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Clarice Lispector

1920 – 1977

by Nelson H. Vieira

“I can’t sum myself up because it’s impossible to add up a chair and two apples. I’m a chair and two apples. And I don’t add up,” states the female narrator of Clarice Lispector’s novel Agua Viva (The Stream of Life) as she pursues a narrative quest of self-discovery only to realize that her identity is compound and words cannot always convey what she actually feels. If the apple symbolizes knowledge and the chair an aspect of domesticity, this voice is affirming that she is greater than her gender. Despite an intense struggle with words, Lispector’s female protagonists nevertheless burst forth, sparked by unexpected epiphanies which lead them to probe their existential condition with a self-conscious awareness of the limitations of language and of their beleaguered situations. These narrator/protagonists also manifest experiences of displacement and otherness which, rather than inducing alienation, expand the knowledge of self, as exemplified by the words of another female narrator, GH: “He who lives totally is living for others.” Lispector’s prose also transmits the evocative and spiritual sense of the ineffable, an openness to a form of mystical and linguistic reception that transcends the concreteness of the written word to enable her characters and readers to experience a lyrical sense of the sublime, the “unsayable,” which scholar and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, in Man Is Not Alone (1951), recognized as “the root of man’s creative activities in art, thought and noble living.”

Clarice Lispector was born on December 10, 1920 in Tchetchelnik, Ukraine (Russia) to Jewish emigrants, Marieta (1889–1930) and Pedro (Pinkhas) Lispector (1885–1940), who were fleeing from the pogroms with their two daughters, Elisa and Tânia. Traveling by ship, they arrived in Brazil’s underdeveloped northeast in 1921, when Clarice was just two months old. Later in life, Lispector often spoke of being born in “flight” and how that affected her sense of not quite belonging, especially to herself. In 1925 the family moved to the major northeastern coastal city of Recife. Marieta, mother and homemaker, a sickly woman, died in 1930 when Clarice was nine years old. In 1933 Pedro and his three daughters moved to Rio de Janeiro, where the second daughter, Tânia Lispector Kaufmann (b. 1915), still resides. The eldest, Elisa Lispector (1911–1989), became a nationally-known writer of psychological fiction and a semi-autobiographical novel In Exile (1948) about a Jewish family not unlike the Lispectors. Although Yiddish was the language spoken at home, Clarice, as the youngest, supposedly spoke only Brazilian Portuguese, her first language, despite her Russian nationality which she abandoned when she became a naturalized Brazilian in 1943. From 1930–1931 she attended the Hebrew-Yiddish-Brazilian school in Recife where she performed well, as she did at all the schools she attended. Clarice’s father, an intelligent man who read the Bible regularly and loved books and music, was first a peddler (clientelchick) and then a merchant who had to support his family instead of pursuing his own love of study. According to his daughter Tânia Kaufman, Pedro Lispector was a very progressive man who possessed much biblical culture, knew Yiddish very well and regularly read the New York Yiddish newspaper Der Tog. Consequently the Lispectors led a “Yiddishkeit” family lifestyle during Clarice’s childhood, until the death of her mother. Pedro, who died in 1940, encouraged his daughters’ motivation to succeed but did not live to see their accomplishments: all three became writers, two of fiction and one of technical books. Recalling the family’s first years of economic hardships in the northeast, Clarice frequently expressed her empathy with Brazil’s impoverished masses.

Much criticism of Clarice’s reticence about her Jewish heritage stemmed from her rapid assimilation into Brazilian culture and the absence of Jewish references in most of her work. While Brazil’s intense nationalist spirit in the 1930s and 1940s and the climate of sporadic antisemitism, fascism and xenophobia may have contributed to her not publicly displaying her roots, recent scholarship reveals that there is indeed a strong Jewish impulse in her work, though it contrasts with the overt ethnically-driven narratives written by immigrant voices. Her fiction was neither ethnic nor naturalistically bound. She resisted categorization and even rejected the feminist label, despite the predominance of female characters in her fiction. The outstanding Brazilian and Latin American female writer of her generation, Clarice Lispector wrote lyrically inspirational works, employing an original use of language and revealing an intense search for understanding the enigmas of existence, the problems of self and subjectivity as well as identity difference, and the condition of psychological and spiritual exile. She also experimented with different forms of the novel, extensive interior monologues and with narrative techniques such as stream-of-consciousness which led to comparisons with modernists Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.

Lispector began writing stories as a young teenager. She studied penal law at the National School of Law in Rio de Janeiro from 1940 to 1943, while working as a copy editor and then journalist for various Carioca newspapers as well as for the student university newspaper, in which she published some stories. Lispector graduated, but never practiced law. During a ten-month period beginning in 1942 she feverishly wrote her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, which was published in 1943, the year she married one of her fellow law classmates, Maury Gurgel Valente, who became a Brazilian diplomat in 1944. In that year the couple left Rio for a six-month assignment in the north of Brazil, followed by a series of international posts which took them away from Brazil between 1944 and 1959, except for short annual visits.

Awarded the prestigious Graça Aranha national prize for fiction in 1944, Lispector’s first novel, seemingly autobiographical in part, was heralded by the renowned Brazilian critic Antonio Candido as “an impressive attempt at taking our awkward language style to realms barely explored, forcing it to adapt to a way of thinking filled with mystery.” That way of thinking was later labeled by the critic Olga de Sá as “ontological questioning,” already evident in the identity quest of her first female protagonist, Joana, whose character and search merge with the narrative process itself, thereby questioning the relationship between reality and fiction/language or being and consciousness, as exemplified by these words of the narrator, GH: “Living isn’t courage, knowing that you’re living, that’s courage.”

During her period abroad in Italy, Switzerland and England, with trips to France and Spain, Lispector fulfilled the duties of a diplomat’s wife but was unhappy in this role; as one of her friends stated at the time of her death: “She was anti-diplomatic. This was funny because she married a diplomat…No false refinement. She didn’t put on airs. She was incapable of being conventional.” Her first son, Pedro, was born in Berne in 1948 and her second son, Paulo, in 1953 in Washington, D.C. where the family resided from 1952 to 1959. As a result of her burgeoning career, problems in the marriage led Lispector to return to Rio with her two sons in 1959 and this move resulted in the couple’s legal separation in 1968. While in Europe Lispector wrote and published two novels, The Candelabrum (1946) and The Besieged City (1949), which deal respectively with a young woman’s “self-enlightenment” and a woman’s consciousness and drive. These novels display neither overt Jewish references nor her reaction to the Holocaust. While one wonders what it must have been like to be a Jewish woman living in Europe at the end of World War II, only The Besieged City contains an allegorically-disguised narrative about a strongly chauvinistic climate that could evoke the Nazi terror.

Later, during her stay in Washington, she worked on her famous short story collection Family Ties which portrayed the social and familial ties that often bind and stifle women, especially middle-class wives and mothers. She also completed many drafts of her long existential novel, The Apple in the Dark. Both of these works, published respectively in 1960 and 1961, won prestigious literary awards. The 1960s and 1970s were productive periods for Lispector—six novels, seven collections of stories and four children’s books. Obliged by economic need to work regularly as a journalist, she wrote a weekly column for the national daily newspaper, O Jornal do Brasil, between August 1967 and December 1973. Known as crônicas (chronicles), these anecdotal pieces sometimes included bits and pieces of her novels and stories. These “Saturday conversations,” as she called them, were later compiled into a 781-page volume, Discovering the World, published in 1984 and, in an abridged version, Selected Crônicas, in 1996. Except for a number of short tourist trips and a return visit to her childhood city in the Northeast a year before she died, Lispector made Rio de Janeiro her home until her death of cancer on December 9, 1977.

Lispector’s discursive universe stems in part from her Jewish sensibility, which subtly interweaves metaphors and motifs reflective of Jewish biblical and diasporic experiences. In The Passion According to GH, Lispector has her narrator suffer cultural and ontological otherness by drawing upon the desert as a figurative space of displacement to evoke the non-religious struggle for redemption or spiritual passion. The following passage from this novel demonstrates the struggle of metaphorically marching through the desert and ironically without a star to guide her until she finds the strongbox: “And in the strongbox, the sparkle of glory, the hidden secret. (…) I hadn’t found a human answer to the enigma. But much more, oh much more: I had found the enigma itself.” GH thus embarks on a “voyage within” that will dismantle her single/same constructed, ego-centered identity of limited subjectivity and lead her to the deep structural and expansive levels of life. Moreover, GH’s eating of an “impure” cockroach suggests that Lispector is challenging Talmudic taboos and in part is also adapting Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, since the protagonist undergoes a significant “change” of awareness, albeit momentary. Here Lispector is “literally eating” Kafka to dramatize the metamorphosis of perspective on human existence via writing.

Her less lyrical but incisive story collection, The Stations of the Body, shocked critics and many readers due to its overtly sexual and erotic references to the body, which directly question the duties of motherhood and the sexual repression of all women, both young and old. Lispector’s last book, The Hour of the Star, a novella published one month before her death, introduced the public to a “new” side, dealing with sociological themes of economic and social oppression via a poor, ill-educated and unheroic female character, Macabéa, named after the heroic Maccabees. By inversion, Lispector creates a complex narrative voice that is ironically male but sympathetically female to dramatize not only patriarchal and socio-economic oppression, but also how the unheroic resistance of Macabéa against all odds, even death, represents the “spark” of life that is so frequently ignored and violated by the privileged of the world. It is this spark that characterizes Clarice Lispector as an author and woman of spirit.

SELECTED WORKS BY CLARICE LISPECTOR

In Portuguese

Near to the Wild Heart (1943); The Candelabrum (1946); The Besieged City (1949); Some Stories (1952); Family Ties (1960); The Apple in the Dark (1961); The Passion According to GH (1964); The Foreign Legion (1964); An Apprenticeship, or the Book of Delights (1969); The Stream of Life (1973); The Stations of the Body (1974); Where You Were at Night (1974); The Hour of the Star (1977); A Breath of Life (1978); Discovering the World (1984); Selected Crônicas (1992).

Translations

The Apple in the Dark, trans. Gregory Rabassa. New York: 1995; Family Ties, trans. Giovanni Pontiero. Austin: 1972; The Hour of the Star, trans. Giovanni Pontiero. New York: 1992; Near to the Wild Heart, trans. Giovanni Pontiero. New York: 1990; The Passion According to GH, trans. Ronald W. Sousa. Minneapolis: 1988; The Stream of Life, trans. Elizabeth Lowe and Earl Fitz. Minneapolis: 1989.

Bibliography

Ferreira, Teresa Cristina Montero. Eu Sou Uma Pergunta: Uma Biografia de Clarice Lispector. Rio de Janeiro: 1999.

Gotlib, Nádia Battella. Clarice: Uma Vida Que Se Conta. São Paulo: 1995.

Varin, Claire. Clarice Lispector: Rencontres Brésiliennes. Quebec: 1987.

ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cixous, Hélène. Reading With Clarice Lispector. Minneapolis: 1990.

By the scholar who promoted “écriture feminine,” this volume contains a series of texts selected from Cixous’s seminars on Lispector given at the Université de Paris at Saint Denis and the Université de Philosophie between 1980 and 1985. These demonstrate Lispector’s influence on the critic’s development and center upon debates on and questioning of the rational Cartesian subject vis-à-vis the female experience.

Fitz, Earl E. Clarice Lispector. Boston: 1985.

As one of the volumes of the Twayne’s World Authors Series on Latin American Literature, this text is a useful introduction to Clarice Lispector for students as well as scholars. With a concise “Selected Bibliography” of primary and secondary sources, this study also contains biographical background, Lispector’s place in Brazilian Literature, her narrative techniques, and analyses of her major novels and short story collections.

Marting, Diane E., ed. Clarice Lispector: a Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Connecticut: 1993.

A comprehensive critical work containing a concise biography, a bibliography of the author’s works, individual analytical chapters devoted to each work of fiction with an annotated bibliography for each original title, translations, and critical studies. An important reference work for readers and scholars interested in Lispector’s writing.

Peixoto, Marta. Passionate Fictions: Gender, Narrative, and Violence in Clarice Lispector. Minneapolis: 1994.

As a contribution to feminist scholarship on Clarice Lispector, this critical study is a well-written treatment on gender, female power, textual violence, and narrative in several of Lispector’s most well-known works—Near to the Wild Heart, Family Ties, The Stream of Life, The Stations of the Body, and the Hour of the Star. An incisive critical work that manifests a clear and accessibly-theoretical approach to Lispector’s prose.

Vieira, Nelson H. “Clarice Lispector: A Jewish Impulse and a Prophecy of Difference.” In Vieira, Nelson H. Jewish Voices in Brazilian Literature. Gainesville, Florida: 1995, 100–150.

A chapter on CL’s innovations in literature and how these relate to her Jewish heritage. Containing biographical about her Jewish experience and critical views about her major novels and stories, this study focuses upon the Jewish motifs in her writing as well as on her gifts as a literary prophet who signaled insights into human consciousness and the relationship between language and existence.

Idem. “Clarice Lispector’s Jewish Universe: Passion in Search of Narrative Identity.” In Agosín, Marjorie, ed. Passion, Memory and Identity: Twentieth-Century Latin American Jewish Women Writers. Albuquerque: 1999, 85–113.

This article deals directly with Jewish hermeneutics in relation to Lispector’s works, specifically, the novel, The Passion According to GH. The article also contains biographical data about the Jewish context of her life and family. Also explored are the spiritual and the linguistic bases of her writing.

More on: Fiction, Journalism
Lispector, Clarice - still image [media]
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Ukrainian-born Clarice Lispector emigrated to Brazil, where she became a newspaper reporter, short-story writer and novelist.

Institution: Anat Falbel

How to cite this page

Vieira, Nelson H.. "Clarice Lispector." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 18, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/lispector-clarice>.

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