After a Century, a Literary Reputation Finally Blooms
By LARRY ROHTER Published: September 12, 2008
When the novelist Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis died 100 years ago this month, his passing went little noticed outside his native Brazil. But in recent years he has been transformed from a fringe figure in the English-speaking world into a literary favorite and trendsetter, promoted by much more acclaimed writers and by critics as an unjustly neglected genius.
Susan Sontag, an early and ardent admirer, once called him “the greatest writer ever produced in Latin America,” surpassing even Borges. In his 2002 book “Genius,” the critic Harold Bloom went even further, saying that Machado was “the supreme black literary artist to date.” Comparisons to Flaubert and Henry James, Beckett and Kafka abound, and John Barth and Donald Barthelme have claimed him as an influence.
All of that makes for a change of fortune that Machado, with his exquisite sense of the improbable, would surely have appreciated. After all, his most celebrated novel, “The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas,” purports to be the autobiography of a decadent aristocrat reflecting on his life’s disappointments and failures from beyond the grave.
In recognition of this belated vogue, “Machado 21: A Centennial Celebration” is being held Monday through Friday in New York City and New Haven, slightly ahead of the actual Sept. 29 date of his death. The commemorations include round tables and seminars discussing the author’s life and work; readings; screenings of films based on his work; an exhibition of art inspired by his writings; and a performance of some of his poems set to music.
Mr. Bloom describes Machado as “a kind of miracle.” Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1839, Machado was the grandson of slaves, his father a housepainter and his mother a white immigrant washerwoman from the Azores. Enormously cultured and erudite, he was largely self-taught, working as a typesetter’s apprentice and journalist before becoming a novelist, poet and playwright.
Eventually Machado took a post in the Ministry of Agriculture, married a Portuguese woman of noble descent and settled into a middle-class life that allowed him to build a parallel career as a translator of Shakespeare, Hugo and other literary lions. But around 40, when he was already suffering from epilepsy, his health worsened, and he nearly lost his sight, a crisis that seemed to provoke a radical change in his style, attitude and focus.
Over the next quarter century Machado produced the five somewhat interlinked novels that made his reputation. Though foreign critics tend to regard the exuberantly nihilistic “Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas,” published in 1881, as his masterpiece, many Brazilians prefer the more melancholy “Dom Casmurro” (1899), which focuses on the corrosive effect of sexual jealousy.
“As an English friend of mine said to me, he’s the best,” Roberto Schwarz, one of Brazil’s foremost experts on Machado, said in a telephone interview from São Paulo. “What you see in the five novels and his short stories from that period is a writer without illusions, courageous and cynical, who is highly civilized but at the same time implacable in exposing the hypocrisy of modern man accommodating himself to conditions that are intolerable.”
From the time of silent movies, Machado’s work has been a favorite source for Brazilian filmmakers. The director Nelson Pereira dos Santos recently organized screenings of film adaptations of Machado’s work at the Brazilian Academy of Letters in Rio de Janeiro, which Machado helped found in 1897, and counts 25 such movies, 11 of which still have usable prints.
“When you first read Machado in school, you quickly realize that he is the master of our language, our Shakespeare, a real wizard with words,” Mr. Pereira dos Santos, who is 80, said. “And he is so up to date and psychologically astute. Even with the huge changes Brazilian society has experienced in my lifetime, Machado’s ability to grasp the essence of social relations and behavior, many of which are archaic but persist into the 21st century, makes him extremely relevant.”
This week’s commemorations include the screening of two films at Lincoln Center as part of the Latinbeat festival, both of them directed by Mr. Pereira dos Santos. “Azyllo Muito Louco” is based on the short story “The Alienist,” while “Missa do Galo” is an adaptation of another tale, “Midnight Mass.”
But Mr. Pereira dos Santos argues that few Machado works have translated well to the screen. The reason, he maintains, is that part of the writer’s subtlety inevitably gets lost or attenuated. “It’s a real challenge, because of the ambiguity and irony of the language,” Mr. Pereira dos Santos said. “And unless you use a narrator, it’s hard to convey that ambiguity through action. So I’ve never had the courage to film any of the novels, simply because other directors have found that to be such a difficult task.”
Many of the writers who admire Machado see his work as a precursor to some of the most significant literary trends of the last century. Allen Ginsberg described him as “another Kafka” while on a visit to Chile in 1961, and just last month Philip Roth drew parallels between Machado and Beckett.
“He is a great ironist, a tragic comedian,” Mr. Roth said in an interview with the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo. “In his books, in their most comic moments, he underlines the suffering by making us laugh. Like Beckett, he is ironic about suffering.”
Others find parallels to Swift and Laurence Sterne. “He’s funny as hell, with an enormous debt to Sterne,” Mr. Bloom said of Machado in a phone interview. “In fact, he is so hilarious at times that when I go and re-read ‘Tristram Shandy,’ I can swear that Sterne has read Machado.”
Critics have wondered why it took so long for the English-speaking world to appreciate Machado. Mr. Bloom said he believed some early translations were “inadequate.” New versions appeared only in the 1990s, including several by Gregory Rabassa, who has also translated Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Julio Cortázar from the Spanish.
Translating Machado “was a lot of fun,” Mr. Rabassa said. “His Portuguese is fluent and fluid and classical, probably the best Portuguese prose ever done. But he had a sensibility that was ahead of his time, and maybe even ahead of our time; skeptical and not an idealist by any means.” Sontag, who wrote the introduction to Mr. Rabassa’s translation of “Brás Cubas,” argued that other handicaps also slowed Machado’s acceptance — including his writing from the “periphery” of Western culture in a language unjustly considered “minor.”
For the most part, Brazilians have been delighted to see Machado’s prestige rising, though they too question why it took so long. And a few dissenters complain that the Machado now celebrated in the English-speaking world is a misrepresentation.
Enthusiasts in the United States and Britain “are making Machado appear less and less like Machado,” the critic and author Antônio Gonçalves Filho argued last month at a symposium in São Paulo. “Actually, they are making the writer white, like Michael Jackson. All of a sudden, he’s become ‘universal.’ ”
Mr. Schwarz brushes off those concerns. “It is always good for a writer to be recognized,” he said. “Machado is being given the esteem he deserves because of his huge capacity to universalize local problems. Brazilians and foreigners may see him from different angles, but Machado himself, he doesn’t take one side or the other, and pokes fun at both.”