Fernanda Eberstadt reviews Benjamin Moser's "Why This World - A Biography of Clarice Lispector".
Here's a riddle for literary sleuths. Which 20th-century writer was described by the eminent French critic Hélène Cixous as being what Rilke might have been, if he were a "Jewish Brazilian born in the Ukraine"? By the poet Elizabeth Bishop as "better than J. L. Borges"? And by the Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso as one of the chief revelations of his adolescence, along with sex and love and bossa nova? The answer is Clarice Lispector, a Portuguese-language novelist who died in Rio de Janeiro in 1977, and who, despite a cult following of artists and scholars, has yet to gain her rightful place in the literary canon.
During her lifetime, Lispector, a catlike blond beauty with movie-star magnetism and an indefinably foreign accent, enjoyed an enormous succès d'estime in Brazil. Her fiction, which combines jewel-like language, deadpan humor, philosophical profundity and an almost psychotically lucid understanding of the human condition, was lauded for having introduced European modernism to a national literature felt to be pretty parochial.