Agustina Bessa-Luis

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Maria Agustina Bessa-Luís Ferreira Teixeira was born on October 15, 1922, in Vila Mea, Amarante, Portugal. Agustina began writing in her teens, although she only published her first work of fiction, Mundo Fechado, in 1948. At that time she was already married and living in Coimbra and it wasn’t until 1950, when she moved to Oporto, that her first novel, Os Super-Homens, was published.

In 1954 Agustina published A Sibila (The Sybil), the literary work that brought her recognition as a writer, not only from her peers – writers including Joseph Regal, Oscar Lopez, Eugenio de Andrade, Jorge Vitorino Nemesio or Jorge de Sena – but also from the public.

Agustina’s literary world is very particular; the Douro region, where she lived during her childhood, is strongly present as she reflects on the human condition. Reality is constructed from the unique inner world of each character and it is this perspective that is presented to us in Agustina’s works. Having written more than fifty books, ranging from novels to biographies, children’s books, theater and chronicles, she was awarded several prizes.

She has also enjoyed a long and fruitful collaboration with the acclaimed director Manoel de Oliveira who adapted her writing in Francisca (based on her novel Fanny Owen), Abraham’s Valley (based on Vale Abraão), The Uncertainty Principle (based on O Princípio da Incerteza), Magic Mirror (based on A Alma dos Ricos), Anxiety (partly based on Mãe de Um Rio) and The Convent (based on As Terras do Risco). Indeed, Oliveira suggested she write what became her novel Vale Abraão, because he was looking for a work similar to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary but set in Portugal, due to budget constraints. 

A Sibila

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The Sibyl is probably Agustina Bessa-Luis’s most well known work, most certainly the novel that defined her as a great Portuguese writer. It has won several awards – Delfim Guimarães in 1953, Eca de Queiroz in 1954 – and has been translated into several languages.

The book follows the Teixeira family from the decay of their house, Vessada House, until its triumphant resurgence. The main character, Joaquina Teixeira, is a reference to the classic figure of the Sibyl of Delphi. Feminine strength and power are often implied throughout the story. The Sibyl also follows the lives of the people in and around Vessada House: other family members, friends, servants and even enemies. Conspiracies, intrigues, disputes and other events are narrated to us on an almost mythological level, where space and time become diluted, giving primacy to the inner world of each character.

The book, considered by many scholars as a part of the Neo-Realist movement, gives voice to a social criticism often emphasized in the contrast between the urban world and the rural world, where the story is set. Sophistication versus essence, the mundane versus the mythological, as well as human complexity are the common threads that weave through The Sybil, a masterpiece of Portuguese literature.

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One Comment

  1. The Sybil is a subtle and magnificent portrait of women in Northern Portugal at the turn of the 20th century.
    The description of the complex inner world of the characters adds to the reading pleasure.

    We’ve read the novel in French translation, but as Gonçalo M. Tavares, who recommended the book for Finnegan’s List, has better words on the subject than we can find, we would like to quote an excerpt of his great essay about the writing of Agustina BL here:

    “Quite clearly, it is books that choose their readers and not the other way round. The sentences choose those who are going to enjoy them. It isn’t whoever likes a sentence who chooses it, nor whoever likes a novel who chooses it; we are in the realm of cause and effect: whoever makes the first step is the one who decides. Hence the writer does the choosing; those who read are chosen.
    Reading Agustina BL is, in a sense, to be chosen by her. Her readers should, then, feel honoured that, from among so many men and women in the world, Madame Agustina and her wicked finger have picked out they and no one else.”

    Reply

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