This roundtable honoring the work of the novelist Clarice Lispector occurs on the occasion of the re-translation and re-publication of five of Lispector’s greatest works by New Directions and Penguin Modern Classics. For this roundtable I spoke with Barbara Epler, Benjamin Moser, and David Randall, each of whom are currently working with Lispector’s works in various capacities. For more on Lispector, see Leora Skolkin-Smith’s essay “Words Are living Tissue,” previously published in The Quarterly Conversation, and Colm Tóibín’s essay, “A Passion for the Void,” published in this issue.
Barbara Epler has worked at New Directions since 1984 and became its president in 2011. She edited Benjamin Moser’s new translation of The Hour of the Star.
In addition to making a new translation of The Hour of the Star for New Directions, Benjamin Moser is the author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography. He is the series editor of the new edition of Clarice Lispector’s works being published at New Directions.
David Randall is a British impresario based in Monte Carlo. He has been involved in a number of theatrical projects in London and New York and is currently working on the film adaptation of Why This World.
Scott Esposito: For me, Lispector stands as one of the most distinct and strangest authors that I’ve discovered among writers working in the past 50 years or so. Part of her work’s inherent strangeness is that she seems to appeal to different people for widely different reasons. So could each of you talk a little about when and why Lispector first “clicked” for you, what that was like, which book of hers (or about her) you were reading, and how you’ve come to see her writing in the time since.
Benjamin Moser: The first time I encountered Clarice Lispector was as a sophomore at Brown, already half a life ago. I had happened into Portuguese class because I had failed miserably to learn Chinese, and I wanted to study another language. By the third semester, we were already able to read short works of Brazilian literature, and one of them was Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star. When you read for a living, as you and I do, it’s sometimes hard to remember how meeting a book can be like meeting a lover, but that is what I felt. From the very first lines—her dedication to the musicians and the spirits who had haunted her life—I just fell in love with her. Which could sound like an exaggeration, but I think that my having spent the last decade writing her biography, Why This World, and translating her work (I was thrilled to be able to translate The Hour of the Star itself in the new New Directions/Penguin Modern Classics series) proves that we were a good match. At least she was for me! I couldn’t help wondering, especially with Why This World, what she would have thought of my interpretations of her life and work.
Barbara Epler: I discovered Clarice Lispector while working at New Directions as a young assistant editor; I think New Directions started publishing her work in the mid-80s, and I first fell in love with The Hour of the Star. Maybe you never get over your initial crushes, but in any case that remains my single favorite Lispector novel: I loved it in the Ponteiro translation and I love it in Ben’s new translation.
However, it was another project, Lispector’s Selected Crônicas, which completely cemented my love for her work.
I had a great and very thrifty boss, Griselda Ohannessian. The Lispector books were never great money-makers and when she saw me falling in love with the very long, large cloth edition (500-some-pages-long) Discovering the World, which Carcanet Press published, containing all her crônicas (a free Brazilian form of short pieces published in newspapers), Griselda put her foot down. “No, that’s an absolute door stopper.” So I whined and carried on, and eventually Griselda said I could make a selection, but the book would be a paperback and under 228 pages. By running it a bit tightly, I managed to get about four-fifths of the Carcanet collection into our Selected Crônicas, and got in all my favorites, such as “In Favor of Fear” (“I am convinced that at some time during the Stone Age I was definitely ill-treated by some man who loved me. Ever since then I have been haunted by a secret terror.”). Or the wonderful “Princess” series, about a baby chicken and the terrible little girl next door (as much as you can say anything she writes is exactly “about such and such”).
I think by spending a lot of time judging and juggling which ones would go in, and smuggling as many as I possibly could, I felt as thick as thieves with her vision. I love how everything you discover in her works is so unexpected, so visionary, and yet so true. Lispector is uncanny.
I love the mini crônica “Yes,” which runs:
I said to a friend:
—Life has always asked too much of me.
—But don’t forget that you also ask too much of life.
That is true.
David Randall: My discovery of Clarice is probably rather haphazard and less conventional than your other contributors! As a producer I am always looking out for new properties to license, especially something exotic, unfamiliar, and with undercurrents. So, in the summer of 2009, whilst on a boating holiday (no pun intended!) with the family, the first thing that caught my eye when a copy of the International Herald Tribune was put in front of me was the book review page with a portrait of Clarice accompanying Fernanda Eberstadt’s review of Ben Moser’s Why This World, as it rather resembled the physiognomy of my youngest daughter Adriana (who happens to be an actress!).
Then upon reading the enthusiastic review, I was fascinated by the whole story and decided to make contact with the author. Eventually I did so, bizarrely through Facebook (I joined especially as a sleuth!), and the rest as they say is history!
I was fascinated by Clarice’s early life and the suffering of her parents and their escape from the horrors of Eastern Europe. I was also very interested by the extraordinary transformation that Clarice underwent and her elevation to the status of a media celebrity, all the more surprising given her “foreignness” in Brazil.
My way into the literature was through Ben’s masterly analysis of her stories, and only afterwards did I purchase translations of the books and start to delve into the individual works, starting with The Hour of the Star and followed by Near to the Wild Heart.
Getting to know Ben Moser has an itself been education, not only because of his extraordinary erudition but also because of his comprehensive grasp of Brazil and the Brazilians and his knowledge of their culture and customs.
The reason that Ben’s biography of Clarice Lispector is so significant is because in my view it gives a supremely insightful description of her almost unfathomable depths of symbolism and mysticism, which have helped to create a legacy that even today is not just revered but almost worshiped as a cult. Also, Ben managed to show the demons that possessed Clarice and how the imagery in her writings derives from not only long traditions but the most lurid episodes in her childhood. Tempered as she was by a traumatic experience of [her father] Pedro’s progressive sickness and the catastrophic fire in her home that left her permanently disfigured, we are able to glimpse the suffering out of which was born some of her great writings and her unique philosophy.
Working alongside Ben to develop a screenplay intended to bring Clarice to a far wider audience given her significance as a great twentieth-century writer has been a fascinating and rewarding experience, and we have found an association of like-minded people, all of whom are devoted to preserving Clarice’s reputation in the literary world.
Therefore, I can claim that through no single book have I been converted to the cause but rather more by the mesmerizing beauty and abundant talent of a unique genius.
Scott Esposito: Professionally, each of you is approaching Lispector in a different capacity—translator, editor, film producer. So I’m curious to know which aspects of her books stick out for you most while you’re working with her in your professional capacities.
Benjamin Moser: As I’ve been translating and then editing the translations of other people of her work, I’ve really come to appreciate just how hard it is to get her right in English. I can draw on more than a decade of doing this kind of thing—one of the challenges of Why This World, my biography of her—was trying to find a convincing voice for her in English. I think I did, and I always tell Brazilian audiences that I speak to about my biography that by reading it in Portuguese, they are getting closer to her voice, but they’re also missing one of the things that I am proudest of, which is that I think I managed to create an English sound for her.
So one of the professional skills I have developed is not just translating from Portuguese, which is hard enough, but translating Clarice Lispector’s Portuguese, which is a very strange, allusive, and poetic language. Doing it well requires knowing what she means when she uses certain words in certain contexts. A lot of them wouldn’t be obvious if you weren’t familiar with the rest of her work—but it’s very important to keep the echoes there. And even though I am going slightly batty trying to edit four of these books simultaneously, one of the advantages of doing them all at once is that those words and concepts are fresh in my mind throughout the series. But of course it’s an impossible job. I’m rereading Johnny Lorenz’s translation of A Breath of Life today, which is a particularly hairy one because it is posthumous and existed only in fragments, and feeling grateful for the tight deadlines—if I didn’t have them, I could fiddle with it until the end of time . . .
Barbara Epler: The whole Lispector re-launching began innocently enough: our plan had been to bring out a new edition of The Hour of the Star in the old Pontiero translation with an ardent Colm Tóibín preface. (With a backlist of our size—about 1,100 titles from 75 years of publishing—we are always trying to repackage classic backlist to reach more readers.)
That was all we had planned, but then I met Ben. I’d very much admired his biography, so I have a drink with Ben when he’s in town, and he is amazingly persuasive, and I get on board the big project of four new translations with Penguin UK, for which he would serve as series editor.
And suddenly, in a phone conversation a few months later about those four books, I mentioned I was going to press with our new edition of the old translation of The Hour of the Star with the Tóibín preface, and Ben came out of the bag at me. He offered to translate it for free and within three weeks. I said, “I think that’s crazy.” Ben said he couldn’t stand not doing it. (And “free” is a magic word around New Directions. Though I did land in the doghouse here with publicity and production for making the book late, even by that fairly little bit.)
Then exactly on time, his translation arrived: startling, bracing, and utterly convincing. The Pontiero Hour of the Star on first reading is odd enough; like one’s first try at sea urchin roe sushi: I’ve never forgotten my first read.
Ben’s is more like ingesting the whole sea urchin, spines and all, and yet for all its spikiness a thrill and a joy as it goes down—it’s truly transporting.
And for me, when you mention trouble spots, Scott, as well as “professional skills that are uncommonly needed,” here we go.
I am bent on fixing grammar and addressing various rough spots and making the English read as smoothly as possible (up to a point, of course, especially with a writer as radical as Clarice). So, while I loved the energy and verve of his new translation, I still had many little fixes. And then I had to unbend my mind and, yes, bend my backbone. Because 95 percent of my edits were rejected: as we spent a couple of hours on the telephone (after he’d read my scanned edit), a colleague was in my office as I gave up point after point; Ben would reply when I fixed a point of grammar: “Barbara, Clarice knew proper Portuguese; she chose to splinter that construction” or “Barbara, Clarice could have made that grammatically correct: she chose not to!” I’d concede, muttering, “OK, OK . . .” and I well remember how my co-worker looked at me with pity as I was swatted down again and again. Though in spots here and there Ben would remark, “Oooh, that’s a good one! That’s my mistake! Yes please fix that!”
Ben is after the most radical and close-to-the-bone reproduction of Clarice’s original oddities.
And for me, it took a new talent to accept that: having worked through the new translation overnight, fixing things, and then to meet with such resistance, and then decide to be open-minded.
My reward has been several rave responses. And nearest and dearest, our VP Laurie Callahan (who had always been a little cool about my Lispector enthusiasm over the years) burst into my office after she’d read his new version: “Now I know why you love her work! She’s amazing!”
David Randall: I’m probably most taken by the more vividly phasmagorical themes and elemental devices, such as consuming (or being subsumed into) a cockroach, or the dwelling upon chicken and egg and ovaries and similarly idiosyncratic imagery and symbolism. Right now her peculiar vernacular in those fantastical episodes and mystical aspects that derive from her own life or intuitions of mortality are the focus of my attention.
Of course much will depend on our screenwriters and director, but my predilection is for generic development of layers of meaning drawn from the progress of Clarice as a young student, incipient author, woman, mother, muse, and, posthumously, shrine and occult myth, even to hordes who have not the skills to decipher her prose. I’m focused on building up gossamer layer by layer, image by image Clarice’s syntax and figures of speech, so that a sort of lacquer-layering of coats of varnish constructs an opaque coat that occludes yet reveals at its core a phosphorescence.
Set is a remote key and subtly shifting chromaticism and unfamiliar uncomfortable harmonic the Clarice symphonic poem should seduce, yet bewilder and leave our audience craving for more. I need them to exit the cinema and rush to investigate and purchase or download Lispector’s books and read Ben’s masterly biography That is my aim.
Scott Esposito: Even though I usually try to stay away from bringing an author’s personality and life into her work, I want to do that here, for a few reasons. First of all, this Lispector resurgence arguably got sparked by Ben’s biography of her, which was a success in part because Lispector was such an amazing person. And then there’s the fact of Lispector bringing her life into her books in various ways, even though they’re not necessarily autobiographical books. So I wonder, to what extent do you think Lispector’s life and her eccentricities conditioned the kind of writing she created? Do you think that the Brazil she lived in—which experienced quite a bit of upheaval and incredible disparities for various strands of the population during her lifetime, plus was an exotic, strange place—had something to do with it?
David Randall: Undoubtedly Lispector’s family history and formative years – her mothers prolonged suffering and sacrifice as well as her fathers devout faith and rigorous intellectual supremacy (and his cruel humiliation as an impoverished hawker and diminished demise as penniless immigrant) endowed the young Clarice with a set of values and defiance at suppression as well as a rich tapestry of almost Yeatsian insistent cumulative momentum of idee fixes, leit motifs and mystical metaphors and images that were to populate her novels in various guises and metamorphose throughout her output.
The Portuguese language proved inadequate to contain her kaleidoscopic world view and searing expressions and Lispector rearranged and modified syntax and grammatical rules to convey her unique language – some of this due to her having adopted the language rather than having it as her maternal tongue ( her lifelong speech impediment emphasising the differentiation and her “otherness.”
On the political issues she marched for democracy under the generals’ regime and was discriminated early on against by the diplomatic establishment. Travelling widely and posted to Genoa and Berne (I trust I am not mistaken with her missions) she gained a sophisticated view if the battle for survival and must have been relieved when Brazil expediently decided to ally itself with the USA rather than Germany.
Her notable tall beauty distinguished her status as Gurgel Valente’s wife and precipitated her into the forefront of Brazilian society and created a mythology surrounding her origins and background.
The dichotomy between familiarity and “strangeness” was and remains at the core of Clarice’s enigma and appeal.
Benjamin Moser: There’s a “school of thought” that wants to separate an artist’s work from her life, which I think is completely absurd: if that were the case there would be no reason at all to write a biography except as a compilation of anecdotes and gossip. As I tried to show in Why This World, her life was profoundly affected by all sorts of political and cultural events: the horror of her origins in Revolutionary Ukraine gave her a very specific theology, which might be called a theology of God’s absence. And her experience of the Brazilian culture in which she spent her life is reflected all throughout her work: her engagement with both its high culture, like the writers and artists who were her friends, as well as to the popular culture she absorbed from her poor childhood, her interest in the supernatural, for example, is there wherever you look.
Barbara Epler: I don’t know how to answer that. I am certainly fascinated by her beauty and by the beauty of Brazil, and by Elizabeth Bishop’s comment that Clarice was the least literary-minded writer she’d ever met. I am fascinated by the idea of those two knowing each other. I am also fascinated by her conversations with taxi drivers: I bet they were crazy about her. But all in all, I am stumped. She swims in deeper waters than I can dive to. Though I do have the strong feeling that she would have been even more exotic and strange in Iowa.
Scott Esposito: I’d be curious as to what you see as Lispector’s core themes, or if there’s any one thing that’s important to a majority of her works. You might also look at this question as asking if her books feel as though they’re in dialogue with each other, over which questions, and how some books can address questions others can’t.
Barbara Epler: The greatest element in Clarice is the magical beauty of her writing, but the central theme to me would be her mysticism. Of course, I have been gazing into Clarice’s work quite a lot, especially lately with the five new translations New Directions has been undertaking, and as Nietzsche says, when you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you. In other words, my take on her mysticism may be the product of a little too much gazing . . .
For me as a reader the constantly surprising beauty of Clarice’s writing carries and embodies her mystical obsessions. She distills potions from mysticism, beauty, pain, longing. Reading, we drink the potion and feel mystically transported. It’s odd to reach for near-occult terms, but that feeling of being mystically transported over a series of works, comes with a greater and greater feeling of freedom: book to book, she offers her readers more and more glimpses of mystical freedom.
To me it is amazing she started out as a genius (and hailed as such) with her first book in 1943 (Near to the Wild Heart) and went up from there—up and up. Her 1964 Passion According to G.H. is such a stunning work of greater genius, and only eclipsed for me by the 1977 Hour of the Star (I can’t help it: still my most beloved), but now I am being knocked for further loops by her 1973’s Agua Viva and the breathtaking posthumous Breath of Life. How did she—injured and burned (and after a three-day stint in Hell, as she described her first days after the fire), afflicted with a lethal disease and facing death—become more and more alive in her writing? It’s spooky that she stated in Near to the Wild Heart, “Nothing will impede my path until death-without-fear.”
New Directions will next tackle her Collected Stories, and I hope to arrange them chronologically as I want to find out if my feeling of her trajectory of greater and greater mystical freedom will be borne out. That’s my belief and it will be interesting to see it tested again. (Nietzsche also said that it only takes a casual stroll through a lunatic asylum to show that faith does not prove anything.)
Benjamin Moser: This was one of the most fascinating things about writing my biography: seeing how her philosophy evolved throughout the course of her life. Her very first statement about God, published in a journal at her law school, stated that “above mankind there is nothing else at all.” She had become an atheist out of rage at the God who exiled and killed her parents. But she also came with a very strong mystic vocation inherited from her father. And so she eventually sought God not above herself but inside herself—and to see that evolution is one of the most fascinating reasons to read her books in the order they were written.
David Randall: “You see my son, time becomes space here” (“Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit,” Parsifal, Act 1, Scene 1)
I preface my inadequate comments with an apparently (shockingly) incomprehensible juxtaposition and incompatible language and context, given Lispector’s ethnicity and Wagner’s Parsifal’s anti-Semitic connotations.
And yet is Gurnemantz’ description of the pastures of Montsalvat (and later the Good Friday episode in Act 3) and his stoicism in the face of foolishness and peril so alien to Lispector’s Weltanschauung?
I think one of the more fascinating and profound common factors, or threads is Lispector’s peculiar brand of silence as a crucial ingredient to both structure and plot in her works, especially the novels. There are many interesting treatises of the significance and intentions behind the discourse of silence in Lispector’s canon. In Near to the Wild Heart there is purported to be an “annihilation of intimacy,” and, allegedly, an abiding theme is the destruction for the capacity for silence. A particularly telling quote is “Lispector’s work acts as a model for a heterosexual relationship where the characters participate in a complex form of intimacy, fueled by silence.” Silence and intimacy resolve into a cradle for the “ethics of the intimate”—a sort of male/female reciprocity ensues. Some attention has been made of the themes of “interiority of self” and “silence and intimacy” in the context of a struggle between self and love as a mediator of desire.
I particularly appreciated Susan Katherine Dulaney’s university treatise Clarice Lispector’s an Apprenticeship, or the Book of Delights: The Role of Silence in the Cultivation of Intimacy. It comprises a very detailed analysis of An Apprenticeship and examines her discourse notably through Luce Irigaray’s prism, but also Kalamaras’ slant, amongst a slew of writers into whose work she delves, to perceive their responses and hypotheses.
Scott Esposito: To close out, I’d like to ask you all about Lispector with regard to feminism. On the one hand, her books seem extremely well-suited to the ideas typically associated with feminist thought. But on the other hand, her work seems like such an outlier—and her life itself was so strange—that I’m hesitant to lump her in there with authors who were working more consciously as feminists. So I’d like to ask you how you see her work–feminist or not. And regardless of how you view it, do you think it added (and still adds) to surrounding conversations?
Barbara Epler: I was all set to answer that saying Clarice Lispector is a feminist seems like a case of a cage in search of a bird, as I think of feminism being about bringing about the emancipation of women, and if you’re Clarice, you are a genius, you have emancipated yourself, you have eclipsed all the male writers, you’re flying far from labels and categories, somewhere very, very far away, etc. etc.
But then a colleague just read aloud a stupid review of the bad Muriel Spark biography: the reviewer calls Muriel a “difficult writer.” The sexism bubbling under the surface—oh these difficult women!—of such a facile dismissal of the least difficult of authors (her books are so hard to put down; they’re boxes of bonbons; they are dangerous to have around: you’ll get nothing done the day you open a Spark novel) made me realize why we still need labels like feminist. I should not go with that first impulse. So: Yes she is a feminist. She is a one-woman one-writer revolution and if that’s not being a feminist, what is?
As to what all her work adds to conversations, I’d say an endless aesthetical, cultural, spiritual wealth . . .
Benjamin Moser: I don’t think that Clarice liked to associate herself with political labels. And she has a wonderful line in which she says that she didn’t like the name “women’s pages” in the newspaper (she worked for many of them, dishing out tips about eye makeup and mayonnaise) because she thought that that implied that the world of women was somehow segregated from the world of men.
That said, she was most definitely a feminist. She was one of the very first women law graduates in this country. She was one of the very first female journalists. She was Brazil’s first great woman writer and a great deal of her work centers on women and women’s lives.
But I think that her feminism came more from a general belief in the dignity and equality of all people—powerfully engrained, and based on the early experience of seeing her family destroyed by racism—than to the kind of political feminism that one sees in writers who were her contemporaries. (I’m thinking of people like Simone de Beauvoir.)
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Words Are Living Tissue: The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector Often compared to Kafka, and just as often declared unclassifiable, Clarice Lispector was one of the 20th century's major authors. Leora Skolkin-Smith reads her career through one of her greatest novels....
- A Passion for the Void: The Hour of the Star The idea of Clarice Lispector as fleeting, oddly unreliable, complicated, someone who could vanish is essential to her work and her reputation. In October, 1977, shortly before her death, she published the novella The Hour of the Star in which all her talents and eccentricities merged and folded in a...
- “I run with the future ahead of me and the cops behind me”: A roundtable on Margarita Karapanou There are writers who make you want to go back into writing. Karapanou makes you want to go back into living your life. She also belongs to this rare community of writers who work beyond influence; they are on their own. When I was in my twenties I tried to...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Scott Esposito