The sleeper lounge is old-fashioned British Rail, all tartan carpet, smeared tables and microwave cuisine. Tonight it contains a gathering of solitaries, all of us making separate journeys to London. The man beside me is still working, though it’s nearly ten o’clock.
By chance we order the same whisky. We raise our plastic glasses, embarrassed in a very British way. I want to encourage him. He is at war with a pile of papers. But he is wishing me good luck as well. He has been glancing at the author’s face on the back cover of my novel. She does rather stare.
Her name is Clarice Lispector, one of the most original and fascinating writers of the twentieth century. She is the author of nine novels and several collections of short stories, all written in Portuguese. She was born in 1920, not as Clarice but as Chaya, the daughter of Ukrainian Jewish parents. From this beginning she was to become, improbably, the doyenne of Brazilian literature.
Ukraine to Brazil – who makes that journey? In 1921, young Chaya did, her family fleeing the pogroms that erupted in the region after the First World War. Brazil took them in. Once there, the family adapted their first names to their new home. Thus Chaya became Clarice. ‘I am a Brazilian,’ she wrote, ‘and that is that.’
Despite her confidence, she didn’t immediately fit in. ‘People here look at me as if I come straight from the zoo,’ she wrote in 1941, to which she added, ‘I entirely agree.’ From the back of my book, she stares with wide eyes from a pale face, ‘that rare person’, it has been said, ‘who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf ’. Indeed her writing style proved to be as alluring as her appearance. The refugees’ daughter was to create a new national literature.
She was a clever, even impish child, though her youth was overshadowed by her mother’s paralysis. Little Clarice wrote magical stories, wanting to heal her. They did not work, and
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