Master Among the Ruins

Quincas Borba

by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated from the Portuguese by Gregory Rabassa
Oxford University Press, 290 pp., $25.00; $13.95 (paper)

Dom Casmurro

by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated from the Portuguese by John Gledson
Oxford University Press, 258 pp., $25.00; $12.95 (paper)

Esau and Jacob

by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Lowe
Oxford University Press, 276 pp., $35.00; $16.95 (paper)


The works of Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis are full of melancholy wisdom, or what looks like melancholy wisdom: slightly weary, slightly bit-ter, highly amused. Jokes, fables, epigrams, and analogies flourish so profusely in these pages that they certainly add up to a signature. But do they add up to a voice? And if so, whose voice? Antonio Candido, the great Brazilian critic, suggested long ago that in Machado “the most disconcerting surprises” appear “in inverse ratio to the elegance and discretion of his prose.”1 Thus in the novel Quincas Borba, a poor woman is sitting, weeping, by her still-burning cottage. A drunken man comes along and asks if it’s all right if he lights his cigar from the flames. We draw the moral readily enough—about indifference to distress that is not ours, about exploiting the misery of others—and we think we know where we are. Machado draws this moral too, although he scarcely pauses over it before he is on to another, far more unexpected one. The drunkard, he says, shows true respect for “the principle of property—to the point of not lighting his cigar without first asking permission of the owner of the ruins.” Is this a joke about property or about the worship of the principle?

Machado was undoubtedly a “master,” as the titles of the two critical books under review suggest, one of the world’s great writers. But there is a mystery about his work. Or rather there are two mysteries: one Brazilian, one international. The Brazilian mystery has to do with the development of his longer fiction. Machado wrote nine novels, the first four in a vein that he himself called “romantic”—Roberto Schwarz, a leading Brazilian critic, calls them “somewhat colorless… middling, provincial narratives.” These novels are Resurrection (1872), The Hand and the Glove (1874), Helena (1876), and Yayá García (1878). Then come five unmistakably major works, and the mystery is in the difference between the two sets. The five later novels are The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1881), Quincas Borba (1891), Dom Casmurro (1900), Esau and Jacob (1904), and Counselor Ayres’ Memorial (1908). I think the rift between the sets can be exaggerated, and Machado’s last novel, subtle and elegiac as it is, is probably too faint and too slow to be a masterpiece, and indeed is not all that far from the early work in mood and style. But obviously there is something to be explained.

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis was born in 1839 in Rio de Janeiro, and died there in 1908. His mother was Portuguese, his father a Brazilian mulatto. The family was poor, and the child received only an elementary education. As a young man, Machado became a typesetter, then a journalist. He wrote poems, plays, essays, stories, and novels, and came to be highly regarded as a writer in his lifetime. He was president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, and was reputed to be extremely mild-mannered, although the prose of his novels shows…

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