Lygia Fagundes Telles, popular Brazilian novelist, dies at 98
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Lygia Fagundes Telles, popular Brazilian novelist, dies at 98
“The Girl in the Photograph” is Ms. Telles’s most famous novel, set during the Brazilian dictatorship’s most repressive years.

by Michael Astor

NEW YORK, NY.- Lygia Fagundes Telles, one of Brazil’s most popular writers, whose stories of women trapped in unsatisfying relationships could also be read as allegories of her country’s political situation, died Sunday at her home in São Paulo. She was 98.

The Brazilian Academy of Letters announced her death.

One of the first Brazilian writers to address female sexuality from a woman’s perspective, Telles was also the rare writer whose work appealed to both intellectuals and the general public.

Trained as a lawyer — she was one of only six women in her class of more than 100 at the University of São Paulo Law School — she was acutely aware that she was a trailblazer in both her chosen fields, but did not overtly identify as a feminist. Despite her literary success, she continued working as a lawyer in civil service for much of her career.

In a 1980 memoir, “The Discipline of Love,” Telles recalled that an early critic found her stories suffered only from lacking a “bearded author.”

“I was super happy: To write a text that deserved to come from the pen of a man, that was the greatest thing for a girl in a bonnet in 1944,” she wrote. “I worked, I studied and I chose two vocations that were clearly masculine: I was an unconscious feminist but I was a feminist.”

In the 1970s, her stories often obliquely criticized Brazil’s military regime, which was in power from 1964 to 1985. Her short story “Rat Seminar” (1977), which imagines rats and humans trading places, was an allegory of Brazil under the dictatorship.

Her most famous novel, “The Girl in the Photograph” (1973), tells the story of three starkly different young women during the regime’s most repressive years and includes graphic descriptions of officially sanctioned torture, a subject that seemed certain to get the work banned by military censors. But in a twist of fate, the censor apparently found the book so boring that he gave up reading before he got to that part.

In later years, Telles’ work became more experimental, incorporating elements of the magical and supernatural. In her last collection of new short stories, “The Garden Gnome” (1995), she imagines a lawn decoration gaining a human soul only to remain constrained within its plaster body.

In 1977, Telles led a delegation to present the country’s justice minister with a manifesto signed by 1,000 leading Brazilian intellectuals that called on the government to ease up on speech restrictions. She told the newspaper Folha de São Paulo at the time that the group had hoped to present the manifesto in private, but that when the press got wind of it, the document wound up having a wide impact. (She expressed relief that the delegation members had not been arrested.)

Lygia Fagundes Telles was born in São Paulo on April 19, 1923, to Durval de Azevedo Fagundes, a lawyer, and Maria do Rosário Silva Jardim de Moura, a pianist forced by marriage to abandon her ambitions.

Her mother’s frustrations provided the seeds for a recurring theme in Telles’ work, one that is especially evident in “Before the Green Ball” (1970), said Marguerite Itamar Harrison, an associate professor of Portuguese and Brazilian studies at Smith College.

“The story gives you a sense of these two female characters from different social classes who are caring for a dying man, and the dynamic between them preparing to go to a Carnaval ball,” Harrison said. “Lygia has that beautiful gift of language and of image. The man’s daughter leaves the house wearing this beautiful green skirt that she’s been gluing sequins to, and a few loose sequins follow behind as she runs down the stairs. It’s such a way to end a story about fleeing social responsibility for the sake of pleasure and escape.”

Telles grew up on the move as her father’s work took him around the interior of São Paulo state. When her parents separated, she went to live with her mother in Rio de Janeiro at age 8. Telles not only followed in her father’s footsteps as a lawyer but also credited him as an influence on her writing.

“My father taught me the lesson of the dream,” she said in “Narrarte,” a 1989 documentary film directed by her son, Goffredo Telles Neto, and Paloma Rocha. “He was a gambler; he bet on the numbers. I inherited this from him; I bet on words. I play the words, and it’s a dangerous game.”

Telles self-published her first book of short stories, “Cellar and Townhouse,” in 1938 at age 15. Her second collection of short stories, “Living Beach,” found a publisher in 1944, a year before she earned her law degree.

She married her law professor, Goffredo Telles Jr., in 1947. Their son was born in 1952.

For several years she wrote a weekly column in A Manhã, a Rio newspaper, before publishing, in 1954, “The Marble Dance,” her first collection to deal frankly with female sexuality. It was this book that Telles felt marked her arrival as a writer and led her to disavow her earlier works.

“Youth doesn’t justify the birth of premature texts,” she wrote of her early work in a 2002 memoir. “What came before was juvenile.”

She divorced Goffredo Telles Jr. in 1960 and married Paulo Emilio Sales Gomes, a film critic, in 1963, the same year her second novel, “Summer in the Aquarium,” was published.

With Gomes she wrote the screenplay for “Capitu,” an adaptation of Machado de Assis’ classic of Brazilian literature “Dom Casmurro.” The script, which took its name from the book’s heroine, was made into a mostly forgotten 1968 film but enjoyed greater success when it was published in book form in 2008.

Telles’ four novels and dozens of short stories won her a number of Brazilian literary awards. In 1985, she became the third woman elected to a seat in the Brazilian Academy of Letters. She won the Camões Prize, sponsored by the governments of Portugal and Brazil, in 2005 and was nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature in 2016 by the Brazilian Writers’ Union.

Telles is survived by her son, two granddaughters and a great-granddaughter. Gomes died in 1977.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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