Her Anti-Aircraft Guns

Lorna Scott Fox

  • Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector by Benjamin Moser
    Haus, 479 pp, £20.00, September 2009, ISBN 978 1 906598 42 6
  • The Apple in the Dark by Clarice Lispector, translated by Gregory Rabassa
    Haus, 445 pp, £12.99, September 2009, ISBN 978 1 906598 45 7

‘You killed my character!’ Clarice Lispector said angrily to the nurse who stopped her from marching out of hospital the day before she died of ovarian cancer, aged 57, in 1977. The Brazilian writer and her characters had always been close, and it seems that self and creation had finally merged in her mind. Others had already made the connection. After she left her husband in 1959, he poured out his regrets to her in a letter that addressed her as both of the women in her first novel – the untamed, amoral Joana and the placid, domestic Lídia – while casting himself as the dumb man in between: ‘I rejected Joana because her world frightened me, instead of reaching out to her. I accepted, too much, the role of Otávio … Forgive me, my darling, for … not knowing how to convince Joana that she and Lídia were, and are, the same person in Clarice.’ That novel, Near to the Wild Heart, had shocked Brazil’s timid literary world in 1943. It wasn’t so much the classic dichotomy of freedom v. social bondage, here figured as freedom v. marriage, as the ecstatic modernity and vitality of Lispector’s writing that impressed and appalled her contemporaries.

Whatever I say shall resound fatal and entire! … always molten, because then I shall live, only then shall I live more fully than in childhood, I shall be as brutal and misshapen as a stone, I shall be light and vague as something felt and not understood, I shall surpass myself in waves, ah, God, and may everything come and fall upon me.

This is Joana’s voice. As her husband recognised, Lispector was 90 per cent Joana. The pity was that time and place, and her own diffidence, caused her to live more like a slightly petulant Lídia, even after their separation. By the end of Benjamin Moser’s biography, one feels that the intensity of the annihilation and rebirth traced in her novels and stories was matched in her life only when, in middle age, she was badly burned in a fire caused by smoking in bed. ‘I vaguely felt that, while I suffered physically in such an unendurable way, that would be proof of living to the maximum,’ she wrote. But she was never, by her own account, to live ‘more fully than in childhood’.

Moser’s fascinating and intricate biography tries to wrest Lispector from feminists like Hélène Cixous (who celebrated her plotless, fluid, subjective allegories as a model of ‘écriture féminine’). According to Moser, the destiny of Chaya Pinkhasovna Lispector, born in Chechelnik, western Ukraine in 1920, was inscribed in the circumstances of her birth. Her mother, who had two daughters already, contracted syphilis after being raped by Russian soldiers at the height of the pogroms; Clarice was conceived in the belief that pregnancy would act as a cure. ‘Except I didn’t cure my mother. And to this day that guilt weighs on me.’ Ten years later the child tried, consciously now, to save her mother by writing little plays and stories which she hoped would have a healing magic. And for the rest of her life she continued to write ‘as if to save somebody’s life. Probably my own’, as she wrote shortly before her death. There are many images of resuscitation in her work, as if death happened only in dreams. Determined to play down the Cixousian reading, Moser sees all the sacrificed women in Lispector’s books merely as versions of the Mother, rather than representatives of women more generally. Even the hens which are the protagonists of several stories are seen as mother figures.

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