In the summer of 1963, Elizabeth Bishop was translating three short stories from Portuguese, which she described in a letter to Robert Lowell as the work of “the most non-literary writer I’ve ever known.” “She’s never read anything that I can discover,” Bishop said of the Brazilian writer’s “self-taught” approach, “and ‘never cracks a book’ as we used to say.” If Clarice Lispector, the author of the stories, had overheard Bishop’s remarks, she likely would have agreed with them, because she had so often spoken similarly of herself. “This is not a book,” she announced at the beginning of her 1973 work Água Viva, “because this is not how one writes.”
Bishop was not the first translator, or reader, to have been mystified by the enigma that Lispector represented, on the page and in person. The riddle of her nonliterary self has been described, psychoanalyzed, even supposedly solved by so many readers as to become its own literary cliché. The essential question of Why This World, Benjamin Moser’s 2009 hagiography of “the Sphinx,” is how a woman so modern—one who even flew in airplanes! he adds—could remain so “fundamentally unfamiliar,” unclassifiable, and indecipherable to her own countrymen and few friends.
She often wondered the same thing. “Why do I write? What do I know?” she asked in The Hour of the Star. “No idea. I seem to belong to a distant galaxy because I’m so strange to myself. Is this me? I am frightened to encounter myself.” In another work, another variation: “I am obscure to myself.” And so on.
When her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, appeared in 1943, it was compared to the fiction of Joyce, Woolf, and Proust—none of which, she told critics, she had previously read. (Her book’s title was taken from a line in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, on the suggestion of a friend.) Lispector’s unfamiliarity with the instant classics of an earlier generation might have been understandable given her age—she was an enviable 23 when her first novel launched her to stardom—but she maintained her aloof indifference, if not disdain, toward capital-L literature for the rest of her prolific career.
The literary world, on the other hand, gazed at Lispector’s work with bewildered fascination, particularly after her debut novel won the year’s top prize. Over the course of her life, the translations, reprints, lectures, awards, and admirers of her writing only grew, even as she remained reticent in interviews and averse to publicity. When asked in a rare interview near the end of her life if she considered herself a popular writer, she answered in the negative. “Why not?” the interviewer asked. “How,” she shot back, “can I be popular and hermetic at the same time?”
Foreign. Unfamiliar. Nonliterary. Lispector wore these characterizations of her writing as medals of honor. With each successive work, she polished her prose until it shimmered with a taut irregularity, “like the successive shapes in a kaleidoscope.” Mute was her favorite word, after silence. “I write in signs,” she said, “that are more a gesture than a voice.” These gestures and signs shifted throughout her writings, but her obsession remained the same: approaching not the word, but the thing itself.