Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction are some of my Literary Interests





Friday, July 31, 2015

Why This World A Biography of Clarice Lispector by Benjamin Moser (2009)


My thanks to Max u for very kindly providing  me with a gift card that allowed me to read this book.




I was recently kindly given a review copy of The Complete Short Stories of Clarice Lispector.  I confess prior to this, i had not heard of her.  I began to read the stories and I was in soon very much enthralled by her work. I read all 85 and posted on a few of them.  I wanted to learn more about her.  I did some quick internet research and learned she was born in the Ukraine into a Jewish family.  To escape the terrible treatments of Jews (her mother was raped in a pogrom) when she was still a toddler her family moved to Brazil.  More and more I am seeing areas of my reading converge.  My recent venture into Yiddish literature turned out to be very important in understanding the work of Lispector.  My research also indicated that Oxford University Press had recently published a very highly regarded biography, Why This World:  A Biography of Clarice Lispector by Benjamin Moser.  Before buying it I read an article by Moser in which he said Lispector was the most important Jewish writer since Kafka.  At first i thought he was being a bit hyperbolic but after reading his superb biography I came to understand what he meant and I would not venture to disagree.  You only see it in some of her 85 short stories but she is a deeply philosophical writer, concerned with the very fundamental questions of existence.  


I will not attempt to do any sort of "review" of Moser's book.  You can get the bare facts of her life from Wikipedia. I will just talk about some of the things that resonated most with me from reading the biography. (Of Lispector, I have read only her 85 short stories so far.) 

I found Mosner's extensive treatment of the history behind the migration of many Eastern European Jews to Brazil, especially the northeastern city of Recife.  He talks about the extreme difficulties her father at first had making a living for his family.  He became a peddler, selling goods all over North Eastern Brazil.  I learned the big role peddlers had in the economy of the area. Moser tells us a lot about Jewish life in Brazil, especially Recife.   Lispector's mother soon  died, as a consequence of the rape, and this early death and sense of guilt and abandonment would have a lifetime impact on her.  Lispector and her sisters grew into beautiful young girls and finding a Jewish husband for them was a challenge.  

Lispector was brilliant.  She was one of the first female graduates of the most prestigious Brazlian law school though she never worked as an attorney.  Mosner explains very thoughly how she became a journalist and her work in this field.  During much of her life Brazil was run by strong man type dictators and newspapers had to watch very carefully what they printed.  

She had begun to write short stories at an early age and we learn a lot about the creative side of her life as well as the business side of the literary world in Brazil.

Her life changed radically when she married a career Brazilian diplomat.  She lived outside of the country for  years.  They were first stationed in Naples, Italy and she helped personally the soldiers in the brigade Brazil sent to fight for the allies.  Moser talks about the boredom Lispector suffered, especially in Bern, Switzerland which she hated.    Leaving out a lot, she divorced her husband and moved back to Brazil.  Much of her time was spent trying to be a good mother.

Moser takes us along as Lispector climbs to the top of the Brazilian literary world.  He does a very good job balancing literary analysis with life and social history.  He goes deeply into her relationship to traditional Jewish philosophical concerns about God and the meaning of life.  She stared into the existential void with the best.  

Lispector was a perhaps difficult person, often lonely. The sheer power of her intelligence made many uncomfortable around her.  Her best friend came to be her dog.  She was a chain smoker and an over user of sleeping pills.  At age fifty she fell asleep smoking in bed and received terrible burns.  Clarice in her younger days was a woman of classical screen star beauty and her loss of her looks combined with a weight gain increased her angst as she aged.  She died of Ovarian Cancer.

I have left out an awful lot material of great interest in Moser's very well organized and structured book. There is a lot to be learned about the history of Brazil and Jewish traditions in the biography.  

I was delighted to learn she greatly admired Katherine Mansfield and felt a personal affinity for her.


I have read a good number of biographies of authors and Why This World - A Biography of Clarice Lispector is a first rate authorial biography.  Moser has great respect and love for his subject and it shows in his book. 

I have begun what Moser says is Lispector's master work, The Passion of G.H. Just a few pages in, I feel the power and the pain.

Mel u



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