Why This World

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

As Benjamin Moser points out in his highly acclaimed biography Why This World, Clarice Lispector is often understood through comparisons with other, more famous figures. In a now-famous remark, Gregory Rabassa, one of Lispector’s English-language translators, described this enigmatic writer as a woman who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf. The French novelist and critic Hélène Cixous claimed that Lispector was what Franz Kafka would have been if he had been a woman, or what Rainer Maria Rilke would have been if he had been a Jewish Brazilian born in the Ukraine, or what Arthur Rimbaud would have been if he had been a mother and had reached the age of fifty, or what Martin Heidegger would have been if he could have ceased being German. After the poet Elizabeth Bishop, who also translated several of Lispector’s short stories, had met and become acquainted with Lispector, she told her friend Robert Lowell that Lispector was a better writer than Jorge Luis Borges.

In spite of such compliments and praise, Lispector remained little known outside Brazil for most of her life. Although her fifth novel, A paixão segundo G. H. (1964; The Passion According to G. H., 1988), has been called one of the great novels of the twentieth century, her last novel, A hora da estrela (1977; The Hour of the Star, 1986), published just before her death in 1977, remains her best-known and most famous work. Even though critics compared Lispector to Kafka, Marcel Proust, and Woolf, she refused such associations, remarking that she had never read those writers and that writing for her was a means of staving off loneliness.

The legend of Lispector was stronger than the life and work of Lispector herself. Because she did not often grant interviews and because she guarded closely her personal identity, many readers of her novels and stories never knew whether the author was a man or a woman, a Jew or a Christian, a lesbian or a housewife, or a Brazilian native or a foreigner. Although she was often regarded as a sphinx whose mysterious ways could not be fathomed by a simple look at her face, Lispector always contended that she had no mysteryor that she was so mysterious that even she did not understand herself.

In Why This World, Moser attempts to draw back the veil of mystery that Lispector has hidden behind for so long. Drawing upon a rich archive of Lispector’s letters and other writings, Moser presents for the first time a thoroughly detailed and exhaustive intellectual, literary, and psychological study of this compelling woman and splendidly captures the beauty, mystery, and energy of Lispector’s writings and her own tortured personal life. Moser’s portrait of this master of the Portuguese language unveils her as a writer who insistently probed and scrutinized a single personality (her own) through the many facets of her own work and whose work can be read as one of the twentieth century’s great spiritual autobiographies. Many contemporary reviews of Lispector’s writings compared her to medieval mystics such as Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross; Moser points out that Lispector’s desire to confess in public rather than to a priest, and her continual revelation of inner truths uncovered by her constant meditation and reflection, reveal the soul of a mystic in whom one finds the full range of human experience.

The youngest of three daughters of Pinkhas Lispector and Mania Krimgold Lispector, Chaya Lispector was born on December 10, 1920, in Chechelnik, Ukraine. In the years following World War I, the Russians subjected Ukrainian Jews to numerous pogroms in which the Jews were robbed, tortured, and murdered. Many Jewish women were raped by Russian soldiers as a means of humiliation and psychological warfare. Sometimes were killed. A group of Russian soldiers gang-raped Mania during one of these pogroms, and she contracted syphilis. The conventional folk wisdom of the time held that pregnancy could cure venereal disease; thus, Mania soon found herself pregnant with Chaya (“life”), and it appeared momentarily that Mania was cured, for her symptoms disappeared. Although Chaya did not contract her mother’s syphilis in the womb, Mania’s syphilis had not been cured, and her health slowly deteriorated after Chaya’s birth.

Chaya’s family eventually managed to escape the Ukraine and made their way to Romania. Because Mania had relatives in Brazil, the family was able to secure passports to that country and emigrated in 1922, not long after Chaya had turned one. When they arrived in northeastern Brazil, almost all the members of her family changed their names. Her father Pinkhas became Pedro; her mother Mania became Marieta; her sister Leah became Elisa; and Chaya became Clarice. Only Tania, the Lispectors’ middle daughter, kept her name. Clarice’s father continually struggled to make a living in Brazil.

In the hopes of finding a better job, Pedro moved his family to Recife, where the family settled in the Jewish neighborhood of Boa Vista. Life in Recife did not improve much for the family, however. Five years after settling in Recife, Clarice’s motherwho had been in and out of charity hospitalsdied. Clarice, who was ten years old, never got over her mother’s death, and the theme of a motherless child in search of her mother is at the center of many of her...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 105, no. 19/20 (June 1, 2009): 24.

The Economist 352, no. 8645 (August 22, 2009): 74-75.

Library Journal 134, no. 13 (August 1, 2009): 81.

The Nation 289, no. 9 (September 28, 2009): 32-36.

The New York Review of Books 56, no. 14 (September 24, 2009): 35-36.

The New York Times Book Review, August 23, 2009, p. 8.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 23 (June 8, 2009): 36.