He’s One of Brazil’s Greatest Writers. Why Isn’t Machado de Assis More Widely Read?

He’s One of Brazil’s Greatest Writers. Why Isn’t Machado de Assis More Widely Read?

Machado delighted in showing the tenuous sanity of respectable people.

Illustration by Tom Bachtell

Most countries have a writer like him: the bearded eminence whose face adorns postage stamps, and whose name dignifies avenues, and whose Complete Works sit, undisturbed, on grandparents’ bookshelves. Since no one can graduate from high school without feigning knowledge of his work, many people read him far too young, and come to view him as a child might regard an improving vegetable.

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Knight of the Imperial Order of the Rose, founder of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, has long been Brazil’s ambassador to the international society of official writers. He seemed to be preparing for the role for most of his adult life, which was so colorless and conventional it might have been taunting future biographers.

An outstanding employee of the Ministry of Agriculture, Commerce, and Public Works, Machado, like Kafka (of the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute) and Cavafy (of the Third Circle of Irrigation), wore prim suits, lived in nondescript neighborhoods, worked bureaucratic jobs, and rarely stirred from the city where he was born.

These authors looked like emblems of the petit bourgeois, and the gap between their appearance and their writing made them emblems of something else, too—of the inner life pulsing behind the mask that the modern person dons. That gap allowed such writers to take on an electric symbolism. By presenting no outward challenge to their epochs, they could move freely through them—and eventually define them.

Machado “had a half dozen gestures, habits, and pat phrases,” an early biographer, Lúcia Miguel Pereira, wrote, in 1936. He avoided politics. He was an ideal husband. He spent his free time at the bookshop. And, in founding the Academy of Letters, he brought an administrative structure to literature.

Yet to place this image beside his books is to wonder whether such diligence was a carefully calibrated act—and to see why, despite more than a century’s veneration, the vestment of national spokesman will never quite fit. Machado was too ironic, too mischievous, for the pretentions that the official homages imply. In stories about the polite society of Rio de Janeiro, he managed, with unruffled elegance and composure, to say the most outrageous things. A drag queen might have called this decorous performance “executive realness.”

Even when he was young, his mysterious background fascinated observers, though it did not much seem to fascinate him. He was forty when a journalist declared it would be impossible to write his biography: “There exists no one more reserved on this subject than he.” Observers gleaned what little they could. He was short, epileptic, and a stutterer. And they could see that he was mulato, of partial African descent.

This ancestry is often the first fact mentioned about his life. In “The Collected Stories of Machado de Assis” (Liveright), a landmark volume that will be the first place that most Americans encounter him, he is introduced as “the grandson of ex-slaves.” It is not a label he would have elected. His mother was white, an immigrant Azorean washerwoman who died when he was nine; his father, though, was a mixed-race housepainter whose parents had, indeed, been enslaved.

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In the broader panorama of Brazilian society, this was unremarkable. (Most Brazilians were of mixed race.) So was his class background. Most Brazilians were poor, and Machado’s origins were a step above misery. His parents were literate. They belonged to the working class rather than to the lowest class—the enslaved.

But people of visibly mixed race were rare in the higher society that Machado entered while relatively young. As a boy, he had a knack for befriending helpful people: legend has it that a priest taught him Latin; an immigrant baker, French. At seventeen, working at a printer’s shop, he met intellectuals, and was soon publishing poems.

He was, at best, an indifferent employee. He was too busy reading, and did not earn enough to allow him to eat more than once a day. Yet the work he published, plays and poetry at first, was instantly acclaimed by a small but influential circle, and his first novel, “Resurrection,” published in 1872, inaugurated a critical success that continued until his death, thirty-six years later.

Machado’s unlikely social ascent attracted comment. Those who disliked him held his origins against him: one critic, in 1897, called him a “genuine representative of the mixed Brazilian sub-race.” Even his champions couldn’t help themselves. Miguel Pereira makes nearly forty mentions of his racial background—mostly gratuitous—in the three hundred pages of her biography.

The focus on this facet of his origin story obscures other surprising facts about his life. He was born in 1839, seventeen years after Brazilian independence—and only thirty-one years after the first book was printed in Rio de Janeiro. For three hundred and eight years after the Portuguese first reached Brazil, printing was forbidden throughout the colony. An entire country was not allowed to think for itself.

What kind of literature did a new nation need? As in other American countries, many Brazilian writers born immediately after independence tried to forge a consciousness through indigenous motifs. The poet Gonçalves Dias published Indianist epics and a dictionary of Tupí; the novelist José de Alencar placed Indians—especially women—at the center of a new mythology.

This vision of Brazil had long appealed to outsiders, too. In 1550, fifty Tupinambás were brought to Normandy to re-create a Brazilian village for the king’s entertainment. Centuries later, that village was what most foreigners thought of when they thought of Brazil: an unspoiled tropical paradise, swarming with noble savages. Yet—boringly enough—Brazil turned out, in so many ways, to be far more familiar than they imagined. This might be one reason that Machado never really caught on abroad. He was not interested in national folklore, and described a milieu not too distant from that of Henry James or Edith Wharton. His books are almost exclusively concerned with the rich, more or less idle, of Rio de Janeiro, and this was not a Brazil most foreigners recognized.

Even for a Brazilian writer, Machado’s work was oddly devoid of local color. If some found him too black, others found him not quite black enough: not nearly as concerned with social questions as one of his background ought to have been. Brazil, after all, was the largest slaveholding country in the world, and the last in the Americas to outlaw slavery. In 1888, when abolition finally came, Machado was almost fifty.

Intellectuals were preoccupied with the legacy of slavery at a moment when “scientific racism” and its relatives, including social Darwinism, were ascendant. Races could develop on their own, the theory went, but miscegenation would cause decline. According to this racial pseudoscience, Brazilian attempts to modernize were doomed: the nation, with its irreversibly mixed population, was condemned to permanent inferiority.

Machado’s reputation benefitted from a twist in the debate only a generation after his death, in 1908. A series of books, beginning, in 1933, with Gilberto Freyre’s “The Masters and the Slaves,” turned miscegenation, once a source of fear and shame, into a font of national pride. As the Ku Klux Klan resurged in the United States, Brazil earned a reputation for being a country where racial lines had been so blurred that they no longer mattered. (Racial democracy, as it was called, ignored Brazil’s ferocious history of slavery and racism.) It was convenient that Brazil’s greatest writer was of mixed race, and could become a symbol of these newly recast values. One suspects Machado would have been embarrassed by this posthumous role.

Yet, to the vexation of those Brazilians eager for their culture to be known for something other than samba, soccer, and slums, Machado’s popularity didn’t spread. This was not for a lack of effort, either on the part of the Brazilian authorities, who have for decades sponsored translations of his work, or on the part of publishers, who have recruited legions of prominent spokespeople.

He ought to be easy to translate. The straight face he maintained in posed portraits comes across in his prose, too. Except for his spelling—subject to endless, tedious “modernizations,” many promulgated by his own Academy of Letters—his Portuguese has hardly aged. It has none of the frills of the Romantics, none of the indigenizing lexicon of the mythologizers. His works remain far easier to read than those of his contemporaries.

But there is a tension between his statuesque composure and the wackiness he describes that resists translation. One story features a monk who proclaims that crickets are “born out of thin air and the leaves of coconut palms during the conjunction of the new moon”; another is told from the perspective of a needle.

“The Collected Stories,” nearly a thousand pages long, captures the greatest range of his writing that has ever existed in a single English volume. Heroically translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, the book gathers almost four decades of work, from 1870 to 1906. Reading it, one imagines that the author made a quiet pact with himself. His manicured prose—like his unerringly staid public persona—would reflect his status as a pillar of the establishment. But, over time, his plots would become ever more prankish, impish, outlandish.

Machado’s first two collections have all the recognizable apparatuses of nineteenth-century fiction: meaningful glances in carriages, icy-hearted damsels, fateful inheritances. These stories take place in Brazil’s rentier society, which turns out to look a lot like Russia’s. There are men who, like Oblomov, never manage to get out of bed. Other characters go to spas, read French novels, and, when they fall hopelessly into debt, endeavor to marry heiresses. Failing that, an uncle might arrange a cushy position in a ministry.

Accordingly, in these early stories, there are plenty of variations on the marriage plot. Will the spendthrift convince the virtuous Dona So-and-So that he has mended his ways? Will the socialite dragged back from Paris find happiness in the arms of a simple country lass? The plots bubble, and though the language can border on kitsch (“I was the mysterious stranger at the theatre”), it never loses its irony or self-awareness.

Read all at once, the early work gets repetitive. But Machado de Assis is light and fun in a way one seldom expects of authors who end up as statues. And in the nine years between the second story collection, “Midnight Tales,” and the third, “Miscellaneous Papers,” published in 1881, something shifts.

“Those whose mental equilibrium is undisturbed,” the narrator wryly notes in “The Alienist,” a novella from “Miscellaneous Papers,” “should henceforth be treated as probably pathological.”

The observation belongs to Simão Bacamarte, a colonial-era shrink in the backwater of Itaguaí. “The Alienist” has no spurned lovers, no wastrels scheming to pocket inheritances. Machado stresses Bacamarte’s great learning. He leaves Portugal, where he had gone to study, and returns to his native ground, where his fabulous erudition stuns his neighbors. He resolves to erect an institution, the Casa Verde, for the treatment of the insane.

Granted the power to commit anyone he diagnoses with mental illness, the sober man of science is astonished by what he finds lurking within even the most apparently normal inhabitants of Itaguaí. Soon, nearly the entire town has been carted off to the Casa Verde: “Madness, the object of my studies, was, until now, considered a mere island in an ocean of reason; I am now beginning to suspect that it is a continent.”

The town rises up against Bacamarte, but, as soon as the revolutionaries seize power, they recognize that madmen cannot be allowed to roam the streets. The alienist carries on, unfazed, until he makes a shattering discovery: the most dangerous citizens are precisely those who present the most convincing façade of normality.

At last, he has identified the true disturbers of the peace: “This is what happened with a certain lawyer, in whom he had identified such a fine array of moral and mental qualities that he considered it positively dangerous to leave the man at large in society.” The more traditionally certifiable cases are freed, and citizens of ostentatious virtue are imprisoned in their place.

This diagnosis raises inevitable questions about Itaguaí’s sanest denizen. Like Freud a decade after this story was published, Bacamarte conducts a searching self-analysis, and is forced to conclude that there is only one way to deal with a person so perfectly sound. He locks himself in the Casa Verde, and dies seventeen months later: “Some even speculate that he had always been the sole lunatic in Itaguaí.”

Throughout his stories, Machado delights in showing the tenuous sanity of eminently respectable people. But the real humor is in his sentences. Many critics, including the one who accused him of belonging to a “sub-race,” have missed it. Much of what makes him so funny is his calm way of saying the opposite of what he means.

“The death of Joaquim Fidélis caused indescribable consternation throughout the suburb of Engenho Velho,” one story opens, “and particularly in the hearts of his dearest friends.” Anyone familiar with Machado’s voice understands that what he’s really telling us is how loathsome this Joaquim was.

Machado’s narration is always indirect, and so is any moral or political message. The early stories, with their opera-buffa plots, capture the superficiality, venality, and laziness of the upper crust of nineteenth-century Rio de Janeiro. The social critique is implicit, even charming; Machado was never a zealot or a preacher.

If he shares Bacamarte’s verdict that everyday life is pathological, he is also aware that such insidious problems can’t be solved by locking up the whole population. “While it may not be the best of societies,” one character concedes, “we have no other, and unless you’re prepared to change it, you have no alternative but to put up with it and live.” Machado chose to accept society as it was, rather than as it ought to be.

He never saw Paris, or even São Paulo. In the world he wrote about, it was utterly normal that an emperor ruled the country, and that it was hot in January, and that there were a few slaves in every house:

Dona Beatriz was bustling back and forth between parlor and kitchen, issuing orders, chivying the slaves, gathering up clean tablecloths and napkins, and dictating shopping lists; in short, dealing with the thousand and one things that every mistress of the house has to deal with, especially on such an important day.

Even the famous splendor of Rio is notably absent from his work. It was impossible to take a touristic view of the only landscape he had ever seen. “Nature will inspire a beautiful page in your novel,” a friend once suggested. He tried, only to get bored after eight or ten lines. “Nature does not interest me,” Machado told his friend. “What interests me is man.”

Machado is proof that cosmopolitanism comes from reading, not from travel: through books, he knew the whole world. Like his blandly conventional appearance, his wide-ranging allusions to European literature upended the idea that Brazil was a place of mystical forests or man-eating serpents. Although printing had been forbidden in colonial Brazil, books themselves had not. The country had a rich and ancient literature. It was just not, for the most part, produced locally. Despite centuries of efforts to play up its exoticism, which Brazilians often encouraged, Brazil was always, for better and for worse, fully a part of the Western world. Socrates and La Rochefoucauld were part of that world; so were the slaves in the kitchen.

Machado de Assis showed that the human comedy is the same everywhere, and one universal truth is that, in conflicts between man and society, society usually wins. And, his life and writing suggest, such a victory may not be as stifling as it seems. Outward conformity may be precisely what we need to safeguard inner freedom. Perhaps, like the alienist, he who conforms best is the craziest one of all. ♦

Measure
Measure

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