Author Archives: Benjamin Moser

A Golem in Brazil

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The Apple in the Dark, Clarice Lispector’s fourth novel, was published in Rio de Janeiro in 1961, five years after she completed the last of its eleven drafts. Begun in Agatha Christie’s hometown of Torquay, where Lispector’s husband, a diplomat, was a Brazilian delegate to an international conference, The Apple in the Dark was finished in Clarice’s home in the Washington suburbs, where she spent most of the fifties.

jewish author blog“It was a fascinating book to write,” she wrote a friend back in Rio de Janeiro. “I learned a lot doing it, I was shocked by the surprises it gave me—but it was also a great suffering.” Her suffering was not over when she finished it, however. Despite the best efforts of her friends and admirers, the book, like so many others later acclaimed as masterpieces, languished for years in manuscript, as one publisher after another declined.

“When I write something, I stop liking it, little by little,” she wrote in a letter home, suggesting her increasing despair. “I feel like a girl putting together her trousseau and storing it in a chest. A bad marriage is better than no marriage; it’s horrible to see a yellowing trousseau.”

As a diplomatic spouse, Clarice had been absent from Brazil for the better part of two decades, living in Italy, Switzerland, England, and the United States. She was increasingly unknown to the Brazilian public. She could still count on the small circle of artists and intellectuals who had been fascinated by her since 1943 when, twenty three years old, she published her debut, Near to the Wild Heart. The novel was recognized as the greatest a woman had ever written in the Portuguese language.

Despite that early success, her second and third novels struggled to find a broader audience. After she left Brazil, a friend recalled, “publishers avoided her like the plague. The motives seemed obvious to me: she wasn’t a disciple of ‘socialist realism’ or preoccupied with the little dramas of the little Brazilian bourgeoisie.”

During her years abroad, Lispector wrote, “I lived mentally in Brazil, I lived ‘on borrowed time.’ Simply because I like living in Brazil, Brazil is the only place in the world where I don’t ask myself, terrified: what am I doing here after all, why am I here, my God.” Perhaps her professional difficulties contributed to Clarice’s decision, in 1959, to leave her husband and return with her two young sons to Rio de Janeiro, where she would spend the rest of her life.

The country she returned to was changing fast. This was the age of the bold new capital, Braslia; of bossa nova, which became an international sensation; and of Pelé, who led Brazil to back-to-back World Cup victories. Clarice’s modern style would soon be part of this modern resurgence, but when she arrived in Rio in July 1959, she herself was unknown.

The now-classic story collection Family Ties appeared in July 1960, after years in the same frustrating limbo that faced The Apple in the Dark. As a result, a reporter wrote, “There is a great curiosity surrounding the person of Clarice. ‘Clarice Lispector doesn’t exist,’ some say. ‘It’s the pseudonym of someone who lives in Europe.’ ‘She’s a beautiful woman,’ claim others. ‘I don’t know her,’ says a third. ‘But I think she’s a man.’

Family Ties at least put to rest the rumor that Clarice was a man. With The Apple in the Dark—at 980 cruzeiros, the most expensive novel ever sold in Brazil—found an eager audience in a nation in the grips of a modern cultural fluorescence. With it, Clarice Lispector earned a position in Brazilian culture unmatched by any other twentieth-century Brazilian writer.

Yet if the novel is quintessentially modern, its sources were older and deeper than was generally understood. Clarice Lispector was born Chaya in 1920 in Podolia, in what is now southwestern Ukraine. Her work is steeped in the mysticism of that area, just as she herself would be forever pursued by the horrifying violence that surrounded her birth. The relationship between knowledge and sin animates many of her greatest works.

The Apple in the Dark is the story of an engineer, Martin, who flees to the countryside to escape the consequences of a crime whose nature only becomes clear at the very end of the book. The detective-story setup is a flimsy pretext for the real drama, which is linguistic and mystical. Martin is cast out of the world of language, a “contented idiot,” only to gradually reacquire the human personality he had lost with his crime.

Clarice Lispector often reworked and disguised Jewish motifs in her work, but never with the allegorical force deployed in The Apple in the Dark. She hints at the very beginning of the book that Martin is Jewish, when she identifies his shadowy pursuer as a German who owns a Ford. There is no reason of plot or character to assign this vague figure German nationality, especially in a book in which few characters have so much as a name. The word “German,” in a work by a Jewish writer of the 1950s, was not a neutral description, especially when applied to a figure of harassment and oppression. And “Ford,” the only brand name in the book, suggests Henry Ford, the notorious anti-Semite whose racist writings were widely distributed in Brazil. Both names suggest that the German’s victim must be Jewish.

clarice lispectorThe book is a Jewish creation allegory, but of an odd variety. It is the story of the creation of a man, but also the story of how the man creates God. This is Martin’s essential, heroic invention, and it comes through the word. “Then in his colicky flesh he invented God […] A man in the dark was a creator. In the dark the great bargains are struck. When he said ‘Oh God’ Martin felt the first weight of relief in his chest.”

Yet this story is the opposite of the Biblical creation story. The man is himself created through sin, and the sinning man creates God; that invention, another of Clarice Lispector’s great paradoxes, redeems the man. The moment Martin invents God is the moment he can finally come to terms with his crime: “I killed, I killed, he finally confessed.” Without God, even an invented God, there can be no sin.

In these particulars, especially in the way Clarice reverses the creation story to which she alludes in the title, Martin suggests that most famous figure of Jewish folklore: the Frankenstein-like Golem, who was the mystical reversion of the creation of Adam.

Golems are made of earth; at the beginning of the book, Clarice emphasizes Martin’s identity with the rocky soil. Like the Golem, Martin cannot originally speak and is used as a house servant. Like the Golem, he is not allowed to go out alone. And as he masters human language, he grows to a position of power over the original inhabitants of the house. “He increases from day to day and can easily become larger and stronger than his house-comrades, however small he may have been in the beginning,” the German folklorist Jacob Grimm wrote in 1808. Golems are associated with murder, as is Martin; and as he masters human language, Martin grows to a position of power over the house’s inhabitants. Fearing him, they have him taken away.

Martin’s crime ushers him into a greater reality. Redemption through sin, enlightenment through crime: it is the kind of paradox in which Clarice Lispector delighted. With it, Clarice goes further than she ever had in her approach to the God she had abandoned when he killed her mother, raped in a Ukrainian pogrom. And she goes further, too, than Kafka. Like him, she found locked doors, blocked passageways, and generalized punishment. But she also saw a different possibility: a state of grace.

Benjamin Moser’s Clarice Lispector Reading List
The Apple in the Dark
Near to the Wild Heart
Selected Cronicas
Soulstorm

Benjamin Moser is the author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector. He has been guest-blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

Posted on August 28, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Oldest Jews in Brazil

This entry was posted in Culture, History on by .

In his last blog, Benjamin Moser wrote about chasing Clarice Lispector around the world.

In the oldest synagogue in the New World, Kahal zur Israel in Recife, I met a friendly grandmother named Berta Schvartz.

jewish author blogUnlike so many other tourists, I had not arrived in search of the Jewish community of the seventeenth century, when northeastern Brazil had been ruled by the Dutch. Instead, I was there to see the second Jewish Recife, the world of the Eastern European immigrants who came to the beautiful island city at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Among them was a little girl born in 1920 in the Ukraine. Brazil’s greatest modern writer, Clarice Lispector, spent her childhood in the working-class neighborhood of Boa Vista, just a few bridges away from the ancient synagogue.

This was where Berta had grown up, a generation after Clarice. I asked her to take me around Boa Vista to help me imagine Clarice’s girlhood universe for my biography, Why This World.

“Every house has memories for me!” Berta exclaimed. “I knew every family here. And look, they’re all gone now.” The sacrifices of the immigrants had allowed their children to move on to reliable plumbing, round-the-clock doormen, and ocean views.

But for Berta, as for Clarice, Boa Vista was world enough. She shows me the center of this community, the Praa Maciel Pinheiro, known in Yiddish as the pletzele, or little square. Here, at number 367, Clarice Lispector spent her childhood.

“The house was so old that the floorboards bounced when we walked,” Tania, Clarice’s sister, told me. “It had colonial windows, a balcony, colonial roof tiles, it really was very old. … We lived on the second floor. We eventually moved because we were afraid that the house would fall over.”

But there it is, still looking creaky. And from its window Mania Lispector, Clarice Lispector’s paralyzed mother, raped in a pogrom in the Ukraine, sat staring, waiting for her disease to run its inevitable course. “She was like a statue in the house,” Clarice’s cousin Anita Rabin remembered.

why this worldClarice was still a girl when the family moved to the Rua da Imperatriz, a street that leads from the pletzele down to the river. Berta shows me the house, and on the way she points out the location of the Casas Feld, an upscale clothing shop presided over by Luiz Feldmus and his wife, a glamorous figure known in Recife as Madame Clara; and Jacob Berenstein’s Livraria Imperatriz, long the best bookshop in Recife and a gathering-place of the city’s intelligentsia.

Clarice’s older sister Elisa wrote that “every afternoon, [their mother] sat on the balcony of the old house on the Rua da Imperatriz, dressed in stiff linen, her smooth black hair combed back, her useless arms crossed on her chest … her head dropped to the side, her eyes staring off, like slightly deadened blue beads.”

Despite the family’s poverty and her mother’s disease, Clarice remembered a magical childhood. “I was so happy that I hid from myself the pain of seeing my mother like that,” Clarice said. “I felt so guilty, because I thought my birth had caused it.”

Her mother died when she was nine. Soon afterward, her father moved the family to Rio de Janeiro, where he hoped to find Jewish husbands for his daughters and where Clarice, already renowned for her beauty, would begin one of the most extraordinary careers in modern literature.

But she never forgot her hometown. Months before her death in 1977, Clarice Lispector made her final trip to Recife. She insisted on staying at a hotel on the pletzele, spending hours gazing out the window at the little square where she grew up. Only the color of her childhood house had changed.

“I remember looking out from the balcony on the Praa Maciel Pinheiro, in Recife, and being afraid of falling: I thought everything was so tall. … It was painted pink. Does a color end? It vanishes into the air, my God.”

Benjamin Moser is the author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector. He is guest-blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

Posted on August 26, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Chasing Clarice Lispector

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Benjamin Moser, author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, is guest-blogging for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

At many points in my life, I have been glad to know Yiddish. But as I darted through the darkened lobby of the Hotel National in Chisinau at one in the morning, trying desperately to reach the elevator bank before I was spied by a man with a stained beard and rancid breath, I reflected that this was not one of those points.

jewish authors blogI had come to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, once more widely known as Kishinev, to follow the path that took the family of the great writer and mystic Clarice Lispector, then an infant called Chaya, from their Ukrainian homeland to Brazil.

Despite the bad roads and the chaotic border crossing, it was a short trip from Chechelnik, the tiny town where she was born, to Kishinev. Although, it would not have been a short trip in the early 1920’s, when the Lispector family was trying desperately to flee the pogroms, famine, and civil war that, in the wake of World War I and the Russian Revolution, were ravaging their homeland.

The numbers will never be known, but hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed in those years, the worst episode of anti-Semitic violence in centuries. The events that followed World War I were the Holocaust’s opening act, though they are today almost completely forgotten, even by Ukrainians and Jews, for whom even worse was shortly to come.

The victims included Clarice’s beloved mother Mania, who was raped by a gang of Russian soldiers in 1919 and contracted an untreatable venereal disease that would kill her when Clarice was nine. Yet the Lispectors were luckier than many: Mania’s husband and daughters survived, and she herself lived long enough to see her family safely established abroad.

Clarice Lispector, the tiny infant her heroic parents carried through this wasteland of rape, necrophagy, and racial warfare, grew up to become Brazil’s greatest modern writer, a legendary beauty once called “that rare woman who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.”

Yet despite her passionate attachment to Brazil, I suspected, when I started doing research into her unbelievably dramatic life, that her Jewish background, and what happened to her family during those terrible years in Ukraine, was in many ways the key to that life.

clarice lispector, benjamin moserOne afternoon in Rio de Janeiro, Clarice’s elderly cousin entrusted me with a precious document: the Yiddish memoir her father, Clarice’s uncle, had written about his own escape and immigration. I had to read it: one of the only known eyewitness accounts of those events. And so I sat, relying on my knowledge of German, my extremely rustic Hebrew, and an old Yiddish dictionary, going through that precious document one word at a time. As I went along, I grew more confident, and by the time I finished it I could read Yiddish more or less comfortably.

But while I loved reading it, I’d never had a chance to speak it until the fateful day I reached Chisinau. The city, while pleasant, is not overburdened with tourist attractions, and so it wasn’t long before I wandered onto Habad Liubovici Street, where the city’s only remaining synagogue operates. Out front, as bored, underemployed, and friendly as everyone else in Moldova, a few Jewish men were standing. One asked me, in Russian, if I spoke Yiddish, and my visible excitement was my first big mistake. I was so delighted to be yabbering away in Yiddish that I let myself be adopted by the merry band, even putting on tefillin and posing, hand on the Torah, for a particularly horrible picture.

I revealed that I was staying at the Hotel National (second mistake) and then, my fatal final mistake, disclosed that, following the route of the Lispector family, I would be traveling to Bucharest the next morning. An older man perked up, and volunteered his nephew, a truck driver, to escort me. This gentleman clearly had a drinking problem, and I immediately realized that quick action would be required to escape his invitation. I made up an excuse, headed back to the hotel, walked around, went to dinner (Chisinau has surprisingly good restaurants), and returned to the immense Soviet pile of the Hotel National.

As it happens, the hotel had already prepared me for the experience of being spied upon. Each floor had a female attendant planted in the hallway to clean the rooms, change the sheets, and, more to the point, serve as a bribeable, beturbanned Rosa Klebb, keeping a glazed eye on the goings-on inside. In Europe’s poorest country, these jobs were not to be despised. Even in the National, once a showplace, the dreadful economic situation was never far from one’s mind: after a certain hour, the lights were dimmed to save electricity, and I returned to a Hotel National bathed in evening gloom.

To my alarm, my Yiddish-speaking friend from that afternoon was sitting in the giant lobby, lying in wait, between the doorway and the elevator. I was sure that the money I could pay his nephew would be important to him, and I did not want to feel like one of those Parisian or Viennese grandees of yesteryear, peering down through his lorgnettes at the unwashed Ostjuden.

On the other hand, I really did not want to sit for twelve hours in a Moldovan truck with a possibly alcoholic stranger, and so I decided to make a run for it, whooshing up the stairs to the first floor, boarding the elevator, and all but collapsing into the arms of my astonished hall monitor.

“I am not here,” I said to her emphatically, slipping her a few leis.

She nodded gravely.

The next morning, with her help, I went out a side entrance, got in a cab, and reached the train station.

Benjamin Moser’s first book, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, is now available. Visit his official website, and come back right here, where he’ll be blogging all week.

Posted on August 24, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy