I. CLARICE THE MYSTIC
At a reading I gave in Seattle two years ago, a man with white hair told me he had once lived in Brazil and had named his daughter after Clarice Lispector. Later, he handed me a piece of paper on which he’d scrawled “Katrina: I’ve often thought of Clarice as something of a mystic. Thanks.” It was written on a page from Evelyn Underhill’s 1911 book Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. Beneath his handwritten note was Underhill’s list of concepts to be treated in CHAPTER 1: THE POINT OF DEPARTURE, from “The mystic type—its persistence—Man’s quest of Truth” to “It claims direct communion with the Absolute.”
Forty years after her death, Clarice, as she is known in Brazil, has become one of those writers whose persona is inextricably intertwined with her books. No longer a mere author, she has taken on the aura of a myth, a goddess, a sphinx, a sorceress, even a kind of internet self-help oracle, with nearly one thousand inspirational aphorisms attributed to her daily on Twitter, fake quotes blending seamlessly with the real. It seems to me that “something of a mystic” is among the best ways to characterize Clarice Lispector.
As I considered Underhill’s descriptors, they did conjure the nature of Clarice’s works, which cut to the “foundations of experience” and bring us to the “logical end of Intellectualism” in a burst of dark laughter or with a simple, unanswerable question. “Religion—Suffering—Beauty—Their mystical aspect” could serve as thematic shorthand for any number of Clarice’s texts, particularly The Passion According to G.H. This fictional account of a profoundly transformative encounter that leads to spiritual awakening recalls personal narratives by sixteenth-century saint Teresa of Ávila and modern-day mystic Simone Weil—except the woman known as G.H. is a 1960s chain-smoking bourgeois dilettante sculptor trapped in the tropical heat of her Copacabana apartment, and the Eucharist that leads her to God is a cockroach.
Like mysticism, Lispector’s work is hard to define. Both are shrouded in a distrust of language’s ability to capture truth. The Greek root of mysticism, μυω, means “to conceal,” while the word mystic derives from mystikos, one initiated into secret religious rites. “It’s a secret,” Clarice would say when she didn’t want to answer an interview question. Reading her for the first time can feel like being led down a passage toward esoteric mysteries that will never be completely illuminated. I imagine Clarice’s most devoted readers practicing a form of bibliomancy, opening her books at random to let one of her arresting lines set them at a new angle to life, like a tarot card pulled from the deck:
Because I’d looked at the living roach and was discovering inside it the identity of my deepest life.
I can still reason—I studied mathematics, which is the madness of reason—but now I want the plasma—I want to eat straight from the placenta.
The general law for us to stay alive: one can say “a pretty face,” but whoever says “the face,” dies; for having exhausted the topic.
Her sentences shake you out of complacent rationality and faith in totalizing knowledge with their unblinking intensity and uncanny mix of the familiar and the strange, often with a dose of absurdist humor. In the Claricean version of the mystic’s quest to dissolve the boundaries between the self and a divine other, that other can be a cockroach, a placenta, a face, a clock named Sveglia. In the story “Forgiving God,” a somewhat parodic B-side to The Passion According to G.H., a woman’s mystical union with all of creation gets rudely interrupted when she nearly steps on a huge dead rat on Avenida Copacabana, her transcendent rapture punctured by God’s practical joke.
The two years I spent translating Lispector’s Complete Stories sometimes felt like a mystical journey, or at the very least a vision quest in which her sentences rose up like feral hallucinations as I groped at their meaning. I didn’t exactly pray my way through the translation, but I often spoke to an image of her I’d tacked above my desk, her hands covering her famously gorgeous face. I liked that it could be a gesture of anguish or a sign of retreat into an interior world, corresponding to my own oscillations between frustration and focus. Magic crystals and palo santo came into play in moments of desperation. I might have gone to a psychic and summoned Clarice. There’s only so much the dictionary can help you with.
II. THE GOSPEL OF CLARICE
Lispector’s frequent invocations of God raise questions about her relationship to religion. Her family came from Podolia, a region in Ukraine known for an unusual concentration of Jewish mystics. Clarice was born Chaya Pinkhasovna Lispector on December 10, 1920, as the family was fleeing the pogroms, and they landed in northeastern Brazil less than two years later. Her grandfather and father studied the Holy Scriptures, and she grew up going to synagogue in Recife. Yet her own approach to faith turned away from religious orthodoxy, reflecting a more Brazilian syncretism. Clarice embraced the divine alongside the occult, the sacred with the profane, without fear of contradiction, as if inventing her own form of spiritual practice. She read Kabbalistic texts and was deeply interested in Catholicism. Her writing references both the Old and New Testaments, as well as Afro-Brazilian religious rituals that mix Christian saints with Yoruba orixás. She followed astrology and saw a fortune-teller on a regular basis. Delighted to be an invited speaker at the First World Congress of Sorcery in Bogotá in 1975, she mystified the international witches and warlocks with a reading of “The Egg and the Chicken,” one of her most puzzling stories—but not one that deals overtly with magic.
Clarice has been a significant literary figure in Brazil since the publication of her startling debut novel, Near to the Wild Heart, in 1943, when she was twenty-three. Reviewers were intrigued by this writer with the strange name whose Portuguese sounded foreign. It has taken several decades for her reputation abroad to approach her stature at home, but various champions have sought to elevate her to the firmament of literary genius. Clarice is one of the great innovators of Brazilian literature and the Portuguese language, according to literary critic Antonio Candido; a possible Rilke, Rimbaud, Heidegger, or Kakfa who happened to be a Brazilian Jewish mother, as French feminist Hélène Cixous suggests; “the greatest Jewish writer since Kafka” and “a female Chekhov on the beaches of Guanabara,” to quote Benjamin Moser, her biographer and the series editor for her current English translations. She has been called “the Brazilian Virginia Woolf,” a label to which Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld took a fancy, and “the premier Latin American woman prose writer of this century” in a blurb attributed to The New York Times. Yet beyond this literary cachet, it is her mystical quality—more evocative of a charismatic cult leader than of just a talented writer with a cult following—that has kept a hold on readers. “Be careful with Clarice,” the writer Otto Lara Resende once warned a Canadian scholar. “It’s not literature. It’s witchcraft.”
Taking on the task of bringing a lifetime of Clarice’s short stories into English, I was acutely aware of how canonical her writing is, in both a literary and a quasi-religious sense. The stakes are high when you translate a book with the aura of a sacred text. The Complete Stories “might even become your bible,” one reviewer wrote, while another predicted it was “bound to become a kind of bedside Bible or I Ching for readers of Lispector.” “It’s not the Bible,” my editor reminded me at one point when I was worried about maintaining the traceability of certain key words across the collection, in solidarity with readers prone to exegesis but cut off from direct access to the original. Only the most celebrated works receive multiple translations into English, and this was a rare opportunity to recuperate the singular force of Lispector’s originality (about two-thirds of the stories had already been translated). I was the sixth translator in a new series intended to grant the Gospel of Clarice its proper glory by lovingly restoring every comma, semicolon, abrupt paragraph break, insistent repetition, and nonsensical turn of phrase that had been excised or steamrolled in previous, apocryphal versions.
This linguistically remastered version of Clarice invades your body with subtly jarring choices that establish her own rules of reality and grammar. In this realm, the verb morrer, “to die,” takes on transitive properties: “Oh how I love you and I love so much that I die you.” I still don’t know what it means to die someone, but I didn’t have to in order to transmit it. If she says that “everything became flesh once more, the foot of the bed made of flesh, the window made of flesh, the suit made of flesh her husband had tossed on the chair,” so be it. A previous translator had decided this violated the rules of reality and fixed it to read “everything took on the appearance of flesh.” Elsewhere, when a woman’s spontaneous smile is an abismo, it’s not a “charm,” as he had deemed more acceptably feminine, but a goddamn abyss.
I did my best to divine where Clarice’s significant distortions of language lay and how I might convey them faithfully, to use a fraught term for translators. Yet we know there is no such thing as a perfect translation—the pieces that make up different languages never correspond exactly. In the end, it’s someone’s grubby fingerprints all over the Word of another, no matter how much the translator wants to let the spirit take over and speak through her. Translation is interpretation. I had to decide when a mulher was just a “woman” and when she was a “wife” (it’s the same word in Portuguese). Was a mulher vulgar a “common” or “vulgar” wife-woman? At one point, I wrote a memo to my editor outlining a three-point argument for why galinha had to be “chicken” instead of “hen.”*
There were also reminders of the limits of blind adherence to the authority of the original—that first editions are not in fact Holy Scripture. I quietly got rid of the extra l in the last name of the beloved singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso and amended the title They Do Kill Horses, Don’t They? to They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? to maintain a reference to the 1969 film. However, I had no fail-safe algorithm to distinguish between significant deviations worthy of preservation and trivial typos of uncertain provenance—whether it was Clarice herself, an editor, or the typesetter. And any translator’s eyes and brain can falter in a fateful instant, causing verão to become “winter” instead of “summer.” Or perhaps you think, Sure, “Russian mountain ride” sounds weird, but what doesn’t in these stories? until a friend points out that montanha-russa just means “roller coaster.”
III. “YOUR BIRTH IS MY DEATH.”
A few months after the Seattle reading, I went to a writers’ conference in Los Angeles, where I met the only living translator among the former generation that had brought Lispector’s stories into English. He’s in his seventies and looks like Bernie Sanders with a tan. I had worried about his response to my new translations, about whether he would feel my work rendered his obsolete. After watching a panel on translating Brazilian women writers, we made eye contact across the room, and he shuffled up in his tweed blazer, stretched his upturned palms toward me, and intoned, “Your birth is my death.” My eyes went wide as he chuckled wistfully. Later, I wondered what it meant to live and die through Clarice.
There should be a word for the ambiguous kinship between translators who share an author. It’s a bond marked by tender antagonism or light rivalry, mixed with a uniquely intimate solidarity. This polygonal relationship lies somewhere between familial and erotic, all of us vying to be closest to the object of desire: the author’s body and soul, textually speaking. We’re like lovers who have lived with the same romantic partner—or, to take a more sinister view, vampires who feed off the same life essence.
Lispector’s most famous and probably least possessive translator was Elizabeth Bishop, her onetime neighbor in Rio de Janeiro. An established poet in her own right, Bishop translated just three of Clarice’s stories. Had she published more, as she’d once planned, I might not have dared to compete with my favorite poet and the subject of my dissertation, completed in three frantic months after the translation came out. Though Bishop lived in Brazil for over fifteen years, her Portuguese wasn’t strong enough to follow Clarice’s sophisticated linguistic maneuvers. Still, her Lispector vibrates with a singular harmony between two brilliant voices. It felt like killing one mother to claim another when I retranslated one of my favorite stories, “The Smallest Woman in the World,” and changed Bishop’s titles from “Marmosets” and “A Hen” to what I believed were the more fitting “Monkeys” and “A Chicken” (cf. that memo).
Yet the main specter hanging over Clarice’s prior reception in English is the late Scots Italian translator Giovanni Pontiero, a University of Manchester professor responsible for three of the novels, her two most famous story collections (Family Ties and The Foreign Legion), and the crônicas, or short literary sketches, collected in Discovering the World. Pontiero is the translator most associated with smoothing Clarice’s language in English into something more conventionally elegant and akin to realism than the original. Before I began translating the stories, I regularly joined other Lispector scholars in nitpicking his choices.
When I crossed over from critic to fellow translator, however, I began to respect my predecessor more. I still believed Clarice needed to be retranslated with a keener eye for her subtle use of Portuguese and an ear more attuned to the cadences of her voice. Yet the more I experienced the difficulty of keeping her syntax straight—or properly crooked—without going cross-eyed, the more Giovanni, as I now called him, became my ally. The turning point came when I translated The Foreign Legion using an edition that had belonged to him (his partner had passed it on to my editor). Its bright pink cover was coming loose, and the browning pages were in such a fragile state that I kept it in a ziplock bag so it wouldn’t crumble before I was done.
At first I resented having Giovanni in the room with me. I’d squint while working so I wouldn’t be distracted by his spidery notes and suggestions in the margins. I was angry at him for messing up the repetitions, for not allowing one-sentence paragraphs, for tweezing out the commas and reducing colons to periods, for not letting the foot of a bed or a window be made of aching flesh, because that would break the rules of reality. I scoffed at him for not knowing Brazilian vegetables like maxixe, a spiky gherkin, or chuchu, chayote. But the translation process was so solitary, so fraught with the threat of not understanding Clarice’s meaning, that after a while I came to appreciate his company. “Poor, dear Giovanni,” I’d say, sighing, or “Giovanni, why?” Whenever I’d come across a question mark in blue ink, sometimes doubled or tripled, or a prickly row of asterisks or a forest of exclamation points, I’d shake my head and think, I know, right? WTF. Every so often I’d army-crawl through a sentence that kept turning corners, getting tangled in confusing prepositions and ambiguous modifiers, all of it complicated by words with multiple meanings, each equally plausible. Then I’d breathe deeply and take comfort in Giovanni’s scrawls: ?? !!! *** +++
My thoughts exactly.
IV. WOMEN ON THE VERGE
Clarice Lispector’s stories as a whole are more deeply embedded in the language and rhythms of women’s everyday lives than any of her other works. Of the eighty-five stories I translated, at least seventy have a presumably female narrator or protagonist. I was particularly drawn to characters whom I referred to privately as “women on the verge,” a nod to Pedro Almodóvar’s film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Like Almodóvar’s memorable heroines, Clarice’s women are over-the-top in ways that feel tragicomic, slapstick, disturbing, and very real; their manias conjure precisely those moments when your grip on the world starts to waver, but you know that everything going haywire in your head is still really happening. They are on the verge of exaltation, greatness, dissolution, spiritual ecstasy, blossoming into womanhood, becoming nuns, leaving their husbands, forgetting their families, getting assaulted, being abandoned, murdering someone, losing their minds. I was a woman on the verge over and over for two years.
Looking back on that time now, I see something like a film montage of women in front of mirrors—an image that recurs throughout Clarice’s body of work. Her women literally recompose themselves in mirrors, smoothing the contours of identities that have been ruptured or threatened. They steady their existential distress by smiling politely at themselves or combing their hair, reaching for their lipstick to put things right again. My favorite mirror scene occurs after a woman believes her male makeup artist and rival has diabolically erased her face. Checking her reflection in a rising panic, she slaps herself hard. Then: “In the mirror she finally saw a human face, sad, delicate. She was Aurélia Nascimento. She had just been born. Nas-ci-men-to.” Nascimento means “birth” in Portuguese, and I liked the idea of slapping oneself into rebirth. While I never hit myself like that, I did resort to “putting on my face” in the bathroom at 2 or 3 a.m., then returning to my desk with renewed focus.
As I acted out these scenarios in English, I knew instinctively how these women would think, talk, and act. I’ve been a distracted teenager and a lover who has betrayed and been betrayed, but I have never been a housewife, mother, elderly widow, or exotic dancer. Yet I felt the pulse of their presence in the world. “How do I know? Knowing,” Clarice wrote of inventing characters. My own assurance came from recognizing my obsessive mind and emotional intensity in these women at different stages of their lives, and from drawing on that detailed archive of womanhood that most girls unconsciously accumulate, firsthand or through representation, as they try to piece together how to be a “woman.”
The narrator of “Involuntary Incarnation” describes a propensity for this kind of body snatching:
Sometimes, when I see someone I’ve never seen before, and have some time to observe that person, I incarnate myself in the other person and thus take a great step toward knowing who it is. And this intrusion into a person, whoever it may be, never ends in self-accusation: once I incarnate myself in someone else, I understand her motives and forgive.
To think and write beyond our own experience is a necessary transgression if we are to expand our understanding of the world. To translate the stories, I had to perform a double incarnation, to inhabit Clarice inhabiting her various characters. It was fascinating and brutal to live through so many women’s crises, to experience the neediness and love of husbands and children when I had none of my own, to feel the loneliness and unfulfilled desire of elderly, forgotten widows when I was thirty-five—roughly the midpoint of Clarice’s age range when she wrote these stories. She herself composed them as an eighteen-year-old law student and journalist, then as a Brazilian diplomat’s wife for sixteen years, and, after separating in 1959, as a single mother of two sons. I was a graduate student who hadn’t written any books, and this was my first full-length translation, yet working through the collection in chronological order, I experienced the trajectory of Clarice’s writing life as though in compressed real time.
Approaching the end of the volume, I felt the excruciating weight of four decades of writing coming to a close, the words suffused with her fatigue and mine. In a TV interview recorded in 1977, the year of her death from ovarian cancer, Clarice declares that she’s tired of herself. Sitting in an easy chair, fiddling with a pack of cigarettes, her face solemn, with its characteristic heavy-lidded gaze under a dark slash of eyeliner, she says, “For now I’m dead. I’m speaking from my grave.”
V. WHAT THE PSYCHIC SAID
In the last days of December 2014 I saw a psychic astrologer in San Francisco. I was starting to feel delirious—the manuscript was due in January, and I was racing to get through edits, experiencing the terror of making all those minute decisions irrevocable. My personal life also felt out of control. At the end of Clarice’s final novel, The Hour of the Star, the pathetic heroine, Macabéa, goes to see a fortune-teller. It ends badly. I was more hopeful.
The psychic was a friend of a friend, welcoming but no-nonsense, with bold glasses, dark Louis XIV curls, and an overall queer-witch vibe that seemed equal parts intuitive and highly cultivated. Adding to her mystical aspect were a gold tooth and one eye that appeared to do its own thing while the other homed in on me. We spent most of the hour on my family, specifically the patterns that women on my mother’s side have repeated for generations, leading to an explanation of why I was stuck in a four-year relationship with someone that was making both of us lonely and miserable. With just five minutes left in a very expensive reading, I interrupted her: “Um, when I say ‘Clarice Lispector,’ or just ‘Clarice,’ do you get anything?” She consulted whatever she was seeing with her third eye, snapped her attention back to me, and said, “I see. You’re fangirling with a dead woman.” I laughed nervously; it came out more like a shriek.
She said she saw a figure who was zaftig, a word from Yiddish that she said meant “thick and curvy in a sexy way.” The medium further described the presence she was channeling: “She was a passionate woman… She’s crass in a poetic way. Like, there’s something very voluptuous about her processing style.” Raising her voice, she explained, “She’s kind of a projector, so I kind of want to yell at you when I’m talking. She’s intense!” And then, “This is a woman with balls, OK? She has HUGE BALLS.” She was refracting Clarice’s personality through her own, and the result struck me as surprisingly accurate, even if the wording was nowhere near what I’d have chosen.
There was one message from Clarice that helped free me from the mania of perfectionism that had been closing in. “She doesn’t want you to get it perfect,” the medium reported. “If you got it perfect then you’d be her and she doesn’t want you to be her. She doesn’t want you to perfectly capture her. Because that would be insulting. If you could, she feels like she wouldn’t be that complex and she felt like a complex woman. So she wants you to feel really good about what you’ve done. She wants you” [long pause] “to be suspicious of men. She doesn’t want men owning anything of her.” This incarnation of Clarice had now become my personal self-help oracle, telling me that I should write my own kind of poetry, that she didn’t really care about my boyfriend, that I should never let myself go for another person. “And you have sat there communicating with her,” the psychic continued, “telling her what you wanted, apologizing, asking, asking, asking, and she says sometimes she wants to shake you and say, It’s fine. She feels respected and honored by you. But she doesn’t need you to get her completely. That’s not your job.”
The final directive from this Clarice was for me to put a glass vessel in a cloth and break it. “Destroy it,” the psychic said. “Maybe you’ll do that as a celebration for the new year or for when you get the book done. So whenever you do it, she’ll be with you.” I did it on New Year’s Eve and on New Year’s Day explosively and unexpectedly ended that flailing four-year romance. At the close of the month, I turned in the manuscript.
VI. IMITATION OF CLARICE
The Complete Stories came out in July 2015 to much fanfare in the corner of the publishing world that cares about strange and difficult writers. It was no Ferrante Fever, but Lispectormania hit the cover of The New York Times Book Review, and the first print run sold out within two weeks. As Clarice’s star has risen on the international stage, increasing attention has been paid to her looks: a certain whiff of glamour, helped along by the prominent use of her image on book covers and by sound bites like translator Gregory Rabassa’s endlessly reverberating remark that she “looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.”
“What if Clarice Lispector had not been a disconcerting beauty?” Miranda France wondered in The Times Literary Supplement. “The question needs to be asked because the Brazilian writer’s appearance has become inseparable from an appreciation of her writing.” Though I agreed with France’s concern that the emphasis on Clarice’s looks came at the expense of her writing, I also cringed at an unfortunate irony: the photo accompanying the piece was not of Clarice but of a Brazilian doppelgänger named Rita Elmôr. It’s a still from Que mistérios tem Clarice? (“What Mysteries Does Clarice Hold?”), a one-woman play from 1998 in which Elmôr starred at the age of twenty-four. The resemblance is striking, but Elmôr is more gamine, lacking those full cheeks, and posing much more theatrically, her head resting dreamily on a hand delicately balancing a cigarette. There is a self-possession in the real Clarice’s eyes, an unsettling directness in her gaze that I find more compelling than her beauty.
In the months following the release of the story collection, I spotted fake Clarices in other reputable literary publications. One magazine paired Lispector’s bio with a photo of the writer Alice Denham from her July 1956 Playboy centerfold spread. In an exaggerated fantasy of the seductive woman writer, Denham also holds a cigarette while leaning suggestively over a typewriter. As my evangelical fervor for guarding the Word of Clarice extended to her image, I made it my vigilante business to right this wrong. Yet after several rounds of emailing editorial staffs, I realized I was playing a futile game of Whac-A-Mole against the mighty forces of misinformation. Like the fake #claricelispector quotes proliferating across social media, these ersatz Clarices are impossible to weed out.
On the poster for a Lispector conference to which I was invited last year, there was Rita Elmôr again. The organizers were duly mortified when I pointed out the error and quickly commissioned a new poster, but a cosponsoring department insisted on using the original one, on the basis that it foregrounded the theme of performance. (My presentation happened to be called “Performing Clarice’s ‘Women on the Verge.’”) More recently, a Brazilian online magazine published an interview with me, accompanied by a collage of Elmôr against a backdrop of Lispector phrases in English that I hadn’t translated. When I objected to the image, the editors claimed the artist had intended to “create an analogy between the version of Clarice that you presented to readers in English with your translation (that is, your translation is Clarice as represented by you) and a photograph of an actress who represents Clarice, but who isn’t Clarice herself.”
Point taken. I had to accept that, to a certain extent, Rita Elmôr, c’est moi. Through my crusade against these false icons, I came to suspect that my distress was provoked in part by a recognition that I, too, was a counterfeit Clarice. Did these impersonators hold up a mirror in which I, too, was staring into the distance, cigarette in hand? Another Lispector translator confessed to having pondered, half in jest, whether, given the timing of her birth, she might have absorbed some of the recently departed Clarice’s cosmic matter in transit. I understand the desire, though ultimately none of us—translators, performers, mediums—can be her, even as we try to channel her. We do all we can to convey her to others through our voluntary incarnations, but we also have a responsibility to maintain a respectful distance from the original.
Throughout Clarice’s work, there’s something I think of as an ethos of error. “Understanding is the proof of error,” she writes in “The Egg and the Chicken.” In another of her stories, “The Imitation of the Rose,” a perfectionist housewife named Laura recalls how, as a Catholic schoolgirl, she’d read the spiritual handbook The Imitation of Christ “with a fool’s ardor,” but also with the fear that “whoever imitated Christ would be lost—lost in the light, but dangerously lost.” In the end, she grows ominously attached to a bouquet of roses and relapses into former obsessions that leave her stranded from the logic of the ordinary world, somewhere between hysteric and mystic. Clarice’s characters keep striving for the kind of flawless performance society expects of women—to be the ideal wife, ideal mother, ideal daughter, ideal student. But salvation can come in the form of failure, often the failure to follow a fixed set of commandments.
One spring night in New Orleans, I crashed a cocktail gathering at the home of an admired photographer who was almost my mother’s age. My status shifted from anonymous interloper to person of interest when she learned that I had translated The Complete Stories. Plucking the hardcover from her shelf, she asked me to sign it. Then she asked me to sign again, as Clarice. Horrified, I told her I could never do that! I was just the translator—how could I write in Clarice’s name? I didn’t want to be a cheap impersonator; it went against my code of honor. Yet the photographer insisted. In the passion of the moment, my self-righteousness dissolved, and I relented. I asked if she had any red lipstick. She did. So I painted my lips carefully in the entryway mirror. Then I picked up the book, closed my eyes, and kissed it for Clarice.