By Benjamin Moser
UTRECHT, THE NETHERLANDS — Nobody’s ugly at two a.m., so the t-shirt slogan goes.
One evening a few years ago, I was sitting in my Dutch garden, talking to some friends about Clarice Lispector, the Jewish-Brazilian mystic writer. Having recently left the security of my publishing job in order to devote myself full-time to writing, I’d been hoping, in between the essays and translations and art reviews I was banging out to earn a living, to happen upon a subject challenging enough to engage me for the several years it would take to produce a book-length work.
I no longer had to read so much for my job, so I’d been catching up with old favorites, the books I’d always told myself I’d return to when I got some time. And in rereading her books I discovered that my feelings for Clarice Lispector had not diminished in the decade since I first encountered her as a college sophomore.
But the subject seemed too ambitious for a first project: For one thing, I lived in Holland and the research would have to be done in Brazil; and for another, though Clarice was tremendously famous in Brazil, she wasn’t all that famous elsewhere. I feared that the book would be a tough sell.
I couldn’t shake her though, and that night, unable to sleep, I called an old friend, an editor at Knopf in New York. Mentioning that I couldn’t get Clarice out of my mind, I added that this year she would be the focus of FLIP, the literary festival in the beachside colonial town of Paraty.
FLIP was due to start in two days.
“So why are you stretching your legs in Utrecht?” he demanded. “You’ll never have a better chance. Where are there ever going to be more people who want to talk about Clarice Lispector?”
I revved up a computer which at that point had been cold for hours and started checking flights. KLM was heading to São Paulo early the next afternoon. I pretended to sleep for a few minutes, but before dawn I had already stuffed some clothes into a suitcase. I dug out my passport and made the flight.
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.
I met people who remembered the Russian Revolution, recalled Algiers in 1943, and could tell me that Clarice Lispector, the greatest Jewish writer since Kafka, had a particular talent for cutting the toenails of the wounded Brazilian soldiers she helped in wartime Naples.
Looking back on all these exploits now that my book Why This World is finally about to come out, I’m also looking ahead to the unexpected adventures my next book is sure to bring me. Plenty of bad plans are hatched in the wee small hours. But sometimes a little late-night inspiration is precisely what we need.
Benjamin Moser is the book columnist and critic for Harper’s magazine. His book Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector will be published by Oxford University Press on August 4.
BUY: a copy of Why This World
WATCH: an interview with Lispector from 1977 (in Portuguese)
READ: selected quotes from Clarice Lispector on Goodreads