A couple weeks ago, Ben Moser was in town for the unfortunately acronymed NeMLA conference. We took advantage of this to host a special RTWCS event to talk to Ben about his biography of Lispector (Why This World, Oxford University Press), his new translation of The Hour of the Star, and the four Lispector books he’s editing for New Directions.
The results were pretty entertaining, in part because Ben (who is also a contributing editor to Harper’s and on the board of the National Book Critics Circle) is so damn entertaining, and in part because Lispector is one of the most interesting literary figures of this past century.
This is pretty cool. Starting this month, PEN America is launching PEN Reads an online reading group allowing readers and authors to interact. And being PEN, they’re also going to include essays and commentary from prominent world authors, scholars, etc., etc.
The first book in the program is Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star (which is available from New Directions):
This haunting tale of love and pain, death and art, is widely viewed as the Brazilian author’s masterwork. Written shortly before her death, this slim novel boldly cracks open the riddles of daily existence and draws out glimmering bits of truth. Beautifully translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero, The Hour of the Star is a vivid reminder of the power of literature, and an affirmation of its ability to connect the seemingly disparate points of the human condition.
Lispector’s amazing, and I’m really looking forward to reading this and joining in the conversation . . . To get things started, PEN posted the opening section of the novel and an introductory essay by Colm Tóibín:
The Hour of the Star is like being brought backstage during the performance of a play and allowed odd glimpses of the actors and the audience, and further and more intense glimpses of the mechanics of the theatre—the scene and costume changes, the creation of artifice—with many interruptions by the backstage staff.
Nothing is stable in the text. The voice of the narrator moves from the darkest wondering about existence and God to almost comic wandering around his character—watching her, entering her mind, listening to her. He is filled with pity and sympathy for her case—her poverty, her innocence, how much she does not know and cannot imagine—but he is also alert to the the writing of fiction itself as an activity which demands tricks which he, the poor narrator, simply does not possess, or does not find useful. It is hard to decide who to feel more sorry for, Macabea or the narrator, the innocent victim of life, or the highly-self conscious victim of his own failure. The one who knows too little, or the one who knows too much.
The narrative moves from a set of broad strokes about character and scene, with throw-away moments and casual statements which sum up and analyse, to aphorisms about life and death and the mystery of time and God. It moves from a deep awareness about the tragedy of being alive to a sly allowance for the fact that existence is a comedy. The story is set both in a Brazil that is almost too real in the limit it sets on the characters’ lives and a Brazil of the mind and the imagination, made vast by the way in which words and images, and shifts of tone and texture, are deployed by Lispector in her mysterious swan-song.
And if you’re interested in more info on Lispector herself, you should definitely check out Ben Moser’s Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector. Here’s a link to the first chapter and a link to a piece Ben wrote for Publishing Perspectives.
This post is two days overdue, so you may already have noticed that Brazos has replaced Skylight as our “Featured Bookstore” for September.
Back when I did sales calls at Dalkey, I used to love calling Brazos and talking to Karl Kilian. Very nice guy, very kind, very interested in our books. So I was dismayed when he decided to take a job at the Menil Collection and was going to have to sell the store . . . Well, as is detailed in this article, twenty-five local individuals stepped up, pooled resources, formed Brazos Bookstore Acquisition, a limited liability corporation, and saved Brazos.
Jane Moser—the store manager, and more on her in a second—has a great quote about this: “Houston is known for its oil and conservative politics. It’s really nice to have a literary community take a stand and say it will not let the store disappear.”
To be completely honest, I’ve never been to Brazos—or even to Houston, although I seem to know a lot of cool literary people down there—and the real reason I want to feature Brazos this particular month is because of Jane’s son Benjamin. Ben Moser is the new literary editor at Harper’s, a very funny guy, and the author of Why This World, the new biography of Clarice Lispector. He’s actually in the States right now to promote the book and will be “reading at Brazos” on September 14th.
All month, all of the books mentioned in our posts will link to Brazos’s online ordering catalog. Please take advantage and help support Brazos—one of the top indie stores in the country.
From today’s Publishing Perspectives piece by Moser about the origins of his project (Why This World) and all that he went through to research this elusive figure:
Maybe because the project began with such élan, I found myself undaunted by the many obstacles that were thrown at me. Neither the cuisine of rural Ukraine, where Clarice, the daughter of Jewish refugees was born; nor the rush-hour traffic in Recife, where she grew up; nor the zealous guardians of the archives of Bern, where she lived as the wife of a Brazilian diplomat, could dissuade me from my task.
I pored over thousands of pages of master’s theses from obscure universities; I learned Yiddish in order to read family memoirs. Time and again, I tugged out an abusively overused credit card: to buy books, including, ultimately, more copies of her rare first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, than are in all the libraries in the United States put together; to chase down some elusive materials in a suburban house in Manchester; to pay a visit to a man in Paris who may or may not have been her lover (he wasn’t); to put myself on yet another fourteen-hour economy flight in order to spend long days speaking to often-reluctant witnesses.
I got called an anti-Semite and an Ugly American; I also got to spend afternoons with loving Jewish grandmothers who made me tea and sent their maids to my hotel with homemade soup when I came down with the flu. I got to eat pizza with a woman in Kiev who had just returned from Chernobyl and who casually laid her Geiger counter on the table as she was digging through her purse in search of her cigarettes.
One of the fall books that I’m really looking forward to is Benjamin Moser’s biography of Clarice Lispector entitled Why This World, which, according to the back jacket, is “based on previously unknown manuscripts, numerous interviews, and years of research on three continents.”
Moser replaced the late John Leonard as the author of Harper’s “New Books” column, and is also a contributor to New York Review of Books. (And his mom runs Brazos Bookstore—a future featured indie bookstore.)
Lispector was born in the Ukraine, but grew up in Brazil and wrote all of her works in Portuguese. Most of her books are available from New Directions, including The Hour of the Star, Selected Cronicas, and Soulstorm. (University of Texas did Apple in the Dark a number of years ago, but it’s currently out-of-print.)
She was a fascinating writer, and her life sounds equally intriguing. I’m hoping to write a full review of this bio in the not-too-distant future, but here’s a bit from the beginning about the mysterious, beautiful Clarice Lispector:
In this void of information a whole mythology sprang up. Reading accounts of her at different points in her life, one can hardly believe they concern the same person. The points of disagreement were not trivial. “Clarice Lispector” was once thought to be a pseudonym, and her original name was not known until after her death. Where exactly she was born and how old she was were also unclear. Her nationality was questioned and the identity of her native language was obscure. One authority will testify that she was right-wing and another will hint that she was a Communist. One will insist that she was a pious Catholic, though she was actually a Jew. Rumor will sometimes have it that she was a lesbian, though at one point rumor also had it that she was, in fact, a man.
What makes this tangle of contradictions so odd is that Clarice Lispector is not a hazy figure known from shreds of antique papyrus. She has been dead hardly thirty years. Many people survive who knew her well. She was prominent virtually from adolescence, her life was extensively documented in the press, and she left behind an extensive correspondence. Still, few great modern artists are quite as fundamentally unfamiliar. How can a person who lived in a large Western city in the middle of the twentieth century, who gave interviews, lived in high-rise apartments, and traveled by air, remain so enigmatic?
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