Reading Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

Context N°12

by Zulfikar Ghose

He is like one of those monuments in a city square that people drive past presuming he must be someone important but do not stop to read what it is he has accomplished; some, catching the name, might have an obscure recollection which they associate with another culture’s history, but otherwise his only devotees appear to be a small flock of students whose work is not unlike that of pigeons upon a statue—alighting upon him with a belly full of the latest theoretical jargon which might accidentally have highlighted a curious feature of his anatomy were it not indiscriminately deposited on the whole body.

He was Machado de Assis, born in Rio de Janeiro in 1839. Chekhov was his contemporary; Kafka and Joyce were young men when he died in 1908. His short stories and novels have in common with the three European writers the stamp of originality; indeed, he shares with Chekhov and Joyce some of the elements of their style, and when his subject matter comes close to coinciding with theirs his rendering of it is imaginatively the more forceful. What Machado de Assis does not share with them is their universal recognition. He is consigned to the margins of greatness when his place should be in the center.

Anthologies sent to professors by publishers hopeful for their adoption—three of the latest are before me on my desk—all include the statutory examples from the Europeans, and often “The Lady with the Dog,” “The Metamorphosis” and “The Dead” are repeated from anthology to anthology, but Machado remains ignored. The anthologist seems content to have genuflected before the philistine deity of political correctness by including stories from the western and southern shores of Africa that, household though have become the authors’ names, seem to have been discovered in a sociologist’s trash can. The post-colonial act of redemption on the white man’s part has been to parade a bunch of freaks in native robes as though literature is only a seamstress’s threading of the social fabric.

There are two volumes of Machado’s short stories in English translation: The Psychiatrist and The Devil’s Church. Admirers of Joyce’s “Araby” will be interested to see how the same emotions and dreams of an adolescent male are depicted in “A Woman’s Arms” and “Midnight Mass,” which anticipate Joyce’s subtle suggestion of erotic sensation and the enchanting ecstasy of worshipping the beloved with spiritual devotion. Another story, “The Secret Heart,” with its horrifying final image of a husband deriving pleasure from seeing his wife’s corpse being kissed by a friend who had silently loved her without ever touching her when she was alive, could have been conceived by Poe. The title story in the second book has the Devil succeed in establishing a church in which Christian moral precepts are reversed, producing a society of criminals and sinners, which is to say, the world as it actually is; Machado adds a comical touch to the satire by showing groups of people going against the norm and surreptitiously practicing virtue; outraged by this human treachery, the Devil goes to God and asks what could have caused such contrary behavior, and God answers, “What did you expect? It’s the eternal human contradiction.” In “Adam and Eve,” it is not God but Satan who created the world, and in this reversed vision, Adam and Eve, instead of being cast out of paradise, are admitted to it for committing the sin of resisting the temptation—which reminds one of Borges’s “Three Versions of Judas” with its opening statement, “. . . the cosmos was a reckless or maleficent improvisation by angels lacking in perfection. . . .”

“Alexandrian Tale” is another story that Borges might have invented; there are several—’The Diplomat,” “Eternal,” “Mariana’—whose themes and treatment are Chekhovian, except that some of Machado’s stories were written before the Russian’s; the brilliant little gem “Mariana,” in which Machado outdoes Chekhov at his most typical, was published eight years before “The Lady with the Dog.” Comparisons could be made with other writers, his contemporary Henry James for example, to show the range of Machado’s thought, psychological perception and formal experimentation, and one could also cite more examples where he anticipates later writers; sufficient to say, however, that Machado exemplifies Valéry’s notion of the “original” writer as a lion “made of assimilated sheep.” He devoured all he could find and became the incomparable Machado who, when he asserts his genius, catches those beams of light from the past that are the most brilliant and casts his own shadow upon the future.

There is in Machado’s prose a playfulness that teases the reader, humor that mocks solemnity and seriousness. He punctures pretentiousness and ridicules received ideas. It is a virus he caught from Sterne. Machado never left Brazil but there seems not to have been a European literary or philosophical epidemic that did not infect him or, knowing it to be pernicious (as with Naturalism, whose practitioners, especially Eça de Queirós, he despised), he succeeded in avoiding. For a person of very little schooling, coming from a poor and underprivileged background, his is an astonishing tale of a self-education so thorough that a degree from a European university would not have taught him as much. A late nineteenth-century scholar in Coimbra or Salamanca would probably have studied Greek and Roman thought of which Machado displays an encyclopedic knowledge, but would that scholar, like Machado, also have taught himself English and French to read the literature of those languages in the original? The range of allusions in his work would have amazed even Nabokov. And as with Nabokov, indeed as with any work of art which gives us what Nabokov calls the shiver between the shoulder blades, what elicits one’s astonished admiration is not to do with subject matter (subject matter is little more than the cataloging of what Hart Crane termed “quotidian reality”) but with that abstract and elusive concept (Crane’s “ideal reality”) which manifests itself in that purely aesthetic thing called style. And style, said Flaubert, is a very manner of seeing things, adding that distinctions between thought and style are a sophism. The peculiar manner one develops of using words shapes the peculiarity of one’s vision: I have language; therefore, I see.

What Machado saw was the Shakespearean universe in which wisdom is spoken by the likes of Lear’s Fool or the Beckettian universe in which man drags himself through a meaningless sea of mud or that universe of appalling and capricious suffering that made Siddhartha Gautama reject a life of domestic bliss and go, like Shakespeare, like Beckett, in search of meaning. What is life for? What is love? Eliot’s Sweeney’s vision (in “Fragment of Agon”) of life among cannibals, with its obsessive “Birth, and copulation and death” and the stabbing cry, like a woodpecker’s repeated knocking upon a hard bark, “That’s all, that’s all, that’s all, that’s all,” would have interested Machado.

That perception of the world as essentially tragic, humanity as a miserable spectacle, the cosmos as a malicious joke and the world a stage on which the same old opera, with its stupid plot and banal coincidences, is being rehearsed again and again, lead Machado to create a comical style; the gloomier he is—as in his two masterpieces, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas and Dom Casmurro—the more irrepressively playful and funny he is. His is the Yeatsian “Gaiety transfiguring all that dread,” and like the eyes of the Chinamen in Yeats’s poem “Lapis Lazuli,” when they stare “On all the tragic scene,” his, too, are glittering and gay.

The pen Machado writes with is intent on recording comedy and observing those trivial and apparently irrelevant details which compose a large measure of a person’s life but the ink in which he is obliged to dip the pen comes from a dark, tragic source. In his prefatory note “To the Reader,” the eponymous narrator of The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas calls it the “ink of melancholy” which tempers the playful tone of the book, “a diffuse work” written in the afterworld in a style borrowed from Sterne and Xavier de Maistre. Brás Cubas begins his narrative with an account of his own death. He is amused to call himself a “deceased writer” whose book, thus gaining in “merriment and novelty,” is “a work supinely philosophical, but of a philosophy wanting in uniformity . . . that is at once more than pastime and less than preachment.”

This surely is not your regular comedy of manners or a portrait of a society undergoing revolutionary sociopolitical transformation from a monarchy to a modern republic—though, incredibly, there are critics who, when writing on Machado, still expatiate on the historical and social background and go on and on about the court of Dom Pedro II and the slave-run sugar and coffee plantations as if in order to appreciate Othello one must first study the cultivation and marketing of olives in Cyprus. Perhaps one reason why Machado remains a neglected writer outside Brazil is that he has been ill served by his critics. Theirs is the discourse of earnest, humorless minds who bring to the reading of literature dogmatic preconceptions grounded in some ideology that was the mandatory doctrine when the critics were in graduate school, including, amazingly now in the twenty-first century, Marxism. Machado would surely have despised them, and he would have scorned the commoner kind of analysis still practised in seminars and workshops in which gossip about characters (“Did Capitu in Dom Casmurro really deceive her husband?”) passes for serious criticism. Henry James published his The Art of Fiction in 1884 in which he stated, “It is of execution that we are talking—that being the only point of a novel that is open to contention.” The writer is granted “his subject, his idea, his donnée,” the critic’s concern should be with the creation of style.

Machado was a self-conscious stylist, a deliberate artificer, and he would have shared Proust’s lament in the final volume of Remembrance of Things Past—”Quality of language, however, is something the critical theorists think that they can do without. . . .” In The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas Machado has a chapter titled “To a Critic” which begins, “My dear critic: Several pages back, after stating that I was fifty years old, I said, ‘Perhaps you noted that my literary style is less gay, less spirited than in the earlier years . . .’” and (in a remarkably prescient analysis of the style Joyce was to fashion in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) explains, “. . . in writing each phase of the story of my life I feel the corresponding emotion or attitude, which is of course reflected in my style.” Then the narrator adds the despairing cry of frustration at his critics missing what the writer believes is his real triumph: “Good God, do I have to explain everything!”

Machado developed the elements of his style in The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas which he then used to perfection in Dom Casmurro and with great assurance in the two novels that followed. He mastered the construction of short chapters as in Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey. Then he introduced a second element—apparent irrelevance, a method not unlike Polonius’s instructions to Reynaldo, telling him to proceed by “encompassment and drift of question” and by “indirections find directions out.” Sometimes an entire chapter will be an absurd episode humorously presented with trivial details that are apparently unrelated to the main action; some readers must find such seemingly self-indulgent intrusions somewhat trying if not plainly irritating—what merit, for example, could they discover in a chapter that has only the sentence, “And, if I am not greatly mistaken, I have just written an utterly unnecessary chapter”? But it is precisely these chapters that contain clues to a larger understanding of the text and also suggest a truer depiction of reality than is to be found in those conventional narratives which rigidly exclude that which is not obviously “relevant.” Machado himself says as much in one such chapter: “How much better it would be to tell things smoothly, without all these jolts!” One is reminded of Sterne’s remark in A Sentimental Journey:

There are certain combined looks of simple subtlety—where whim, and sense, and seriousness, and nonsense, are so blended, that all the languages of Babel set loose together could not express them, they are communicated and caught so instantaneously, that you can scarce say which party is the infector.

Many a moment in Machado is so charged with emotion and tragic nuances that a direct representation of it would perhaps produce mere melodrama whereas the blending together of the seemingly irrelevant details produces first a recognizable reality and, simultaneously with the recognition, perhaps unconsciously for some readers, an unexpected perception composed of a subtle combination of ideas through which truth that cannot be directly stated is suddenly experienced.

If this final paragraph were one of Machado’s apparently irrelevant chapters, it would bear the title, But Where are the Snows of Last Winter? Reader, it is a very short story. On a visit to Brazil, I spent some days in the country house, not far from Rio de Janeiro, of an early twentieth-century European settler whose library has survived him. Apart from the Collected Dickens, the majority of the books suggested membership of a book club in London—Graham Greene, C. P. Snow, Elspeth Huxley. . . . Seeing the volumes of C. P. Snow sprang an association in my mind. It is 1966, I am having lunch with my literary agent in London, we are talking about contemporary writers and he says, “And then there is C. P. Slush.”

A Note on Machado in
English Translation

Machado de Assis wrote nine novels of which the important ones are the last five published between 1881 and 1908: Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (published as Epitaph of a Small Winner in William L. Grossman’s excellent translation), Quincas Borba (called Philosopher or Dog? in Clotilde Wilson’s fine translation), Dom Casmurro, Esau and Jacob and Counselor Ayres’ Memorial. The last three have been brilliantly translated into English by Helen Caldwell, who, together with William L. Grossman, also translated The Psychiatrist and Other Stories. The second volume of short stories, The Devil’s Church and Other Stories, was translated by Jack Schmitt and Lorie Ishimatsu. Oxford University Press has included some of Machado’s novels in its impressive Library of Latin America series, but its choice of translators has been regrettable. Certainly, where a translation by Helen Caldwell is available the English reader need choose none other; and, despite his incorrect title, Grossman’s rendering of The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas is superior to Gregory Rabassa’s in the OUP series. Penguin Books included in its prestigious Penguin Classics series a translation of Dom Casmurro which has become notorious, for its translator cut out several chapters from it and with a carpenter’s tongue-and-groove sleight of hand so bridged the gap that the novel appeared unabridged. The book remained in print for some years when it should have been withdrawn after Penguins were alerted of their translator’s deception.


The Alienist. Out of Print.
Counselor Ayres’ Memorial. University of California Press, $29.75. (Also translated as The Wager: Aires Journal. Defour Editions, $30.00.)
The Devil’s Church and Other Stories. Out of Print.
Dom Casmurro. Oxford University Press, $10.95.
Esau and Jacob: A Novel. Oxford University Press, $16.95.
The Hand and The Glove. Out of Print.
Helena. University of California Press, $17.95.
Iaia Garcia. Out of Print.
The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. Oxford University Press, $12.95. (Also translated as Epitaph of a Small Winner. Out of Print.)
The Psychiatrist and Other Stories. Out of Print.
Quincas Borba. Oxford University Press, $13.95. (Also translated as Philosopher or Dog? Out of Print.)

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