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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Book Review: Why This World, A Biography of Clarice Lispector, by Benjamin Moser

Books of The Times - ‘Why This World’ by Benjamin Moser Examines the Brazilian Writer Clarice Lispector - Review -

Dwight Gardner writes:

The avant-garde Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (1920-77) is little known in America, where only a handful of her many books have been issued in translation, but back home she is literary royalty — she burns in the collective memory like a slightly sinister eternal flame.

Lispector’s face stares from Brazilian postage stamps, and her name adorns luxury condominiums. Countless books have been written about her there, and dozens of theatrical performances have been based on her work. You can buy her books in subway vending machines.

“Her first name is enough to identify her to educated Brazilians,” Benjamin Moser writes in “Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector.”

Lispector’s myth looms as large as anything she has written. Her unusual name made her sound like a spy. Her green almond eyes and high cheekbones led people to liken her to a she-wolf or a panther. To the translator Gregory Rabassa, Lispector “looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.”

Because Lispector shunned the spotlight, and because she married a diplomat at 22 and spent nearly two decades outside of Brazil, rumors about her sprang up to fill the void.

Some thought she was a man writing under a pseudonym. Her interest in the occult (she had a lifelong habit of consulting astrologers and card readers) led people to refer to her as “the great witch of Brazilian literature.” She was also called a monstre sacré. Later in life she burned her right hand in an apartment fire, and it came to resemble a black claw.

Lispector’s writing was as unconventional as she was. Her novels and stories lack easily discernible plots, and are related in simmering, impressionistic language. They have a haunted, interior quality that cut against the grain of contemporary Brazilian literature. The poet Elizabeth Bishop, who translated a few of Lispector’s stories, wrote to friends: “I think she is better than J. L. Borges — who is good, but not all that good!”

This is rich biographical material that gets only richer as Mr. Moser, a translator and a book critic for Harper’s Magazine, begins to unpeel the layers of her complicated life. “Why This World” sucks you — for long stretches, anyway — into its subject’s strange vortex.

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