Hot Goss of the Day: Bishop on Lispector's Primitiveness

by on Oct.17, 2012

M.I.A. in her burka.

I was skimming Benjamin Moser’s biography of Clarice Lispector when I found some hot literary goss to share–a page right out of the binder full of women.  After Elizabeth Bishop translated and hung out with Clarice Lispector in Brazil, she wrote the following in correspondence with Robert Lowell:

 “She’s the most non-literary writer I’ve ever known, and ‘never cracks a book’ as we used to say–She’s never read anything, that I can discover–I think she’s a ‘self-taught’ writer, like a primitive painter.”

Bishop called Lispector’s novels “NOT good,” though she liked her short stories.  She added, “Actually I think [Lispector]  is better than J.L. Borges–who is good, but not all that good!  The only South American reading I really care for is anthropology and the old chronicles, anyway–and maybe Pablo Neruda, when he isn’t being too violently anti-U.S.”

Moser goes on to say:

In one sense, Bishop was spectacularly off the mark.  Clarice’s higher education, her work as a journalist, her experience in the foreign service, her knowledge of languages, and her practice living on three continents made her, apart from her own artistic achievement, one of the most sophisticated women of her generation, and not only in Brazil.  She was widely and deeply read, as the numerous allusions in her writing and correspondence prove.  Autran Dourado, one of Brazil’s leading novelists and intellectuals, recalls long Sundays spent with Clarice in complicated philosophical discussions ranging from Spinoza to Nietzsche.

In another sense, however, being a “primitive painter,’ “the most non-literary writer I’ve ever known,” was a goal of Clarice’s.  She placed no value on learnedness or sophistication.  From Naples she had written Natércia Freire of her impatience with diplomatic life:  “At the end of it all you end up ‘educated.’  But that’s not my style.  I never minded being ignorant.”  She was interested in a different kind of knowledge, one that had nothing to do with advanced reading or philosophy.  Suspecting that the answers to the “mute and intense question” that had troubled her as an adolescent–“what is the world like?  and why this world?”– could not be discovered intellectually, she sought a higher kind of understanding.  “You ought to know,” a Spanish cabbalist muttered at the end of the thirteenth century, “that these philosophers whose wisdom you are praising, end where we begin.”

1 comment for this entry:
  1. derek

    Thanks, will have to check out the Moser book, as well as more Lispector.