October 18, 2009
You know you are way too much a part of "the culture," when you cannot read or say Clarice without thinking of Jodie Foster's character in Silence of the Lambs. I know it's awful to admit, but it's true, even though I am faced with this reminder as I read about the great, the important, the inimitable Clarice Lispector in Benjamin Moser's biography, Why This World, recently published by Oxford Press.
Short story writer. Novelist. Journalist. Translator. Russian but Brazilian. Jewish yet not. Feminist yet traditional. Groundbreaking in her writing yet reticent in person. Shy yet a diva. Alluring yet dismissive. A star who only wanted to be seen as her true self, she was known to shrug off interviewers with one word replies, once even suggesting to a journalist that he turn to one of her books to glean answers about her life.
Translator Gregory Rabasa once wrote that Clarice "looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf." She was, like Madonna, on a first name basis with the world, made famous by her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, written in the style of an internal monologue, at the tender age of 23. Among her other famous works are Family Ties and The Passion According to G.H.
Moser, recently named the New Books columnist for Harper's Magazine, is a young translator and expatriate who lives in the Netherlands. Why This World is a careful, but daunting biography, and it's not hard to read between the lines that he is a diehard fan.
I have to admit that something this long -- close to 400 pages -- could only be a question of fits and starts. I had my first fit on page 15, upon discovering that a friend of Clarice's once wrote that her eyes "had the dull dazzle of the mystic." I wonder how this matters in any way, save perhaps to set the stage for the scale of Clarice's mythic importance. But this biographer takes chapters to set the stage. Ah well, I now know it's a dull dazzle in the eye I must look for when next I search for a mystic. A bit further along, Moser mentions that Clarice resembled the Jewish saints of her homeland, and at this point, I closed the book -- for the first time anyway.
It all starts with quotations from the grand dame of letters herself, who claims, "I am so mysterious that I don't even understand myself."
It's tough enough to handle an egoist, but to add to that, a biographer who swirls with vagaries around Clarice's own swirling self-conceptions -- This is a bit much. Moser claims, for example, that she possessed "the soul of a single woman, but within it one finds the full range of human experience." Is it me, or does this sound antiquated, sexist and trite? I'd like to suggest to Mr. Moser that he hop a plane back to the U.S. fast and learn a thing or two about the modern single woman and her full range.
Vanity (the subject's) and subtle and not-so-subtle praise (the author's) fuel this literary mise. The first, vanity, is a defect I myself was intimate with for years. And so I know that it's often utilized to cover up the flaws in one's own person and one's past, things one wishes to obscure. One substitutes the deeper search with a deeper affection for the superficial -- The curve of one's eyebrow, the shape of one's mouth, the angle of one's cheek and the slope of the neck can hold one in thrall until, alas, time passes, these droop and one must search elsewhere -- within? -- if one is to remain friendly with the self at all. Knowing the self is inevitable, one could argue -- if you stick around long enough.
Dear reader of this reader, I forced myself to open the book again, and read about the tragic rape of Clarice's mother Mania by a gang of Russian soldiers, a rape which led to her mother contracting syphilis and to Mania's early death. Clarice was born to a syphilitic mother in 1920 in the Ukraine, and shortly after that, her poor family was forced to wander, leaving the country and settling eventually in Maceió, Brazil. Her father was a peddler and raised three girls on his own, one of whom was Chaya Kinkhasovna Lispector, who became Clarice in the new land. Her name means "Life" in Hebrew.
Clarice led a fascinating life that included literary success, marriage, a child, travels in Europe, adulation and renown. An accident led to years of pain and a premature death at 57. Outsider and insider; popular, yet removed; spontaneous, yet affected; it's hard to know who Clarice really was and what she really thought about herself, but you can have a great deal of fun speculating along with Moser, if you read Why This World.
With apologies to the dear sister who inspired this read, I didn't wade through nearly 400 pages of awe-inspired revelations about the ever so elusive Clarice to determine what I already knew: The reader will have to let the unnameable remain unnamed, to respect Clarice's mystery, to search for answers in her oeuvre, as the writer herself suggested.
Unfortunately, as I learned during a search at a local Barnes & Noble, Clarice's oeuvre is difficult and expensive to procure.
Perhaps this latest tome about her life will help to lift veils not only of obscurity but of exclusivity, kindle fresh interest in her work and inspire a reduction in prices of her books!