The True Glamour of Clarice Lispector


Catholic communicants are asked at Easter, “Do you renounce the glamour of evil, and refuse to be mastered by sin?” The question preserves a conflation, now rare, of glamour and sorcery: glamour was a quality that confounds, shifts shapes, invests a thing with a mysterious aura; it was, as Sir Walter Scott wrote, “the magic power of imposing on the eyesight of spectators, so that the appearance of an object shall be totally different from the reality.”

The legendarily beautiful Clarice Lispector, tall and blonde, clad in the outspoken sunglasses and chunky jewelry of a grande dame of midcentury Rio de Janeiro, met our current definition of glamour. She spent years as a fashion journalist and knew how to look the part. But it is as much in the older sense of the word that Clarice Lispector is glamorous: as a caster of spells, literally enchanting, her nervous ghost haunting every branch of the Brazilian arts.

Her spell has grown unceasingly since her death. Then, in 1977, it would have seemed exaggerated to say she was her country’s preëminent modern writer. Today, when it no longer does, questions of artistic importance are, to a certain extent, irrelevant. What matters is the magnetic love she inspires in those susceptible to her. For them, reading Clarice Lispector is one of the great emotional experiences of their lives. But her glamour is dangerous. “Be careful with Clarice,” a friend told a reader decades ago, using the single name by which she is universally known. “It’s not literature. It’s witchcraft.”

The connection between literature and witchcraft has long been an important part of the Clarice mythology. That mythology, with a powerful boost from the Internet, which magically transforms rumors into facts, has developed ramifications so baroque that it might today be called a minor branch of Brazilian literature. Circulating unstoppably online is an entire shadow oeuvre, generally trying, and failing, to sound profound, and breathing of passion. Online, too, Clarice has acquired a posthumous shadow body, as pictures of actresses portraying her are constantly reproduced in lieu of the original.

If the technology has changed its forms, the mythologizing itself is nothing new. Clarice Lispector became famous when, at the end of 1943, she published “Near to the Wild Heart.” She was a student, barely twenty-three, from a poor immigrant background. Her first novel had such a tremendous impact that, one journalist wrote, “we have no memory of a more sensational debut, which lifted to such prominence a name that, until shortly before, had been completely unknown.” But only a few weeks after that name was becoming known she left Rio with her husband, a diplomat. They would live abroad for almost two decades.

Though she made regular visits home, she would not return definitively until 1959. In that interval, legends flourished. Her odd foreign name became a subject of speculation—one critic suggested it might be a pseudonym—and others wondered whether she was, in fact, a man. Taken together, the legends reflect an uneasiness, a feeling that she was something other than she seemed.

In the eighty-five stories that she wrote, Clarice Lispector conjures, first of all, the writer herself. From her earliest story, published when she was nineteen, to the last, found in scratchy fragments after her death, we follow a lifetime of artistic experimentation through a vast range of styles and experiences. This literature is not for everyone: even certain highly literate Brazilians have been baffled by the cult-like fervor she inspires. But for those who instinctively understand her, the love for the person of Clarice Lispector is immediate and inexplicable. Hers is an art that makes us want to know the woman; she is a woman who makes us want to know her art. Through her stories we can trace her artistic life, from adolescent promise through assured maturity to the implosion as she nears—and summons—death.

But something more surprising appears when these stories are at last seen in their entirety, an accomplishment whose significance the author herself cannot have been aware of, for it could only appear retrospectively. This accomplishment lies in the second woman she conjures. Clarice Lispector was a great artist; she was also a middle-class wife and mother. If the portrait of the extraordinary artist is fascinating, so is the portrait of the ordinary housewife, whose life is the subject of her stories. As the artist matures, the housewife, too, grows older. When Lispector is a defiant adolescent filled with a sense of her own potential—artistic, intellectual, sexual—so are the girls in her stories. When, in her own life, marriage and motherhood take the place of precocious childhood, her characters grow up, too. When her marriage fails, when her children leave, these departures appear in her stories. When the author, once so gloriously beautiful, sees her body blemished by wrinkles and fat, her characters see the same decline in theirs; and when she confronts the final unravelling of age and sickness and death, they appear in her fiction as well.

This is a record of woman’s entire life, written over the course of a woman’s entire life. As such, it seems to be the first such total record written in fiction, in any language. This sweeping claim requires qualifications. A wife and a mother; a bourgeois, Western, heterosexual woman’s life. A woman who was not interrupted: a woman who did not start writing late, or stop for marriage or children, or succumb to drugs or suicide. A woman who, like so many male writers, began in her teens and carried on to the end. A woman who, in demographic respects, was exactly like most of her readers.

Their story had only been written in part. Before Clarice, a woman who wrote throughout her life about that life was so rare as to be previously unheard of. The claim seems extravagant, but I have not identified any predecessors.

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