Clarice Lispector: Not On a Rap Star’s Bicep

Isaac Castella McDonald 21 January 2020
Image Credit: "The Vampire's Wife"

Brazil. 1943. 900 copies of a book titled ‘Near to the Wild Heart’ appear. They bear a bright pink cover – ‘typical for books by women’ – with the word ‘romance’ written on the cover-leaf.

This bright pink cover was the public face of the soon-to-be literary personality of the Brazilian century, the ‘catlike blond beauty with movie-star magnetism and an indefinably foreign accent’ – the 23 year old immigrant law student Clarice Lispector.

One critic called it ‘the greatest novel a woman has ever written in the Portuguese language’ and it would go on to win the prestigious Graça Aranha Prize. Today she remains a dominant figure in Brazilian 20th century literary history, referred to affectionately as ‘Clarice’, compulsory subject matter in university entrance exams and tattooed on Brazilian rap star Filipe Ret’s bicep.

Lispector’s impact on Portuguese and Brazilian writing was huge. Her debut novel, ‘Near to the Wild Heart’, is modernist, non-linear, spending eight pages describing the loosely-autobiographical Joana waking up in the middle of the night and looking at her husband Otavio. Quoting the novel to show you its swirling intensity is somewhat futile since, like Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Waves’, the transfixing impact of her prose relies on a sharp and undulating succession of sentences.

What is fascinating for Historicists is that she arrived at this style independently, without exposure to the European modernists. The frequent comparisons to these artists annoyed Lispector, who had to repeatedly claim that ‘I discovered the quote, the title of the book, and Joyce himself once the book was already finished. I wrote it in eight or nine months, while I was studying, working, and getting engaged – but the book has no direct influence from my studies, my engagement, Joyce, or my work’. She defied categorisation and the speculations made by the Brazilian literati that sought to bind her person to her work and bind her work to those who had come before her.

Perhaps this speculation was inevitable. Lispector was an elusive figure, even to those who admired her most. In 1961, one reporter said ‘She seldom appears in literary circles, avoids television programs and autograph sessions, and only a few rare people have been lucky enough to talk to her’. Elizabeth Bishop, who was the first to translate Clarice into English, wrote to her friend saying that just as she was trying to publish her translations for the New Yorker to provide her some money (‘the dollar being what it is’) ‘she has vanished on me – completely – and for about six weeks!’.

The great curiosity surrounding the person of Clarice, and Clarice’s refusal to indulge it, shrouded her in glamour and mystery. Her writing became a voice from the void. The abstract narrative of her eighty-five collected short stories calls to mind the scattered vignettes of a photo album, its subject laughing with the seamless hilarity of an exalted life.

Benjamin Moser, the author of Clarice’s biography ‘Why This World’, says that when people did glimpse her, ‘to general bemusement, she insisted that she was a simple housewife, and those who arrived expecting to encounter a Sphinx, just as often found a Jewish mother offering the cake and Coca-Cola.’ Clarice’s mystique, Clarice’s glamour, was something that the world made up, and placed on her work. Clarice was beautiful, that is certain, but this beauty, such an integral part of her legendary persona, was not really her. As she resisted comparisons to Joyce, she also denied herself as a Sphinx. She actually was ‘a Jewish mother’, a real person, a genuine artist.

In fact, much of her life was far from glamorous. Born in Ukraine in the aftermath of WW1, her father and sister escaped a racial war that killed her mother and grandfather. She was orphaned at twenty, facing social rejection when she married a Catholic (then unheard of for Jews) and leaving her home in Rio to spend the next decade in America and Europe.

‘When I reread what I’ve written, I feel like I’m swallowing my own vomit’ she said, and it is true that much of what she wrote could unnerve and unsettle. Indeed, Joana’s sublimely eloquent internal voice utterly belies the image of her author; it is more Patrick Bateman than Gatsby’s Daisy. Tell me if you think Clarice’s glamorous appearance has any bearing on the reading of this passage:

‘The certainty that evil is my calling, thought Joana.
What else was that feeling of uncontained force, ready to burst forth in violence, that longing to apply it with her eyes closed, all of it, with the rash confidence of a wild beast? Wasn’t it in evil alone that you could breathe fearlessly, accepting the air and your lungs? Not even pleasure would give me as much pleasure as evil, she thought surprised. She felt a perfect animal inside her, full of contradictions, of selfishness and vitality.’  

Clarice Lispector’s art made her remarkable. So it is truly upsetting to me that every article I read when writing this mentioned her physical appearance. In 2005 one critic said ‘I was flabbergasted to meet that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf’. Should the physical appearance of a writer really be so significant for the reception of their work? Joyce’s unfortunate appearance had no bearing on his ability to produce powerful pieces of writing. No one mentions Stanley Kubrick’s or Jay-Z’s looks in evaluations of their artistry, and neither should they. It is irrelevant.

The absurdity, then, is in describing Clarice as a ‘catlike blond beauty of movie-star magnetism’ before a sentence with her art as the subject. This is not the Clarice diffracted in her works. It flattens an incredible genius into a beautiful-woman-who-also-writes-books.

I suppose the reason for this is obvious: people glamorise and mystify beauty. They always have and always will. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. But there is something wrong with conflating Clarice’s beauty with the appreciation of her writing. Not only would it be irrelevant if the prose were glamorous, but glamour is seldom the substance of her prose, even if it is abundant in its form. Such a judgement drastically impoverishes our understanding of her work.

Clarice Lispector should be on your reading list. There’s a reason why one Brazilian musician described reading her ‘as one of the chief revelations of his adolescence, along with sex and love and bossa nova’. But critics, and you, and I, must look past the pink cover with romance written on the front and appreciate Clarice’s artistic genius for what it is, not for what she looks like.