The New Yorker Interview
A Lost Interview with Clarice Lispector
The longest and most wide-ranging interview that the great Brazilian author gave, here translated and published for the first time.
By Benjamin Moser
February 13, 2023
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, twenty-two minutes long, 1 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 – 45:54
affonso romano de sant’anna: Clarice, shall we start with a few biographical facts?
clarice lispector: I was born in Ukraine, 2 but 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 two months old. 3 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.