Interview: Benjamin Moser on Clarice Lispector

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One of the major literary events this fall is the publication of The Complete Stories, 86 in all, by the Brazilian superstar Clarice Lispector (1920-1977). The stories are translated by Katrina Dodson and have been edited by Benjamin Moser. He is Lispector’s foremost champion in North America and has famously said that she was the most important Jewish writer since Kafka.

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Moser have written an excellent biography on Clarice Lispector, Why This World, first published 2009. Moser demonstrates how Lispector’s development as a writer was directly connected to the story of her turbulent life. Since the publication of the biography the interest in the great Brazilian author has grown at a steady pace in North America. It has also been translated into several other languages.

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And Moser has translated Lispectors final masterpiece, the novel The Hour of the Star, and then other translators were recruited to translate four more novels by her.

Moser recently wrote a beautiful piece in The New Yorker about Lispector, writing about ”the magnetic love she inspires in those susceptible to her. For them, reading Clarice Lispector is one of the great emotional experiences of their lives.”

We had the opportunity to ask Mr. Moser a couple of questions:

When and why did you fall in love with Clarice Lispector and her writing?

– I fell in love with her at the university in the United States, during my second year. I had gone to high school in France, and I had become interested in learning something about Asia, since I had already spent some time in Europe. So I started studying Chinese. But it was impossible: the professor said it would take ten years to learn to read the newspaper. I dropped the class the day he said that. But I needed to take a language, and the only one open then was Portuguese. So I showed up, knowing nothing about Portugal or Brazil. And then, after only a year (because the language is not hard if you know French or Spanish) we started reading short works of Brazilian literature. And I read the first page of The Hour of the Star and that was it. Twenty years later, I’m still talking about Clarice.

What is it that makes Lispectors stories and novels so extraordinary?

– I think it’s her that makes them so extraordinary. She is such a fascinating, mysterious, compelling person, and as you read her writings, you become bewitched by her. Reading her is an intellectual and an artistic experience of the highest order. ​But it’s also a very powerful emotional experience. And the people who feel that emotional connection are her true readers. When people don’t feel that and read her as a Great Writer… I always think they should go read something else. Because without that contact with the person of Clarice there is no point. And it cannot be forced. It is just there for those who are susceptible to her.

Do you think she is better as a writer of short stories or as a novelist?

– This is a debate that people always have in Brazil and it really doesn’t interest me. Because I am interested in her, even her failures fascinate me. How did she become what she became? How did she move from one work to the other? Because the work, when read together, has an astonishing coherence, even though she uses a vast range of styles and themes.

You have written a very fine, gripping and entertaining biography about her: Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector (OUP). When you did research, where there anything that took you by surprise?

– That’s a hard question because when I started my research I didn’t really know that much about her. I just knew her work and then the few things that were publicly available. I think the most astonishing thing was the shocking secret I discovered about her birth: that her mother, in Ukraine, had been raped in the anti-Jewish pogroms and contracted syphilis as a result. And that then, because of a folk belief in that poor and isolated region where they came from, the mother and father decided that the mother should get pregnant in order to cure the disease. It was, from a medical perspective, insane. But Clarice was the result of that hope and that desperation. And when the mother died, in Brazil, when Clarice was 9, Clarice was devastated by her failure to do what she had come to the world to achieve: save her mother.

You have also translated Lispector and you oversee a project translating several of her books into English. Could you please tell us a little bit about translating Lispector? And about how you manage such a project, involving several books and several translators?

– Another big question! Well, her Portuguese is very difficult. Not because it is dialect or because she has a huge vocabulary but because it is very subtly – but very recognizably – wrong. So there is a real temptation to smooth it out, which I think is a big mistake, because the wrongness is its poetry. I have been coordinating this project for several years now, and it has not been easy: six books – seven with the biography – and a lot of different translators. I edit these things very heavily because I want her voice to sound basically the same, even though these are different people with different voices. But I chose to use different people – young people – for a ”political” reason: there are not very many good translators from Portuguese into English, and I wanted more young people to have a chance to translate a difficult classic author. From there, I hope that they will go on to do more, and bring more Portuguese-language works into our language.

When I started to read Lispectors stories I did so with tremendous respect, I had read that her texts were “hermetic”, but was surprised to find that she is also quite accessible. The Swedish publisher Tranan, they publish amazing books from all over the world, have put out seven of Lispectors books, I think. Do you think that it’s wise to read her books in a particular order?

– I don’t think it matters. I think what matters is the ​feeling. I first read her last published work, The Hour of the Star. And then I read The Passion according to GH. And I think that if you love Clarice as instantly and as automatically as I did, it doesn’t matter: but there are some very difficult works, too, and I am glad I didn’t start with them. I think that some of the early novels are very hard if you are not already used to reading her and understanding her.

We have had a Bolaño-fever, a Knausgaard-fever and a Ferrante-fever. Now, following the release of The Complete Stories (New Directions), as well as new translations of her novels, we seem to be in the middle of a Lispector-fever. Are you surprised by this enthusiastic reception?

– Yes and no.  Yes because ​I have been very used to working on her for many years and was a little bit accustomed to seeing people ignore her. It’s pretty discouraging sometimes, but I kept going because I believed in her so much.

– And no, because I have worked very, very hard, for very many years, to bring her to the place where she deserves to be, as one of the central writers of the modern age. So I have seen interest in her build and build to the point we have now reached. And now that people are reading and absorbing her all over the world, I think that we are really just beginning.

Ola Wihlke

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