The skull beneath the skin

For a quick insight into the mind of the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (1920-77), take this recollection of the first time she tried chewing gum, as a child. Finding the sweet pastille “quite nice, but nothing special”, she wondered what to do once the flavor had gone. “You simply keep chewing and chewing for ever”, advised her older sister, and Lispector was appalled. “I didn’t want to admit that I simply wasn’t ready for eternity. That the very idea filled me with despair. Meanwhile I continued obediently, unceasingly, to chew.”

That switch from cheerful innocence to abject horror is the author’s trademark. A simple event provokes a crisis; a seemingly safe world falls apart. In her novel A Paixão segundo GH (1964; The Passion According to GH), a woman doing housework is plunged into mental breakdown after killing a cockroach. In one of the Complete Stories (TLS, September 4, 2015), a character cracks her tooth while eating an apple and feels bound to kill herself. Lispector doesn’t just see the skull beneath the skin, she’s mesmerized by it. Her world is full of horrors, and there is no option but to continue in it, obediently, unceasingly chewing.

Lispector was born in 1920 in the shtetl of Chechelnyk, Ukraine. In flight from pogroms, Clarice (then called Chaya) was brought by her parents to northern Brazil as a two-year-old. Later, the family moved to Rio de Janeiro, where she studied law and published her first novel, Perto do Coração Selvagem (1943; Near to the Wild Heart), aged twenty-three. It singled her out as an unusual talent and a leading figure of the Brazilian avant-garde. By then she had married a diplomat, Maury Gurgel Valente, and sixteen years of postings kept her away from Brazil, until, in 1959, she left her husband, returned to Rio and concentrated on writing. In 1967 she began writing weekly dispatches, or “chronicles”, for the Journal do Brasil. These have now been gathered, together with other columns, in one volume and translated into English, having first appeared in Portuguese in 2018.

An essentially Latin American form of journalism, the crónica (Portuguese) or cronic (Spanish) blends opinion and storytelling, with less emphasis on hard news. That flexibility suited Lispector, though at first she wondered how to approach her new role. “Is the crônica a story?” she writes in an early column. “Is it a conversation? Is it the summation of a state of mind?” In time she made it all of those things, as well as a place to champion fellow writers or to discuss philosophical ideas. She steered clear of politics, perhaps partly because she was writing during the years of dictatorship. Instead the columns cover domestic events, conversations (especially with taxi drivers) and interviews with leading Brazilians of the day, including the musicians Chico Buarque and Tom Jobim.

Some cronicas were a place to try out ideas for stories, and include thumbnail sketches of characters or incidents. In others Lispector describes her approach to writing, rejecting comparisons with Virginia Woolf and defending her famously difficult syntax: “Who cares about sense? I am the sense.” More typically the columns muse on the meaning of life, the universe and, especially, of Clarice Lispector. “I am so mysterious that I cannot understand myself”, she says (quite often). “How mysterious I am. How delicate and strong. And how the curve of my lips has retained its innocence … ah, so it’s true, I didn’t just imagine myself, I actually exist.” The musing may descend into ennui – she experiences “weariness with the Beatles. And weariness too with those who are not the Beatles” – or escalate to panic. Lispector reaches for her tranquillizers. She wonders if life is hopeless, if the only solution is to live on autopilot until death. “The world has failed me and I have failed the world”, she declares. “I am strong, but also destructive. Self-destructive.”

Not surprisingly, such pronouncements tended to prompt a flurry of concerned letters and phone calls from readers. (Lispector must have been in the directory). Her fans, to whom she was always “Clarice”, adored her. In a column from March 1968 one of them turns up with an octopus in a bag, then offers to put it in a marinade and return the next day to cook it; the offer is graciously accepted. Another rings up in tears and gets invited round for whisky. Lispector sometimes uses the columns as a form of correspondence. In June she writes to one admirer: “I cannot, alas, have supper with you, FM That would set a dangerous precedent.” And to another: “Hilda, I can’t get through to you on the phone, so I can’t help with the grave crisis you’re going through. Give me a call.” One long column praising her new secretary ends with the revelation that the new recruit has actually already been fired. “I was really rather hasty in today’s column.”

Lispector recounts her dreams, which are often reminiscent of her stories. “There was a jelly that was alive. That was how the jelly felt. Silence. Alive and silent the jelly dragged itself with difficulty across the table, rising, falling, slowly, without crumbling into pieces. Who would catch it? No one dared.” In the columns, as in Lispector’s fiction, dark and light come in unexpected proportions. She doesn’t mind tangling with death, hopelessness and make-up all in the same paragraph. In April 1971, in the middle of trying to convey a “pain too deep for words”, she interjects: “I will pause briefly to answer the door to the man who has come to fix the record player”. Elsewhere she declares an urgent need “to know something about integral calculus”.

It is probably easier to be in thrall to life’s mysteries when you have a full-time maid, cook and gardener. Then again, Lispector’s staff are mysterious too. One maid goes off on a shopping errand and comes back with a bag full of milk-bottle tops and a smile “as soft as if she had no teeth only gums”. She is dispatched to hospital and seems her old self after three rounds of electroconvulsive therapy.

Should a writer reveal so much? “It feels rather as if I were selling my soul”, she admits in September 1967, but I wonder if these cronicas really are all that revealing, or if Lispector contrived a version of “Clarice” that kept her real self hidden. For instance, she’s surprisingly nonchalant about the fire that began when she fell asleep smoking in bed, destroying much of her work and permanently injuring her right hand. Elsewhere she mentions that her mother was sick at the time of her conception “and, according to a fairly widespread superstition, it was thought that having a child would cure a woman of illness. And so I was deliberately engendered: with love and hope. Except that I did not cure my mother. And even today I still feel the burden of that guilt.”

In Why This World (TLS, February 19, 2010), Lispector’s biographer, Benjamin Moser, maintains that her mother had contracted syphilis after being gang-raped by Russian soldiers: that was the reason she sought this folk cure. To be brought into the world as the solution to such horrific circumstances – and then not to provide the solution – must put a strange complexion on life. Lispector’s mother lived on, paralysed and mute, for the first nine years of her life and surely influenced her mindset. We may think we’re looking into her soul, but she doesn’t let us see far.

There are almost no other references to Lispector’s childhood in these columns, apart from one sunny recollection of catching the tram early to go swimming with her father. And there is nothing about her marriage to the diplomat (one of whose missions, rather improbably, was to Torquay). But there is a brilliant description of traveling among the English:

I came into contact with the ugliness of the English, which is one of the most attractive things about England. It is an ugliness so peculiar, so handsome – and I’m not just saying that. It was very cold, and the wind gave the face and hands that raw redness which makes each and every person extremely real … People drink disgusting coffee, in large cups, but the coffee steams. Steams like the whole island, whose blackened bridges loom out of an almost constant fog. The fog is exhaled by the paving stones and envelopes the bridges.

As for the English, they are not particularly intelligent. But England is one of the most intelligent countries in the world. We were traveling by car. Between one city and another, the small towns of England wrap tightly around each other, and a fine drizzle falls on the car windows. In the streets, people wear clothes so badly made they end up becoming stylish… Only now do I know how much I loved the wind in London that made my eyes water with rage and my skin scream with irritation.

There are two glancing references to Lispector’s Jewishness: one an admission of having eaten pork on a Saturday, “which is my day”, and the other a recollection of meeting someone who “confided that she didn’t like a certain type of person. I was surprised: for I was exactly that type of person. She had no idea.” Yet it was antisemitism, says Lispector’s son, Paulo Gurgel Valente, in an afterword, that led to the cancellation of her column for the Journal do Brasil in 1973, four years before her death from cancer. She went on to contribute to other newspapers, but that weekly connection with her readers was never reinstated.

Lispector writes and thinks like nobody else, sending her readers off to look at the world through strange new lispectacles. Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson have given their subject a wonderful voice in English and this translation reads like the work of people who really like and understand their subject. The trouble with a complete collection, however, is that it must include everything, and I could have done with less. At 750 pages, Too much of life is also too much of Clarice.

Miranda Franceis a consultant editor at theTLS

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