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Passionate Acolytes: An Interview with Benjamin Moser

August 17, 2015 | by

Photo: Paulo Gurgel Valente

I’ve gotten accustomed to talking about the “Clarice Lispector tidal wave.” For weeks on end, I’ve scarcely been able to go online without seeing Lispector, who died in 1977, raved about, serialized, reviewed, discussed, or marveled at.

The occasion for this outpouring of attention is the publication of The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson and edited by Benjamin Moser. But this story goes back much further, at least to 2009, when Moser published his biography of Lispector, Why This World. Since then, we’ve seen a remarkable resurgence of interest in the author, whom many consider to be among the best Brazil ever produced, and one who is often compared to Virginia Woolf. Why This World was followed by Moser’s translation of Lispector’s final novel, The Hour of the Star, and then new translations of four of Lispector’s major novels, each by a different translator.

With The Complete Stories upon us, I asked Moser why Lispector is worthy of all this effort, what makes the new book such a monumental publication, and what’s next for the Brazilian author.

Let’s begin with a very basic question—why Lispector?

Sometimes you meet someone in a bar and end up in bed after a few drinks. And sometimes you wake up and look over at the person snoring by your side and gasp and say, What was I thinking? But other times that person turns out to be the love of your life. With Clarice, I certainly had no idea that our relationship would be as long or as intense as it turned out to be. Writing her biography taught me about her life, introduced me to her world, her country, her friends. Translating her books brought me into her mind on the molecular level where the translator has to work. And the better I got to know her, the more my love deepened.

Have you been surprised by the strong response to the stories, as well as the new translations of the novels?

The other day, a friend of mine, a Brazilian writer, said it took Brazil half a century to absorb her, and they’re not done yet. I think that there’s no denying that, as much as she writes about apparently accessible subjects—all her housewives with headaches—the books are extremely strange and disconcerting. In the opening of The Passion According to G.H., she warns people away from the book unless their “souls are already formed.” And it sounds a bit melodramatic. But then you read the book and you realize that she was not at all speaking flippantly. That is a book powerful enough to destroy a human being, someone who is not prepared for it. And all her writing has a quality of spiritual rigor and emotional relentlessness that makes them far more difficult to absorb. What happened in Brazil is similar to what is happening now. She was read by a small group of the intellectual elite, mainly in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. People in a few neighborhoods. And then her passionate readers recruited others, who recruited others. Journalists, singers, critics, actresses, teachers brought her to more and more people. And then it reached a critical mass, and she became the most famous of modern Brazilian writers. That was certainly not the case in her lifetime. And in English, the more she is read and absorbed, the more apparent it will become that what I’ve always said, things that everyone thought were exaggerations, are obviously true—that she is, for example, the greatest Jewish writer since Kafka.

One of the things I like about the five Lispector books you’ve overseen is that they’re almost like a life chronology—you can read them at different stages of your life. To an extent, you have to grow into them. And that’s one of the amazing things about Complete Stories—you get that whole life right in one mammoth volume, from the first stories where she’s talking about women right on the verge of adulthood who just know they’re different all the way to the very last stories that feel like they’re the product of an intelligence that has seen everything and has finally learned to exist with itself. How would you recommend readers approach Complete Stories?

When I was talking about Why This World in São Paulo, I described the terrible drama of Clarice’s early years. Her mother was raped in a pogrom in Ukraine and died of her injuries when Clarice was nine. And this little girl would tell magical stories in which some angel or saint would come along and save her mother. And all her life she felt the weight of having failed to save her mother. When I reached that point in the story, a skinny gay guy—exactly the kind of person who would have been an outsider, the kind of kid who would have been bullied and mocked—stuck up his hand urgently and said, But! But! But Clarice saves people every single day!

So she’s a writer we look to to help make sense of our lives. But you need a certain emotional constitution. Not intellectual, though of course she demands a highly literate reader. But I’ve often seen very intelligent people try to get her and fail. This is something I’m seeing yet again in some of the reviews. In three lines I can tell if the reviewer has that constitution or not. It’s not something you can force. She herself said, in her only televised interview, that it’s a matter of “contact.”


What do you think Lispector excelled at in the short stories that she didn’t do in her novels?

The novels and the stories feed off each other. The novels are mystical laboratories, in which Clarice is seeking and perfecting the language she will deploy in the stories. If, on the one hand, the nobility and beauty of this language can hardly be overpraised, it is also sometimes a highly difficult language to adapt to narrative. Sometimes in the stories we see that—we call the delirious “Brasilia” pieces “stories,” though that is truly only for lack of a better word. And in the stories we so often see the arrival of the mystical moment, which is the crisis or the climax of the plot, the moment in which something happens that changes the protagonist’s life. But without the novels we might not see that what appears to be a breaking point in a life, or in a day, is really the emergence of the divinity that Clarice Lispector so fervently sought. It’s hard to imagine a writer who is so diverse yet so of a piece. Reading one part of her work will always illuminate the others. And to read as a whole is fantastically rewarding.

How was it working with interpreting Lispector’s voice and working with Katrina Dodson, who translated The Complete Stories?

I have a friend who is dyslexic. The condition was hardly understood when he was a kid— there were no facilities for people like him. He was telling me that part of dyslexia is learning to think your way around words. The original word is missing and you have to come up with something else. And it occurred to me that translation is exactly that. It’s hard to explain to people who haven’t done it themselves that it barely matters how well a translator knows the language she’s translating from. Of course, Katrina’s Portuguese is excellent or we never would have brought her onto the project. But more importantly, her English is excellent. Like a dyslexic, the translator has to have not one but ten words on hand in her own language for every word in the original language. And then it is a matter of very hard, often boring and grinding work, draft after draft after draft. And I suppose my role is to go along with that, to read it word for word in both languages, to try to think alongside both author and translator until we’ve sorted through all the debris of the dictionary and found something that sounds like the original.

You got the Lispector retranslations started off with your 2011 translation of The Hou​r of the Star, which many consider her masterpiece. Why did you start there?

I took Portuguese in college, but I didn’t feel a real connection to the language until our class started reading short works of Brazilian literature. One of them was The Hour of the Star, and that was when my eyes met Clarice’s across the smoky barroom. ​One of the most fun things about reading is sharing your reading with others, but when I looked at the old translation, it was so awful that it actually made my stomach ache when people would say they were reading it. I couldn’t stand it! So I found myself in the weird position of telling people not to read a book that I was desperate for them to read.

As the series editor for new translations of four of Lispector’s other novels, you oversaw some extremely talented translators working on some very exacting prose.

I was someone who was very trusting of translations because​,​ even though I knew languages​,​ I had never really gone through them line by line. ​When I look back at my younger self being shocked at the old translation of The Hour of the Star, I feel like one of those people who suddenly realizes that everything he reads in the newspaper isn’t actually true.

So when I started out with this project, I wanted to accomplish several things. First, I didn’t want to do it all myself, because I felt that after five years of work on the biography I needed to move on. Second, I wanted to increase the number of translators from the Portuguese. The well-known ones are few and often booked years in advance—everyone wants the same four or five people. I wanted to find younger people. ​Third, I wanted to create a unified voice for Clarice in English. Her Portuguese is extremely distinct, and translators, like all writers, have very distinct voices of their own. Not to mention accents—we had people from England and Australia as well as Americans. So I felt sometimes like the director of the orchestra. People play their own instruments, but the audience should hear a single voice. The work this required can’t be overstated. I explained my approach to the translators I interviewed for the project. And they all agreed that it was important, especially, to try to preserve Clarice’s strangeness in English, not to muck with her syntax, not to try to iron her out, but to let these books clash and bang as cacophonously and as gloriously as in her inimitable Portuguese.


Can you talk a little about some of the strategy behind how these books were published and marketed?

I should say the word marketing always sounds a little creepy to me. I would rather speak of translation in the literal Latin sense, which means “bringing across.” Finding a readership is an arduous thing. People have more going on in their lives than the dead Brazilian lady you keep going on and on about. And I think it’s important for people who work with international literature to avoid the eat-your-broccoli tone I see in a lot of these discussions. Because in fact there is nothing about being Brazilian or Swedish or Korean that makes a book superior to a book already sitting around in boring old English. I think it’s important to ask yourself, before you start, why people should spend their time on this book and not on the hundreds of thousands of wonderful books in English that they haven’t yet read. I was able to devote all these years to Clarice because I really believed that she was one of the handful of great universal artists who were, like the UNESCO monuments, the patrimony of all humanity. I thought she would enrich—and indeed save—the lives of those who would encounter her. And if you believe that about an author, then by all means the work of bringing across is tremendously thrilling and rewarding. But that feeling is still only a starting point to the hard work to come. Bringing across only begins once the book can be read in English. Finding the publishers, the reviewers, the booksellers, the readers … Let’s just say that I’ve sent a lot of e-mails on Clarice Lispector’s behalf. And you have to enjoy sending them. And you certainly can’t despise or look down on people who work in publicity and marketing and sales—you can learn a lot from the people whose job it is to make the phone calls and send the e-mails, professional bringers-across. I say this because I’ve often been appalled by the condescending attitude a lot of writers and translators, particularly from the academic world, display toward these people and their work.

I have sometimes felt like a politician, trying to bring people together in the name of a cause. When I was writing Why This World, I was very aware—because I knew this but also because people would always tell me—that nobody had ever heard of her. And I was very aware of how risky it was for a young writer to devote so much time to a book for which I had no publisher and no prospect of a publisher. At the same time, when people would cock an eyebrow and say something condescending about how courageous I was, I would think, But you have no idea how the people who do know her care about her. They aren’t so much readers as they are passionate acolytes. I don’t know any other writer who inspires that degree of zeal.

I wanted to ask if you had a favorite quote or story, anything at all about her that stands out to you.

The kind of relationship I have had with her for all these years is such that there’s almost no separation, emotionally and intellectually, between me and her—or between me and whatever I imagine her to have been. In so many situations in life, she is just there. If I’m going through one thing or another, the appropriate Clarice quote will pop into my mind without being summoned. I’m sort of like a devout Baptist who reflexively reaches for a favorite Bible quote at different moments in life. You get the cancer diagnosis, and you automatically think, “Not my will but thy will be done.” Or like a Jew who reaches the end of a book of Torah and automatically says, “Hazak, hazak venithazak”—Let us be strong, strong, stronger yet. These are things that are imprinted on one’s mind. So even though this shouldn’t be a hard question, it is.

Right now you’re working on the mammoth task of telling the story of Susan Sontag’s life, which is surely work enough for one man. Are there more Lispector books on the way? Other Lispector-related things in the works?

We are definitely going to translate the four remaining novels. And then there are other works that I would love to publish. The exact schedule remains to be seen, but I have to take a year off from Clarice and finish Susan. Otherwise I’ll never finish either—although I realized early on that I would never actually be done with either, and wouldn’t want to be. You become a kind of medium, a spokesman, for these great spirits. As jobs go, it’s not the worst.

Scott Esposito is the coauthor of The End of Oulipo? He is currently writing a short book on gender, to be published next year.