Wrestling with Machado

Ilan Stavans
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

Susan Sontag, in an essay called “Afterlives” published in The New Yorker in 1990, called Joaquin Maria Machado de Assis, who, along with journalist Euclides da Cunha, was Brazil’s most famous nineteenth-century literary figure, “the greatest writer ever produced in Latin America.” That’s high praise, but it’s also bombastic and rather shallow. The greatest writer? One could easily come up with a half-dozen other authors from the region equal in greatness who were already essential when Sontag published her appreciation. Jorge Luis Borges, whom Sontag places “second best,” is far more consistent in style, and his worldview has been much more influential. Gabriel García Márquez turned lo real maravilloso, what in English is known as Magical Realism, into an international vogue.

And literature isn’t a competition. Who is “the greatest writer” in the United States? The question itself is preposterous. A related issue with Sontag’s valuation is that Machado is almost totally unknown within Latin America. Borges, who seems to have read everything (though, by his own confession, not One Hundred Years of Solitude), doesn’t mention him anywhere. The apathy isn’t altogether Machado’s fault. Brazil occupies a liminal space in the hemisphere’s map: in square miles, it is a mammoth country, by far the largest in Latin America, yet its language and heritage can be traced to imperial Portugal, which, in the context of Europe, has always sat in an awkward, tangential position. In the Americas this makes it an anomaly and turns Brazil into an archipelago of foreignness.

Sontag is not unaware of this marginalization, but she manages to twist that, too. In her New Yorker essay, she writes that Brazil has always been “regarded by the rest of South America–Hispanophone South America–with a good deal of condescension and even racism.” Again, untrue (and where does she get that information?). Indifference, yes, maybe even disdain, but not condescension–and racism even less so. Brazil’s ethnic tapestry is similar to that of some of its neighbors, such as Colombia and Venezuela. On the other hand, Sontag is right when she argues that “a writer of one of those countries” (meaning Spanish-speaking Latin America) “is far likelier to know any of the European literatures or literature in English than to know the literature of Brazil, whereas Brazilian writers are acutely aware of Spanish-American literatures.” Again, Borges is the prime example: he barely noticed Machado, and to a large extent that goes for Brazil in general. Only a couple of Borges’s stories mention it, “Emma Zunz” among them. On the other hand, almost anything Anglo-Saxon, from Beowulf to Shakespeare to Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, G. K. Chesterton, and even Rudyard Kipling, fascinated him. Machado in his own right was utterly oblivious to Spanish-language writers. Don Quixote, considered to be the first modern novel, hardly dents his repertoire of references, of which there are many. As far as he was concerned, Argentina, Peru, Uruguay, and other countries in the area might as well have been on Mars.

What interests Machado is sound, especially the inflections of the Portuguese language. Reading him in the original is hypnotizing, not in terms of content but because of the musicality, the rhythmic movement of sentences.

Nowadays many Spanish-language Latin Americans avidly read Brazilian writers. Clarice Lispector, for example, has been a staple of the continent’s literary canon since the 1960s. Indeed, in the English-speaking world, there was a time when she was described as “the Brazilian Virginia Woolf.” Not long ago a Buenos Aires publication referred to Woolf as “Bloomsbury’s Clarice Lispector,” prime evidence that the tide had changed. Jorge Amado is another icon (or at least he was in the 1980s). And while not a maker of artistic gems by any stretch, Paulo Coelho, known for such novels as The Alchemist and The Zahir, is a staple in airports, pharmacies, and supermarkets all over Latin America. In the New Yorker essay, Sontag also argues that Machado is better known in the United States than anywhere else outside his own linguistic habitat. In part this is because every so often some publishing house or institution in New York City makes a case for his reintroduction to American readers. Sontag’s essay itself was written as the foreword to a reprint of Machado’s most famous novel, Epitaph of a Small Winner (1990), rendered into English by William L. Grossman. A handful of his other novels, Philosopher or Dog (1992), Esau and Jacob (2000), and Dom Casmuro (2009), have also been translated, although most are out of print. So have several volumes of his stories, such as A Chapter of Hats (2008). During these cycles of rediscovery, the appetite for Machado generally lasts a handful of months, but never more than that.

There are four sets of Machado’s Obras completas in Portuguese: the first was published in 1920 and comprises twenty volumes; each of the second and third sets, published in 1962 and 1997, respectively, has thirty-one volumes; the fourth, published in 2006, comprises three dense, tightly packed volumes. So the total in English is a minuscule sample, hardly enough to get a true sense of the whole but seemingly enough to generate a litany of superlatives. Allen Ginsberg called Machado “another Kafka.” Philip Roth said he was “a great ironist, a tragic comedian.” Salman Rushdie described him as “so light in touch … as to make one suspect that he had descended into the South American literary wilderness of that period from some Dänikenian chariot of Gods.” Even Woody Allen, whose knowledge of Brazilian culture seems to be limited at best, once told The Guardian newspaper regarding Epitaph of a Small Winner: “I was shocked by how charming and amusing it was. I couldn’t believe he lived as long ago as he did. You would’ve thought he wrote it yesterday. It’s so modern and so amusing. It’s a very, very original piece of work. It rang a bell in me, in the same way that The Catcher in the Rye did. It was about subject matter that I liked and it was treated with great wit, great originality and no sentimentality.” The implication of such encomia is that no global literary canon would be complete without Machado, but, again, Machado isn’t the greatest writer ever produced in Latin America. He isn’t even a great writer at all, though he is good, and sometimes very good. He is also often disturbing, especially in regard to his racist and anti-Semitic views. Still, being good is no small achievement.

Machado de Assis was born in 1839 in Rio de Janeiro, where he lived for most of his life and where he died in 1908. He was an avid reader of Shakespeare, Dickens, Flaubert, Balzac, and Schopenhauer, as well as a polyglot (he knew German, Greek, French, and English) and was happily married for over thirty years. Machado was the first president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. He wrote prolifically: novels, genre pieces, and newspaper and magazine columns in such periodicals as Marmota Fluminense, Gazeta de Noticias, A Estação, and Almanaque Brasileiro Garnier. He also wrote for the stage. Fittingly, the most important prize in Brazil’s literature is called the Prêmio Machado de Assis.

Given the way that easy adulation sticks to him like chewing gum, to understand Machado’s true worth one needs first to pull off the unneeded layers of praise that have unfairly buried him in order to see him for who he was, a realist with a forward-looking sense who was more interested in showing his readers the artificiality of literature–that is, how literature works–than in presenting them with an escape from their daily routines. What makes his work compelling is that he doesn’t do what we expect him to do for an author of his time, especially for someone who lived and wrote in an age convinced that art was to serve as a platform for communication with the muses.

Brazil, along with Mexico and Haiti, was unlike other nations in Latin America. It had its own kingdom, which in Brazil’s case was defined by the production of coffee and rubber. Not until 1889, when Machado, a monarchist and a traditionalist, was fifty years old, did the republic arrive. His opinions about it were mixed. His best, least-realist writing came about as a result of the monarchy’s transition into a republic. Modernity arrived almost contemporaneously. Railways were built, in some metropolitan areas street lights and sewer systems were installed, banks proliferated, the newspaper industry exploded. All appear in his oeuvre. But though the vast majority of Machado’s plots are set in Rio, we learn very little about Rio’s architecture, its customs, its cuisine. The urban landscape barely interested him.

In the rest of Latin America, an artistic movement known as Modernismo, led by the poets Rubén Darío of Nicaragua and the Cuban José Martí, developed a literature that replied to modernity. Latin American modernists rejected Spain’s cultural imperialism, embracing France in its stead. Through their literary work, they struggled against colonialism and increasingly embedded the Spanish language in the American milieu. Machado’s modernism also cut the umbilical cord, in his case with Portugal–Brazil had become independent in 1822–but in its place he took a social approach. His work evolved into a sharp critique of mendacity and corruption, his central theme human folly seen through the prism of a nascent Brazilian society enamored of itself. Though he examined the duplicity of human interaction, his approach is often puzzling. He was the son of a mixed-race father and a white washerwoman, yet his views on slavery are invisible, in spite of the fact that when the production of coffee boomed in the 1830s, it was fueled by slave labor, as well as by Spanish and Italian migrant workers. Harold Bloom once misrepresented Machado as “the supreme black literary artist to date,” when in his work Machado hardly acknowledged his own blackness.

On the face of it, the most intriguing way to think of Machado’s later, republican period is to see it as a proto-postmodernist stance. His concern with issues of narrative would become standard in the work of Pirandello, Calvino, John Barth and Donald Barthelme … and Borges himself. In Epitaph of a Small Winner, which is also known as The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, the protagonist chronicles his life story from the grave. Quincas Barba, a secondary character in that book, will later be the hero of his own novel, an intertextual approach often employed by the postmodernists who came later. What energizes Machado’s talent is his literary joie de vivre: his purpose, it seems, is to build a story that is both self-conscious and prone to irony and utterly aware of its own limitations. In that sense his precursor was Laurence Sterne, who in Tristram Shandy mocked fiction’s supposed role as an escape from reality. Machado’s purpose was the opposite: to remind readers of the artificiality of every literary exercise.

But not all of Machado’s literary endeavors are avant la lettre, bushwhacking a path for a type of literature that would thrive in the latter third of the twentieth century. In some, he is rather conventional. These are his least compelling works; they feel antiquated. A fan of philosophy, he often inserts references to metaphysical questions, some of which are still current but many relevant only in his day. Yet the inclusion of metaphysics doesn’t always lift his stories above the mundane.

As part of the ongoing cycles of discovery targeting English-language readers, The Collected Stories of Machado de Assis, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson and published by Liveright, has recently landed in bookstores. Near a thousand pages, it is a mighty tome that includes a total of seven volumes of tales, all chosen by Machado himself. The approximately eighty tales vary in length: some are quite short, others novella length. The pieces were disseminated in newspapers in Rio, at times in serialized form. (At the time of Machado’s death, another 129 remained unpublished; they are not included in this volume.) Machado wasn’t singularly inspired when it came to titling the collections. One is called Relics from an Old House, another Miscellaneous Papers, yet another Undated Stories. In a note Machado inserts at the beginning, he writes, “Supposing, however, that my purpose is to define these pages as dealing, in substance, with things that do not belong to any particular date or time, that, I think, would explain the title. Which is the worst thing that could possibly happen to it, for the best titles are always those that need no explanation.”

The material is of decidedly mixed quality. None of the pieces in the volume is superb, although a few are worth the effort. In his depiction of social norms, Machado on occasion rises to the storytelling level of Chekhov, entering the world of his characters in subtle, intimate ways. Nor is he a Maupassant, or an Isaac Babel, in how the anger that comes across results from marginalization. In “Story of My Dovecot,” told in the first person, Babel opens a window into the life of a nine-year-old Jewish child in Odessa who, in the middle of a pogrom, is ready to do anything to protect a dove he recently received as a present. The full plight of the city’s Jewish community masterfully comes to the fore. In contrast, in “Father Against Mother,” Machado follows a man who makes his living catching runaway slaves. The views on slavery expressed in the story (“not all enjoyed enslavement”) are difficult to swallow, as is the climactic moment in which the protagonist steals away a newborn child from a dying slave woman minutes after she gives birth. The author’s loyalties are at times misplaced. Similarly, in “The Loan,” about a bargaining exchange that reveals much about social class and the need for quick money, some of the passing comments on usury (“the devil of a fellow and a Jew”) are disconcerting to today’s sensibility. His narrative strategies are inventive, like the lecture delivered by a pseudo-scientist in “The Most Serene Republic” about a species of spider that is capable of speech, or the Socratic dialogue he develops in “How to Be a Bigwig.” Or “In the Ark,” which is composed of three unpublished chapters from the book of Genesis.

“The Mirror” is reminiscent of Borges’s obsession with mirrors. It also recalls an extraordinary story by Sholem Aleichem, “On Account of a Hat,” delivered as a snazzy train conversation, about a poor man, Sholem Shachnah, who, after falling asleep in a train station, wakes up and mistakenly puts on the wrong hat. As a result, he is suddenly treated honorably by those around him. Machado explores the concept of individuals having not one but two souls, “one that looks from the inside out, the other that looks from the outside in.” The protagonist, a taciturn person speaking to a handful of acquaintances, describes a transformation that results from swiftly bringing together his two souls through an old mirror. The tale is a savvy exploration of the intersection of psychology and class.

“Ex Cathedra” is an endearing exhortation of knowledge through the relationship of a tutor and his female student. It feels light, underdeveloped. And “The Alienist,” which takes place outside Rio, is a disappointing diversion on the role psychology played in the latter part of the nineteenth century. By the end, it is unclear if Simão Bacamarte, the physician protagonist, is more insane than the folks he locks up in the town’s madhouse. Other stories, such as “Miss Dollar,” “A Chapter on Hats,” “The Blue Flower,” “Much Heat, Little Light,” “Midnight Mass,” and “Pecuniary Anecdote,” are satisfying in their playfulness. It is a joy to see Machado interested in inflated egos about to burst. He has a bracing capacity to describe his characters in ways that feel fluid and unencumbered and the reader’s joy is to feel that Machado himself seems perfectly aware of his own writerly inclinations.

Mostly what interests Machado is sound, especially the inflections of the Portuguese language. Reading him in the original is hypnotizing, not in terms of content but because of the musicality, the rhythmic movement of sentences. Indeed, one has the sense that language, more than the nation that produces it, matters.

After Machado, Brazilian letters reached inspired heights. The two Andrades, Mário de Andrade and Oswald de Andrade, gave new impetus to the nation’s evolution. The former, enthralled by folklore, made Portuguese more elastic by using vivid colloquial language, whereas the latter, through his Manifesto Antropófago, published in 1927, inaugurated a current that pushed modernism into unprecedented directions, looking at cannibalism–the theft or “eating up” of foreign cultures–as a form of originality. João Guimarães Rosa, author of Gran Sertão: Veredas, is a twentieth-century genius awaiting the accolades he deserves. Guimarães Rosa’s stories, “Third Bank of the River,” for instance, are more distilled than much of Machado’s tales. Moacyr Scliar, who wrote fairy-tale-like portraits of the Jewish Porto Alegre, mastered the short story form like few others.

The Latin American story is among the finest in the globe. One only needs to think of the Mexican Juan Rulfo and his The Plain in Flames, and Julio Cortázar, responsible for Hopscotch, who was a far better story writer than a novelist. “Axolotl,” “Blow-Up,” “House Taken Over,” and “The Forbidden Door” are unparalleled. Since Sontag in her New Yorker piece compares Machado to Borges, one feels compelled to further that comparison. Borges, of course, produced some of the most significant stories of the twentieth century, including “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” “The Library of Babel,” “Funes the Memorious,” “The Aleph,” and “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Machado is a free-wheeler; his writing feels unimpeded, to the point of becoming a current without form. In comparison, Borges is meticulous to the point of eliminating any chance at spontaneity. His essays and stories are about Buenos Aires, which is the equivalent of Machado’s Rio, but he ventures much farther, writing about the Arabian Nights, the Islamic thinker Averroes, and Irish nationalism. His scope feels global. In an early lecture called “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” he defends the right of Argentine writers to write about anything, not only the little corner where they live. Machado is a broad thinker as well but his fictions are narrower. He concentrates on Brazil as if it were his only sphere of interest.

Brazil faces a similar challenge to Spain. The most prestigious literary award given in the Spanish-speaking world is called the Premio Cervantes, presented to writers whose work has furthered the country’s cultural tradition. Yet it is no secret that Cervantes and his Renaissance anti-Hispanism would probably not pass muster with the awards committee. The same goes for Machado de Assis, who might not be considered for the Prêmio Machado de Assis, in his case because of unevenness.

The cycle of reintroductions of his work in English continues to expand Machado’s presence. Other gems may await translation. If so, it is essential to keep expectation level-headed. It will allow a more honest, genuine appreciation of his achievement.

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American, and Latino Culture at Amherst College, publisher of Restless Books, host of NPR’s podcast In Contrast, and columnist for The New York Times en Español. His latest book is a graphic-novel adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote of La Mancha (illustrated by Roberto Weil), released in both English and Spanglish editions.
Originally published:
July 1, 2018


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