Nearly thirty years ago, I encountered Clarice Lispector in a university Portuguese class. I was not prepared for a book on a reading list for a language class to become one of the great experiences of my life; but I was thunderstruck from the first page. Her greatness was such that I was astonished that neither I nor anybody I knew had so much as heard of her —although that was no wonder, since only a few of her books, often badly translated, had appeared in English, and had made no impact. I was determined to do what I could to reverse this injustice, but I didn’t know where to start.
Eventually, I wrote a biography, Why This World. In some ways, this was a strange decision, since I was writing to encourage people to read a writer that almost no English-speakers could read — but I gambled that people would be fascinated by her persona, and that this would open up the possibility to translate her work.
Why This World is the story of a Jewish girl born in a tiny town in western Ukraine in 1920, during a horrifying Russian attempt to reconquer that country. (Then as now, the Russians practiced mass rape as a weapon of war; her mother was among the victims.) It is the story of how her family arrived in Brazil as penniless refugees, and how, almost miraculously, Clarice, from her teenage years, became a figure whose beauty and genius made her one of the great mythic figures of Brazil.
To my astonishment, my gamble paid off, and Why This World led to the revival of her work in English and in other languages, an international effort that I have led for nearly twenty years. It’s been one of the joys of my life to see this once-obscure writer become something that English-speaking readers have not only heard of, but occasionally even feel guilty about not having read! Don’t. If you’re meeting her for the first time, you have something unforgettable to look forward to.
The first volume we published was the first I read as a student, The Hour of the Star. Though it was the last book she published in her lifetime, I always recommend it as a place to start. It’s short, first of all, less than a hundred pages, and can be read in an hour or two. If you don’t feel the appeal of this book, again, don’t worry. Not everyone likes the same things. Put it aside and read something else.
If you do feel the appeal, I’d recommend the Complete Stories, a volume that collects work she wrote from adolescence all the way through the final sketches she left incomplete at her untimely death. It’s a book that shows every aspect of her work, her ceaseless meditations on God and life and death alongside her humour, her tireless linguistic experimentation, as well as her uncanny ability to capture every nuance of human feeling.
For yet another side of her work, read The Apple in the Dark, a mysterious and unforgettable description of — what? If you can call it a story, it’s the story of a man who, expelled from his previous life, ends up working on a farm. The theme, if you can call it a theme, is about how we are created and destroyed by language. The one thing I can say with absolute certainty is that it’s unlike any book you’ve ever read.
This is Clarice Lispector, Olympian. To hear the voice of the down-to-earth mother and housewife that she always insisted she was, read Too Much of Life, a collection of the short journalism she published every Saturday toward the end of her life in a Rio de Janeiro newspaper. This is the voice that made her something more than a great writer. For her readers, she was a confidant, a listening ear, a beloved friend.