clarice lispector | mother’s day, a pious invention

10 05 2008

Poetry Dispatch No. 234 | May 10, 2008



Location – Refuge for Abandoned Children; an old building in colonial style; innumerable pavilions with spacious rooms; high ceilings; barred windows.

Number of Children — Six hundred.

Age of Children — Varied.

History – Founded around 1778.

Founder – A Portuguese millionaire who owned the mansion and felt something must be done to rescue abandoned children.

Aims of the Refuge – To house, educate and bring up orphans or children abandoned by their parents.

Director — Sister Isabel, a nun of the Order of St Vincent: white habit; medium height; plump, smiling, imaginative, energetic and loquacious; an expressive face which becomes solemn when she is worried; she moves briskly and with remarkable agility in her white habit, which is always immaculate; a born leader; in no sense conventional; a lively creature who finds a ready solution to every problem. To all appearances oblivious of her own intelligence, she is open and spontaneous: she believes nothing is impossible and once she has made up her mind she acts without a moment’s hesitation. She never shrinks from hard work.

The Facts – Sister Isabel has just been appointed Sister Superior of the Refuge for Abandoned Children, in other words, the Director. She is gradually finding her way around the Refuge. There are six hundred files to be read, one for each child. She notices that in the majority of cases, the parents of the children are unknown. An average file reads: Joao de Deus, born the tenth of December, 1965. Place of birth: State of Guanabara. Colour: black. Parentage: none. There is a blank space. She is gradually getting to know the children, one by one. Most of them ask her: Who is my mummy? To conceal her embarrassment, Sister Isabel changes the subject. But the children are insistent: Who is my Mummy? Sister Isabel thinks hard. Much distressed, she searches for some impossible solution. For hours she stands lost in thought before that enormous filing cabinet, biting her lips.

Result – She reaches a decision. She goes through the cards one by one, undeterred by the fact that there are six hundred of [km to be read. And wherever there is an empty space after the word Parentage she invents a mother for every parentless child. She writes in over and over again names like Maria, Ana, Virginia, Helena, Maddalena, Sofia, etc.

Conclusion – She sends for each child without parents and informs them: Your mummy’s name is Maria, or Ana, or Sofia, etc. The children are overjoyed: now they all have a mother and they are so happy that they do not even mind if she never comes to see them. Sister Isabel always finds some excuse to explain why their mother cannot be with them. A pure invention, those mothers are a fiction and non-existent. They only exist on paper yet they are somehow alive, caring and affectionate.

Finale – Here my story ends and there is nothing more to tell you.

from SELECTED CRǑNICAS, New Directions, 1996, 212 pp. $12.95

Clarice Lispector (December 10, 1920 – December 9, 1977) was a Brazilian writer. Acclaimed internationally for her innovative novels and short stories, she was also a journalist and a translator. A legendary figure in Brazil, renowned for her mystical writings, her great personal beauty, and her eccentric personality, she is now considered (with João Guimarães Rosa) one of the two most outstanding Brazilian prose writers of the twentieth century.

Chaya Lispector was born in Chechelnyk, Podolia, a shtetl in what is today Ukraine. She was the youngest of three daughters of Pinkhas Lispector and Mania Krimgold Lispector. Her family suffered terribly during the pogroms that followed the dissolution of the Russian Empire and the Russian Civil War, circumstances later dramatized by her older sister Elisa Lispector’s autobiographical novel No exílio (In Exile, 1948). They eventually managed to escape to Romania. In Bucharest, they were issued a passport for Brazil, where her mother Mania had relatives. They sailed from Hamburg and arrived in Brazil in the early months of 1922, when Chaya was little more than a year old.

The Lispectors changed their names upon arrival. Pinkhas became Pedro; Mania became Marieta; Leah became Elisa, and Chaya became Clarice. Only the middle daughter, Tania, (April 19, 1915 – November 15, 2007), kept her name. They first settled in the small northeastern city of Maceió, Alagoas. After three years, during which Marieta’s health deteriorated rapidly, they moved to the larger city of Recife, Pernambuco, settling in the Jewish neighborhood of Boa Vista.

In Recife, where her father continued to struggle economically, her mother finally died on September 21, 1930, at age forty-two. Clarice was nine years old. She attended the Colégio Hebreo-Idisch-Brasileiro, which taught Hebrew and Yiddish in addition to the usual subjects. In 1932, she gained admission to the Ginásio Pernambucano, then the most prestigious secondary school in the state. A year later, she “consciously claimed the desire to write,” under much influence from Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf.

In 1935, Pedro Lispector decided to move with his daughters to the then-capital, Rio de Janeiro, where he hoped to find more economic opportunity. The family lived in the neighborhood of São Cristóvão, north of downtown Rio, before moving to Tijuca. In 1937, she entered the Law Faculty of the University of Brazil, then the most prestigious institution of higher learning in the country.

Her first known story, “Triunfo,” was published in the magazine Pan on May 25, 1940. Soon afterwards, on August 26, 1940, as a result of a botched gall-bladder operation, her beloved father died, age 55.

While still in law school, Clarice began working as a journalist, first at the official government press service the Agência Nacional and then at the important newspaper A Noite. There she came into contact with the younger generation of Brazilian writers, including Lúcio Cardoso, with whom she fell in love. Cardoso was homosexual, however, and she soon began seeing a law school collegue named Maury Gurgel Valente, who had entered the Brazilian Foreign Service, known as Itamaraty. In order to marry a diplomat, she had to be naturalized, which she did as soon as she came of age. On January 12, 1943, she was granted Brazilian citizenship. Eleven days later she married Maury.

In December 1943, she published her first novel, Perto do coração selvagem (Near to the Wild Heart). The novel, which tells of the inner life of a young woman named Joana, caused a sensation. In October 1944, the book won the prestigious Graça Aranha Prize for the best debut novel of 1943. One critic, the poet Lêdo Ivo, called it “the greatest novel a woman has ever written in the Portuguese language.” Another wrote that Clarice had “shifted the center of gravity around which the Brazilian novel had been revolving for about twenty years.” “Clarice Lispector’s work appears in our literary world as the most serious attempt at the introspective novel,” wrote the São Paulo critic Sérgio Milliet. “For the first time, a Brazilian author goes beyond simple approximation in this almost virgin field of our literature; for the first time, an author penetrates the depths of the psychological complexity of the modern soul.”

When the novel was published, many claimed that her stream-of-consciousness writing style was heavily influenced by Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, but she had read neither of these authors. The title, and the epigraph from Joyce, were suggested by Lúcio Cardoso. This novel, like all of her subsequent works, was marked by an intense focus on interior emotional states.

Shortly afterwards, Clarice and Maury left Rio for the northern city of Belém do Pará, at the mouth of the Amazon. There, Maury served as a liaison between the Foreign Ministry and the international visitors who were using northern Brazil as a military base in World War II.

On July 29, 1944, Clarice left Brazil for the first time since she had arrived as a child, destined for Naples, where Maury was posted to the Brazilian Consulate. Naples was the staging ground for the Brazilian troops of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force who were fighting on the Allied side against the Nazis. She worked at the hospital in Naples taking care of wounded Brazilian troops. In Rome, she met the Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, who translated parts of Near to the Wild Heart, and had her portrait painted by Giorgio de Chirico.

In Naples she completed her second novel, O Lustre (The Chandelier, 1946), which like the first focused on the interior life of a girl, this time one named Virgínia. This longer and more difficult book also met with an enthusiastic critical reception, though its impact was less sensational than Near to the Wild Heart. “Possessed of an enormous talent and a rare personality, she will have to suffer, fatally, the disadvantages of both, since she so amply enjoys their benefits,” wrote Gilda de Souza e Mello.

After a short visit to Brazil in 1946, Clarice and Maury returned to Europe in April, 1946, where Maury was posted to the embassy in Berne, Switzerland. This was a time of considerable boredom and frustration for Lispector, who was often depressed. “This Switzerland,” she wrote her sister Tania, “is a cemetery of sensations.” Her son Pedro Gurgel Valente was born in Berne on September 10, 1948, and in the city she wrote her third novel, A cidade sitiada (The Besieged City, 1946).

In Switzerland, in Berne, I lived on the Gerechtigkeitsgasse, that is, Justice Street. In front of my house, in the street, was the colored statue, holding the scales. Around, crushed kings begging perhaps for a pardon. In the winter, the little lake in the middle of which the statue stood, in the winter the freezing water, sometimes brittle with a thin layer of ice. In the spring red geraniums … And the still-medieval street: I lived in the old part of the city. What saved me from the monotony of Berne was living in the Middle Ages, it was waiting for the snow to pass and for the red geraniums to be reflected once again in the water, it was having a son born there, it was writing one of my least liked books, The Besieged City, which, however, people come to like when they read it a second time; my gratitude to that book is enormous: the effort of writing it kept me busy, saved me from the appalling silence of Berne, and when I finished the last chapter I went to the hospital to give birth to the boy.

The book Lispector wrote in Berne, The Besieged City, tells the story of Lucrécia Neves, and the growth of her town, São Geraldo, from a little settlement to a large city. The book, which is full of metaphors of vision and seeing, met with a tepid reception and was “perhaps the least loved of Clarice Lispector’s novels,” according to a close friend of Lispector’s. Sérgio Milliet concluded that “the author succumbs beneath the weight of her own richness.” And the Portuguese critic João Gaspar Simões wrote: “Its hermeticism has the texture of the hermeticism of dreams. May someone find the key.”

After leaving Switzerland in 1949 and spending almost a year in Rio, Clarice and Maury Gurgel Valente traveled to Torquay, Devon, where Maury was a delegate to the on GATT. They remained in England from September, 1950, until March, 1951. Lispector liked England, though she suffered a miscarriage on a visit to London.

In 1952, back in Rio, where the family would stay about a year, Lispector published a short volume of six stories called Alguns contos (Some Stories) in a small edition sponsored by the Ministry of Education and Health. These stories formed the core of the later Laços de família (Family Ties), 1961. She also worked under the pseudonym Teresa Quadros as a women’s columnist at the short-lived newspaper Comício.

In September, 1952, the family moved to Washington, where they would live until June, 1959. They bought a house at 4421 Ridge Street in the suburb of Chevy Chase, Maryland. On February 10, 1953, her second son Paulo was born. She grew close to the Brazilian writer Érico Veríssimo, then working for the Organization of American States, and his wife Mafalda, as well as to the wife of the ambassador, Alzira Vargas do Amaral Peixoto, daughter of the former Brazilian dictator Getúlio Vargas. She also began publishing her stories in the new magazine Senhor, back in Rio. But she was increasingly discontented with the diplomatic milieu. “I hated it, but I did what I had to […] I gave dinner parties, I did everything you’re supposed to do, but with a disgust …” She increasingly missed her sisters and Brazil, and in June, 1959, she left her husband and returned with her sons to Rio de Janeiro, where she would spend the rest of her life.

In Brazil, Lispector struggled financially and tried to find a publisher for the novel she had completed in Washington several years before, as well as for her book of stories, Laços de família. This book incorporated the six stories of Some Stories along with seven new stories, some of which had been published in Senhor. It was published in 1960. The book, her friend Fernando Sabino wrote her, was “exactly, sincerely, indisputably, and even humbly, the best book of stories ever published in Brazil.” And Érico Veríssimo said: “I haven’t written about your book of stories out of sheer embarrassment to tell you what I think of it. Here goes: the most important story collection published in this country since Machado de Assis,” Brazil’s classic novelist.

A Maçã no escuro (The Apple in the Dark), which she had begun in Torquay, had been ready since 1956 but was repeatedly rejected by publishers, to Lispector’s despair. Her longest novel and perhaps her most complex, it was finally published in 1961 by the same house that had published Family Ties, the Livraria Francisco Alves in São Paulo. Driven by interior dialogue rather than by plot, its purported subject is a man called Martim, who believes he has killed his wife and flees deep into the Brazilian interior, where he finds work as a farm laborer. The real concerns of the highly allegorical novel are language and creation. In 1962, the work was awarded the Carmen Dolores Barbosa Pize for the best novel of the previous year.

Around this time she began a relationship with the poet Paulo Mendes Campos, an old friend. Mendes Campos was married and the relationship did not endure.

In 1964, she published one of her most shocking and famous books, A paixão segundo G.H., about a woman who, in the maid’s room of her comfortable Rio penthouse, endures a mystical experience that leads to her eating part of a cockroach. In the same year, she published another book of stories and miscellany, The Foreign Legion.

On September 14, 1966, she suffered a terrible accident in her apartment. After taking a sleeping pill, she fell asleep in her bed with a lit cigarette. She was badly wounded and her right hand almost had to be amputated.

The fire I suffered a while back partially destroyed my right hand. My legs were marked forever. What happened was very sad and I prefer not to think about it. All I can say is that I spent three days in hell, where–so they say–bad people go after death. I don’t consider myself bad and I experienced it while still alive.

The next year, she published her first children’s book, O Mistério do coelho pensante, (The Mystery of the Thinking Rabbit, 1967), a translation of a book she had written in Washington, in English, for her son Paulo. In August, 1967, she began writing a weekly column (“crônica”) for the Jornal do Brasil, an important Rio newspaper, which greatly expanded her fame beyond the intellectual and artistic circles that had long admired her. These pieces were later collected in the postumous work A Descoberta do mundo (The Discovery of the World, 1984).

In 1968, Lispector participated in the political demonstrations against Brazil’s hardening military dictatorship, and also published two books: her second work for children, A Mulher que matou os peixes (The Woman Who Killed the Fish), in which the narrator, Clarice, confesses to having forgotten to feed her son’s fish; and her first novel since G.H., Uma Aprendizagem ou O Livro dos Prazeres, a love story between a primary teacher, Lóri, and a philosophy teacher, Ulisses. The book drew on her writings in her newspaper columns. She also intensified her journalistic activity, conducting interviews for the glossy magazine Manchete.

In 1971, Lispector published another book of stories, Felicidade clandestina, (Covert Joy), several of which hearkened back to memories of her childhood in Recife. She began working on the book that many would consider her finest, Água viva, though she struggled to complete it. Olga Borelli, a former nun who entered her life around this time and became her faithful assistant and friend, recalled:

She was insecure and asked a few people for their opinion. With other books Clarice didn’t show that insecurity. With Água viva she did. That was the only time I saw Clarice hesitate before handing in a book to the publisher. She herself said that. When the book came out in 1973, it was instantly acclaimed as a masterpiece. “With this fiction,” one critic wrote, “Clarice Lispector awakens the literature currently being produced in Brazil from a depressing and degrading lethargy and elevates it to a level of universal perennity and perfection.”

In 1974, Lispector published two books of stories, Onde estivestes de noite (Where Were You at Night) – which focuses in part on the lives of aging women – and A Via Crucis do corpo (The Via-Crucis of the Body). Though her previous books had often taken her years to complete, the latter was written in three days, after a challenge from her publisher, Álvaro Pacheco, to write three stories about themes relating to sex. Part of the reason she wrote so much may have had to do with her having been unexpectedly fired from the Jornal do Brasil at the end of 1973, which put her under increasing financial pressure. She began to paint and intensified her activity as a translator, publishing translations of Agatha Christie, Oscar Wilde, and Edgar Allan Poe. And in 1975 she was invited to the First World Congress of Sorcery in Bogotá, an event which garnered wide press coverage and increased her notoriety. At the conference, her story “The Egg and the Hen”, first published in The Foreign Legion, was read in English.

“The Egg and the Hen” is mysterious and does indeed have a bit of occultism. It is a difficult and profound story. That is why I think the audience, very mixed, would have been happier if I had pulled a rabbit out of my hat. Or fallen into a trance. Listen, I never did anything like that in my life. My inspiration does not come from the supernatural, but from unconscious elaboration, which comes to the surface as a kind of revelation. Moreover, I don’t write in order to gratify anybody else.

In the mid-seventies, Lispector worked on a book called Um sopro de vida: pulsações (A Breath of Life: Pulsations) that would be published posthumously. The book consists of a dialogue between an “Author” and his creation, Angela Pralini, a character whose name was borrowed from a character in a story in Where Were You at Night. She used this fragmentary form for her final and perhaps most famous novel, A Hora da estrela (The Hour of the Star, 1977), piecing the story together, with the help of Olga Borelli, from notes scrawled on loose bits of paper. The Hour of the Star tells the story of Macabéa, one of the iconic characters in Brazilian literature, a starving, poor typist from Alagoas, the state where Lispector’s family first arrived, lost in the metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. Macabéa’s name refers to the Maccabees, and is one of the very few overtly Jewish references in Lispector’s work. Its explicit focus on Brazilian poverty and marginality was also new.

Shortly after The Hour of the Star was published, Lispector was admitted to the hospital. She had inoperable ovarian cancer, though she was not told the diagnosis. She died on the eve of her 57th birthday and was buried on December 11, 1977, at the Jewish Cemetery of Cajú, Rio de Janeiro.


  • * Perto do Coração Selvagem (1943) – Near to the Wild Heart
  • * O Lustre (1946) – The Chandelier
  • * A Cidade Sitiada (1949) – The Besieged City
  • * A Maçã no Escuro (1961) The Apple in the Dark
  • * A Paixão segundo G.H. (1964) – The Passion According to G.H.
  • * Uma Aprendizagem ou O Livro dos Prazeres (1969) – An Apprenticeship or the Book of Pleasures
  • * Água Viva (1973) – The Stream of Life
  • * A hora da Estrela (1977) – The Hour of the Star
  • * Um Sopro de Vida (1978) – A Breath of Life


  • * Alguns contos (1952) – Some Stories
  • * Laços de família (1960) – Family Ties. Includes works previously published in Alguns Contos.
  • * A Legião estrangeira (1964) – The Foreign Legion
  • * Felicidade clandestina (1971) – Covert Joy
  • * A imitação da rosa (1973) – The Imitation of the Rose. Includes previously published material.
  • * A Via-crucis do corpo (1974) – The Stations of the Body
  • * Onde estivestes de noite (1974) – Where Were You at Night
  • * Para não esquecer (1978) – Not to Forget
  • * A Bela e a fera (1979) – Beauty and the Beast

Children’s Literature

  • * O Mistério do Coelho Pensante (1967) – The Mystery of the Thinking Rabbit
  • * A mulher que matou os peixes (1968) – The Woman Who Killed the Fish
  • * A Vida Íntima de Laura (1974) – Laura’s Intimate Life
  • * Quase de verdade (1978) – Almost True
  • * Como nasceram as estrelas: Doze lendas brasileiras (1987) – How the Stars were Born: Twelve Brazilian Legends

Journalism and Other Shorter Writings

  • * A Descoberta do Mundo (1984) – The Discovery of the World. Lispector’s newspaper columns in the Jornal do Brasil.
  • * Visão do esplendor (1975) – Vision of Splendor
  • * De corpo inteiro (1975) – With the Whole Body. Lispector’s interviews with famous personalities.
  • * Aprendendo a viver (2004) – Learning to Live. A selection of columns from The Discovery of the World.
  • * Outros escritos (2005) – Other Writings. Diverse texts including interviews and stories.
  • * Correio feminino (2006) – Ladies’ Mail. Selection of Lispector’s texts, written pseudonymously, for Brazilian women’s pages.
  • * Entrevistas (2007) – Interviews.


  • * Cartas perto do coração (2001) – Letters near the Heart. Letters exchanged with Fernando Sabino.
  • * Correspondências (2002) – Correspondence
  • * Minhas queridas (2007) – My dears. Letters exchanged with her sisters Elisa Lispector and Tania Lispector Kaufmann.

Further reading

  • * Efraín Kristal, The Cambridge Companion to the Latin American Novel, Cambridge University Press (2005), ISBN 0521825334 – includes a chapter on The Passion According to G.H.
  • * Earl E. Fitz, Sexuality and Being in the Poststructuralist Universe of Clarice Lispector: The Différance of Desire, University of Texas Press (2001), ISBN 0292725299





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