Clarice Lispector and Susan Sontag: thefts and abuses

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Commentary on two biographies written by the American Benjamin Moser

Like many, I read Clarice, – the biography that bears the name of Benjamin Moser – with a certain delight and curiosity. I believe it was around 2017, after having bought it in one of the many promotions from the late Cosacnaify. Unaware of the important previous works by Nádia Gotlib (Clarice, a life that is told, Attica, 1995) and Teresa Montero (I am a question: a biography of Clarice Lispector, Rocco, 1999), I learned many things and appreciated its structure and narrative bent. In a brief survey, however, the animosities between Moser and Gotlib were evident, on video and in writing. At first, I did not take the thing very seriously, understanding the fact as a natural rancidity, almost colonialist, of a Brazilian researcher facing someone who (belatedly) is doing work similar to hers with much wider repercussions simply for having it done in english.

But, still far from discovering the structural theft and several intuitions present in the study of Gotlib carried out by Moser, I understood that the center of friction between the biographers seemed to reside in the statement made by Moser that Clarice's mother had been raped by Soviet soldiers during the pogroms in Ukraine and contracted syphilis in this situation. For Nádia and several reviewers, in Brazil and abroad, this is pure sensationalist guesswork, with no evidence to support it. And the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime, as we shall see. It is clear that every biographer inevitably fictionalizes the life of his biographee, producing a possible, eminently personal version, but it is expected that this imaginative gesture is more in the tying of facts, in the lacework of the portrait, than in the invention of facts. tout court.

Benjamin Abdala Junior's review resolves any doubts regarding the transplantation not directly named of scenes, literary excerpts, images (metaphorical and photographic), subtitles, in short, of the entire skeleton and a good part of the vital organs of Gotlib's study for the biography of Moser. Designed for an American audience, lacking other biographies of the author and without access to Gotlib's book, such aspects certainly go unnoticed. Abdala observes that the tenuous differential of Moser's book would be in the excavation of the “Jewish historical tradition that provoked the saga of migratory movements, including those of the Lispector family”, which not infrequently slips into a dogmatic reading of Clarice's fiction through the Jewish filter. As a whole, therefore, there is “a vast repertoire of information of interest”, interspersed, however, by “debatable arguments, exposed in a seductive and engaging flow of language”.

In August 2019, however, I came across, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, with “Benjamin Moser and the smallest woman in the world”, a brilliant and courageous essay by Magdalena Edwards, one of the translators into English of the new editions of Clarice in the scope of the New Directions project, led by Moser. It's a terrifying read. Edwards' essay (which I do not paraphrase in depth here because it deserves to be read in its entirety) documents step by step the sequence of editorial iniquities she faced from the moment she accepted Moser's invitation to translate the chandelier.

Apparently, Moser understands that if someone rewrites/prepares/revises (the distinction is not clear) a certain text, they can claim authorship rights or, at least, translation rights. Apparently, claiming that Edwards had produced subpar work – not to mention attempts to fire her – she began editing her translation file, and later, when the book was published, she credited Edwards as a co-translator, alongside of himself, Moser, whose name naturally appears first.

One might think that Moser is just someone who is overly zealous for the editorial work he does – and who, of course, doesn't like petty categories like “translation review” – but Edwards lists several other instances that make the macho nature clear. , authoritarian, egocentric and essentially plagiarism of the figure. Among several examples, Moser not only stole without mea culpa a beautiful image present in the preface by Katrina Dodson (Clarice's commas like hairs in the reader's soup), the translator of Complete Stories, as it excluded Dodson from book launch events.

Having known all this, I found the announcement by Companhia das Letras, made months ago, that it would publish the biography of Susan Sontag written by Moser (appointed for the task by Sontag's own family) as blatant nonsense. Given the history of the biographer, who has already harmed the Brazilian academic community before, the choice struck me – to use an ironic-ominous term – unpatriotic. But it is clear that Sontag (brilliant intellectual that she was) has appeal, and that Moser (increasingly powerful in American publishing) has appeal. And it is also clear that Companhia das Letras is no longer so Brazilian.

I haven't read and won't read her biography, but what the reviews – like that of the great Janet Malcolm – seem to make clear is that once again the book's supposed big reveal lacks proof. This time, Moser claims that Sontag is indeed the author of Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, a book that paved the way for the career of her then husband, Philip Rieff, her professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, whom she married before she was twenty. For Moser, the book has a profound dialogue with several future themes in Sontag's work and would be far above what Rieff would have written later, which would show the masking of authorship.

Which Sontag acted as ghost writer for Rieff in certain reviews it seems right, but it is one thing to rewrite/prepare/revise someone else's text, as seems to have been the case with Freud, it is quite another to conceive of it at all. But, as Malcolm points out, for Moser “every author who has been heavily edited can no longer claim authorship over his work”.

Leaving aside judgment as to the truth of the matter, Moser's insistence on it is arguably the most revealing point of all that has been said here. After all, if he is willing to risk his neck as a biographer to, even without full proof, defend the authorial work of a young and brilliant intellectual unduly appropriated by an oppressive, mediocre and self-serving husband-professor, his biography seems to claim for himself the role of a commendable historic reparation.

Claim that has just been countersigned, as Moser won the Pulitzer.

The response, collective and brilliant, was not long in coming: on May 13, 2020, the same Los Angeles Review of Books published a text signed by Magdalena Edwards, Nádia Gotlib, Lisa Paddock and Carl Rollyson (the latter, authors of Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon (2000) and more recent victims of the Moserian rage) with the direct title “Benjamin's Moser Pulitzer Prize for Biographyis a Travesty”. Without mincing words, any notion of historical reparation crumbles in the face of someone who “has repeatedly used his role as an editor to steal credit from women for his work”.

Interestingly – or rather, perversely well found – Moser's sharp contempt for the figure of Rieff, his not-so- absconditus like this. Assuming the definition of Moser’s posture in this biography as that of “his object’s intellectual adversary” (Malcolm again), the lack of love for the biographer evidenced by more than one book review does not seem to be limited to Susan, encompassing others (or all? ) brilliant intellectuals who crossed his path.

This is the place to close the collective text, which not only asks for a justified review of the award, but also leaves the following warning: “But this goes far beyond a literary award. These are two brilliant writers, Clarice Lispector and Susan Sontag, whose legacy is now in the hands of a man with a terrible record of robbing and bullying his female colleagues.”

The fact that Moser's biography was released here by the same publisher that publishes Sontag's books (and also the current reissue of the Clarice, by Moser, translated by the same translator as Sontag's biography, who bears no fault in this story, of course) makes it harder to separate the wheat from the chaff. But it is necessary to do it.

Read Clarice and Sontag, always.

But not Moses.

*Guilherme Mazzafera is a doctoral candidate in Brazilian literature at USP.

Originally posted on the blog Letters In.verso and Re.verso

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