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A Woman Who Looked Like Dietrich And Wrote Like Woolf

The much revered Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector was born a Jew and buried a Jew, but in between, it seems, she struggled simply to be Clarice, with an accent on the usually silent final syllable, see. If anything, the gorgeous, exotic-looking Lispector wanted only to be seen as a native Brazilian, an identity that her Asiatic eyes, Ukrainian-Jewish birth and small speech defect constantly threatened to scuttle.

She arrived in Brazil in 1921 as a 2-month-old baby, and for her whole life she spoke only Portuguese. “My first language was Portuguese. Do I speak Russian? No, absolutely not,” she said once in an interview. “My tongue is tied… some people used to ask me if I was French, because of the way I pronounce the r’s.” When she died of cancer in December 1977, one day before her 57th birthday, her stated wish was to be buried at the Cemiterio São João Batista (Saint John the Baptist). Rejected because of her Jewishness, she was instead interred at the Cemiterio Israelita do Caju.

It is Lispector’s existential curiosity and her dreamy but penetrating texts that place her somewhere in a European-inclined Jewish canon — no matter what her personal ethnic identity embraced. From what might be her most celebrated novel, “The Apple in the Dark” (“A maçã no Escuro”), which deals with that moment in the middle of the night in which one might reach for an apple, only to have it slip away: “… Around him, an emptiness blew, in which a man finds himself when he is going to create. Desolated, he provoked the great solitude…. And, like an old man who has not learned to read, he measured the distance that separated him from the word.”

On March 13, the Center for Jewish History’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research is resurrecting Lispector’s short life and her resonant, entrancing, humanistic literary voice at an event titled “Clarice Lispector: The Cultural Politics of Dislocation and Ways of Being Jewish in Brazil.”

“Two people came to speak to me in 1977 of a writer named Clarice Lispector. I had never heard of her,” French literary critic Hélène Cixous said in an interview published in the 1989 scholarly tome, “From the Scene of Unconscious to the Scene of History.” “I glanced at some fragments of text. I was dazzled…. And then as I went on in the text I discovered an immense writer, the equivalent for me of Kafka, with something more: This was a woman, writing as a woman. I discovered Kafka and it was a woman.”

One of two principal speakers will be Gregory Rabassa, who translated into English for Lispector and who has dedicated an entire chapter of his forthcoming memoir (“If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents”; coming in April and published by New Directions) to her. He will read sections from his translation of “The Apple in the Dark.”

“The first thing I remember of her?” he said in an interview with the Forward. “Her physical beauty. When I first met her, I was entranced by her; she looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf — a good combination. She had eyes that may go back to her Ukrainian past, what Thomas Mann called krirgiesen Augen in ‘Magic Mountain.’”

“At the time, everyone in Brazil was talking about ‘The Apple in the Dark,’” he said. “She is a very wise writer; it is her wisdom that comes through. She not only knows what she’s thinking about, but she also knows how to put it into good words — eloquent words. Clarice’s worlds were our worlds, but she’d see them in a different light, a more intellectual light.”

Rabassa said that Lispector was “good to translate,” following the theory that “a good writer translates easily, writes well. You can figure out what she is saying even if it is complicated.”

Lispector’s writing life was pockmarked by moments of stifling economic difficulties (she worked as an attorney to support herself and her two sons), the all-too-public infidelity of her diplomat husband (“a swine,” according to Rabassa) and the disease that ultimately truncated her life. Yet, among scholars and writers, she is remembered as a luminous and consummate professional, a woman who showed the way to write (an act she committed on a small portable typewriter she placed on her lap).

“This woman,” Cixous wrote, “our contemporary, a Brazilian woman… it is not books that she gives us, but the act of living saved by books, narratives, constructions that make us step back. And then, through her window writing, we enter into the frightening beauty of learning how to read: and we pass, through the body, to the other side of the I. To love the truth of what is alive….”

Noga Tarnopolsky is a writer living in Jerusalem.


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