Monday, August 24, 2009

Clarice Lispector: "I only loved something I didn't know."

(Image from New York Times)

In a reminder of why I read the International Herald Tribune -- which now identifies itself as "The Global Edition of The New York Times" -- I happened upon the review "Out of the shadows for a Brazilian writer," by Fernanda Eberstadt, about Benjamin Moser's biography of the Brazilian Jewish writer Clarice Lispector: Why This World.

That title has no question mark, so it sounds as if it would provide an answer, a theodicy of some kind to explain the world's excessive evil. That turned out not to be so far off the mark:
Nineteen forty-three -- the year after Stefan Zweig, another Jewish writer who hoped Brazil could offer redemption from Europe's genocidal impulses, committed suicide in a mountain resort not far from Rio -- saw the publication of the 23-year-old Lispector’s first novel. It was called "Near to the Wild Heart" [i.e., Perto do coração selvagem], and it was an overnight sensation. The story is simple -- a man torn between a homebody mistress and a wild-animal wife -- and chillingly amoral, but Lispector uses it to address with brutal lucidity what will prove the central question of her work: What is the nature of God's presence in the world?
Moser, however, portrays Lispector as "a writer almost cabalistically bent on piercing the veil between 'word' and 'being,' and not much convinced of the validity of such human categories as good and evil." Or is this Eberstadt's view? Either way, I wonder if it's not a bit too ambivalent, given Eberstadt's reading of the biography:
[Clarice's mother,] Mania, long mute and paralyzed, died when Clarice was 9; [her father,] Pinkhas, now Pedro, struggled in vain to make a living as a peddler and died at age 55, leaving his children with the "unbearable" memory of a gifted mathematician and immensely moral man who was at every step thwarted by human evil and indifference.
If Moser's biography depicts an "immensely moral man . . . thwarted by human evil" because he was Jewish, the "categories of good and evil" would seem to be less ambiguous than implied. And then there's the evil perpetrated upon Lispector's mother:
During the civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution, [the region of] Podolia [in western Ukraine] was beset by a truly genocidal succession of pogroms. In 1918, Lispector's grandfather was murdered, her family home destroyed, and shortly after, her mother, Mania, already the mother of two small children, was gang-raped by Russian soldiers -- an assault that infected the young woman with syphilis.
The infection took eleven years to do away with Mania, bringing her to a "mute and paralyzed" state before it finally killed her. There certainly seems, in the dreadful things that happened to Lispector's parents, to be such an abundance of evil -- in both the moral and the natural senses -- for me to wonder if the line between good and evil can be so ambiguous for Lispector the writer even if Near to the Wild Heart, for example, is "chillingly amoral." I realize that one must distinguish between the writer Lispector and Lispector the writer, but even the latter cannot be simply identified with the narrator, and still less so with the protagonist, of a novel. But I suppose that I ought to read the book -- or better, Lispector's books -- before I judge either Lispector or Moser's biography by Eberstadt's cover.

For otherwise, despite Gadamer, I'm merely pre-judging such alienated creatures as Lispector and those who comment upon her life and her work . . .

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At 11:31 AM, Blogger Jay Kactuz said...

Wow, I am surprised that you know about Lispector.

Two words: Overrated and boring. We had to study her works in school (another lifetime ago...). Suffering does not define an existance unless you can look beyond your own. Clarice couldn't.

She smoked like a fireplace, which may explain the accident and terrible burns she suffered at the end of her life. I still remember the story well (there is a personal aspect).

Nelson Rodrigues, on the other hand, was interesting, if no other reason than he was a strange pervert. What I am saying is that the kids paid attention when studying Rodrigues and passed notes back and forth when the subject was Lispector in lit class.

Do you know who Olga Benario was? Not lit but interesting anyway. I saw Prestes as a very old man in Rio during the 80s.


At 12:17 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, "Lispector" is not a name that slips one's mind. From her burns, I figured that she probably smoked a lot -- and also drank to excess if she got burned from 'falling asleep' smoking.

I hadn't read anything by her until seeing this review, when I went online and read a bit from her first novel. I sort of liked it and sort of didn't, but I blamed the translator for the line "I invented a poem." One doesn't 'invent' poems, not in English, at any rate.

I'm not familiar with Nelson Rodrigues, but I think that I've heard of Olga Benario.

And you were in Rio? I've not 'yet' visited South America. Nor Africa.

But you seem to have gotten around, both geographically and intellectually.

Jeffery Hodges

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