The Brazilian Kafka

 
 

The Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector was a riddle-some and strange personality. Strikingly beautiful, with catlike green eyes, she died in Rio de Janeiro in 1977 at the age of only 57. Some said she wrote like Virginia Woolf and resembled Marlene Dietrich. She was ‘very, very sexy’, remembered a friend. Yet she needed a great many cigarettes, painkillers, anti-depressants, as well as anti-psychotics and sleeping pills to get through her final years. Lispector had great fortitude over her illness, it was said, and suffered the ravages of ovarian cancer equably and without complaint. According to her biographer Benjamin Moser, Lispector’s was a life fraught with the shadow of past failures and past sorrows. Born in 1920 in what is now Ukraine, she emerged from the world of East European orthodox Jewry with its side-locks, kaftans and Talmudic mysticism. Dreadfully, her mother had been gang-raped by Russian soldiers during the pogroms that followed the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917; her grandfather had earlier been murdered. Even by the standards of Russian anti-Semitism, the family’s was an unusually wretched story of immigration.
In the winter of 1921, harried by thieving Jew-baiters and other opportunists, the Lispectors fled their home for the New World. On arrival in northeast Brazil, they scraped a pittance through teaching and odd jobs. Clarice (born Chaya) Lispector was barely one year old when she reached Brazil; in her adult years, not surprisingly, she liked to claim the country as her spiritual home and the place where the Portuguese-language writer in her was born.

Her fiction is haunted by her family history of uprooting and exile, says Moser. The atrocities and expulsions suffered by Ukrainian Jewry after the first world war had engendered a thoroughgoing skepticism and distrustfulness in Lispector. In coming to Brazil with her parents and two older sisters she knew she had escaped a great danger. Assimilation into Brazilian society promised an escape from the sorrows and derision of the past, so the Lispectors decided to change their names to sound less Yiddish and more Portuguese. Though Clarice would never again set foot in her native Ukraine, her writing gave covert expression to the displacement and wretchedness felt by emigrés everywhere, Moser suggests.

She published her first novel, Near to the Wildheart in 1943 when she was just twenty-three, and the next year was awarded the Graça Aranha Prize for the best first novel. Many felt she had given Brazilian literature a unique voice in the larger context of Portuguese literature. After living variously in Italy, the UK, Switzerland and the US, in 1959, Lispector with her children returned to Brazil where she wrote her most influential novels including The Passion According to G.H. She died in 1977, shortly after the publication of her final novel, The Hour of the Star.

A paixão segundo G.H. (The Passion According to G.H.) was written in a quick burst at the end of 1963, following a period of difficulty in Lispector’s life. “It’s strange,” she remembered, “because I was in the worst of situations, sentimentally as well as in my family, everything complicated, and I wrote The Passion, which has nothing to do with that.” The novel was published in the following year by Editora do Autor, which was run by Lispector’s friends Rubem Braga and Fernando Sabino.

The work takes the form of a monologue by a woman, identified only as G.H., telling of the crisis that ensued the previous day after she crushed a cockroach in the door of a wardrobe. Its canonical status was recognized in 1988 by its inclusion in the Arquivos Collection, the UNESCO series of critical editions of the greatest works of Latin American literature. It has been translated into English twice, the first time in 1988 by Ronald W. Sousa, and then by Idra Novey in 2012.

G.H., a well-to-do Rio sculptress, enters the room of her maid, which is as clear and white ‘as in an insane asylum from which dangerous objects have been removed’. There she sees a cockroach – black, dusty, prehistoric – crawling out of the wardrobe and, panicking, slams the door on it. Her irresistible fascination with the dying insect provokes a spiritual crisis, in which she questions her place in the universe and her very identity, propelling her towards an act of shocking transgression. Clarice Lispector’s spare, deeply disturbing yet luminous novel transforms language into something otherworldly, and is one of her most unsettling and compelling works. The Passion According to G.H, is brocaded with a range of literary influences from Franz Kafka to the Bible.

The American poet Elizabeth Bishop proclaimed Lispector ‘better’ even than the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges, and set about translating her into English. Since then, Lispector has been championed by, among others, Edmund White, Orhan Pamuk and Colm Tóibín. Yet she remains unknown to the general reader.

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