Review: Shannon Burnson Clarice Lispector

Monstrous Maternal: On Clarice Lispector

For those who happen upon Clarice Lispector’s fiction without the benefit of a critical or biographical introduction, or any sense of the author’s developing international reputation since her death in 1977, the encounter can be as mystifying as it is invigorating. What to make of her provocations and musings, her unruly syntax, the appealing brutality of her stories, the echoing, inching momentum of her best novels?

Over the past several years Benjamin Moser has helped disseminate Lispector’s fiction throughout the English-speaking world. He first brought her to the attention of a contemporary North American readership, with his Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector (2009), and by commissioning and supervising new translations of her books for New Directions in 2011-12. He went on to promote the Ukrainian-born Jewish-Brazilian writer to Britain and beyond. This year’s re-branding and redistribution of the New Directions editions of Lispector’s books as Penguin Modern Classics is the fulfilment of Moser’s ambitious project – one that can now be considered a modern classic of literary advocacy. Like Max Brod’s championing of Franz Kafka, Moser’s efforts have paved the way for a writer who was virtually unknown to anglophone readers during her lifetime to become something of an icon. The marketing and publishing strategies employed to this purpose are surely worthy of intensive (and no doubt demystifying) analysis, but for now we can revel in the spoils of those efforts, in the form of five handsome and newly-affordable editions of Lispector’s fiction.

In Lispector’s most famous and best novel, The Passion According to G. H. (1964), the eponymous narrator gives birth to herself, figuratively, through the eye of a cockroach. We experience every squirm, internalise the mounting nausea, and shudder as G. H. shudders. Lispector’s other masterpiece, Água Viva (1973), is monstrous-maternal. The narrator claims to have eaten her own placenta, and offers readers the spoils: ‘I ate my own placenta so as not to have to eat for four days. To have milk to give you.’ Our hunger, Lispector knows, is profound, and she feeds us with god-shaped lures – Nothing, Everything, Love, Death, Being, Not-being – all in the guise of a neurotic epistle to indeterminate addressees. When the mania is over and we pull away from the text, eyes dilated, smitten and shellshocked, we feel energised but sense immediately that another hit is required. A famous Brazilian singer is said to have read Água Viva – the book of a thousand climaxes – 111 times. Fair enough too: this was before internet porn. In a world full of addiction, Água Viva is the blue meth of literature.

The remarkable scope of Água Viva is set out in its opening line: ‘Hallelujah, I shout, hallelujah merging with the darkest human howl of the pain of separation but a shout of diabolic joy.’ The novella oscillates between these two poles of despair and relish. The clipped syntax of this sentence is also worth noting: ‘but a shout’ (or ‘but is a shout’, as a previous translation has it) instead of the smoother, clarifying ‘but also a shout’. This time around, Lispector’s translators have been instructed by Moser to maintain her linguistic peculiarities. The result is a more brutal and less ‘poetic’ register. Cautioning us against the bad faith displayed by some of Lispector’s early translators, Moser assures us in Why This World that ‘no matter how odd Clarice’s prose sounds in translation, it sounds just as unusual in the original’. He then cites (and not for the first time) a bold claim by the writer Ledo Ivo: ‘The foreignness of her prose is one of the most overwhelming facts of [Brazil’s] literary history, and, even, of the history of our language.’

Moser recognises a marketable sentiment when he sees one. There are a good many striking and well-chosen repetitions throughout his biography, but the reiteration of Ivo’s claim seems particularly tactical, for two reasons. Firstly, by highlighting Lispector’s alien qualities Moser helps to normalise and, in a sense, legitimise her weirdness for prospective readers; in fact, those who read Moser’s biography before tackling any of the fiction are so well prepared for her strangeness as to almost nullify its effect. Secondly, Ivo’s claim short-circuits the naive but likely misapprehension that Lispector’s fiction is typical of, or specific to, the region. Her foreignness is instead presented as a quality that all readers can appreciate and recognise. In short, Ivo’s comment prepares potential readers of Lispector’s fiction to feel as familiar with and amenable to her strangeness as possible.

Lispector certainly privileges strangeness in her work. In Água Viva we read:

And this happens: when I think a painting is strange that’s when it’s a painting. And when I think a word is strange that’s when it achieves its meaning. And when I think life is strange that’s where life begins.

Following this logic, normalising or fully explaining Lispector’s idiosyncrasies would amount to neutralising her prose; her strangeness animates the fiction. Moser is, therefore, treading a perilous line with his strategy: too much familiarity and Lispector loses her vitality; not enough familiarity and she loses her audience.

According to Hélène Cixous, Lispector’s ‘strongest desire is to make things present themselves … to bring [them] into presence’. This applies to her readers as much as to the content of her fiction. To read Lispector is to feel strangely enlivened. Throughout Água Viva, she employs straining Heideggerian neologisms that function as poetic contortions of ontological language (‘are-you’, for example), while insisting that she is ‘not playing with words’. Then she adds: ‘writing is the method of using the word as bait: the word fishing for whatever is not word.’

The result is a marvel of lyrical expression, a musical musing. As Moser writes, ‘its consistency more properly belongs to the realm of thought or dreams, in which ideas and images connect with a logic that may not be immediately apparent but is nonetheless real.’ Yet Água Viva’s stark unconventionality – it has no real story or plot to speak of – does not make it inaccessible, since an emotional generosity enhances every abstraction. If Lispector demands to be read, at times, ‘as pure vibration with no meaning beyond each whistling syllable’, and claims to be ‘well aware that what I write is only a tone’, she also pleads with her readers to have patience. She seduces us with intimacies and makes us complicitin her desire to dehumanise, or animalise herself in search of moral freedom. Zarathustra claims that, ‘Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Übermensch – a rope over an abyss’; Lispector’s shifts back and forth along that rope, approaching divinity one moment, sliding back to animality the next, all the while hovering precariously close to madness. 

Writing to a mysterious addressee – who might be a former lover, or multiple people, or the reader, or even the text itself – Água Viva’s narrator seeks to loose ‘an arrow that will sink into the tender and neuralgic centre of the word’. She conceives of the work as a single climax of Eros, expression and thought. The act of writing consequently approaches the ‘threshold of an ancestral cavern that is the womb of the world and from it I shall be born’.

Água Viva is not made of fragments, as is often claimed, but of paragraphs that ultimately resolve into a large prose poem. It feigns improvisation while maintaining the aura of a shapely organic form. While the pieces rarely fit together logically, they share an obvious affinity. The narrator characterises her writing as somnambulistic, replete with the mysterious logic of dreams. Her ‘vision’ coincides with a gory birth. She ‘stealthily’ comes into contact with the new ‘crooked reality’, as ‘seen through an oblique cut’. The same can be said of Lispector’s other major works. G. H. remarks of her vision: ‘I was courageous like a sleepwalker who simply goes.’

In Why This World, Moser latches onto Lispector’s heavily annotated French language edition of Spinoza as evidence of her philosophical sophistication, but one wonders how Lispector’s intelligence could ever have been in doubt. She filters Spinoza in the same manner as Deleuze and Guattari, with the supreme accomplishment of an accelerated, if unbalanced, consciousness. Early in Água Viva, she poses three fundamental philosophical questions regarding the essence of existence, the nature of experience, and the limitations of perception. They are all raised in a pulsating thread of intimately evocative paragraphs, which begins with her observations of an oyster: ‘I used to drip lemon juice onto the living oyster and watched in horror and fascination as it contorted all over.’ The narrator then veers into a typically inexplicable tangent, before returning to the theme two paragraphs later:

I don’t like it when they drip lemon upon my depths and make me contort all over. Are the facts of life lemon on the oyster?

In the same passage we read:

How does the naked oyster breathe? If it breathes I can’t see it. Does what I cannot see not exist?

This oyster is associated with the aforementioned placenta, which is in turn connected to the narrator’s understanding of freedom. Lispector’s notion of freedom is far from egoistic, and wholly removed from modernist aestheticism. For her, freedom is the product of psychological risk-taking. It is the domain of the difficult search. That search can take many forms, but it is foremost a striving for the kind of human life that incorporates paradoxes of being, perception and sensation: a human form that contains within it, or can flow in and out of, the overman and underman, the mammoth and the micro, sensitivity and brutality.

But such freedom also comes at a cost, as the author understood all too well.Lispector and those who knew her insisted that she suffered from an excess of empathy, or an amplification of experience, which could leave her paralysed with anguish for extended periods of time. According to Moser, she took sedatives for decades and would fall asleep in public. In her fiction, protagonists are often forced to encounter the world with the barest psychological protection, as if they are newly exposed to reality and fundamentally confused by it. Their freedom comes at the price of an overwhelmed and contorted existence. Because of this, in Lispector’s world the mere presence of a blind man chewing gum on a tram, as in the story ‘Love’ (1952), can generate a full-scale psychological crisis.

Throughout her novels and short stories, Lispector puzzles over the connection between human and animal, dabbling in mysticism while evading religiosity. The question of form – whether of writing, painting, thinking, feeling or understanding – is highlighted in most texts. Her narrators duly articulate the limitations of expression. Characters search desperately for ways to communicate the incommunicable. But such is Lispector’s faith in the power of the word that its failings – falsehood, incomprehension, the betrayal of sense – are ultimately accepted.

She is a writer with existential dilemmas to match Camus and Sartre, incorporating the metaphysical puzzles of Kafka, the primitivist impulses of D. H. Lawrence and the grounded register of Katherine Mansfield (contrasting with Woolf’s formality). Which is not to say that Lispector resembles any of these writers; instead, she brings their qualities into relief with her own curious sensibility.

Across Lispector’s diverse body of work, observes Moser, ‘a single personality is relentlessly dissected and fascinatingly revealed’. But I see less dissecting and more entangling. With Lispector, the key is immanence. Following the modernists, she wants to present instead of represent: ‘I write you an onomatopoeia, convulsion of language.’

Moser is right to note the strong connections between Lispector’s narrators and the authorial voice, but there are also important differences. In The Passion According to G. H., the narrator’s easy life and its conventional pleasures are all derivative; she has not earned a sense of presence or identity. Consequently, G. H. feels hollow. She dabbles in artistic creation, but her sculptures are forgettable imitations. She fails to take personal and artistic risks, and therefore fails to be. Lispector, by contrast, took risk after risk as an author and, as a consequence, her fiction is uncommonly lively, albeit uneven.

Perhaps the main difference between the major modernists, the well-known postmodernists and Lispector is that her tone is often light but rarely ironic; in fact, for all appearances she is indifferent to irony. For this reason, she can seem humourless. Her expression is playful, but almost always direct. While her narrators are aware of their doubled lives, each paradox is represented in literal and explicit ways. Narrators of the major fictions, for instance, see themselves as split:

Do I not have a plot to my life? for I am unexpectedly fragmentary. I am piecemeal. My story is living. And I have no fear of failure. Let failure annihilate me, I want the glory of falling … This is not a story because I don’t know any stories like this but all I know how to do is go along saying and doing: it is the story of instants that flee like fugitive tracks seen from the train.

In addition to highlighting a discontinuous sense of self, which produces vastly contradictory desires and moods, the narrator of Água Viva here registers two modes of perception: one plummeting toward the ground (and death), the other fleeing like the tracks (and her past). Lispector simulates vertigo like Hitchcock, pushing forward and pulling back, magnifying and minimising, all within the context of a fragmented identity:

Parambolic as I am. I can’t sum myself up because you can’t add a chair and two apples. I am a chair and two apples. And I cannot be added up.

Here, and elsewhere, Lispector presents an astonishingly rich and overflowing consciousness, but one that is also tragically split and incapable of becoming whole. In a similar vein, G. H. confesses:

I lost something that was essential to me, and that no longer is. I no longer need it, as if I’d lost a third leg that up until then made it impossible for me to walk but that turned me into a stable tripod … I know I can only walk with two legs. But I feel the useless absence of that third leg and it scares me, it was the leg that made me something findable by myself, and without even having to look for myself.

In both The Passion of G. H. and Água Viva, the jubilance of postmodernism is coupled to the anxieties of high modernism. The desire for momentum competes with the urge to grasp and cohere, and the greed for sensation is held in check by a drive toward meaning. She may not be a master of narrative shape or exposition, but Lispector compensates for this with force of feeling and a control over motion. Speed is as central to her work as it was to the futurists, but her capacity to shift from intensity to paralysis – from motion to tripod – rivals Faulkner’s.

The momentum essential to Lispector’s conception of presence is also cause for disorientation: ‘If I have courage, I’ll let myself stay lost.’ Her courage on this front is bracing to witness: writing is not a game for Lispector; it is a matter of life and death. One paragraph hovers over the abyss while the next takes flight. She sleepwalks her way from one hazard to the next, only to survive each brutal jolt with the improvisational fluency of a jazz musician.

The animation of psychological trials and epiphanies is Lispector’s forte; ‘action’ is invariably internal but visceral, image-laden and desperately searching, though rarely inaccessible. These impressions are hard to dislodge, but devouring Lispector anew after reading Moser’s important biography is a modulating experience. The intensity is similar but it comes to seem anchored in deeper things. The spectre of Lispector’s mother now dominates. According to Moser, Mania Lispector was raped by Russian soldiers in the Ukraine after the First World War, during one of the many anti-Semitic purges in the region. She was infected with syphilis, ‘which in the ghastly conditions of the civil war went untreated’. This resulted in a slow decline into paralysis and death.

Moser treats this as the great secret informing and underlining Lispector’s work. She fills in the gaps herself:

I was prepared for birth in such a beautiful way. My mother was already sick, and a common superstition had it that pregnancy would cure a woman of her illness. So I was deliberately created: with love and hope. Except that I didn’t cure my mother. And to this day that guilt weighs on me: they made me for a specific mission, and I let them down. As if they were counting on me in the trenches of a war and I had deserted. I know that my parents forgave me for being born in vain and for having betrayed their great hope. But I can’t forgive myself. I simply wanted a miracle: for my birth to cure my mother.

There are hints throughout her fiction that Lispector conceives of literature in this very way. By becoming a writer, she hoped to fashion a miraculous cure. Despite her remarkable achievements, each work could only fail on such terms.

Even worse, as a child Clarice believed that her mother was paralysed in the process of giving birth to her. The image of her mother and the accompanying paralysis therefore carries two senses of guilt, two burdens of responsibility, and this manifests in her fiction in diverse ways. Characters in Lispector’s novels are often inexplicably paralysed. It is chilling to read her admission, in a letter to her sister, that she sometimes spent ‘entire weeks’ locked in a profound depression: ‘I can spend hours in an armchair, without so much as a book in my hand, without so much as the radio on — just sitting, waiting for the hours to pass by and for others just like them to appear.’ She could easily be describing the life of the barely animate mother who haunted her earliest memories.

In light of this background information, the spiritual and emotional paralysis that charges each of Lispector’s major novels and many of her best stories appears to have its roots in the unhappy fate of Mania Lispector. So do the assortment of expressionless faces, the curative fantasies, and the disappointed, child-like desire for happy endings. The stakes of Lispector’s work are raised higher by the biographical knowledge, but its focus narrows. The texts come to seem deeply personal, desperate, and ultimately claustrophobic. Moser writes:

over Clarice Lispector’s happy childhood hung the terrible and unremitting sight of her paralyzed mother … cast into a bewilderingly foreign country, unable to move or speak, trapped in a rocking chair, slowly and painfully dying. This was the dominant impression of Clarice’s childhood, and perhaps of her life.

With this image, Moser radically alters our reading of Lispector. We can’t un-see such painful episodes. When rereading her work, whole passages that once seemed oblique, or mildly provocative, are now underlined in bold: Mania Lispector is everywhere, and she extracts a heavy toll.

At one point in Água Viva, the narrator produces an extended disquisition on flowers that rivals Ophelia’s for its mystery and pathos, carrying with it the suggestion of unendurable experience. We encounter masculine and feminine flowers, aggressive and generous flowers, vain and secretive flowers. Near the end of this immense digression is a fragment expressing the emotional plight that underlines the narrator’s musings: ‘I think I’m going to have to ask permission to die. But I can’t, it’s too late.’

Late in life, Lispector became difficult, lonely, demanding and depressed. Her doctor from the period felt that, ‘Living for her was torture. She no longer wanted to live.’ Those who require evidence of this can access her final television interview, with English subtitles, on Penguin’s youtube page. Lispector is so painfully vulnerable that it may have been better to destroy the footage. ‘I’m speaking from my tomb,’ she says in an expressionless voice, and to watch that living death feels ghoulish. But the interview also bears witness her later trajectory. If her primary legacy is a literature overflowing with vitality, the final novels lean unambiguously deathward. The later works – Hour of the Star (1977) and the posthumously published A Breath of Life (1978) – have moments of great power but are imperfectly knitted together. This looseness of form leaves them vulnerable to futile repetition, whereas reiteration in Lispector’s best work has a musical, fugue-like flavour; it progresses and intensifies, instead of remaining stagnant. Beckett’s oeuvre has a similarly narrowing trajectory, but his sense of form remained acute; in Lispector’s case, the voice is still there but the form dissolves and momentum wanes. But she had already achieved more than enough: The Passion According to G. H. is one of the grand, harrowing masterpieces of twentieth century fiction and Água Viva is pure witchcraft.


Hélène Cixous, Reading with Clarice Lispector (Minnesota University Press, 1990).
Benjamin Moser, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector (Oxford University Press, 2009).