Daphne du Maurier: A Queen of Atmospheric Novels

Daphne du Maurier may have been born in London in 1907, but it’s Cornwall, where she lived for most of her life and died in 1989, the main setting of several of her books. Boasting a craggy coast, inspiring coves, sandy beaches and clifftops filled with flowers, the region fits perfectly with her atmospheric stories. It’s not difficult to fall in love with her writing style. Vivid characters, a gripping prose and a sprinkle of mystery turn her novels into enthralling reads, even if they are not always perfect. She published her first novel, The Loving Spirit, in 1931. This is not the book she is best known for, though.

Rebecca is probably her most famous novel and, without a doubt, my favourite so far. After marrying Maxim de Winter, the unnamed narrator moved with him to his family home, the iconic Manderley. Being an insecure young woman, she already felt inferior to his deceased first wife, Rebecca. Living in Manderley only amplified her doubts and apprehensions. While she didn’t know how to deal with the staff nor was she familiar with her husband’s routines, Rebecca seemed to have been perfect. And Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper, was always there to remind her of that.

Accusations of plagiarism were raised regarding the book. Carolina Nabuco, a Brazilian author, believed that Daphne du Maurier had plagiarised her novel A Sucessora, although it had only been published in Portuguese at the time. She considered that the initial storyline of both novels was very similar, but she never sued Du Maurier, who claimed that she had never heard of Nabuco’s book before. The American Edwina Levin MacDonald went as far as filing suit in 1941. The complaint was dismissed, however. Continue reading

José Saramago: The Gifted and Uncompromising Portuguese Nobel

The Portuguese author José Saramago was a man of strong convictions. He didn’t shy away from bluntly expressing his views, often causing controversy. But his work and talent shined brighter than any outcry, ideological difference or political disagreement. He published his first novel, Terra do Pecado, in 1947, and until 1966 it remained his only book. Born on 16 November 1922 in the village of Azinhaga, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, being the only Portuguese writer to have had that honour so far.

When he wasn’t yet two years old, his parents moved to Lisbon, where he grew up. For economic reasons, he had to do a vocational course at a secondary technical school, and his first job was as a car mechanic. It was in a public library that he continued to learn and to cultivate his love for reading. Later, he also worked as a translator and a journalist. He died on 18 June 2010 on the island of Lanzarote (Spain), and his ashes were laid to rest beneath an olive tree near the river Tagus in Lisbon.

He wrote novels, non-fiction, short stories, poetry and plays. His novels challenge genre boundaries, as they mix elements from magical realism, historical and literary fiction. Many are allegories about the human condition and delve into a variety of social and moral issues through stimulating and funny considerations. His characters and narrators lose themselves in their thoughts. Their asides replicate, in a way, how we communicate orally. Continue reading

Jane Austen: A Love Story with The Novel of Manners

Jane Austen needs no introduction. Even if you have never read one of her books, you surely have heard her name mentioned a million times. I first became aware of her work when I watched the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and immediately decided to read the book. I know this is an unconventional opinion, but I really loved the film by Joe Wright, who is one of my favourite directors, and I still picture Mr Darcy as Matthew Macfadyen.

If someone had just randomly and briefly told me about the plot of any of Jane Austen’s novels, I would probably have thought that I wouldn’t enjoy them, since they would seem to be just about simple love stories with nothing exciting to offer. However, that would be a wrong assessment, because, most of all, they are novels of manners which depict the middle-class life during the early 19th century. I love the wit of the writing style, the way in which the characters are portrayed with distinguishable personalities and the irony used to subtly criticise some of their actions. They offer so much more than just stories about love and relationships at a time when marriage was seen as means to achieve security in life.

After reading all of the six major novels by Jane Austen, who was born in 1775 and died in 1817, Pride and Prejudice remains my favourite. It tells the story of the Bennet family. Mrs Bennet is anxious to marry her five daughters. The second eldest, Elizabeth, is the heroine of the novel. She is intelligent, playful and witty, but assesses people after first impressions. Mr Darcy is one of the people she makes fast judgements about. But he is not innocent in the misunderstandings that arise between them. He struggles to overcome his pride and to give less importance to social status. I loved the development of their relationship and the well-conceived characters who enrich the satire present throughout the novel. Continue reading

Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen: A Socially Conscious Poet

Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen is the Portuguese author that has been part of my life for the longest time. She wrote poetry, essays and short stories, both for adults, younger readers and children. The first time I read one of her stories I was 10 or 11 years old and I will continue to read her poems for years to come. But her role in Portuguese society was larger than ‘just’ being a phenomenal writer. She also played a part against the dictatorial regime in the 60’s and the beginning of the 70’s.

Her poetry reveals her strong civic involvement. Some of the poems featured in her collection O Nome das Coisas focus on the colonial war, the dictatorship, but also the Carnation Revolution, which took place in 1974, its outcome and the meaning of freedom. Other poems were inspired by the life and work of Fernando Pessoa, probably the most renowned Portuguese poet abroad.

The only other complete collection of poems I read by Sophia was Poesia, which has various references to the sea, the night and the moonlight. However, I’ve read and studied many other of her poems while in school. Her poetry revolves mainly around three themes. One of them is nature, which is always perceived in a positive way. It’s by having contact with nature that mankind can achieve total plenitude. It also serves as a symbol for many abstract concepts, such as freedom. Continue reading

Fernando Pessoa: Many Personalities in One Author

To write an author spotlight about Fernando Pessoa is quite a demanding task, since he was not one single writer, he was many. He invented the concept of ‘heteronyms’, which are not ordinary pen names or pseudonyms, but different ‘voices’ with their own biographies, writing styles, physiques, personalities and intellectual lives. Pessoa is one of the most famous Portuguese writers and published both poetry, essays and fiction.

Born in 1888 in Lisbon, he moved to South Africa with his mother in 1895 to join his stepfather, a military officer who was then the Portuguese consul in Durban. His father and his younger brother died when he was really young. In 1905, he returned to Lisbon, where he died in 1935 of cirrhosis. Some of his works were left unfinished and the majority were only published after his death.

Fernando Pessoa can be characterised as a modernist writer, being one of the authors who established the movement in Portugal. I am no specialist, but from what I remember from school, modernist writers aimed to self-consciously break with the traditional ways of writing. They had a conscious desire to express new sensibilities, focus on new themes in poetry and contravene the language rules. Continue reading

Ian McEwan: A Problem of Unpredictability

Whenever I think about buying a book by Ian McEwan, I ponder very carefully before finally making a decision, because I’m never quite sure if I’m going to enjoy it or not. I have read a total of seven books by the English author, who was born in 1948. While some I genuinely liked, others I really regretted buying and ended up giving them away.

Ian McEwan has won several awards since he became an author. The first one was the Somerset Maugham Award for the collection of short stories First Love, Last Rites, published in 1975. He also won the Man Booker Prize in 1998 with Amsterdam.

My four favourite books written by Ian McEwan have one thing in common: an important historical or more current event is used as the background for the main plot. This is the case with The Innocent, Atonement, Saturday and Sweet Tooth. Continue reading

Eça de Queirós: the 19th century Portuguese master of social commentary

If you aren’t Portuguese, you’re probably not familiar with Eça de Queirós, whom some consider to be on the same literary level as Dickens or Balzac. Born in 1845, he is one of the authors young people have to study at school. Some come to love him and others to loathe him, as it’s usually the case with the authors who are required reading. In my case, he became one of my favourite Portuguese authors and one I believe that deserves to be better known.

Eça de Queirós can’t be categorised into one single literary movement. His first works showed characteristics of the Romanticism movement; in a second phase he adhered to Realism / Naturalism; and he was afterwards influenced by Impressionism and Symbolism. My favourite books by him are generally placed in the literary realism movement, and I dare say that this is the phase he’s most known for.

The literary realism movement, which in Portugal appeared around 1865/1870, intends to present reality as it is, describing it in the most objective and detailed way possible. The authors who followed this movement in the mid-19th century intended to portrait the vices of society through symbolic characters, whose very existence serves to embody some major idea or aspect of society. And this is one of the reasons why I liked the novels that I read by Eça de Queirós so much. Continue reading