After my enthusiastic praise for Eça de Queirós I should, for justice or symmetry, devote some equally effusive time to his Brazilian contemporary Machado de Assis. Unfortunately the last Machado de Assis novel I read is a – what is the technical term? – a dud. An instructive dud, though.
No one will dropping by here will read Helena (1876) so I can summarize the plot with abandon. A half-brother and half-sister, Helena, are reunited as young adults. They are both attractive, so an attentive reader might guess the path of the story right here. Even I, the Naïve Reader, noticed that an incest plot was on its way, that the siblings had fallen in love.
But no, in a twist we discover that noble Helena and her brother are not related at all! They can marry and be happy, except that they are both engaged to other people by now, and Helena is just too good for the world, so in the final five pages she has to stay out too long in the rain, and catch a fever, and die (“her soul burst its delicate earthly sheath” 196). I was a’feared of that.
That story is not so bad – no, not until the very end, at least. It is the plainness of the writing, the lack of much out of the ordinary that makes the book dull. Still, the treatment of the secondary characters has some life, a little sign of the more stinging novels to come, and a priest character is used in a peculiar manner that may be uniquely Brazilian. The casual treatment of the subject of slavery is so different from what I know from U. S. literature and is interesting for that reason alone. Subjects to keep in reserve.
I am amazed that the writer of Helena is also the author of The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, published only five years later. The change in style, voice, and method is radical. I don’t know another case like it, an example where a mature writer makes such an extreme change. Machado de Assis added a foreword to the 1905 edition of his 1876 Helena to explain himself a bit:
Do not blame me for anything romantic you may find in it… Even now that I have long since gone on to other works, of a different style, I hear a faraway echo on rereading these pages, an echo of youth and ingenuous faith.
I do not blame him. No, I understand, completely. But if Portuguese Reading Challengers will stick with the books of the later astringent Machado de Assis and skip the early Romantic ones, that would be appreciated. One was sufficient.
The translation of Helena is by the Machado de Assis scholar Helen Caldwell.