In 2006, I received an e-mail from an old friend, a professor in São Paulo, who told me that a man who was “extremely neurotic (I might say ‘psychotic’)” was trying to get in touch with me. If we spoke, my friend warned me, I ought not to mention the book I was working on, published three years later as “Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector.” “He wants to know what you’re planning on doing with the Clarice theme since he thinks he owns it,” my friend said. “He is unhealthily jealous of anyone who does anything with the subject.”
In the years since her death in 1977, Clarice Lispector has become more than a great writer, with the cohort of readers and scholars that great writers attract. In Brazil, she is a church. She has acolytes, appears at séances, and is even occasionally reincarnated: I know this because her reincarnations sometimes reach out to me on Instagram. And she spawned more than her share of garden-variety obsessives: I know this because I am one myself.
Though I would have crossed the street to avoid most people who had been introduced the way my friend introduced this “extremely neurotic” man, the story made me curious. The man’s name was Júlio Lerner, and he occupied an intriguing place in Lispector’s history, well known to anyone who studied her work. Lerner had produced what until recently was believed to be her only television interview, in 1977. “I am speaking from my grave,” she says in that conversation; afterward, she asked Lerner not to broadcast it until her death. Her wish was respected. She died a few months later.
Clarice—such is her fame in Brazil that, like Presidents and soccer stars, she is always referred to by one name alone—speaks about herself and her writing. Yet what she says makes less of an impression than how she looks, how she sounds. One senses that she is at the end: that she is, indeed, speaking from her grave. Seeing her in this state is like watching a cathedral burning, or a great ship being scrapped.
I had heard that Lerner had, in later years, become obsessed with his brief glimpse of Clarice. “Neither Kafka, nor Dostoyevsky, nor Fernando Pessoa” would ever be interviewed on film, he wrote. He had the chance to film an interview with the greatest of Brazilian writers—and he felt that he failed. Over the years, almost as if to make it up to her, he announced a series of projects, few of which came to fruition. He wanted to write a book about the interview; he wanted to make a film about it; by the early two-thousands, he was calling Lispector’s son, Paulo Gurgel Valente, at two in the morning, wanting to talk about it.
I told my friend to give Lerner my e-mail address.
The message I received was strange. It began with the same question with which he had begun his interview, about the origin of the name Lispector, which he insisted was “certainly not Jewish.” (It is Jewish.) “Almost by chance,” he went on, he had met a young couple in Barcelona “who bore with great pride this surname,” and from them he learned that the family, “to escape intolerance, abandoned Bilbao, where they lived, climbed the Pyrenees and went into France, like authentic wandering Jews, rambling through Europe for five years until finally settling in the east of the place that is now Ukraine.” He swore me to silence, because he was about to publish this fantastic discovery.
I never heard from him again. He died a year later, at the age of sixty-seven.
Given his behavior toward me and others, I suspect that Lerner had long been unwell. But he was not the only person upon whom the interview had a profound impact. More than any other journalistic document, it has shaped our perception of the Brazilian Sphinx: her Delphic utterances; her penetrating gaze; her guttural voice, with its raspy French “R.” Her sister Tânia Lispector Kaufmann told me that she didn’t like it, since it showed Clarice tired and at the end of her life. She assured me that her sister was quite different—a bit more normal, I think she meant—when rested and healthy.
And, indeed, how different she sounds in another interview, from only a few months before. On October 20, 1976, she was invited to the Museum of Image and Sound in Rio de Janeiro for a conversation with the writers Marina Colasanti and Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna, a married couple, and the director of the museum, João Salgueiro. Likely because Clarice was personally close to Colasanti and Sant’Anna, she sounds much more relaxed, much more at ease, than when speaking to Lerner; the interview feels like a conversation among friends. It is the longest and most wide-ranging interview that Clarice ever gave, and offers a more rounded idea of her voice than the much shorter Lerner interview could. Many times since listening to it, I have wondered how differently Clarice Lispector might be perceived if this were the conversation that had shaped her image.
It was recorded but not, alas, filmed. The sound has now been restored, and the recording is being made available for the first time, and translated into English. The audio is below, along with my translation of the transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Listen to the original interview, in Portuguese.
0:00 – 0:00
AFFONSO ROMANO DE SANT’ANNA: Clarice, shall we start with a few biographical facts?
CLARICE LISPECTOR: I wasbut already fleeing. My parents stopped in a village that’s not even on the map, called Chechelnik, for me to be born, and came to Brazil, where I arrived when I was So calling me a foreigner is nonsense. I’m more Brazilian than Russian, obviously.
SANT’ANNA: People call you a foreigner because of your accent?
LISPECTOR: Because of the “R.” They think it’s an accent, but it’s not. I have tongue-tie.I could have had it cut, but it’s hard to do that, because it’s a place that’s always wet, so it’s hard to heal.
MARINA COLASANTI: Even more when you were just two months old and got to Brazil. Now you can’t do it because it’s become one of your characteristics.
LISPECTOR:So we went—my father, my mother—we went to
JOÃO SALGUEIRO: Do you have brothers and sisters, Clarice?
LISPECTOR: Two sisters: Elisa Lispector and Tânia Kaufmann. Anyway, here in Brazil we went to Recife. . . . Look, I didn’t know that I was poor, you know?
COLASANTI: You’ve never said that, actually. I never read your saying that.
LISPECTOR: I was very poor. The daughter of immigrants.
SANT’ANNA: What did your parents do in Ukraine?
LISPECTOR: My father worked in agriculture, and, when he got to Rio, he started working as a sales representative.
SANT’ANNA: But was there any artistic or literary background in the family that might have led you to literature?
LISPECTOR: None. No. Recently, at the wedding of my son Paulo Gurgel Valente, an aunt of mine came up to me and gave me the best thing in the world. She said, “Did you know that your mother wrote? She kept a diary.”
SANT’ANNA: Do you know if anyone kept those diaries?
LISPECTOR: No, nothing. My mother was paralyzed, and I felt a terrible sense of guilt, because I thought I’d caused it when I was born. But they said she was already paralyzed before. We were really poor. Not so long ago, I asked Elisa, who’s the oldest, if we ever went hungry, and she said, “Almost.” In Recife, in a square, there was a man who sold a kind of orangeade which the oranges had managed to avoid. That and a piece of bread was our lunch.
COLASANTI: You don’t remember that, Clarice?
LISPECTOR: Look, I wasn’t aware of it. I was so happy that I would hide from myself the pain of seeing my mother like that. I was so alive!
COLASANTI: In other statements and interviews, you always gave the impression of a carefree childhood, very rich.
LISPECTOR: That’s how I felt. Including because I lived in an apartment in a building on the Praça Maciel Pinheiro, which today is listed, because
SANT’ANNA: How long did you stay in Recife, Clarice?
LISPECTOR: Until I was twelve.
SANT’ANNA: And your first reading of literature started more or less when?
LISPECTOR: As soon as I learned to read. Well, before learning to read and write, I already made up stories. Including one I invented with a somewhat passive friend of mine, a never-ending story. That was the ideal, a story that never ended.
SANT’ANNA: The passive friend you’re talking about was an imaginary friend, right?
LISPECTOR: No. She was real, but quiet, and she did what I said. Because I was a little bit bossy. This is how the [never-ending] story goes: I would start, and everything got pretty tough; both people were dead. Then she’d come in and say they weren’t quite as dead as all that. And then everything would start over again. Afterward, when I learned to read and write, I devoured books, and I thought that they were like trees, like animals, something that is born. I didn’t know there was an author behind it all. Eventually, I discovered that that’s how it was, and I said, “I want that, too.” In the Diário de Pernambuco, on Thursdays, they’d publish children’s stories. I wore myself out sending in my stories, but they never published them, and I knew why. Because the other ones started like this: “Once upon a time, etc., etc.” And mine were feelings.
SANT’ANNA: Did you keep any of those stories or publish them anywhere else?
LISPECTOR: No, I didn’t keep anything.
COLASANTI: Didn’t you also write a children’s play?
LISPECTOR: When I was nine, I saw a play, and, inspired, on two pages of my notebook I wrote a three-act play, I don’t know how. I hid it behind the shelves because I was ashamed to write.
SANT’ANNA: What was the name of the play?
LISPECTOR: I don’t remember. Ah, “Poor Little Rich Girl,” which has nothing to do withplay.
SANT’ANNA: Did you go to regular school or study at home?
LISPECTOR: I studied at the Grupo Escolar João Barbalho, which is a public school in Recife. Then I took the entry test for the advanced high school. It was a close call, but I got in. I stayed until I came here [to Rio, at age fifteen]. I studied in a terrible little school that gave everyone A’s. When I was little, I stood up for people’s rights, so they said I’d be a lawyer. That got into my head, and, since I had absolutely no idea what to study, I went to law school.
SANT’ANNA: Did you get into law school?
LISPECTOR: I did, and at the top of my class! And translating Latin, which nobody does anymore.
SANT’ANNA: But you never practiced law?
LISPECTOR: No. In the third year, I realized that I couldn’t deal with paperwork and that my idea—this is how absurd teen-agers are—had been to study law in order to reform the prisons. Moreover,used to say that people who want to be lawyers because of criminal law aren’t lawyers: they’re writers. So I realized that I was no longer interested in that, and I found a job at a newspaper. The only reason I graduated is that a friend of mine, who also wrote and then stopped writing, got very mad at me and one day said to me, “You’re writing now, but you never finish anything you start.” That scared me, and I quickly finished my coursework. And I didn’t even go to the graduation. I was already married by then, with my ex-husband, Maury Gurgel Valente, who today is Brazil’s ambassador to the Latin American Free Trade Association, in Uruguay.
SANT’ANNA: So law school didn’t even help you take care of your writing contracts?
LISPECTOR: No, nothing. To the contrary, I was so free, I can’t even explain it to you. And excessively sensitive—any little thing would make me cry. And I’d laugh, laugh like a madwoman.
COLASANTI: What newspaper was it where you got a job?
LISPECTOR: A Noite. It no longer exists. I did everything, except crime and the society page. Reporting, interviews. Then I worked at the Diário da Tarde, which disappeared as well. It feels like I close down newspapers.
SANT’ANNA: At the Diário da Tarde, did you do a little bit of everything as well?
LISPECTOR: At the Diário da Tarde, I did a women’s page signed by Ilka Soares, the actress. Half the money went to her, half went to me. And she sure did enjoy it: her name appeared every day and she didn’t have to do any work at all. But it really was fun. We’d look through all the magazines, see how to put on eyeliner.
COLASANTI: In a certain way, Clarice, ever since you worked at A Noite, you’ve always had one foot in journalism, because afterward you did the—
COLASANTI: Before that, you did Senhor magazine, didn’t you? How long did you stay there?
LISPECTOR: As long as Senhor lasted. Every month, they published something of mine. Long before, when I was fourteen or fifteen, I wrote a story and brought it to a magazine called Vamos Lêr!, which belonged to Raimundo Magalhães Júnior. So I went and stood there. I was what I still am, a daring shy person. I’m shy, but I throw myself into things. I gave him the story, and said, “I came to see if you’d publish it.” He read it, looked at me, and said, “Did you copy this from someone? Did you translate this from someone?” I said no, and he published it. Then there was a paper called Dom Casmurro, where I took a few things, also without any idea about how it worked. I got there, and they were charmed; they thought I was pretty, that I had the prettiest voice in the world, and they published them. They didn’t pay, of course.
SANT’ANNA: Because money corrupts talents—
LISPECTOR: Completely. Lesser talents.
SANT’ANNA: The publication of your first book, “Near to the Wild Heart,” had a certain impact among Brazilian critics.
LISPECTOR: Virgin Mary, you can say that again. My sister Tânia collected all the reviews in a big thick book. I had already left. I was married—
SANT’ANNA: You had already left Brazil?
LISPECTOR: No, I was in Belém, in Pará. I published the book, and ten days later I was in Belém, I mean, without any contacts with writers, and excited by the reviews.
COLASANTI: Did you start that book with a novelistic structure already in mind, or did you first work by writing little pieces that you assembled into a novel?
LISPECTOR: Look . . . Can someone give me a cigarette? Thanks. I had to discover my method all by myself. I didn’t have any writer friends, I didn’t have anything. For example, in the afternoon, at work or in college, ideas popped into my mind, and I’d say, “Fine, I’ll write that down in the morning.” Without yet realizing that, for me, form and meaning are one single thing. The phrase arrives already made. And, so, whenever I’d leave it “for tomorrow,” I’d be in despair every morning in the face of the blank page. And the idea? It was gone. So I decided to jot down everything that occurred to me. And I toldwhom I met then, that I had a big pile of those notes, separate, for a novel. He said, “Afterward it makes sense, one is connected to the next.” So I did it. Those loose pages made up “Near to the Wild Heart.”
SANT’ANNA: Did he suggest anything, technically, in the specific terms of how to construct the novel?
LISPECTOR: No. This is what happened: I mixed up my reading without the slightest orientation from anyone. There was a popular lending library on Rua Rodrigo Silva, downtown, and I’d choose books by their titles. The result was I mixed up Dostoyevsky with the kinds of novels for teen-age girls that no longer exist today. And, suddenly, when I started writing, it had nothing to do with anything I’d ever read. But I had to take the chance.
COLASANTI: The title “Near to the Wild Heart” is taken from Joyce, if I’m not mistaken.
LISPECTOR: It is. But I’d never read anything by him. I saw that sentence that would be like an epigraph and I borrowed it.
COLASANTI: Because Joyce turns up—I mean, he might or might not—in a character of yours called Ulysses, and once in a talk at Catholic University you said that it had nothing to do with Joyce’s “Ulysses,” that there was no hidden allusion there, and that he was just a guy you’d met in Switzerland.
LISPECTOR: That’s right. And who had fallen in love with me. And I was married, so he ran away from Switzerland and never came back. He was a philosophy student.
COLASANTI: You have a dog named Ulysses, don’t you?
LISPECTOR: I do, that’s right. I’d read a few novels that you’ve never heard of, byand Ardel—
COLASANTI: What do you mean, I’ve never heard of Delly? I read a ton of those!
SANT’ANNA: What the critics always said about your work is that you turned up with a fully mature style: it wasn’t a style in progress. In “Near to the Wild Heart,” you were already Clarice Lispector, and you were still a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old girl.
LISPECTOR: It’s funny that I didn’t have any influences. It was already there inside me. I’d already written stories before that.
SANT’ANNA: There’s an influence that I think you did acknowledge once, maybe not a direct influence, but something you read a lot of, which was “Steppenwolf,” by Hermann Hesse.
LISPECTOR: I read that when I was thirteen. It had a huge impact on me, it gave me a terrible fever, and I started to write. I wrote a never-ending story, which I didn’t know how to do very well, so I tore it up and threw it out.
COLASANTI: Do you tear up a lot of your writing?
LISPECTOR: Now I’ve learned not to tear up anything. My maid, for example, has been told to leave any scrap of paper that has anything written on it.
SANT’ANNA: Because, otherwise, I’d ask the University of São Paulo to place an employee inside your house. They’re buying the archives of all the Brazilian writers, and that way there’d already be someone inside your house gathering up all your little scraps in order to move things along.
LISPECTOR: Really? How much do they pay?
SANT’ANNA: A fortune. You could have earned a nice bit of money.
LISPECTOR: Oh, my God, I tore up so much.
SANT’ANNA: You could sell it to them or sell it for dollars to the American universities.
LISPECTOR: A university in Boston wrote me once, asking for details about my life. I didn’t reply, since I’m lazy about writing letters. And I said to a friend of mine, “Reply for me. Say whatever you want, and say that it’s fine with me.” So then one day I get a diploma from Boston. I had been considered as being part of the university library. I don’t even know where that thing is.
COLASANTI: You were saying that you started writing children’s stories, and every once in a while you publish one.
LISPECTOR: Yes. Just today I was interviewed by four eleven-year-old girls from Santo Inácio School, with photos and lots and lots of questions aboutand if it was true that I liked animals. I said, “Of course! I myself am an animal!” Then they left. They left me quite tired.
COLASANTI: And what makes you write children’s books every once in a while?
LISPECTOR: Well, first, my son Paulo, in
SALGUEIRO: How many children do you have?
LISPECTOR: Two. One is living with his father, and the other is married—he lives here in Rio—Pedro and Paulo Gurgel Valente. When I was writing “The Apple in the Dark,” in Washington, my son Paulo asked me, in English—I spoke Portuguese with him, but he talked to me in English—to write a story for him, and I answered, “Later.” But he said, “No, now.” So I took the paper out of the typewriter and wrote “The Mystery of the Thinking Rabbit,” which is a true story, a thing that he knew about. I wrote it in English so the maid could read it to him, since he still didn’t know how to read. After a while, a writer from São Paulo, I don’t remember his name, asked me if I had any children’s stories. I said no. Suddenly, I remembered that I had the story of the rabbit and that all I had to do was translate it into Portuguese, which I did myself.
COLASANTI: You got a prize for “The Thinking Rabbit”?
LISPECTOR: I got a prize for the book of the year, I don’t remember which year, for the best children’s book.
SALGUEIRO: Your second book, “The Chandelier,” is from 1946, right?
LISPECTOR: Yes, but even before I published it I was already busy with something else, so I didn’t feel those things that I’ve felt so often: a horrible silence, an exhaustion. Not then. When I wrote “The Chandelier,” even though it’s a sad book, I had an enormous pleasure while writing it.
COLASANTI: When we were on our way over here, you said that you were already tired of the
LISPECTOR: That’s right, from having to deal with her so much.
COLASANTI: You speak of the character as if you were speaking of someone who really exists, who orders you around.
LISPECTOR: But the person does exist, I see the person, and she orders me around a lot. She’s from the Northeast, and sooner or later I had to deal with the Northeast that I experienced. So that’s what I’m doing, very lazily, because what interests me is jotting things down. Putting it all together is a bore.
SALGUEIRO: Clarice, let’s make a chronology of your work. Your first book was “Near to the Wild Heart,” in 1944; then came “The Chandelier,” which was already written, but which was published only in 1946; then came “The Besieged City,” in 1949.
LISPECTOR: “The Besieged City” was actually one of the hardest books for me to write, because it demanded an exegesis that I’m unable to do. It’s a dense, closed book. I was chasing after something, and I didn’t have anyone to tell me what it was. San Tiago Dantas opened the book, read it, and thought, Poor Clarice, she’s really gone down. Two months later, he told me that, when he was going to bed, he wanted to read something and picked it back up again. Then he said to me, “It’s your best book.”
SANT’ANNA: What was your motivation for writing that book?
LISPECTOR: It’s how a city takes shape, how a human being takes shape inside a city. A township growing, a township with horses, everything so alive. They built a bridge, they built everything, and then it was no longer a township. So then the character takes off.
SANT’ANNA: What was the process of creating that book like? Did you start off with a certain idea, or did you also start gathering up texts?
LISPECTOR: I elaborate things very unconsciously. Sometimes people think I’m not doing anything. I’m sitting in a chair, and I just sit there. Not even I realize that I’m doing something. Suddenly, a sentence comes.
COLASANTI: You even have a time for warming up physically, right? You once told me that you get up very early in the morning, almost at dawn, and don’t start writing right away. You wander around the house, drinking coffee—
LISPECTOR: That’s right. I sit there staring, like a fool—
COLASANTI: Taking an internal literary jog—
LISPECTOR: After “The Besieged City” came “The Apple in the Dark,” which was written . . . It was funny, because on two occasions I wrote two books at the same time. “Family Ties” and “The Apple in the Dark” were written at the same time. Then I’d do a story, write it, and come back to “The Apple in the Dark.”
SANT’ANNA: Between Ermelinda and Vitória, in “The Apple in the Dark,” which is more Clarice?
LISPECTOR: Maybe Ermelinda, because she was fragile and scared. Vitória is a woman that I’m not.
SANT’ANNA: Exactly. Your book in fact is a big parable. It’s the parable of an individual in search of consciousness, in search of his language.
LISPECTOR: As it’s being made. So much so that the first part is called “How the World Is Born.” The second is “The Birth of the Hero,” because he was already a man and wanted to be a hero. And the third is “The Apple in the Dark.”
SANT’ANNA: Still on the topic of this book, did you do any reading or have any influence from the existentialists?
LISPECTOR: No. None. Even my nausea is different from Sartre’s, because when I was small I couldn’t stand milk, and I almost vomited it up when I had to drink it. They’d drip lemon juice into my mouth. What I mean is, I know what nausea is in my whole body, in my whole soul. It’s not Sartrean.
SANT’ANNA: That doesn’t mean that you haven’t read Sartre.
LISPECTOR: I only read Sartre, I’d only heard of Sartre at the time of “The Chandelier,” in Belém do Pará.
SANT’ANNA: Was Sartre already popular in Belém do Pará? I ask becauseis from there.
LISPECTOR: I had a literature professor who got books from Europe and not from Rio. It was Francisco Paulo Mendes, from the same group as Benedito Nunes.
COLASANTI: I think that divergence is very common among Clarice’s contacts with the literary critics, because the people who study literature had a hard time admitting that your work is from inside looking out and not from outside looking in. Your work really, as you yourself say, comes, happens. And that for the literary exegetes is a very complicated thing because they are looking for paths “outside” that might lead you to things.
LISPECTOR: Yes, I know that.
SANT’ANNA: So you do have a lot of your written texts in your head, though you said once that you never reread anything you’ve written.
LISPECTOR: I don’t reread. It nauseates me. When it’s published, it’s like a dead book—I don’t want to hear anything more about it. And, when I read it, I think it’s weird, I think it’s bad, that’s why I don’t read it. I also don’t read the translations that they do of my books, in order not to get annoyed.
COLASANTI: Are they bad, in general?
LISPECTOR: I don’t even want to know. But I know that I’m not the one writing.
COLASANTI: Have you been translated a lot?
LISPECTOR: Gallimard published “The Apple in the Dark.” Now they’re going to publish “The Passion According to G.H.” A literary agent sought me out, saying that a new publisher in France, in Paris, wanted to publish “An Apprenticeship or The Book of Pleasures.” I didn’t know what to say, because I have another literary agent. For the first time in my life. Carmen Balcells looked me up and asked if I wanted it. I said, “Yes.” And she said to me, “You’re very exploited. You’re very exploited in Brazil.” So I accepted.
SALGUEIRO: Clarice, you published a book of stories in 1952, right?
LISPECTOR: At the Ministry of Education, a thin little book. Afterward, I included those stories in “Family Ties,” because that book almost didn’t get distributed at all.
SALGUEIRO: Afterward, there comes a book in 1964, “The Passion According to G.H.”
LISPECTOR: But it was written in 1963. It’s strange, because I was in the worst situation, in my love life, in my family life, everything was tough, and I wrote “The Passion,” which has nothing to do with any of that—it doesn’t reflect it at all!
SANT’ANNA: You don’t think so?
LISPECTOR: Absolutely not. Because I don’t write as a catharsis, to get something off my chest. I never got anything off my chest in a book. That’s what friends are for. I want the thing itself.
SANT’ANNA: Let me create a problem for you. You know that literary criticism today has this theory: a text is exactly like a dream; it has a manifest content and a latent content.
LISPECTOR: I agree.
SANT’ANNA: So, don’t you think it’s possible that everything can be found in the unconscious part of the text? I mean, there’s a certain part of the text that, as in the dream, escapes the control of the dreamer.
LISPECTOR: Yes, it escapes your control when, for example, I realized that the woman, G.H., was going to have to eat the insides of the cockroach. I trembled in dread.
COLASANTI: There’s a story of yours that intrigues me a lot and that, in a certain way, seems to stand quite apart in your work. It’s the
LISPECTOR: Ah! I had a great time with that one.
COLASANTI: So did I, but it’s strange because it’s the only time in your work that the character and the narrator speak in such an elaborate language, in a Portuguese dialect—
LISPECTOR: I don’t know where I got that, or where I learned that “peúgas” is a man’s sock.
COLASANTI: I was going to ask if you ever lived in Portugal.
LISPECTOR: No. I once spent twelve days in Portugal, but that wasn’t enough. I must have picked it up here and there, from the nanny or the corner bar.
SALGUEIRO: In 1969, you published a book called “An Apprenticeship or The Book of Pleasures.” Would you like to speak a bit about that book?
LISPECTOR: Well, it’s a book. . . . It’s a love story, and two people told me that they learned to love thanks to that book.
SALGUEIRO: Is it a book you like a lot?
SALGUEIRO: Then you prefer some other—“Family Ties,” for example.
LISPECTOR: I’m a little sick of “Family Ties”; it’s already in its seventh printing. I remember quite well the pleasure I had in writing “The Apple in the Dark.” Every morning, I would type it. It was five hundred pages long. I copied it out eleven times in order to find out what I was trying to say, because I was trying to say a thing and I’m still not quite sure what. Copying it out, I start understanding myself, and I start. . . .
SANT’ANNA: So you mean that your process of production, summing up, is really complex. At the same time that you play with the partly irrational element, you also work on the composition and the editing of your text and then start working that integral text through several versions.
LISPECTOR: No. When I start off with an idea that leads me along, I don’t rewrite.
SALGUEIRO: Is there any author who might have influenced you most?
LISPECTOR: Look, as far as I know, no.
SALGUEIRO: You never felt a violent impact from a book?
LISPECTOR: A bit, sometimes. I felt it with “Crime and Punishment,” by Dostoyevsky, which gave me a real fever. “Steppenwolf” turned me upside down. My first job, when I was thirteen or fourteen, still in high school, but I tutored Portuguese and math . . . By the way, why am I talking about this?
SALGUEIRO: Literary influences. Who was the author who influenced you the most?
LISPECTOR: Oh, right! So, with the first money I ever earned, the very first, I walked, very proudly, into a bookstore in order to buy a book. I thumbed through all of them, and none of them did anything for me. Suddenly, I said, “Ah, this one here is me.” I didn’t know that Katherine Mansfield was famous; I found it all by myself. It was the book “Bliss.”
SANT’ANNA: Andto whom it seems that Álvaro Lins himself compared you?
LISPECTOR: No, I hadn’t read her, and I’ve only read “Orlando.”
SANT’ANNA: And Franz Kafka?
LISPECTOR: I read him much later, much later. I feel very close to him, but I had already written many of my books before I read anything by him.
SALGUEIRO: Did you meet the painter Giorgio de Chirico?
LISPECTOR: Yes, I did. I was in Rome, and a friend of mine said that de Chirico would certainly like to paint me. So he asked, and he said he could only say once he’d seen me. Then he saw me and said, “I’m going to paint your portrait.” In three sessions he did it, and said, “I could keep painting this portrait endlessly, but I’m afraid of ruining it.”
SALGUEIRO: Where is this portrait today?
LISPECTOR: It’s in my house.
COLASANTI: She has a good collection of portraits. Lots of artists have painted Clarice.
LISPECTOR: Here’s why: because I, so it seems, have a slightly exotic face. And that is attractive to painters.
SANT’ANNA: You’re partly Asian. . . .
LISPECTOR: By the way, when I was in Washington, at a cocktail party, a man was looking at me, looking at me, and came up to me and said, “Are you Russian?”“Because you have that slender look of the Russians.” I asked who he was, and he said so-and-so Tolstoy—he was a relative of Tolstoy’s.
COLASANTI: Clarice, how did you manage to reconcile your shy personality with the diplomatic life, which you had to go along with?
LISPECTOR: I hated it, but I did what I had to in order to help my ex-husband. I gave dinners, I even put rose petals in the finger bowls, I did everything you were supposed to do, but it turned my stomach.
COLASANTI: And did you write at the same time? Because diplomatic life is very demanding.
LISPECTOR: I did! I wrote, I answered the phone, the kids were screaming, the dog running in and out. That’s what “The Apple in the Dark” was.
COLASANTI: The presence of your children is very constant in your stories, notes, and extracts. You were always very connected to them, weren’t you?
LISPECTOR: Yes, extremely.
COLASANTI: And how did they deal with the fact that you were a writer? Do they read you?
LISPECTOR: I never asked, but Paulo, one day, he mentioned a story of mine, so that’s how I found out he read it. Because I was, and am, principally, their mother, and not a writer. And it must be a pain to have a mother who’s a writer.
COLASANTI: Mothers are always a pain, Clarice. There’s no way for us to avoid it.
LISPECTOR: I know, mothers are a pain.
COLASANTI: But the children’s stories, at least the ones you did for them, you know that they read them.
LISPECTOR: I know. And they liked them, because I don’t lie to children.
COLASANTI: Theyou didn’t do for them, though.
LISPECTOR: No. I did it because hens always had a big influence on me. When I was little, I looked at a hen a lot, for a long time, and I could imitate the way she pecked at the corn, I could imitate what she was like when she was sick, and that always had a big influence on me. Moreover, I’m very connected to animals, tremendously. A hen’s life is hollow—a hen is hollow!
COLASANTI: And so is a woman!
LISPECTOR: Of course she is!
COLASANTI: But it’s a productive hollowness, a generative hollowness. It has two sides, from inside and out, and maybe the inside is stronger than the outside. Not men, they’re just outside, in a single block.
SALGUEIRO: Was it nice to travel?
LISPECTOR: Listen, I missed Brazil terribly. I was gone for nearly sixteen years. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I’d come back to Brazil. When I was there, everyone said to me, “Why don’t you send your books to a publisher abroad, to have them translated?” I’d say, “Now isn’t the time to translate, it’s the time to work.” It doesn’t interest me, and I never asked anyone to publish me outside Brazil.
COLASANTI: Speaking of translation, that’s another one of those parallel activities of yours. You translate, quite a lot.
LISPECTOR: I discovered a way to make it less annoying. What I do is I never read the book before I translate it. I go along sentence by sentence, because that way you’re carried along by curiosity to know what happens next, and time passes. Whereas if you’ve already read it it’s a chore. It scares me when I see it that way, three hundred pages to go.
COLASANTI: I always start with the second chapter, because I always think that if you start with the first, which is where the reader enters, I still don’t have a grasp of the author’s language, so I start with the second, and when I finish I do the first.
LISPECTOR: Ah! Great idea! I’m going to adopt it.
COLASANTI: It’s great. The first chapter ends up better.
SANT’ANNA: Because the first chapter is usually the one you write last, isn’t it?
LISPECTOR: Though it sounds absurd, it’s true.
COLASANTI: Do you write the first chapter at the end?
LISPECTOR: At the same time. I never know beforehand what I’m going to write. There are writers who start writing only when they have the book in their head. Not me. I just follow along, and I don’t know where it’s going to end up. Then I start understanding what I wanted.
SANT’ANNA: You said at the beginning that you’re writing a book now whose main character is a
LISPECTOR: No, she eats only hot dogs, coffee, and soda, and earns less than the minimum wage.
SALGUEIRO: Is this your most recent book?
LISPECTOR: It’s the one I’m doing now.
SANT’ANNA: What have you been reading lately? What have you read lately that impressed you the most? Even of literary criticism, which I know you read to relax.
LISPECTOR: That’s right, I like to read essays. But I have to admit that it’s been a long time since I read any.
SANT’ANNA: Do you think that reading a lot gets in the way of your creative process?
LISPECTOR: I wouldn’t say it gets in the way, but when I’m working I don’t read anything.
SANT’ANNA: And, when you read, is it more prose or poetry?
LISPECTOR: Both, both. Your poetry is very good; I read it. And Marina wrote a very good book, very original, without imitating anyone, without slangy language or innovations. I read very little. It’s a crime, but it’s true.
SANT’ANNA: Did you ever deliberately try to write poetry? Because your writing is officially prose, but “Água Viva” is a poetic text—
LISPECTOR: It seems that everyone starts with poetry, right? I wrote a few lines, but I threw it out, because it was no good.
COLASANTI: Once, when you were talking to us, you said that, when you read a review of a book of yours, you can’t write for three days, can’t do anything, you’re completely nauseated.
LISPECTOR: Not nauseated. That’s what happens when I’m working. When I’m not working, I read a review, and it’s all fine. When I’m working, a review of my work interferes with my intimate life, so I stop writing in order to forget the review. Even the positive ones, since I take care to cultivate humility. So sometimes I even feel attacked by praise.
SANT’ANNA: You’re frequently invited to give talks, lectures. Do you enjoy it?
LISPECTOR: I don’t, but they pay me a fee and the trip. I really like to travel. So I do it, and then there are the debates.
SALGUEIRO: You do that professionally?
LISPECTOR: Yes, and I don’t like it very much. Speaking of “professionally,” I am not a professional writer, because I write only when I want to.
COLASANTI: You said that when you got the
LISPECTOR: I said that, right?
SANT’ANNA: A prize for your whole body of work, right? And, speaking of prizes—
LISPECTOR: Ah, I’ve won quite a few. “Near to the Wild Heart” won the Graça Aranha Prize, if I’m not mistaken.
SANT’ANNA: Have you always been pleased with prizes, or have you ever got irritated, involved in disputes, wasting your time?
LISPECTOR: No, it made no difference to me, none, none.
SALGUEIRO: Prizes don’t affect you at all? Vanity? Satisfaction?
LISPECTOR: No, I don’t know how to explain it, but prizes are outside of literature—by the way, “literature” is a hateful word—yes, they’re outside the act of writing. You receive it the way you receive a hug from a friend, with a certain pleasure. But it has nothing to do with—
SANT’ANNA: It’s circumstantial?
LISPECTOR: Yes. I won the Golfinho de Ouro, I won the—
SALGUEIRO: The Golfinho de Ouro is very prestigious!
LISPECTOR: I got one, from a lady—I don’t know why she gets involved with writers—Carmen Dolores something or other.
SANT’ANNA: That’s the Carmen Dolores Barbosa Prize, in São Paulo.
LISPECTOR: Right, so I went there and got the prize, from the hands of none other thanAfter a huge speech by him, I got an envelope, and inside it were twenty cruzeiros. It was worth a little more than it is now, but it was twenty cruzeiros. I was stunned, it was so little!
SANT’ANNA: And the theses that are written about you in universities—you get visitors, people from other countries?
LISPECTOR: They come. Not long ago, an Uruguayan journalist came to interview me. Moreover, he was very frank. He looked at my portraits and said, “You were beautiful! You’re still pretty, but not as much.” And I observed, “But time passes, doesn’t it?” And he then said, “At first, you’re not very friendly. You are closed and mistrustful. You only become friendly later.” But, one thing, at least he said, “It’s too bad about yourbecause you have such beautiful hands!” So at least that’s something. People do seek me out. I meet a lot of people. I’ve been in a lot of anthologies, even in Canada. They always write me asking for authorization, but never mention payment.
SANT’ANNA: But now with a literary agent you can get paid.
LISPECTOR: It might help.
COLASANTI: You had a period when you were selling a few of your paintings, because you needed money.
LISPECTOR: Yes, that’s right.
SANT’ANNA: Marina always said that, in a better-organized, more developed country, a writer like you would have, thanks to your writing, a much more comfortable standard of living.
COLASANTI: I think Clarice’s position says a lot about the position of the Brazilian writer.
LISPECTOR: A book that gets good reviews in the United States makes the writer rich! A book!
COLASANTI: All of yours get good reviews, and you keep doing all these speeches and translations. . . .
SANT’ANNA: Speeches and translations are detestable.
LISPECTOR: Really detestable!
COLASANTI: You translate in the afternoon, right, Clarice? Because in the morning you do your own writing.
LISPECTOR: Look, I do translation at any hour of the day. I’m very disorganized. I translate from English and French.Sometimes I use a dictionary, sometimes I don’t, and, depending on the question, several times.
SALGUEIRO: Did you learn French and English during your diplomatic career?
LISPECTOR: You know how I learned French? Reading French. Didn’t I say I was a daring shy person? I picked up a book and started to read for the meaning, and from the resemblance of the Romance languages I picked up more and more until I learned it. As for conversation . . . well, I spent three years in Switzerland, and my maid spoke French with me. English was the same thing. I never took a class.
SANT’ANNA: You never spoke Russian at home?
LISPECTOR: Not that I ever heard, because
COLASANTI: Coming back to Russian: did you, as a child, get to know Russian folklore, fairy tales, and such, because it’s very rich—
LISPECTOR: Yes, I know it must be, but I never read it.
COLASANTI: And nobody told you stories?
LISPECTOR: No, they didn’t. My mother was sick, and they gave her all the attention. I followed the maid around, saying, “Tell me a story, tell me a story!” “I already told you one!” “Tell me again, tell me again.”
SALGUEIRO: You, as a person, in the context of the world today, do you feel like part of society, or do you feel solitary?
LISPECTOR: Well, I have friends, friendships, but writing is a solitary act. Outside the act of writing, I get along with people.
SALGUEIRO: So you don’t feel solitude?
LISPECTOR: Sometimes, sometimes, even quite deeply. Alceu Amoroso Lima wrote something that’s been repeated a lot, that I was in a tragic solitude in Brazilian letters.
SANT’ANNA: I don’t know if it’s indiscreet on my part, but could you tell the story of the doves? The story in and of itself would make a short story.
LISPECTOR: It would, but a fantasy, which wouldn’t be read as real. But it was. Here’s what happened. On January 1, 1964, a friend of mine went back into her house to look for something, and I sat on the stairs to wait for her. Suddenly, I felt so much despair at that sun and that empty water, the first day of the year, that I said, “Oh, my God, give me at least a symbol of peace.” And when I opened my eyes there was a dove beside me. Then I went to the movies. The stores were closed, but, at the Cinema Paissandu, in a shopwindow, there was a plate with four doves on it that I, the next day, went to buy. I don’t use it much now. But the third thing was the most dramatic. I was going downtown on a hot day. I took a taxi and was so tired, wearing sunglasses, that I leaned my head on the back of the front seat. Suddenly, I felt something between my eye and my glasses, and I reached up to see what it was. It was a dove feather. Then I went to visit a friend of mine who’s a doctor, and I told him the story. And then I asked, “How can you explain that?” He just said, “Good things don’t need an explanation,” and asked, “Do you want a dove feather?” Astonished, I said, “Do you have one?” And he took one and gave it to me. Another time when I went to the doctor, I took a taxi, and, along the way, he slammed on the brakes. I asked the driver, “What was that?” And he said, “Thank God, I just avoided killing a dove.” An incredible story.
COLASANTI: A while back, you were going through a period of crisis with your writing. I mean, you didn’t want to write. You’d finished your last book and this novella you’re writing now. You even said that your liberation would be being able not to write.
LISPECTOR: Of course! Writing is a burden!
SALGUEIRO: Do you have anything else to tell us about your work?
LISPECTOR: I don’t think so. You had good questions. I answered, and all I want to know is this: today is October 20, 1976. It’s raining. I’m wearing a suède dress. I’m with my friends Affonso Romano de Sant’Anna and Marina Colasanti. And I want to know, what will that matter after I die?
SALGUEIRO: Well, the main value it has is that your name will remain in Brazilian literature.
LISPECTOR: You think it will? I don’t write for posterity.
SALGUEIRO: Clarice, this is a question from a journalist: “You’re an intuitive. So how do you deal with the supernatural in your life?”
LISPECTOR: What’s natural is supernatural, too. Don’t think that it’s very far off. What’s natural is already a mystery.
SALGUEIRO: That’s interesting, saying the natural and the supernatural are the same. It would be an interesting thing to discuss.
LISPECTOR: Yes, that’s what I think. A while back, I was at a ranch, and the rancher, who was talking about his own problems, said, “Because of course the calf recognizes its mother. She only gives milk to her own calf.” And so I said, “Not of course. That’s not natural.” But he was surprised: “Why do you say it’s not natural?” “It’s an incredible fact! Have you ever thought about what a cow is thinking?” Then the man was really taken aback, poor guy. He immediately changed the subject. But they do recognize their calves. Before you milk a cow, you tie its calf next to it, and then you can milk it. The cow thinks she’s still giving milk to her child, and lets you. Now, when it’s milking time and they set loose the little calves, they all go to their own mothers and never, ever make a mistake! When a calf is stillborn, they take his skin and put it on top of another calf to make the mother think she’s still giving milk to him. As you can see, I get along very well with cows and hens!
COLASANTI: And with camels, buffaloes.
LISPECTOR: With horses.
SALGUEIRO: Maybe it’s an identification with the powers of nature.
LISPECTOR: I think it is. It’s something very deep.
SANT’ANNA: Critics have already spoken of the ontic meaning of Clarice’s animals.
LISPECTOR: What does “ontic” mean?
SANT’ANNA: It’s the being found inside animals.
LISPECTOR: It’s there, it’s there!
COLASANTI: You said you were an animal. Are you any animal in particular?
LISPECTOR: No, I don’t think so, no. Other people think I look like a tiger, like a panther. Others think I look like a heron, because of my long legs. . . . When I was small, I had a cat.
COLASANTI: People must think you’re a bit feline because of your eyes, but that’s not it. It’s because you have an inner behavior and a way of being constantly observant that’s feline.
LISPECTOR: Yes, I agree. Based on what I know about cats, I agree.
SANT’ANNA: Do you pull back and leap as well?
COLASANTI: You don’t know anything about that, Affonso, because you’re a horse. And I’m a fox.
LISPECTOR: And him, what is he?
SANT’ANNA: He’s asplendid on the prairies!
LISPECTOR: Right, a leafy tree. With many fruits.
SALGUEIRO: How great! Coming from Clarice, how fantastic! ♦