Why This World, By Benjamin Moser

When, in 1990, Near to the Wild Heart was brought to us in a powerful English translation by Giovanni Pontiero, the novel was promoted as by an unknown who was also "one of the major Portuguese-language writers this century". Yet it was already 46 years since its appearance in Brazil, a near half-century in which Clarice Lispector had published five novels and five short-story collections, along with her "bread-and-butter": an impressive quantity of women's columns and literary cronicas, alternating popular and intellectual outlets.

Lispector's final work, The Hour of the Star, another roman a clef closely mapping her own experiences and philosophies, appeared only months before her sudden and early death (from ovarian cancer) in 1977. By then Brazilian readers all knew Clarice who, if not exactly that patronised object a national treasure, was a "typical Brazilian", dear to every heart.

Her Ukrainian forbears had kept moving on, out of the path of anti-Semitic pogroms until, finally, they arrived in a land of colonisers and slaves, the indigenous minorities and immigrant majority, that Clarice always called home. Benjamin Moser's biography seeks to tie the exploration of her work to this life in movement (15 years were spent outside Brazil as a diplomatic wife), to her enormous popularity at home – especially for an author widely perceived as difficult – and her reputation abroad.

Moser focuses on historical context and fresh, mainly personal, material. A vast amount of original research has gone into eliciting letters and interviewing survivors, and the material is cleverly woven into the body of this substantial tome.

A slow opening has a half-dozen chapters in Eastern Europe, where the Russian Revolution only enters with a nod to "the demagogue Vladimir Lenin". Political asides continue, following Brazil's early entry into the Second World War on the side of the Allies: "Many Brazilians were embarrassed to be fighting Fascism in Italy in the name of a quasi-Fascist dictatorship at home".

Authorial opinions persist beyond politics. Moser is capable of lapsing into language worthy of one of Clarice's most homespun women's journals. Of her building reputation in the 1960s, he writes of the letters she attracted: "These are very moving to read, and the love they express for her must have been a comfort in difficult times".

Yet the serious issue of Clarice's extraordinary language – no coincidence that her first book title comes from James Joyce – and the literary claims made for her as both ground-breaking and wholly of her age are never fully addressed.

The fact that Clarice's unusual beauty is "indescribable" has not prevented attempts, including, famously: "That rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf". Moser repeatedly tackles the question of her astonishing looks; the evaluation of her work, however, lacks context.

Is Clarice an existentialist, a feminist, a modernist or post-modernist? Could she really be part of the Latin American literary "boom" of the 1960s and 1970s? The feminist writer and critic Helen Cixous promoted her messianically as "the greatest writer" of the century, adding "I rank her with Kafka". The Mexican Rosario Castellanos included her on a feminist pioneers' bookshelf along with Silvina Ocampo, Flannery O'Connor, Simone Weil and Eudora Welty.

Perhaps Moser's reticence on Clarice's literary place, particularly within Latin America, is understandable. He opts for a vivid portrait of the glamorous green-eyed woman whose face was described as part wolverine, part feline, but who turned up at a conference in Cali, Colombia "very fat... and her lipstick was a loud shade of red".

She suffered intermittently from "neurasthenia", for which she consulted a variety of doctors, psychologists, charlatans and – that most Brazilian of recourses – a card-reader. The quality of her writing, as once lucid and disturbing, persists in the wealth of personal and journalistic material here.

Amanda Hopkinson, director of the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia, is currently translating José Saramago's 'A Notebook'