Last year “Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector” (Oxford University Press) appeared to qualified praise. Readers and critics alike took issue with the biographer’s otiose portrait of Lispector as a Jewish mystic, even one of the tzaddikim, “bearers of that irrational something.”
Lispector, originally named Chaya, was born to Pinkhas and Mania Krimgold Lispector in Chechelnyk, a shtetl in what is today Ukraine. When she was one year old, Chaya’s family fled Ukraine’s pogroms and resettled in Brazil where Lispector remained, never revisiting the old country in body or spirit. An invaluable collection of Lispector’s letters, newly translated into French as “Le seul moyen de vivre: Lettres,” (Bibliothèque Rivages) reveals the full extent of her divorce from heritage and history.
Leading a cosmopolitan expatriate life in Europe during the war, Lispector writes home to Brazil in May, 1945, describing how she busily posed for a portrait painted by Giorgio de Chirico, adding that in another letter penned that very morning, she forgot to mention the incidental news that World War II had ended. Lispector adds that in Rome that day, “there were no celebrations…in a certain sense, Italy was defeated.” In a certain sense (!)
Lispector’s cluelessness continues as she moves to Paris, where in 1947 she writes home again, complaining pettishly that she went to hear the French soprano Madeleine Grey in recital: “I don’t know if she was ill, but she sang horribly badly.” Madeleine Grey, born Grumberg, an exemplary performer of music by Ravel and Canteloube, was born Jewish, and her wartime was not as cushy and pleasant as Lispector’s.
Lispector’s obliviousness to anything going on around her extends to the theater, where in 1951 she attended a Brazilian performance of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” to which her only reaction is that the play’s star is “very good, the other actors less so.” In 1954, writing from Washington, D.C., she reports that her 6-year-old son quoted a line of verse which she was sure came from the Bible; it turns out to be from a poem by 19th century author Charles Kingsley. Mystics may come in all forms, but one who cannot tell the Bible from the author of “The Water Babies” does not really qualify for any such distinction.
Watch Clarice Lispector interviewed on Brazilian TV in 1977: