Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of iconic Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, born on December 10, 1920, in the Ukranian village of Chechelnik, where her family had stopped while fleeing the nightmarish violence of the pogroms in the wake of the Russian Revolution. After a long journey through Europe, the refugees arrived in northeastern Brazil in 1922, where most of them adopted new Brazilian names; the youngest daughter, Chaya, meaning “life” in Hebrew, became Clarice.
I wanted to share the following essay as a tribute to Clarice on her birthday, and an offering to her growing number of readers outside Brazil. My translation is a shortened version of a piece originally published in 1999 by Brazilian journalist and writer José Castello, in his essay collection Inventário das sombras (Inventory of Shadows). I first read it a few years ago at the New York Public Library, while tracking down the source of a quote that has circulated vigorously in Claricean circles: “Be careful with Clarice. It’s not literature. It’s witchcraft.” I had been fact-checking my own essay about translating Lispector’s Complete Stories and was surprised, and delighted, to discover that Castello was the source of several well-known anecdotes from the lore surrounding Clarice (as she’s known in Brazil).
The tender and comical first half of the essay recounts the young journalist’s awkward encounters with the famous writer in the seventies, which reads like a horribly botched series of Paris Review Art of Fiction interviews. Nevertheless, Castello’s vivid memories of Clarice give wonderful insights into a writer associated with so much mystery.
The second half of the essay unfolds in the nineties, nearly twenty years after the writer’s death, of ovarian cancer on December 9, 1977. I find it most compelling for the way it threads crucial questions about her work through encounters with some of her most devoted readers: What is it that Clarice wrote? Is it literature, or does it partake of some other force, whether witchcraft or philosophy, connected to her singular talent for turning language inside out, as the French feminist theorist Hélène Cixous asserts? Why does Clarice inspire a kind of mutual possession with her reader?
Translating Castello’s recollections another twenty years later, amid the recent wave of Lispectormania, I am struck by how they can offer new readers a sense of solidarity with earlier generations as they figure out how to approach this daunting yet spellbinding writer. The girl on the bus at the end of the essay recalls Clarice’s observation, in her only televised interview, that a high school literature teacher said he couldn’t understand The Passion According to G.H. even after reading it four times, while a seventeen-year-old girl shared that it was her favorite book. “I suppose that understanding isn’t a question of intelligence but rather of feeling, and of entering into contact,” the writer concluded. The episodes that follow raise the prospect that the best way to read Clarice is to live her.
Rio de Janeiro, November, 1974. At the age of twenty-three, just embarking on my career as a journalist, I secretly start trying my hand at fiction. Painstaking exercises, in which I progress at a faltering pace, unsure of what direction to take.
During this time, there’s a book I can’t stop reading: The Passion According to G.H., by Clarice Lispector. I discovered it one day by chance on my sister’s bookshelf. I started reading without much conviction and was immediately jolted by its tumultuous, agonizing spirit. I pushed on. I couldn’t put it down.
Attempting to unite the two experiences, I mail one of the short pieces I’ve just written—no more than a confession, really—to Clarice Lispector’s apartment in the Leme neighborhood. I include my address and phone number, in the hopes that someday she might respond. Days go by, and my hope fades. I go back to G.H.
Christmas Eve. The phone rings and a low, raspy voce identifies itself. “Clarrrice Lispectorrr,” it says. She gets right to the point. “I’m calling to talk about your story,” she proceeds. The voice, faltering at first, now grows firm: “I have just one thing to say: you are a very fearrrful man”—and the r’s of that “fearrrful” claw at my memory to this day. The deafening silence that follows leads me to believe that Clarice has hung up the phone without even saying goodbye. But then her voice reemerges: “You are very fearrrful. And no one can write in fear.”
Afterward, Clarice wishes me a Merry Christmas—and her voice sounds far away, indifferent, like an ad on TV. “You too, ma’am,” I say, dragging out my words, which catch in my throat, lacking the courage to make their way out. Then comes another silence, and again I think she’s hung up. Betraying the full extent of my fear, I say, “Hello?” Clarice is laconic: “Why are you saying hello? I’m still here, and you don’t say hello right in the middle of a conversation.”
We have nothing else to say to each other, and she says goodbye. It was a quick call, but left me with a series of intimate after-effects that even now, more than twenty years later, I still haven’t fully digested. I could say, just to feel sorry for myself, that she paralyzed me. I could say the opposite: that she helped me access something I hadn’t known. To this day, I cannot write—articles, personal letters, travelogues, fiction, biographies—without thinking of Clarice Lispector. It’s as if she’s looking over my shoulder, repeating her warning, “No one can write in fear…”
May, 1976. Word spreads through the newsroom of O Globo, the newspaper I write for, that Clarice Lispector has decided she’ll never talk to the press again. Reason enough to assign me an interview with her. Journalists have a boundless attraction to obstacles; we’re constantly trying to get past roadblocks, open doors, cross borders, wear down all forms of resistance. That’s not my natural temperament, but it’s a practice the profession has required me to hone.
Reluctantly, I call Clarice. A voice asks me to hold on a moment, but yet again, I must face a long silence. Finally, Clarice comes to the phone. Absolutely certain I’m intruding on her, I state my request and await her refusal. To my surprise, Clarice agrees to see me.
I arrive at the building where Clarice Lispector lives, on Rua Gustavo Sampaio in Leme, and identify myself. I still have that feeling of being an invader. A white-haired man seated at the reception desk asks me, looking annoyed, “Where are you going?” I say the apartment number Clarice gave me on the phone. He hesitates. Then starts leafing through a black notebook, darts a sidelong glance at me, and says nothing else.
“I have an appointment,” I insist. “She’s expecting me.” The doorman looks at me again. I get the feeling, however, that his thoughts are elsewhere, that he’s moving just to cover up what he’s thinking. He clears his throat, shuts the notebook, and says, “Dona Clarice’s not home.” And because my surprise makes him jumpy, he adds, “She just left. Something came up.”
I decide I’m not giving up. As if time is breaking down, my mind replays every step of the path I took to get here. I discovered Clarice by chance. I made it through G.H., always on the verge of giving up, then ultimately finding what I hadn’t been seeking. No way was this doorman taking away what was now mine.
I put my foot down: “But she promised she’d be home. Can’t you ask again, sir?” The man draws me back into his weariness, and, lowering his voice, tells me, “Dona Clarice’s home, but she asked me to say she’s not.” He seems genuinely relieved to tell the truth.
I ask him to try just once more. The doorman picks up the intercom phone, presses a button, then says, “Dona Clarice, it’s that young man. He insists on going up.” Another contradiction: Clarice, without further discussion, grants me permission to go up. Maybe she wanted to test my determination.
As I step into the elevator, the light seems dim, and I imagine some kind of electrical glitch. The elevator moves at an unusual speed, as if it could give out at any moment and start moving sideways instead of up, repeating a nightmare that haunted my childhood. I peer at myself in a mirror—my image appears fluid; what I see doesn’t resemble a reflection, so much as a shadow. All right, I’m scared.
Fleeting, outlandish scenarios seize my imagination. Clarice could call the police. She could snap and start hurling insults at me, thus shattering my image of the brilliant writer. Afterward, I’d reluctantly write an article full of disappointment. Maybe it was better to turn back and save her from what was about to happen. But I knew that wasn’t it. Clarice led me down a path I hadn’t expected to find, but now there I was, letting the road drag me onward. She knew the whole truth.
Still in the elevator, I rehearse the words I should say to flatter her, but when she opens her apartment door, I go mute. Once again I encounter an immense silence, which is now inside me. I see a woman in a turban, barely dressed, almost letting herself go. Her lipstick is outrageous, veering past her lip line. Her skin is pale and sickly, milk-white, as if faded. She’s a tall woman, or at least she looks down at me. She’s standing there, waiting for me to say something.
I say, “We have an appointment.” She answers, “I told the doorman not to let anyone up herrre,” and there is that voice from the phone, now incarnated into a woman, dragging its tail made of r’s. “But, since you’ve come up…,” she corrects herself, and here comes another silence, ending in: “Come in, then.” It isn’t a choice, apparently. She doesn’t want to get upset, doesn’t have the energy to fight, so she’s decided to see me. I come in.
Clarice seems to inhabit another sphere, one situated beyond the human, as if the person standing here is represented only by a mask. She takes me into a stifling living room with questionably modern furniture and a jumbled group of paintings on the walls. It dawns on me that several of them are portraits of the writer signed by renowned painters. I feel like I’m in a museum and wonder whether Clarice herself is a painter, too. She points to a couch and says, “So you want an interview.” Well, that’s the excuse.
“Yes, an interview,” I reply, certain that she’s starting to understand. Clarice studies me ever so slowly, trying to locate in me, perhaps, some sign that she can trust what I say. Seemingly satisfied, she remarks, “Well, you’re here now.” But immediately after, she gently delivers a blow: “So you’re the author of that story.” The “author” here is her; I’m just a reporter, so this observation shocks me. Still, puffed up with pride, I say yes. “It’s me.” There I am, trying to take her observation as a compliment, when she smites me down: “I didn’t like your story. You’re too fearful to be a writer.”
We sit. I try to recover from the blow by turning back to my questions. I pull a small tape recorder from my briefcase and absentmindedly set it on the coffee table. As soon as she sees it, Clarice starts screaming. “Ah, ah, ah!” She’s letting out these long wailing cries, stripped of all meaning, and I can only make out one word: “No.” My eyes race around the room looking for the threat she’s trying to get away from. I can’t find it.
Clarice gets up and paces around the room. Looking for a way out but not finding it, she starts wailing even louder. “Ah, ah, ah!” she goes on, and I stare at her. I’m determined to find the source of that scream—what if the living room is being invaded by some stranger or a fire has broken out somewhere—some sign of tragedy to which it might correspond. I don’t see a thing. Clarice keeps screaming in circles in a senseless dance, arms flailing like propellers, flung about by some invisible wind, her face a wreck. “What’s wrong?” I shout. She can’t respond.
A woman appears in the living room from who knows where and throws her arms around Clarice. An ambiguous embrace that’s simultaneously a forceful blow, like those feints boxers use to shut down their opponents. They remain in this embrace a long time. Then getting hold of herself, Clarice points at the tape recorder. “Get it out of here!” she says, finally. “I don’t want that here!” She reaches out her arms, and her hands start writhing, wanting to grab while also trying to flee. Her eyes, more beautiful than ever, are seasick with despair.
“Get it away right now.” I look at my poor tape recorder, a beat-up, unreliable machine, and I still don’t get it. “What do you mean, it?” I ask. The other woman answers, still hugging Clarice, sounding like a nurse, “My friend is referring to your tape recorder. Put it away, please.” I move toward it, but Clarice acts first and commands, “Here, give it to me.” Without thinking, I hand her the recorder. She holds it by her fingertips, full of disgust, and pauses for a few seconds, controlling her breath. Then she turns and disappears down a dark hallway, followed by the woman.
I sit there alone in the living room, across from those walls full of paintings, full of Clarices watching me, wondering what I’m supposed to do. Do I leave without saying goodbye? Do I wait patiently for her to return? Do I follow them? I’m still weighing these options, all of which seem useless, when Clarice returns empty-handed. “Now we can talk,” she says in a milder tone, adding, “I’ll give that back to you at the end of the interview.” Rarely have I heard a word as monstrous as her “that.”
Calmer now, she finally manages to notice that I’m shaken up, too. “I locked it in my closet,” she says, showing off the key with a triumphant look that reminds me of those photographs of hunters next to their victims. And in that bureaucratic voice of doormen and receptionists, she adds, “Don’t worry. I’ll return it on your way out.” She signals she’s ready to chat. “Well then?” she says, indicating that she’s waiting for my barrage of questions.
She sits. Unsure of myself, I decide to start the conversation with general topics. Classic, impersonal questions that will open the door to any kind of answer, mere civilities disguised as real questions.
The interview is tense, full of suspicion and misunderstandings. Unable to forget her screams, and unable to think straight, I ask questions like an amateur. Clarice tries to be patient, but answers in terse phrases, clearly in a bad mood. The conversation goes nowhere. I know that my interview is a failure.
“Why do you write?” I ask, in one of my worst moments. Clarice’s face frowns in displeasure. She gets up, makes like she’s headed into the kitchen, but stops and says, “I’m going to answer you with another question: Why do you drink water?” Then she glares at me, ready to end our conversation right there.
“Why do I drink water?” I ask, stalling for time. And answer myself, “Because I’m thirsty.” I should have held my tongue. Then, Clarice laughs. Not a laugh of relief, but of barely contained irritation. And she says to me, “You mean you drink water so you won’t die.” Now she seems to be speaking only to herself, “Well, me too. I write to stay alive.” And with a mocking look, she hands me a glass of Coca-Cola.
I never imagined that I could fail like this. The interview, which has hardly begun, is basically over, since what else can I ask after that? But I carry out my duty, since I’ve got to make a living, after all. I ask the appropriate questions, and she answers, always with a certain disdain. Clarice also knows that the interview was over with that first disastrous question; the rest is just going through the motions. And she tolerates me until the very end.
Afterward, when I think she’s about to shoo me away, she asks me to come into the kitchen. “Let’s have a piece of cake,” she declares. She takes a frosted cake from the fridge, covered in swirls of merengue and stale fruit. She cuts generous slices and sets them on cheap plates. The legs of the Formica table are a little loose, and it wobbles. She doesn’t touch the cake, only drinks. “Lately, all I can drink is Coca-Cola,” she says. And downs two, three tall glasses, taking long sips.
I’m not expecting anything else, when Clarice says, “I like you.” Seeing that this declaration takes me by surprise, she explains herself, “You know just as well that this is all nonsense.” I’m not sure if that was the word, nonsense. She wanted to tell me that, in the end, what we had tried to do together was insignificant. “Do you like living?” she asks me. It is a very sad time in my life, but I feel that I have to lie. Stabbing gently with her fork, she reduces her slice of cake to crumbs.
We return to the living room. Clarice has me wait, and soon comes back with my tape recorder. She carries it with her arms held out like a sleepwalker, holding it with her fingertips, as if it awakened in her an immense nausea. I put it away. “There we go,” she says. “I don’t like machines.” Then she walks me to the door. “Come back and visit,” she says, “but never bring that again.”
As soon as I set foot on the sidewalk of Rua Gustavo Sampaio, I feel my skin prickling, like after a violent shock. “Clarice is a compulsive, who keeps on writing the same book,” declares a friend—and respected psychoanalyst—a few days later, as I’m telling him about my adventure. “She’s an obsessive, not a writer.” This shocks me, and I distance myself from the friend, who wasn’t very close to begin with. Clarice is nearer to me.
I could not separate the woman on one side (unbalanced, hypersensitive, aggressive) from the work (brilliant) on the other. There must have been some tether that kept them in a state of connection. That visit to Clarice’s apartment had shown me that the two sides were linked. She wrote in search of something. She once defined that something like this, “What’s behind the back of thought.” She used words to try to reach beyond words, to surpass them. She wrote to destroy words. That’s why she wasn’t interested in her image as a writer.
I remember her telling me, “I write because I need to keep searching.” And what made everything all the more complicated was that she never managed to define the object that she sought. It’s possibly the prevision of that object without a name that made her “go crazy.” Clarice wrote to reach the silence, she manipulated words to reach beyond them, she used literature the way we use a fork. My own thoughts frightened me. I’d never imagined a project so radical.
Time passes, and we run into each other on the street. Clarice is standing still in front of a shop window on Avenida Copacabana and seems to be looking at a dress. Embarrassed, I approach her. “How are you?” I say. It takes her a long time to turn around. At first she doesn’t move, as if she hadn’t heard a thing, but then, before I get the nerve to say hello again, she turns slowly, as if searching for the source of something frightening, and says, “So it’s you.” In that moment, horrified, I realize that the shop window contains nothing but undressed mannequins. But then my horror, so ridiculous, gives way to a conclusion: Clarice has a passion for the void.
I ask if she wants to get coffee. She says she won’t have anything; she’ll just keep me company. “It’s so hot,” she remarks. “I don’t handle the heat very well.” It’s only then that I notice how pale she is, and that trickles of sweat are tracing strange shapes on her forehead. I ask if she’s feeling all right. She doesn’t answer. “Have you gone back to writing?” she asks. I admit that I haven’t, and I want to say that her comments, rather than encouraging me, have paralyzed me, but I can’t do it. “You’re still afraid,” she says, and I don’t really know what she’s talking about. “You haven’t defeated it yet.”
Now I can’t hold back . “What do you think I’m afraid of?” I ask. “Well, of words, isn’t that it?” Clarice says, adding to my confusion. Her eyes rest on an old man drinking coffee at the other end of the counter. I keep quiet. “Why is that old man old?” she asks suddenly. “Well, because he must be all of seventy,” I answer, always stuck on that mania for facts that marks journalists.
She laughs for the first time. Then corrects me, “You’re still getting caught up in numbers. You just can’t write that way.” I sit there waiting for an answer to the question she posed. I assume she’s not going to give me one, until she says, “That old man is old because he’s afraid of what he is.” I don’t know if that’s exactly what she said, but it was something like this: the old man was afraid of being old, and that was precisely why he was old. It struck me as an enigma.
We walk down Avenida Copacabana. Clarice hails a cab and says goodbye. Intrigued, I go back to the empty shop window. There are the mannequins, in their elegant poses, but with no elegance whatsoever. Threads, cardboard boxes, a broom, light switches, a bucket. Staring at the void, I begin to understand that Clarice sees things the other way around. She sees what’s behind things.
I went back to visit her three or four times. These were difficult encounters, in which she seemed more interested in listening to me than in talking, which produced in me a strange mix of vanity and despair. In the kitchen, she served me cake and soda. She’d ask a lot of questions, which I’d answer cautiously. She’d make brief observations, full of dangling conclusions and additional queries. I could no longer read Clarice without that scratchy voice interfering, wafting with cake and Coca-Cola. It would be years before I could touch any of her books again.
Time passes, and Clarice falls gravely ill. She’s hospitalized. News comes that the cancer has spread. I consider visiting her in the Lagoa Hospital, but I don’t know if she’ll want to see me. I don’t even know if she can have visitors. She’s right: I am very fearful.
Clarice dies. I board a crowded, cockroach-infested bus and ride through the summer heat of Rio to get to the Israelite Cemetery in Caju to attend her burial. I stand clutching a seat back, eyeing those oblong creatures, flat as coins, crawling up the walls of the bus, and I think of G.H., who devoured a roach one day to taste life. Unfamiliar with Jewish tradition, I am surprised to find the casket sealed. Clarice’s not dead, that’s what this tells me. Her body’s not in there, the coffin is empty. They’re getting ready to bury just an empty outer shell. In disgust, I think about how roaches are the ones with an outer shell.
On the way home, trying to evoke the fragile moments we spent together, I recall a terrible phrase she’d told me that I’d forgotten: “There’s one thing I understand. Writing has nothing to do with literature.” But was that really what she’d said, or could it have been merely what I’d gleaned of what she hadn’t been able to say? And how could this be? If not writing, what would literature be? What fissure was this that Clarice, filling me with courage, was opening beneath my feet?
July, 1991. In a little bar in the Leblon neighborhood, I’m drinking whiskey with the writer Otto Lara Resende, who’s giving me invaluable information for my biography of the poet Vinicius de Morais. That one always leads us to women, and among several, we come around to Clarice Lispector.
When I speak the name of Clarice for the first time, Otto takes a deep breath, as if something were dragging him far away from there, and he’s got to focus hard not to lose himself. Then he says to me, “You’d better be careful with Clarice. It’s not literature. It’s witchcraft.” And urges that whenever I read her books, I proceed with utmost caution.
This declaration, uttered by Otto the skeptic, takes on a serious dimension. I hold on to it as another enigma, one among many that my proximity to Clarice Lispector has provided me, and that someday, who knows, I’ll finally decipher. It’s true that for a long time now, Clarice’s image has been associated with witchcraft. At the start of the seventies, she ended up as the guest of honor at the International Congress of Witchcraft held in the Santa Fe district of Bogotá.
Aware that the mystery wasn’t hers, but something inherent to her writing, Clarice accepted the invitation but refused to give a speech. All she did was read “The Egg and the Chicken,” one of the most obscure texts she’s ever written. Witches, warlocks, and sorcerers listened in silence.
Otto avoids talking about Clarice, who seems to disturb him. I insist. “Let’s talk about Vinicius,” he pushes back. Later on, another woman’s name comes up: Claire Varin. Otto is referring to a Canadian literature professor from Montreal who’s written two books on Clarice Lispector. Mysteriously, he warns, “It’s not an intellectual attraction, it’s a possession. Claire is possessed by Clarice,” he says. He gives me Claire’s address, but urges me to be careful. “They’re witches,” he says. “Don’t let them fool you.”
I can only respond to Otto’s remarks as an exaggeration. He smiles and, maintaining an air of mystery, takes a long sip of his drink. “Maybe it’s the whiskey,” I muse, to calm down. But after we part ways, and I take a cab home, I can tell that I’m still unsettled. Now it’s Otto’s words that continue to hold sway over me. Maybe he was the witch.
Curitiba, December, 1995. I receive a package containing a copy of Langues de feu (Tongues of Fire), a collection of essays on Clarice Lispector recently published by Claire Varin. Turns out Otto had gone ahead and sent her my address. Around the same time, I happen to buy Claire’s other book, Clarice Lispector: Rencontres brésiliennes (Brazilian Encounters), at a bookstore in Copacabana. The pieces were falling into place, without my having done a thing.
Claire has a doctorate in literature, but her books aren’t the work of a specialist. They’re works of passion. I still have her phone number in Montreal that Otto gave me. Now is the time.
Claire answers the phone effusively. We talk for over an hour with the intimacy of two strangers from opposite hemispheres who nevertheless share the same secret. At a certain point, she asks if she might evoke something rather discomfiting that Otto once said to her: “Be careful with Clarice. It’s not literature. It’s witchcraft.” Exactly the same phrase.
Poised to decipher Clarice’s oeuvre, Claire had taken this sentence as a point of departure and developed what she calls a “telepathic method.” Its basis is as simple as it is disorienting: one can only read Clarice Lispector by taking her place—by being Clarice. “There’s no other way,” she assures me.
I ask whether this method could in fact work. Claire answers by reading a passage from one of Clarice’s crônicas, brief literary sketches collected in Discovering the World: “The character of ‘reader’ is a curious character, a strange one. While completely individual with particular reactions, the reader is also terribly linked to the writer, since, in fact, the reader is the writer.” Clarice had already taken it upon herself to inform us.
Claire Varin rails fiercely against all rational interpretations of Clarice’s work. She asserts that they can only lead to what is alien to it, and thus to failure. “The reader must become a medium, through which Clarice incarnates herself,” she declares. This is the basis for her “telepathic method,” a process in which intuition is more important than understanding.
After hanging up, I keep trying to resist Claire Varin’s ideas. “They seem lifted from a treatise on esoterism,” I tell myself. But everything leads me in the opposite direction. Everything makes me believe Claire. I go into my bedroom and come across a copy of Água Viva on the bed. It conjures a scene from a few years earlier, when the young rockstar Cazuza told me in an interview that Água Viva was his favorite book. For a long time he couldn’t fall asleep without reading at least a few paragraphs. Every time he got to the end, he’d draw an X on the inside cover. He’d already read Água Viva one hundred and eleven times. How many more times did he read it before his death two or three years later? I’ll never know.
Only those who enter into harmony with Clarice’s writing, those who manage to oscillate, like her, between the word and fright, can keep going. They aren’t stories that you read, and about which you can think afterward, “First this happened, then that.” We can’t even be sure that we’re reading a narrative. In Água Viva, Clarice brings her aesthetic of the fragment to paroxysms, to utter shock. It’s hard to say what it is we’re reading—and it’s impressive to think that it was another person, her intimate friend Olga Borelli, alone with her treasure, who “put together” the chaos that Clarice would jot down on napkins, paper towels, newspapers, prescription labels. When Clarice could no longer organize what she wrote, Olga would guide her. And without meddling with what she was reading, she would eke out a path, a direction in which to funnel that storm.
Olga has recounted this: how Clarice would hand over a heap of fragments, which her friend would patiently divide into dozens of envelopes, then put in a box, like pieces of a puzzle. Without being conscious of writing a book, Clarice would write a book. Now her readers are charged with that same freedom. Freedom to push forward blindly, only to understand much later.
When it comes to Clarice, critics always repeat one word, epiphany. It’s a term taken from religion, referring to the apparition or manifestation of the divine. Clarice, however, doesn’t speak of god, but of the “it”—that is, the thing. Past critics rushed to consider her alongside phenomenology. They started saying that Clarice Lispector had written “philosophical novels.” This might be a way out, but I don’t know where it leads. One thing’s for certain—very far from Clarice.
There’s a woman in Paris, Hélène Cixous, who never wavers in her assertion that “Clarice is a philosophical author. She thinks, and we do not have the habit of thinking.” I hold up Hélène’s statements alongside Claire’s and wonder how many Clarices can fit inside one woman. Because each of us reads in our own way, each of us is Clarice in a way. Clarice, then, makes me encounter my own.
Porto Alegre, August, 1995. As we stroll down Rua da Praia, the writer Caio Fernando Abreu recalls some of his encounters with Clarice Lispector, who was a close friend. One day, Caio went to a book signing by Clarice. She made him sit next to her and while signing books, kept repeating softly, “You’re my Quixote, you’re my Quixote.” Caio was always gaunt and had a big goatee back then.
Another time, while walking together down the same Rua da Praia, the two stopped for coffee. Clarice, with her datebook full of literary engagements, had been in Porto Alegre nearly a week. Stirring her coffee casually, she turned to Caio and asked, “What city are we in again?”
Caio quickly got used to Clarice’s intimate relationship with imprecision. With the pulsations that surround the facts, and aren’t facts. With miasmas, rather than with reason. He read her ceaselessly for years on end. One day, he felt he had to stop. “If I didn’t stop, I wouldn’t be able to write anymore,” he asserts. Even the closed-off Caio felt invaded by Clarice at certain moments. Not by the discreet, elegant woman whom he so admired, but by her writing.
Claire Varin’s thesis seems to be confirmed in this way: when a reader falls in love with an author, the reader becomes the writer. The gaunt, dreamy figure of Caio made Clarice think of Cervantes’s Quixote. But for a long time, Caio was afraid to look in the mirror and see Clarice Lispector.
“I don’t know if what Clarice made is only literature,” he tells me. He can’t help but laugh when he says “literature.” The word doesn’t seem adequate. It doesn’t seem to say everything. “Something gets left out,” he tells me. Before I have the chance to ask, he adds, “I don’t know what.”
He had to distance himself. There comes an irremediable moment in which there’s no choice: either the reader distances himself from the writer and goes back to being himself, or else he’ll be lost. Caio knew how to recognize that moment and distance himself in time. He started writing “against” Clarice—battling with the writer who had invaded him. Maybe Clarice was right: reading is likely the most intense way of writing.
Paris, September, 1996. As a reporter for O Estado de São Paulo newspaper, I arrive at the apartment of the writer Hélène Cixous, hailed as the most important European expert on the work of Clarice Lispector. So very far from Brazil, my hope is to meet someone who can decipher her. A disciple of Jacques Lacan, confidante to Michel Foucault, and close friend of Jacques Derrida, Hélène is a typical Parisian intellectual. She never met Clarice in person, but, from an early age, even without knowing what she was waiting for, she’d awaited this encounter. “I felt fully formed as a writer, but always thought there was some other woman I was lacking,” she says. Derrida was her male other. She lacked the female one. “Yet I believed that I’d never find her,” she says.
Hélène offers a theory about the power of seduction in Clarice’s writing. “Every writer writes rigorously in her own language,” she says. “I, for example, write in Cixous. Clarice writes in Lispector.”
“Some even say that what Clarice did was witchcraft, not literature,” I venture to recall. At first Hélène refuses to consider this hypothesis. “Brazil is a very archaic country,” she says, and I feel a bit offended, but try to control myself. “But if witchcraft is a metaphor, I can accept it,” she reflects afterward. And concludes, “It’s not witchcraft. It’s knowledge of language.”
The thing is, Hélène notes, we talk all day and night, endlessly—but always in an unconscious state. We have no notion of language, of using a language, nor of what gets retained in words. Clarice, on the contrary, had a kind of hyperconsciousness when it came to language. She felt it all the time, and she knew that the entire language is at play in every word.
I leave Hélène’s apartment carrying a declaration that I find hard to take in: she asserts unwaveringly that Clarice is the greatest twentieth-century writer in the West and that her oeuvre is comparable only to Kafka’s.
Kafka, who had no homeland, might serve as a reference. Born in Ukraine, Clarice came to Brazil when she was still a baby. She married a diplomat, the father of her two sons. She finished writing her second book, The Chandelier, in Naples. The third, The Besieged City, was written in Bern, Switzerland. Several of the stories in Family Ties were written in London. The Apple in the Dark was written in Washington, D.C., between 1953 and 1954. Clarice was a writer who was always displaced from her center, or rather, who had no center.
A writer without a land. Clarice, Hélène convinces me, inhabited language—she inhabited Lispector. Brazil, where her family emigrated from the Black Sea, was merely a biographical accident. When she was nine years old, she lost her mother, and with her the foreign, Ukrainian voice that she inhabited. She used to say, much later, that her rolling r’s were just an effect of a tongue-tie condition from birth. Maybe that alone wasn’t it. But her difficulty with language was evident—and her greatness as a writer is, in large part, a result of this difficulty. Only a person who doesn’t adapt to language, who turns it inside out, who doesn’t trust it, can write a body of work like Clarice Lispector’s.
Curitiba, December, 1997. I take a bus and happen to sit next to a thin young lady with long fingers, a broken nose, and pale forehead, who’s immersed in reading The Passion According to G.H. I spy on her reactions—slight movements, ever so subtle, but that bestow her with a special dignity. The open pages are filled with notes, scribbles, arrows in red. The spine is bent, and the cover tattered. The rhythm of her reading is curious: the girl skips from one page to the next, then back to an earlier page, reads a little further ahead, then goes back again. She seems frozen by what she reads. I look at her: hair tied in a blue ribbon, almond-shaped eyes, freckles scattered across her youthful face, and a solemn expression, which could be taken as affectation but is no more than fright. Clarice would say that girl is what she reads. She is Clarice.
—Translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson
Born in 1951, in Rio de Janeiro, José Castello is a Brazilian writer based in Curitiba. From 1971 to 1990, he worked as a journalist for various Rio news outlets, before leaving to pursue his long-deferred dream of writing books, while continuing a career as a books columnist. Castello went on to become a three-time winner of Brazil’s top literary prize, the Prêmio Jabuti, for a biography of poet Vinicius de Moraes (Vinicius de Moraes: o poeta da paixão, 1994), his novel Ribamar (2010), and a young adult novel based on the artist Arthur Bispo do Rosário (Dentro de mim ninguém entra, 2016). In addition to this essay on Lispector, from his 1999 essay collection, Inventário das sombras, Castello edited Clarice na cabeceira (2011), a volume of selections from Lispector’s nine novels.
Katrina Dodson is a writer and literary translator living in Brooklyn. Her 2015 translation of Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories was awarded the PEN Translation Prize. She conducted the Art of Translation interview with Margaret Jull Costa for The Paris Review’s Summer 2020 issue. Dodson’s translation of Mário de Andrade’s 1928 modernist classic, Macunaíma: the Hero With No Character, is forthcoming from New Directions in 2022.