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Clarice Lispector: A New Biography

November 18, 2009

Clarice Lispector, 1961- foto Claudia Andujar

“What the legendary soccer player Pelé is to sport in Brazil, the author ´Clarice´ is to that country’s literary culture. Stunningly brilliant, beautiful and enigmatic, the daughter of Russian-Jewish émigrés achieved instant celebrity at the age of 23 with the publication of her debut novel Near to the Wild Heart.” This is how Amazon book reviewer Lauren Nemroff introduced Clarice Lispector in “Amazon Best of the Month, August 2009” referring to Benjamin Moser’s biography Why This World.

Benjamin Moser. Photo: Tessa Posthuma de Boer

Whilst Pelé may have been “stunningly brilliant”, it may be stretching the analogy too far with the descriptions of “beautiful and enigmatic”, which Clarice certainly was. She has even been described as, “that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.” (Salamon, J. (March 11, 2005). An Enigmatic Author Who Can Be Addictive. New York: New York Times).

Of Moser´s Biography Nemroff said, “Now, after years of research on three continents, drawing on previously unknown manuscripts and dozens of interviews, Benjamin Moser demonstrates how Lispector’s art was directly connected to her turbulent life.” and, “Benjamin Moser’s, Why This World makes up for this long drought by offering a detailed and dramatic biography of Lispector’s incredible life and times. Based on new interviews with family and friends, recovered manuscripts, and other fresh sources, Moser crafts a moving and tangible portrait of the famously inscrutable Clarice.”

The New Biography

Clarice Lispector (1920-1977), is recognized as one of Latin America´s greatest writers and is only now being discovered by English readers, surprising given that “Clarice’s beauty, genius, and eccentricity intrigued Brazil virtually from her adolescence.”

Born into a Jewish family amidst the horrors of post-World War I Ukraine, Chaka Lispector was to escape to Brazil in 1922 and be re-named Clarice. She was to spend many if her early years living a humble existence in Northeast Brazil. First in Macaeio, Alagoas, then three years later in the Jewish neighborhood of Boa Vista in Recife, Pernambuco, where a monument to her exists today.

Whilst in Recife, her mother died (1930) at the age of forty-two, when Clarice was nine years old. Her father continued to struggle economically, but Clarice was still able to attend the Colégio Hebreo-Idisch-Brasileiro, which taught Hebrew and Yiddish in addition to the usual subjects. In 1932, she gained admission to the Ginásio Pernambucano, the most prestigious secondary school in the state at the time. A year later, she “consciously claimed the desire to write.”

In 1935, Pedro Lispector decided to move his family to the then-capital, Rio de Janeiro, where he hoped to find greater prosperity for them. There Clarice became a law student seeking justice for prisoners and then a journalist.

Around 1943, around the time of her marriage to a diplomat she published her first book, the critically acclaimed Near to the Wild Heart. Success in her career was not reflected in her challenging family and personal life. She had a longtime love for the homosexual poet Lúcio Cardoso among others, and one of her sons was diagnosed as schizophrenic fostering a growing sense of isolation in her.

Several of Lispectors works relate to her time in Northeast Brazil. Perhaps most famous of them was her last novel,  The Hour of the Star, whose main character Macabéa, a poor typist from Alagoas who is lost and isolated in Rio de Janeiro. This character, one of the most famous in Brazilian literature, has a name that refers to the Maccabees, and represents one of the very few explicit Jewish references in her work. The book focuses on Brazilian poverty and being marginalized.

Soon after The Hour of the Star was published, Lispector was diagnosed as having inoperable ovarian cancer. She died on the eve of her 57th birthday and was buried on December 11, 1977, at the Jewish Cemetery of Cajú in Rio de Janeiro.

Benjamin Moser will be signing copies of his biography at Livraria Cultura bookshop in Recife on Saturday 28th November from 7.30pm

The author gratefully acknowledges the many sources that were consulted in the writing of this article.  While they provide the foundation, the interpretation and opinion are entirely those of the author.

Paul Barnett is Founder of Recife Guide.

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