, as Brazil’s military dictatorship cemented its rule, Lispector began to write weekly columns for the Jornal do Brasil and the weekly magazine Manchete while continuing to write fiction; many of these columns were posthumously collected in A Descoberta do Mundo (literally, The Discovery of the World, but translated into English as Selected Crónicas). She also published two children’s books: O Mistério do Coelho Pensante (The Mystery of the Thinking Rabbit) and A mulher que matou os peixes (The woman who killed the fish). At the same time, she never gave up writing novels and short stories. Although Lispector’s fiction never dealt directly with the increasing repression of the military regime, she herself joined other artists, writers, musicians, and hundreds of thousands of others in protesting the growing repression of 1968. The following year, she published another novel, Uma Aprendizagem ou O Livro dos Prazeres (An Apprenticeship or The Book of Delights). These works continued to expand upon and push the boundaries of several of the themes developed in her earlier works. In 1973, Água Viva (Living Water) was released; it would be the last full-length novel she wrote that was published in her lifetime. A few short story collections were also published in the early-1970s, including Onde estivestes de noite (Where Were You at Night) and A via-crucis do corpo (The Stations of the Body) in 1974. Her final work, the novella A hora da estrela (The Hour of the Star), was released in 1977 (and turned into a film in 1986); focusing on the character of Macabéa, it continued her trajectory of embracing woman characters, even while the work’s focus on poverty and class issues pointed to new paths in Lispector’s work. Sadly, she was never able to further expand these new topics; shortly after A hora da estrela hit the shelves, Lispector fell ill and went into a hospital, where, shortly before she could turn 57, she died from inoperable ovarian cancer.
After her death, Lispector continued to garner praise and a devoted following in Brazil, and several of her unpublished and unfinished writings were published. However, outside of her adopted country, she remained little-known. Fortunately, a recent wave of translations of her work into English has brought her works to a broader audience, and her use of internal voices/dialogues and women’s experiences to deal with more universal themes makes her work more accessible to international audiences than the works of other Brazilian authors (notably, Guimarães Rosa, whose Joyce-ean experimentation with Portuguese and with narrative structure makes his work particularly difficult to translate). For those interested in her fiction, while Family Ties is a good sampling of her work, I strongly recommend The Passion According to G.H. or Near to the Savage Heart as good starting points to fully get a sense of the complexity and richness of her style; her Selected Crónicas are also spectacular, though they provide a different experience than her fiction.