Clarice Lispec­tor, 1972. Fun­do doc­u­men­tal: Cor­reio da Manhã

In his last blog, Ben­jamin Moser wrote about chas­ing Clarice Lispec­tor around the world and the old­est Jews in Brazil.

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.

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; bossa nova, which became an inter­na­tion­al sen­sa­tion; and 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.

The 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 


Ben­jamin Moser was born in Hous­ton. He is the author of Why This World: A Biog­ra­phy of Clarice Lispec­tor, a final­ist for the Nation­al Book Crit­ics’ Cir­cle Award and a New York Times Notable Book. For his work bring­ing Clarice Lispec­tor to inter­na­tion­al promi­nence, he received Brazil’s first State Prize for Cul­tur­al Diplo­ma­cy. He has pub­lished trans­la­tions from French, Span­ish, Por­tuguese, and Dutch. A for­mer books colum­nist for Harper’s Mag­a­zine and The New York Times Book Review, he has also writ­ten for The New York­erConde Nast Trav­el­er, and The New York Review of Books