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

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