The Nation, Sept 2009

Clarice Lispector doted on the ugly, dull and superfluous. Over the course of her fifty years as a novelist, her characters became less intelligent. She began with self-conscious and lonely heroines and moved on to less pensive creatures: dogs, chickens, cockroaches and the smallest woman in the world. The triumph of her career is a dimwitted virgin named Macabéa, who subsists on hot dogs. Macabéa's "story is so banal that I can scarcely bear to go on writing," Lispector notes in her finest book, The Hour of the Star, published a few months before her death in 1977. Macabéa works as a typist in Rio de Janeiro but knows the meaning of few of the words she commits to the page. She sleeps in cheap cotton underwear, with her mouth wide open, and then rushes to work in the morning, smiling dumbly at everyone she passes. Her few moments of leisure are spent drinking Coca-Cola--a refreshment she adores "with servility and subservience"--and watching horror films in which women get shot in the heart.

Lispector was fascinated by the possibility of extinguishing self-consciousness; she idealized animals and idiots because they were free of the desire to translate their experiences into words. Macabéa is the perfect fool, whose life has been reduced to a "tiny essential flame": she does nothing more than exist, without wondering why. Then she gets hit by a car and dies. The novella's drama derives not from Macabéa's pitiful story but from Lispector's struggle to render in full a life so mundane. "I feel so nervous about writing," she admits, "that I might explode into a fit of uncontrollable laughter."

Unlike writers who make a game of their creative angst, Lispector appeared as if at any moment she might stop midsentence and abandon her typewriter. She was forbiddingly quiet--fans called her "the sacred monster" and "the great witch of Brazilian literature"--and she worried that her penchant for writing had become a pointless tic, a way to stave off loneliness. In Why This World, the first English-language biography of Lispector's life, Benjamin Moser describes a surprisingly tedious adulthood oriented almost entirely around writing. Lispector wrote to escape from herself, as if by spilling enough words onto the page she could slake the need for self-expression, an impulse she deemed gross and irresponsible.

Moser, a book critic at Harper's Magazine, thinks that Lispector took less pride in her writing than in her looks, a theory she would have likely appreciated. She had long limbs, a sullen feline face and pouty lips. She applied makeup meticulously. Gregory Rabassa, one of her English-language translators, remarked that he was "astonished to meet that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf." Even Elizabeth Bishop, who translated several of Lispector's stories, seemed seduced by the writer, calling her "better than J.L. Borges." When Bishop was living in Rio de Janeiro in the early 1960s, she confided to Robert Lowell that the two were getting to be "friends"--she used quotation marks--but the relationship never took off. In the end, Bishop found Lispector "very coy & complicated" as well as hopelessly shy and indolent.

Moser, too, seems to want to get closer to Lispector than she allows. Despite the wealth of revealing anecdotes he summons, Lispector still feels out of his reach, almost unreal. Moser argues that Lispector moved closer to God with each book, and he calls her body of work, which is explicitly self-referential, "perhaps the greatest spiritual autobiography of the twentieth century." He often returns to the fact that Lispector was born in Chechelnik, Ukraine, a town with a tradition of mystics dating to the eighteenth century. Though her family immigrated to Brazil when she was a year old and she later proudly claimed that she never set foot in Eastern Europe (as an infant, she was carried), Moser writes that Lispector resembled the saints of her homeland--the Hasidic zaddikim, "bearers of that irrational something"--and that, like other Jews, she "sought the eternal amid crisis and exile." Moser is not the first to call her a Jewish mystic (she has also been dubbed a Christian mystic and a "mystical atheist"), but the claim is difficult to sustain across a full-length biography. Lispector did not read Jewish holy texts, nor did she pray. One of her few known public references to her religion was to correct "this nonsense about the Jews being God's chosen people. That's ridiculous."

In Moser's hands, Lispector is most "mystical" when she describes her longing for silence and her belief that she could never express in words what she called her "truest life." She was obsessed by the inaccuracy and dullness of language: it dooms us to become common, to repeat what others have already said. In her ability to bring these anxieties to life, Lispector is more terrifying than Samuel Beckett. By placing her in a religious lineage, Moser pushes beyond a more conventional reading of Lispector as a Modernist, but he also privileges the least impressive part of her work. Lispector was willfully enigmatic and flirtatious when she alluded to the divine (which she does far more frequently in her novels than in her short stories), and she treats God as a kind of intellectual exotica. She seemed to admire the idea of faith in part because she found it impossible. "I don't know what it is I'm calling God, but it can be called that," she allowed. It is never quite clear that it is God she is seeking, as Moser suggests, nor is it evident how she could have been a "mystic." Moser wants the word to encompass so much that it loses its meaning. It seems to describe less a belief system than a species of women: pained and introspective, prone to silence, hunger and self-loathing.

If Lispector was truly a mystic, she would have renounced the medium she found so degraded and degrading. But she was unable to stop writing. In addition to her short stories and novels, she supported herself by writing perky crônicas, newspaper columns that focused on women's issues like gift-giving and cosmetics. Her aversion to language seems to have derived as much from principle--the conviction that silence is truer than speech--as from anxiety. An insomniac, she took sleeping pills even for her afternoon naps. She rarely left her home and endured social engagements only in pain. In a column she described partygoing as a "dangerous sport." The goal: to avoid faux pas. Who will make the mistake? Who will destroy the meal? Rather than wait and see, Lispector was said to ruin dinner parties by leaving a few minutes after arriving. When asked by an interviewer to describe the role of the Brazilian novelist, she replied, "To speak as little as possible."

Read the entire review here.