Agustina Bessa-Luís (1984) Photo: Emanuel Melo
This year, Agustina Bessa-Luís, one of the most important and significant Portuguese writers of all time, celebrates her 95th birthday.
Although her books have been translated into several languages, her vast work has yet to be translated into English. In 2016, the writer Inês Pedrosa, called the absence of Agustina’s novels in the English world a ‘scandal’.
There is, finally, however, good news. Margaret Jull Costa is in the process of translating Agustina’s most famous and early novel, The Sybil. Costa is a prolific translator of Portuguese literature who has already coordinated the publication of one of Agustina’s short stories, Mushroom Weather, earlier this year. This is the first of Agustina’s short stories, translated by Victor Meadowcroft, we can read in English. The biographical notes following the short story in The Missing Slate will give you enough background to get you interested in knowing more about this writer.
I was also delighted to discover that currently there is a revival of interest in Agustina’s novels in Portugal, with new editions of her books coming out under the auspices of Relógio D’Água; each with prefaces from important writers such as Gonçalo M. Tavares, António Lobo Antunes, Hélia Correia, and others. There are also new publications underway of never-before-published material, starting with Deuses de Barro, a book she wrote at the age of nineteen, and now available for the first time. A recent article in Observador, updates readers on this renewed interest in Agustina’s work, and is worth reading, if you can read Portuguese.
Although I have read most of her forty novels over the span of thirty years, I am only a devoted reader. I am not competent to critique them or to analyse her literary genius. However, it is my hope that, with the eminent arrival of English translations of her work, eventually others will start to give serious attention to writing about Agustina in the English language.
I like to read Agustina simply for the pleasure of her command of words, her often meandering thoughts, sometimes philosophical and reflective, but always to expand our knowledge of a character or a situation, weaving her storytelling prowess into an endless, intricate web of detail and background that leaves you breathless; the way she describes a world, whether interior or exterior, never rushed, and with the sense of having all-the-time-in-the-world to stay in it, like in a Proustian or Dostoyevskian world, and I lose myself in her words, as if hypnotized and seduced by the magic of her literary creations.
I had the great honour and privilege of meeting Agustina when I travelled through Portugal in 1984. I had gone there after completing university, and stayed two weeks in Porto, in my Professor of Portuguese, Laura Bulger’s apartment. She had been gracious enough to let me stay there, but even better, she considered Agustina like a mother to her, and was delighted to give me an invitation to drop by and meet the writer at her house, named Golgota. I remember approaching the gate, waiting nervously for it to open, and being greeted by a maid who walked me through the garden into the house where Agustina waited with the most welcoming smile. I was to return to her house several times, and we had simple conversations and shared meals. I was twenty-six then, and she, sixty-two. She looked so humble and unaffected that, at the time, I had no idea that I was in the presence of such an important person in the Portuguese Literary World. All I really knew of her was through the reading of A Sibila and Fanny Owen in a university course on Portuguese Literature. But she was so delightful and warm, treating me as if we were equals, that I immediately felt at ease in her presence.
In one of our conversations, I mentioned that I wanted to go to Fátima for the religous October 13 celebration and, without fuss and almost unoticed by me, she quietly arranged for a ticket for me to travel there by an excursion bus, which I thoroughly enjoyed with stops in Nazaré, Barcelos, Batalha, and other places. Imagine the reaction of the ticket agent when I showed up at the travel agency and told her that I had a reservation in the name of Agustina Bessa-Luís. I think the expression on her face and the fact that she whispered something to her colleagues while giving me a look of, what was it, respect? Envy? I got the sense right away that this writer I was visiting meant something much deeper to the people in her city.
A few days later, when I returned to Porto, she wanted to know everything about my trip and she asked me, with all seriousness and curiosity about human nature, rather than mere gossip, if I was religious. She really wanted to know. I saw it in the urgency of her eyes as she looked at me waiting for the answer. I almost asked her the same question, but out of embarrassment, or fear that I was prying too much into her life, didn’t.
During the days, I explored the city and discovered its great many bookstores. Out of interest for my new found friend, I sought out her books on beautiful old shelves. Later, when I returned to her house, I would show her my findings, and she would look at the book covers of Conversações com Dmitri e Outras Fantasias, Os Incuráveis, A Bruxa, with a big smile of delight as if she was seeing them for the first time and in disbelief that these titles were still available.
To my surprise, when I showed her my copies of Santo António and Sebastião José, without saying a word, she quietely took them from my hands, found a pen nearby on her desk, and without any fanfare, autographed them for me: para o Emanuel como lembrança da sua passagem pelo Porto. A couple of months later, when I was already back in Toronto, I received a copy of her then most recent book, Um Bicho da Terra, autographed on Christmas Eve.
One night, she invited me to have a formal dinner with her charming husband, Alberto Luís, an equally brilliant personality in his own right, who put me at ease with his grace and good humour while we sat in their elegant yet cozy dining room. Her maid brought out a platter of a famous regional dish that Agustina was proud to serve me and which she had prepared herself: Rice with Chicken Feet. Well, as luck would have it, I have never liked chicken feet and despite my wanting to, I could not bring myself to eat it. I picked at the rice and left the feet behind. I felt such relief when I heard her tell the maid to clear the table without ever drawing attention to the fact that I had snubbed her dish. I have never forgotten her kind gesture as she avoided humiliating her guest by changing the subject. I remember her smile then. A kind and generous smile that made me love her.
I came away from that two week visit with memories that have stayed with me to this day as some of my most sacred memories I will treasure to the day I die. But I never had contact with my generous Agustina again except through her prolific writings.
Over the years, I always looked for her books until the last one to be published in 2006, A Ronda da Noite. In the eighties and nineties, I would buy her latest books in a Portuguese bookstore in Toronto which no longer exists: A Monja de Lisboa, Adivinhas de Pedro e Inês, Prazer e Glória, Eugénia e Silvina, Vale Abraão, Um cão que Sonha, Memórias Laurentinas, O Comum dos Mortais, and others. In the last ten years, it was on trips to Lisbon that I found other books, usually in her editor’s bookstore, Guimarães, and when the store closed for good, I found her books at Babel, in the Príncipe Real quarter. Another book, in Ponta Delgada, in the Azores: Alegria do Mundo. I remember the joy I felt when I found the trilogy O princípio da Incerteza: Joia de Família, A Alma dos Ricos, Os Espaços em Branco, in a bookstore in Vila Real de Santo António, in the Algarve. These are some of the books I have bought over the years. I have others, too, but I still search for others to complete my collection.
Her books accompany me like silent friends, and at any moment, I can retrieve them from my bookshelf and read them again, encountering my Agustina in their pages, just like being again in her presence during that visit of long ago. And when I read her, I can hear her voice in my head, with that musical lilt and the formation of a smile, and I listen to her again, just as if I was still sitting next to her in her Golgota home.