Clarice Lispector with her dog Ulisses and some chickens. Rio de Janeiro, 1976. [Lêdo Ivo Collection / Instituto Moreira Salles]
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…”