The Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (1920–1977) has been compared to Irish writer James Joyce and German writer Franz Kafka because of the experimental quality of her fiction. Using innovative literary techniques to depict characters whose experiences paralleled those of her inner life, Lispector commanded wide admiration in Brazil and is considered one of the most important writers of the 20th century in the Portuguese language.
While growing up in Brazil, Lispector attended Hebrew schools and spent much of her time around other Jewish immigrants. When she was 12, however, the family moved to Rio de Janeiro, then Brazil's capital city. From then on, Lispector rarely emphasized and sometimes denied her Jewish background, instead alluding to a general, nondenominational spirituality. She studied law at the University of Brazil, which was unusual for a young Jewish woman of her day. She also began to write during her teenage years, sometimes penning stories about a restless young woman experiencing conflicts with a man in her life. Her first short story, “The Triumph,” was published when she was 19.
In 1943 Lispector married a Catholic Brazilian diplomat-in-training, Maury Gurgel Valente. The following year she graduated from law school, and her first novel, Perto do coraçã selvagem (“Near to the Wild Heart,” a phrase borrowed from Joyce's novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), was published. The novel's story of a young woman, Joana, who throws off the restrictions of convention, was hailed by critics as an entirely new phenomenon in Brazilian fiction. Lispector had little time to bask in this newfound renown, however; later in 1994 she left Brazil and accompanied her husband on a series of diplomatic postings. The couple lived in Naples, Italy, Berne, Switzerland, Washington, D.C., and Torquay, England. Although she sometimes visited Brazil, Lispector would not return there to live for 15 years.
Lispector and Valente raised two sons, one of whom was diagnosed with schizophrenia. While outwardly, her life was unenventful, those who encountered her could not fail to be entranced by the atmosphere of mystery she exuded. Strikingly beautiful, she seemed to Brazilians to carry an air of exotic mystery, enhanced by a slight speech impediment that caused her to pronounce the letter “r” in a guttural way. Lispector did nothing to discourage the impression of mystery. On a visit to Egypt, she found herself face to face with the Sphinx. Writing about the experience, noted biographer Benjamin Moser in Why This World, she remarked, “I did not decipher her. But neither did she decipher me.”
In Near to the Wild Heart, Lispector cultivated what Adam Kirsch in Tablet called an “evocative, oblique style as she tells, in fragments and flashbacks, the story of the heroine, Joana.” Her style would remain consistent throughout the rest of her career. Like Joyce, she employed stream-of-consciousness techniques that involved sentence fragments, repeated words, and unusual phrasing that depicted the inner thoughts of her mostly female central characters. Lispector did not merely imitate foreign models, however. One of her distinctive techniques was to construct sentences seeming to make syntactic sense until examined more closely, drawing the reader further into the narrative. Lispector experimented heavily with the Portuguese language, a trait that causes serious difficulties for those attempting to translate her work into other languages. This fact may have also impeded appreciation of her work in countries other than Brazil.
It was not only Lispector's style but also her subject matter that was distinctive. Well in advance of large feminist movements in literature and society, especially in conservative, religiously oriented Brazil, she wrote stories and novels featuring female characters and their inner lives. Highly imaginative in tone, her writing was not directly autobiographical, but her central characters tended to reflect the stages of Lispector's life she evolved from a young, mysterious beauty to middle aged and then to the loneliness of old age. These characters had vivid inner lives, often intensely spiritual, that stood at the center of her storytelling, with male characters having an adjunct role. In anticipation of feminist themes and techniques, Lispector has been compared with the English novelist Virginia Woolf, and, especially in her earlier writings, her characters sometimes explicitly espouse the idea of women's equality. A journalist likened her to the composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who wrote music while he was deaf and could hear music only in his own head; Lispector replied by asking the journalist (as quoted by Ed Caesar in the London Sunday Times) to “imagine the solitude of the person who wrote [that music].”
Lispector's solitude deepened in 1959 after she divorced Maury in the wake of his extramarital affair and returned to Brazil with their two children. The period after her divorce seemed to stimulate her creatively. In 1964 she published A Paixïo Segundo G.H. (“The Passion according to G.H.” ), which has been widely considered one of her finest works. Its central character, a housewife, finds and kills a cockroach in the room of her maid, who has just quit her job, and then experiences a spiritual crisis. The entire novel is told in the first person, in the voice of the unnamed narrator. Lispector at the end of her life named The Passion according to G.H. as her favorite among her books.
Her newspaper writings may have contributed to Lispector's renown among the Brazilian reading public, which included book buyers not otherwise inclined toward experimental fiction. Her concise sentences have lent themselves to being quoted on inspirational posters, and she has been featured on a Brazilian postage stamp. Her novels are sold in book stalls in mass transit stations, and the Brazilian hip-hop star Filipe Ret sports a Lispector tattoo. A Twitter feed (twitter.com/recitoclarice) that reproduces quotations from Lispector's writings has more than one million followers, and other similar feeds exist in both Portuguese and English. In Brazil the mention of the name Clarice alone is enough to produce an instant association with Lispector.
Lispector smoked cigarettes and used sleeping pills, and these two habits met with tragic results in 1966 when she fell asleep in bed with a cigarette smoldering beside her. While she recovered from the resulting fire, which left scars over much of the right side of her body, her isolation deepened. By that time, several writers outside Brazil, including the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, had befriended her and become aware of Lispector's talents. She agreed to only one television interview, which was broadcast shortly before her death, and her discomfort with the medium was apparent.
Despite these problems, Lispector's creativity was unimpeded. Several major novels were published in the last year of her life, including Á gua viva (1973, translated into English as The Stream of Life), a monologue by a firstperson narrator addressing a second person referred to only as “you.” Although designated a novel, The Stream of Life contains aspects of prose poetry, with very little plot development and a condensed use of language involving passages that recur. The Brazilian rock star Cazuza (Agenor Miranda Araújo Neto) has stated that he has read the book 111 times. In all, Lispector wrote nine novels and more than 80 short stories.
Lispector died of ovarian cancer on December 9, 1977, in Rio de Janeiro. As with many experimentally minded writers, critical evaluations of her work have diverged sharply, with some writers hailing her innovative style and proto-feminist thinking while others find her work difficult to comprehend. In the English-speaking world, her reputation gained a major advance with the publication of Benjamin Moser's Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, which in addition to being a detailed study of Lispector's life made a critical case for her fiction. In Brazil itself, Lispector's status as one of the country's great writers is well established.
Kester-Shelton, Pamela, editor, Feminist Writers, St. James Press, 1996.
Moser, Benjamin, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, Oxford University Press, 2009.
Atlantic Monthly, August 2015.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), February 1, 2014, p. 26.
Moment, November–December 2009, p. 72.
New York Review of Books, September 24, 2009.
New York Times, March 11, 2015.
New Yorker, July 10, 2015.
Sunday Times (London, England), August 9, 2009, p. 8.
Tablet, July 23, 2012.❑