Books: An Appreciation of Machado

By the time the Brazilian novelist Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis died in 1908, he had authored nine novels, four volumes of poetry, eight short story collections, more than a dozen plays and numerous essays. He had been named an official of the Order of the Rose for literary achievement, and had been the first president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, which he had helped to found. His funeral was a public affair, attended by cultural and political figures—flowers were piled so abundantly on his body that they threatened to cover his face. Afterward, the newspaper Jornal do Brasil declared, "His death was a national loss." Outside the country, however, his passing hardly registered.

Sept. 29 marks the centenary of Machado's death, and little concerning him, it seems, has changed in the last hundred years. In Brazil, he remains the most prominent literary name, much as Cervantes is in Spain, but beyond his homeland, he is still relatively unknown. A few events in the U.S. have marked the anniversary—an exhibition commemorating him at Brown University, a weeklong celebration in New York City called Machado 21 that includes screenings of movies based on his works and panel discussions. But the most important tribute, namely a readership, remains elusive for the Brazilian master.

Instead, he has become the subject of perpetual discovery and forgetting. The first English-language translations of Machado's work appeared in the early 1950s, and while they earned him a fair amount of praise, primarily from English critics, they failed to win a wider following. Others followed in the 1960s, with mixed results; one notorious translation of the masterpiece "Dom Casmurro," about a man who suspects his wife of adultery, left out entire chapters. Eventually, some cultural figures took note, among them Salman Rushdie and Woody Allen. Susan Sontag wrote an article in 1990 calling Machado "the greatest writer ever produced in Latin America." That became the foreword to the reissue of another of Machado's great works, "Epitaph of a Small Winner" (the alternate, more literal translation of that title is "Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas"). Then, starting in 1996, the Oxford University Press issued its own suite of translations, some of them by Gregory Rabassa, a respected translator of Latin American literature. Still, the general public hasn't paid much attention.

Machado scholars are constantly baffled that his work is not more widely read, and for good reason. His later novels, which are his best and the ones he's most known for, are not only great works of a serious writer, they're also endlessly enjoyable. His prose is clear and elegant, occasionally verbose (usually for comedic effect) and always controlled. Readers of Portuguese marvel at his choice of words, precise yet frequently allowing for multiple readings. Among the many amusements his novels offer are a profusion of historical and literary references (Shakespeare was a favorite), ironic asides ("Please note that this chapter is not intended to be profound") and dubious moralizing ("From this observation one may reason that vice is often the fertilizing manure of virtue. Which does not prevent virtue from being a fragrant and healthy flower."), and they feel as modern as anything being written today. Why, then, do so few outside Brazil read him?

"This is a complete mystery to me," says Michael Wood, a professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton and one of the guests who spoke on the opening night of "Machado 21" to a small room with some empty seats. "It's not 'Why has he not been discovered?' but 'Why doesn't he remain discovered?'" For starters, Machado wrote in Portuguese, which hasn't been a global language since the 16th century. He also lived in a relative backwater that didn't command any respect in European and American society at the time. Any cultural commerce between Brazil and the rest of the world occurred entirely in one direction, with the tropical outpost mostly absorbing the art and aesthetics that Europe, particularly France, exported.

Then there's the fact that Machado doesn't exactly fit the typical mold of the Latin American writer. His literature is not as exotic as the magical realism that flourished in Latin America later, and people seeking to satisfy their preconceived notion of what a Brazilian author is have generally turned to Jorge Amado, according to New York University professor and historian Barbara Weinstein. Machado is also vastly more modern than his Brazilian contemporaries, who were largely parroting the French style typified by Emile Zola, writing third-person society portraits that tended to start at the beginning and end at the end. Beginning with "Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas," Machado's works hardly ran start to finish. Instead they staggered back and forth through their stories, as he described it, "like a pair of drunks," and whatever their supposed subject—the destructive force of jealousy, the bourgeois vacuity of 19th-century Brazil—they were as much about their tirelessly voluble narrators as they were about the events the narrators recounted.

It's these effects that make it so difficult to categorize him. He was modern before there was Modernism, and his style has more in common with Nabokov and Samuel Beckett than with most writers of the time (with notable exception of Dostoevsky, whose compulsive narrator in "Notes from Underground" has much in common with Machado's storytellers). He dealt with universal themes, and yet he is inseparable from 19th-century Brazil. The result is that he is not readily understood in a Brazilian or an international context.

Machado opens "Posthumous Memoirs" with his narrator, Bras Cubas, referring to comments made by the French author Stendhal, who says he wrote one of his books for only a hundred readers. Cubas says his story will probably have 10 readers, maybe five. It was mostly a crack at his narrator's false modesty, since Machado was already a recognized author in Brazil at the time. But beyond his country's borders, even 100 years after his death, it seems sadly apt.