|Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis|
Poster by T.A.
A brief survey of the short story part 47:
Machado de Assis
Still neglected by English readers, the Brazilian writer is one of the very greatest of the early modern era
Friday 1 March 2013 15.28 GMT
The Brazilian Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis is, to English-language readers, perhaps the most obscure of world literature's great short-story writers. Producing work between 1869 and 1908, Machado wrote nine novels and more than 200 hundred stories, more than 60 of the latter appearing after 1880. This date marks the point at which Machado metamorphosed from a writer of romantic trifles into a master of psychological realism, seemingly overnight. The Brazilian poet and critic Augusto Meyer compared the shift to the one between Herman Melville's earlier works and Moby-Dick.
The evolutionary leap is unquestionable, although the precise reasons for it are unclear. Indeed, many uncertainties surround the biography of Machado, who was an intensely private person. Perhaps it's no surprise that such a man should create a body of work that prizes the puzzle above the certainty. Meyer called ambiguity Machado's most prominent theme and the translators Jake Schmitt and Lorie Ishimatsu agree, seeing it as being "in part the result of his subjective, relativistic world view, in which truth and reality, which are never absolutes, can only be approximated; no character relationships are stable, no issues are clear-cut, and the nature of everything is tenuous." Machado writes with pleasurable clarity – he worked as a journalist for a time – but the straightforwardness of his stories is a camouflage for less obvious, more troubling cargo.
The theatre for nearly all these dramas of uncertainty is the Rio de Janeiro of the Second Empire (1840-1890), which sprawls from his pages as a humid, busy city full of intrigue, gossip and prejudice. Remarkably for a man who became a distinguished civil servant and founded the Brazilian Academy of Letters, Machado was the mixed race grandson of slaves (slavery persisted in Brazil until the 1880s), and received little more than an elementary education. Growing up poor on the outskirts of Rio gave him an outsider's eye on the bourgeois Carioca society he later joined. His work tirelessly satirises their human inadequacy, by turns savagely or with an ironic compassion. That someone of his background should become Brazil's greatest writer is, as one critic has noted, as if Tolstoy, rather than inheriting Yasnaya Polyana, had been born a serf.
Machado's most recent English translator, John Gledson, says the difficulty of translating him is capturing the right balance of distance, understanding and sympathy. Trapdoors to the unexpected open constantly in his work, from the sadism of "The Hidden Cause", or the bleak violence of "Father versus Mother", to the subtle play of what Michael Wood terms his "quiet, complicated humour". Reading him prompts thoughts of so many different writers that he can only be unique. Poe's chilling shadow falls across "The Hidden Cause" and "The Fortune-Teller". "The Alienist" glitters with Swiftian satire. Machado's shrewd, even devious work with the point of view of his narrators positions him alongside Henry James. Numerous stories anticipate the moral ambiguity of Chekhov's mature work, in particular "A Singular Occurrence". Machado's literary mapping of Rio reaches back to the St Petersburg of Gogol and Dostoevsky, and anticipates the Dublin of Joyce. Finally, some of his more obviously strange works (nearly all of it is strange to some degree, which is part of its brilliance) evoke Borges and Kafka. Given all this, it's little wonder that writer and critic Kevin Jackson would feel confident enough to claim that Machado "invented literary modernity, sui generis".
As wide-ranging as Machado may be in style, however, there are certain themes he continually returns to. Read enough of Machado's stories in succession and you will soon conclude that the most dominant among these is an obsession with time and its destructive passing. Almost all his stories take pains to establish themselves in the recent or more distant past. "She died in 1859", begins "The Cynosure of All Eyes"; in "Eternal!" the narrator tells us that "the whole incident took place 27 years ago". "I've never been able to understand the conversation I had with a lady, many years ago, when I was 17, and she was 30", begins "Midnight Mass". The story is an exquisite rendering of a failed attempt to recapture time, in this case an unconsummated sexual encounter. In "Mariana", a man is transported into the past while sitting before a portrait of his eponymous ex-lover. In "Dona Paula" an old woman becomes almost vampiric in the way she relives an old affair via her niece, who is engaged in a flirtation with the son of Dona Paula's ex-lover. But when her niece is absent, the older woman cannot recapture her own memories in a way that satisfies her:
But everything … was described with the cold and faded ink of an old chronicle, an empty skeleton of history that lacked a living soul. Everything occurred in her head. Dona Paula tried synchronising her heart and her head to see if she could feel something beyond a mere mental reproduction of her past, but despite all efforts to evoke the old feelings, none returned. Time had swallowed them.
What she is seeking can only be delivered, as Proust would define in Swann's Way 30 years later, by the action of involuntary memory. Her failure is shared by large numbers of Machado's characters, who are continually trying to find routes back into the past. In this way the telling and experiencing of stories – and by extension literature – becomes not a way of interpreting the world, but the world entire. At its most pessimistic, as at the conclusion of "Dona Paula", all pleasure lies in a past that proves impossible to meaningfully access.
This conception of a hollow, unreal present tied to a genuine but obliterated past finds a binary in Machado's interest in the duality of the self, and the exploration of characters whose outer and inner personae differ radically. In "The Diplomat" this idea is expressed through the description of a man's unexpressed passion for a friend's daughter. In "A Famous Man" a hugely successful composer of polkas is wracked by his inability to compose 'serious' music. But it is in an earlier treatment of this theme, 1882's "The Mirror", that Machado captures the phenomenon most memorably. Alone in a desolate plantation house, Jacobina, a sub-lieutenant in the National Guard, finds his reflection growing dimmer and less distinct. The only way to bring it back into focus, and thus cling to reality, is to spend a period several hours each day standing before the mirror in his uniform. Jacobina steps out of this strange, haunting story to take his place alongside Chekhov's Dmitri Gurov and Joyce's Gabriel Conroy, men whose fatally divided selves leave them trapped in a limbo between their public and private personae. Just as the characters belong together, so do their creators; writing about Machado in 2002 Michael Wood complained, "Everyone who reads him thinks he is a master, but who reads him, and who has heard of him?" Not nearly so many as he deserves.
Quotations from the stories are translated by John Gledson, Jack Schmitt and Lorie Ishimatsu