Lygia Fagundes Telles, Master of the Human and the Fantastic

By Dr. Lorena Sales dos Santos

My first contact with the work of Lygia Fagundes Telles was during my early years of college, during a summer vacation. My mother,  who was an avid reader and had recently started to write some short stories, was reading Telles’s book Antes do Baile Verde (Before the Green Ball would be the literal translation of the book’s title). The book was first published in 1969 but has had several other editions. Since I was looking for something to read during the lazy afternoon hours of the summer, when I returned from the beach to be with cousins and friends, my mother offered me the book she had just devoured so fast.

I remember the first short story of the book being “A Estrutura da bolha de sabão” (The Structure of a Soap Bubble). There, an upper-class couple was at home discussing apparently unimportant domestic issues, while the writing conveyed the tension and frustration of a love that was no more. The female character had the same name as mine. The name Lorena was not a very common name for Brazilians of that time. The coincidence made an impression on me. I came to find other Lorenas in Telles’s books; it is a recurring name just as the color green in her short stories. However, that was not the only appeal that made me dive into her writing. There was, as I’ve mentioned before, an ability to talk about the mundane and the domestic, while still presenting the tensions and complexities of human relations, the imperfections, the envy, the love and hate, the indifference and despair that can sojourn inside the four walls of a home. It was then in a cotton hammock, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and listening to the sound of the waves, that I read my first book by Lygia Fagundes Telles. 

NOMINATED FOR NOBEL

Lygia was born in the city of São Paulo in 1923. Her mother was a pianist and her father, an attorney and a public prosecutor. During her childhood, she lived in different towns in the state of São Paulo, until she eventually moved back to the city of São Paulo. Her first book was published when she was only 15 years old. She graduated with advanced degrees in Law and Physical Education. Upon graduation, she began working as a civil servant, yet continued writing throughout her lifetime. Telles considers Ciranda de Pedra (The Marble Dance, 1954) the book that marks her maturity as a writer and disregards her previous works as a juvenile. She has written several novels and short stories throughout her career and has received many important awards. Telles occupies the Chair 16 of the Brazilian Academy of Letters and was nominated for the 2016 Nobel Prize of Literature by the Brazilian Writers’ Union. 

Through my first reading of her short stories, I became acquainted with mysterious women – who wear one glove covering only the right hand. These women included fearless young daughters who left dying fathers at the care of others to enjoy Carnival balls and especially young intelligent women who accompanied ex-lovers to cemeteries, so naively sure of themselves. While the Structure of the Soap Bubble invited me to Lygia Fagundes Telles’s world, it was Venha ver o Pôr do Sol (Let’s Watch the Sunset) that captivated me. In this dynamic plot, the underlying suspense rested in the walk of a young couple inside an abandoned cemetery. A man who was abandoned for a richer more sophisticated person, a young woman so confident in her powers that she could never imagine something going wrong, a walk in an abandoned cemetery, full of small signs along the way, and the tension, the underlying suspense. The setting, drama, and the suspense were all masterfully described. Such unimaginable consequences… 

After reading Antes do Baile Verde, I acquired more books written by Telles; novels such as As Meninas (The Girls) and her first classic Ciranda de Pedra (Marble Dance). The first was about three young college students during the military dictatorship in Brazil, their coming into adulthood, their relationship with each other, and their dreams and limitations. In the second, Virginia, the daughter of separated parents during the Fourties/Fifties, loses her mother and is forced to live with her father and her half-sisters who never truly accepted her. Family secrets are revealed in this coming of age novel with gothic elements.

I truly enjoyed Lygia Fagundes Telles’s novels, but prefer her short stories. Telles shines In her short stories. She is capable of taking us inside family secrets, domestic quarrels, jealousy among siblings, torrid love affairs ending badly or fading into hatred –  or, worse, indifference and resentment. She has also the ability to take us into the world of the fantastic, the unknown, the terrifying. There is a lot of the Gothic in many of Telles’s short stories . In fact, it was my curiosity about the way she dealt with human relations using the elements of terror that led me to focus on these topics during my graduate studies.

CONNECTION TO GOTHIC

Lygia’s Fagundes Telles connection to the gothic realm is affiliated with the line of terror to which Ann Radcliffe belongs. Nevertheless, Telles’s use of the genre explores the realm of the fantastic, not simply the strange, as Radcliffe’s did. Telles provides no logical explanation for the supernatural aspects of her short stories and conducts the readers along with her characters through different dimensions of space and time, all through magical and frightful experiences. This can be seen in short stories such as “A Caçada” (The Hunt), where a man visiting an antique shop finds himself inside a tapestry representing a hunt, “Noturno Amarelo” (Yellow Nocturne) where a woman, after having a car break down at an abandoned road, revisits a house from her youth, full of people belonging to her past, and is forced to face the consequences of her actions. Further, in “A Mão no Ombro” (Hand on the Shoulder), a narrative where dream and reality align, an old man dreams of his own death only to relive the situation when awake. 

The Gothic with the elements that characterize the genre: the terror, the fantastic, the unspeakable, the doppelganger (the double), the unbalanced power relations between different genders, and especially the metamorphosis, can be strongly observed in short stories such as “Lua cheia em Amsterdã” (Full moon in Amsterdam) and “Tigrela”. Both short stories deal with the end of love and abusive relationships. The former is between a young Brazilian immigrant couple in Amsterdam experiencing cold and hunger. Moreover, the young man questions his lover, who had promised to always love him, no matter what, and seems to continue offering her his eternal love. All that is changed when a magical transformation comes with the wind and the power balance between them is reversed, bringing tragic consequences.

The possibility of a tragic ending to an abusive relationship is also the topic of “Tigrela”. A middle-aged woman drinking in a bar describes her relationship with a tigress. In this particular short story, the animal is constantly humanized, leading to an ending that leaves the reader wondering about the relationship: Was Tigrela really a tigress? 

In addition to the above mentioned, I am also partial to Telles’s ability to keep the suspense while mixing matters of human relations with the supernatural and crimes, or the suggestion of crimes, all in domestic and familiar spaces. “As formigas” (The Ants) narrates the story of two college students who move to an old woman’s pension where they find a shoebox with very small bones under the bed. “O anão de jardim” (The garden gnome) deals with a murder in retrospect. A sensitive and loyal garden gnome impotently witnesses the whole process and so does the reader.

PORTRAYS BRAZILIAN SOCIETY REALISTICALLY, POETICALLY

If you are not a fan of the Gothic or the Fantastic genre, there are still many reasons to read Telles’s works. There are many other stories that place human relations in more realistic settings and her writing portrays Brazilian society in a direct, yet poetic manner. She opens the door to our homes; she enters the hearts of our families, she walks into our living rooms, spies inside our bedrooms, our minds and souls, exposing the secrets we try so hard to keep from ourselves and the world. I invite you, now, to find a comfortable place, if not a hammock with a view to the Atlantic Ocean — maybe a comfortable chair by the window. Pick one of her books; grab a cup of tea, if it’s cold, or a fresh drink, if the weather calls for it. You will never think of the sunset in the same way again, you may see the moon in Amsterdam, contemplate the girl in the photograph, or even learn about the loyalty and dignity of a garden gnome.

Note: Unfortunately, not much of the work by Lygia Fagundes Telles has been translated into the English language, but, from what I’ve gathered, it is possible to find two of her novels: A Ciranda de Pedra (The Marble Dance) and As meninas (The Girl in the Photograph). There are also two short story collections: Seminário dos Ratos (Rat Seminar) and Tigrela and other Stories available. There are not many titles, but it is a place to start.

About The Writer:

Lorena Sales dos Santos is a graduated translator and interpreter from the University of Brasilia and a Doctor in Comparative Literature from the University of Brasilia / Indiana University. Dr. Santos is also a writer and the owner of VERBAL Assessoria Linguística in Brasília, Brazil, where she teaches English and Creative Writing. She is the only Creative Writing workshop leader in Latin America certified by Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA) and the only one outside of the United States certified by the Women Writing For (a) Change (WWF(a)C Organization. Through her work with Creative Writing, she believes she fosters literary production in Brazil and helps writers find their voice while working towards changing the canon of Brazilian Literature, making it more inclusive and diversified. She is currently writing a novel and maintains a personal blog with her writing, http://innerbabel.blogspot.com/ ; as well as a collective blog for VERBAL writers, https://coletivoverbal.blogspot.com/ Instagram: @verbalassessorialinguistica

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