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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 again and again that his compassion for individuals in distress did not exclude a continuing, firmly focused anger about the blindness and privilege rampant in his society. This is true even of the beautifully balanced sentences of an early novel like Helena: “He never found a need to test his own mentality. If he had he would have discovered that it was mediocre”; “Colonel Ma-cedo had the distinguishing characteristic of not being colonel. He was a major.”

Older explanations of the Brazilian mystery, John Gledson says in his introduction to Schwarz’s book, concentrated on events in Machado’s life (a severe illness, a threat to his sight), on a supposed turn to pessimism in his views, or on literary influences like Tristram Shandy. But the real question is, initially at least, a formal one, internal to the books. What do we make of the sudden change in method, the move from graceful, third-person storytelling to extravagant modernist antics, including tangled time lines, reflexive commentary, digressions, deeply unreliable first-person narrators, proliferating allusions, canceled or incomplete stories, pages filled with dots, idiosyncratic chapter titles, constant references to the bookishness of the books, and teasing addresses to a variety of imaginary readers, as in Nabokov’s Lolita? Schwarz, whose book A Master on the Periphery of Capitalism was first published in Portuguese in 1990, doesn’t want to exclude a biographical explanation of the change, and reasonably says, “Perhaps…Machado had completed his social ascent but had no illusions about it, and did not forget the troubles of the previous situation.” But Schwarz focuses on the formal properties of the later novels, and asks not why the change came about but what it means.

Form, however, for Schwarz as for the Lukács of The Theory of the Novel, is not an abstraction and it doesn’t elude time and history. It means: “(a) a rule for the composition of the narrative and (b) the stylization of a kind of conduct characteristic of the Brazilian ruling class.” On this model, literature not only represents history as a set of discrete or accumulating events, it inhabits and articulates history, speaks the language that any given age talks to itself. Machado’s breakthrough is simultaneously aesthetic and political, an understanding of how to eavesdrop on the upper classes without seeming to be different from them, and how to get them, as Schwarz says at one point, to indict themselves without knowing that they are doing it. This, we might say, is what unreliable narrators are for: there is always an indictment, although not always an indictment of a class.

Schwarz’s A Master on the Periphery of Capitalism is devoted exclusively to Machado’s breakthrough novel, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, and not everything it says goes for the works that come after. But everything it says about the book in question is persuasive. The memoirs, within their fictive context, are literally posthumous. Brás Cubas, as he himself announces in a wonderful play on words, is not a writer who died (“um autor defunto“) but a dead man who took to writing (“um defunto autor“). He wants us to believe that this position lifts him above the trivialities of the merely living, and many readers and critics have taken him at his word. But clearly Brás Cubas is, Schwarz writes, “as petty and pursued by social vanities as the most deplorable of his characters…. The comedy is to be found precisely in the earthly passions of this dead man, who is very much alive.” The dead Brás Cubas plans to do what he likes with his words, as he imagines he did what he liked with his life. He recounts his spoiled childhood, his adult philandering, and his complete failure to leave any kind of mark on his time as if this were a narrative of superlative success.

But of course extreme caprice is itself a kind of captivity, and this is a novel founded on what Schwarz calls “the calculated inadequacy of the narrator’s attitudes toward the material he himself represents”—it’s hard to imagine a better characterization of some of the most haunting of modern texts, from Mann’s Dr. Faustus to, again, Nabokov’s Lolita. Inadequacy here doesn’t mean always falling short, it means never getting things quite right, or always letting too many cats out of the moral or psychological bag. The perfection of the writing is in the complexity of the mimed errors. Schwarz cites Walter Benjamin’s description of Baudelaire as “a secret agent—an agent of the secret dissatisfaction felt by a class at its own dominance.” If Machado is the agent, Brás Cubas is his unwitting, complacent front.

A fine example, which brings out some of Schwarz’s most lucid and passionate critical writing, is Brás Cubas’s cynical defense of his brother-in-law Cotrim—a defense that damns the accused and his defender. There are those who say that Cotrim is a barbarian:

The only fact alleged in that particular was his frequent sending of slaves to the dungeon, from where they would emerge dripping blood. But, alongside the fact that he only sent recalcitrants and runaways, it so happens that, having been long involved in the smuggling of slaves, he’d become accustomed to a certain way of dealing that was a bit harsher than the business required, and one can’t honestly attribute to the original nature of a man what is simply the effect of his social relations.

The “only fact” seems more than enough, and the slight excess of harshness (“o trato um pouco mais duro“) is flatly contradicted by the dripping blood. The mention of smuggling—the legal slave trade to Brazil ended in 1851—seeks to make a crime into an excuse, and the argument about social relations turns liberal thought upside down. Schwarz points out that shameful truths are not avoided here, only reinterpreted. This is “politeness within the elite, making ostentatious use of the best of contemporary culture.”


What Schwarz’s book doesn’t tell us is why the novel is so funny as well as so bleak. Of course Brás Cubas is not always Machado’s front; he is often critical and ironic in his own right. Schwarz himself is clearly alert to the fun, and writes repeatedly of the work’s comical and farcical effects. But his thesis is a little grim and unrelieved, even when the subject is not slavery. What if we are not captivated by the “Brazilian ideological comedy” on display, or if the secret dissatisfaction of a class, historically fascinating as it is, seems too monotonous a topic for a whole masterpiece? Is the only alternative to fall for Brás Cubas’s narrative charms, and make ourselves his class accomplices at a distance? Schwarz worries a little about this. Perhaps Machado’s disguise was too perfect. “Machado uses with absolute mastery the ideological and literary resources most prized by his victim,” generating “a similarity between ferocious criticism and an apologia, which can lead to confusion.”

With this we arrive at the second mystery, the international one. Ma-chado’s novels have been available in English and in other languages apart from Portuguese for some fifty years now. Everyone who reads him thinks he is a master, but who reads him, and who has heard of him? When I talk to people about Borges, I often have to say the name carefully, but I don’t always have to say who he is. In 1990, introducing a reissue of William L. Grossman’s 1952 translation of Posthumous Memoirs (called Epitaph of a Small Winner), Susan Sontag was “astonished that a writer of such greatness does not yet occupy the place he deserves.” She concluded eloquently that “to love this book is to become a little less provincial about literature, about literature’s possibilities.” Have we become less provincial in these last twelve years? Several of the older translations are still in print, there have been other translations of at least two of the novels in the meantime, and now we have four new translations: The Posthumous Memoirs, Quincas Borba, Dom Casmurro, and Esau and Jacob. The new translations are fluent and sound, but so, mostly, were the old ones. The Oxford series is a little cluttered with commentary, since each book has a general introduction, an introduction, and an afterword—the format itself is no doubt a sign of nervousness. Some shrewd things get said, but you do feel you have to open too many doors to get at each novel.

  1. 1

    Antonio Candido, On Literature and Society, edited and translated by Howard S. Becker (Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 106.

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