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Big Winner

Esau and Jacob

by Machado de Assis
California, 287 pp., $5.00

The Garden Where the Brass Band Played

by Simon Vestdijk
London House & Maxwell, 312 pp., $4.75

Not all great literature is written in the major European languages; but when it isn’t, we stand a very good chance of never hearing about it. Only chance and the dedication of unusually equipped translators can make available to the English-speaking reader languages, even such venerable ones as Portuguese and Dutch, in which these two novels were written. Joaquim Machado de Assis died in 1908 and has long been regarded as Brazil’s greatest novelist, but it was only in the 1950s that his books began to be translated into English. Simon Vestdijk, who was born in 1898 and is a prominent Dutch man of letters, has fared rather better. The Garden Where the Brass Band Played appeared in Holland in 1950, and this translation is part of the Bibliotheca Neerlandica series, which aims to present the classics of Dutch and Flemish literature to the English-speaking world. Both his novel and Esau and Jacob are well worth having, though Machado seems to me the finer and more interesting writer.

Simon Vestdijk’s book can best be described as a curiously late example of the naturalistic novel at its most painstaking. It is a Bildungsroman, narrated in the first person by Nol Rieske, a judge’s son growing up in a small Dutch town in the early years of this century, and it rather reminded me of Arnold Bennett in, say, the sober, earnest vein of Clayhanger. The formative experience in Nol’s early life is his friendship with the eccentric music teacher Cuperus, an alcoholic who drinks his way to failure and death, but who inspires in Nol a deep affection and respect. Later, Nol, who grows up into a rather Prufrockian figure, falls ineffectually in love with Cuperus’s daughter Trix, a tall, difficult, edgy girl. She loves him too, but the relationship ends grimly. Many other novels have been made out of similar material, but Vestdik gives it a very personal impress; there are some wellhandled dramatic climaxes, and some good though hysterical comedy, particularly in the account of a disastrous amateur performance of Carmen. Vestdijk renders skillfully the boy’s strong but confused responses, first to nature and then to music; and he gives us a powerful sense of the stifling quality of Dutch bourgeois life. There are moments of poetic concentration in the writing, but the relentless and generally unselective piling up of physical detail palls over long stretches. It is possible that Mr. Vestdijk was aiming at something more conscious than the simple cataloguing of the earlier naturalists, an anticipation, perhaps, of Robbe-Grillet’s Chosiste approach, but the result is frequently tedious.

Although Machado de Assis died when Simon Vestdijk was only ten years old, he seems, in essentials, a far more “modern” writer. This fact is all the more striking when one recalls that there was nothing in his origins to point to an inheritance of literary sophistication. Machado was born in 1839, the son of a mulatto house painter and a white Portuguese woman; he had only a sketchy formal education and was burdened throughout his life by epilepsy and other illness. He supported himself by working in a minor bureaucratic position, at the same time indulging in a dedicated and extraordinarily productive love of writing. By the time of his death he was honored as his country’s leading writer, and his collected works—embracing every literary form—totalled thirty-one volumes. Only a few of Machado’s novels and short stories are available in English, but their quality is sufficient to suggest that if Portuguese had been a more widely known language, Machado’s growing international reputation might have been achieved much sooner.

In his Introduction to Machado’s novel Dom Casmurro, Waldo Frank remarked, “At the turn of the last century, a Brazilian writes a novel that presages Proust and Kafka.” In this book and others Machado seems to speak to the twentieth century in its own language and tone of voice: the comparison with Kafka is a just one, though Machado was more urbane and relaxed in manner. In a remarkable short story called “The Looking Glass,”* published as early as 1882 (with the subtitle “Rough draft of a new theory of the human soul”) Machado puts forward the idea that every individual has two souls: the private and the public, or, as we might say, the role-playing; by degrees the latter comes to be dominant. In the story a young army lieutenant finds that his reflection in the mirror is becoming dim and distorted; but when he stands before the glass in his uniform it once more returns a true reflection.

Although Machado was an almost exact contemporary of Zola, his development did not lead him towards the naturalism that dominated so much late-nineteenth European fiction. He was, however, an exceedingly acute psychological realist, whose fictional techniques were consistently oblique and idiosyncratic, puzzling the reader without clouding the lucidity of his narrative. Compared with his North American contemporaries, Machado is remarkably urbane and—to use a word that has become overworked in recent criticism but is still the only possible one here—mature. One inevitably recalls Henry James’s famous complaint in his book on Hawthorne about all the socially dense and interesting institutions that the American novelist lacked when compared with the European; in this respect, Machado possessed in Brazil a material and an ambience that was a good deal closer to the European scene, with an imperial court, the Catholic church, an already imposing national history, and all the social niceties and gradations of Latin civilization.

Essentially, Machado is an ironist, who combines the dry, detached insights of Stendhal with the self-conscious digressiveness of Sterne. He was remarkably sophisticated in his attitude to narrative. His sardonic masterpiece, Epitaph of a Small Winner, contains the first-person narrative of Braz Cubas, but written after his death, which is described in the first chapter:

I expired at two o’clock of a Friday afternoon in the month of August, 1869, at my lovely suburban home in Catumby. I was sixty-four, prosperous and single, was worth about three hundred contos, and was accompanied to the grave by eleven friends. Only eleven!

Cubas records the details of an almost comically trivial and empty life, but concludes that he is a little in credit at the end of it, since he has no children to undergo the miseries of existence. Thus, he regards himself as “a small winner.” What is most remarkable about this novel is that Machado presents a blankly nihilistic view of existence with great wit and elegance: the spirit of the book might be summed up in William Empson’s line: “And learn a style from a despair.”

Dom Casmurro, which is generally—and rightly—regarded in Brazil as Machado’s finest novel, is a more complex work, with subtler reverberations of meaning. This, too, is a first-person narrative, told by Santiago, the novel’s tormented hero: he starts life as a frank and happy youth in a middle-class home who loves and marries the girl next door, Capitù, a heroine of considerable verve and authority. The marriage is idyllically happy at first, but by degrees Santiago is gnawed by doubts about Capitù’s fidelity. The situation is deliberately rendered in terms reminiscent of Othello, and Helen Caldwell, who transiated Dom Casmurro and Esau and Jacob, has traced the quite extensive parallels with Shakespeare in her book The Brazilian Othello of Machado de Assis. But there are some significant differences: whereas the audience in the theater knows, or at least is convinced, that Desdemona is innocent, there is no such certainty about Capitù’s guilt or innocence. Santiago becomes quite certain of her guilt: but he is patently biased and possibly not quite sane, and the reader is frequently forced to assume that the real situation is not what Santiago thinks it is. Machado handles Santiago’s obsessed narrative brilliantly; it offers a good example of the “problem of the unreliable narrator,” which is frequently raised in the criticism of fiction. At the end of the novel we are still not sure: Santiago’s son has a strong resemblance to his old friend, Escobar, now dead, with whom he is sure Capitù has had an affair. But Capitù claims that the resemblance is simply coincidence; and the reader is forced to admit that this could be the case. The novel’s deliberately inconclusive, open-ended quality, seems to me to make it a peculiarly modern work, requiring the reader’s active collaboration rather than his more or less passive witness. Here, and elsewhere, Machado both looks back to Sterne and forward to the practitioners of the nouveau roman.

Esau and Jacob, published in 1904, was one of Machado’s last novels. It tells the story of twin brothers, growing up in Rio de Janeiro between 1869 and 1894, who are temperamentally opposed from birth: they become opponents in political life and rivals for the love of the same girl, Flora. The novel incorporates a large slice of Brazilian history, for it covers the period of the overthrow of the empire and the setting up of the republic, events to which the twins have diametrically opposed attitudes, since one is Liberal and one Conservative. Esau and Jacob is recognizably a late work. Less powerful and impressive than Epitaph of a Small Winner or Dom Casmurro, it is serene, gentle and humorous, with at the same time an ingenious and assured obliqueness of form. At the beginning of the Preface we read:

When Counselor Ayres passed away, there were found in his desk seven manuscript notebooks with sturdy cardboard covers. Each of the first six had its number in Roman numerals I, II, III, IV, V, VI, written in red ink. The seventh bore the title Last.

And Last, of course, is the novel we go on to read, supposedly retitled by an unknown editor. Ayres, a benign retired diplomat and a mentor to the boys, also appears as a character in the story; in the role of omniscient author he comments on the behavior of Ayres. In the appearance of the narrator as a character in the novel, the parallels with the modern novel from Proust to Durrell and Mailer are obvious. A tendency to allegory is sometimes a characteristic of the “late” period of an artist and this is true of Esau and Jacob: Miss Caldwell expatiates in her Introduction on the possibly symbolic or allegorical elements: the twins’ mother represents Brazil, and the twins themselves stand for the nation’s past and present, and so on. What she says seems plausible enough, but not deeply important; the novel’s virtues are largely independent of such a schematization.

Taken together with Epitaph for a Small Winner and Dom Casmurro, Esau and Jacob points to the inescapable truth that Machado de Assis is a novelist of considerable stature; furthermore, his characteristic qualities of balance, lucidity, and urbanity are ones which fiction in English has never quite had enough of. We have had to wait a long time to discover this: if someone at the end of the last century had known Portuguese as well as, say, Constance Garnett had known Russian, there might have been interesting differences in the subsequent development of the novel in English.

  1. *

    It is available in English in The Psychiatrist, University of California, 1963.

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