Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Cataloguing 40 of at least 60 masterpieces of world literature by Machado de Assis

More of a catalogue than real writing, that is what I will do today.

I mocked (gently, gently) the editor of the Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story for his amusingly precise insistence, borrowed from another critic, that “at least sixty [of Machado’s stories] are masterpieces  of world literature” (38).  What amuses me, aside from the vague pedantry, is wondering what the rest of the list would look like.  Chekhov wrote at least 100 masterpieces of world literature; Hemingway wrote at least 40 MoWL; Flannery O’Connor did not write many stories, but at least 20 are MoWL.  I am just guessing at the numbers.  An odd exercise.  Suddenly the world is overflowing with masterpieces.

Not that the general point is wrong.  I have now tracked down all of the short Machado that I can find in English, forty stories if I am counting correctly, almost all from the post-1880 Phase II of Machado’s career, written alongside his five great novels.  It seems like a shame and a mistake that, just to pick a prominent example, the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction does not have a Machado story.  Note to Norton: “Father versus Mother” is the one you want.

Machado’s stories have been translated and collected in three books:

The Psychiatrist and Other Stories, tr. William Grossman and others, University of California Press, 1963.

The Devil’s Church and Other Stories, tr. Jack Schmitt and Lorie Ishimatsu, University of Texas Press, 1977.

A Chapter of Hats and Other Stories, tr. John Gledson, Bloomsbury, 2008.

The Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story has three that do not appear in the above, and Words without Borders has two fine Clifford Landers translations online, one of which is the only English version.  I think.  Let me know if I am wrong about any of this.

The three collections are all strong.  The degree of overlap is high and irritating, yet all three books have a number of excellent stories found nowhere else.  The Devil’s Church is an unusually ugly book, with an odd font and pointless clip-art illustrations, but the stories are first-rate.  The title story of The Psychiatrist, more of a mini-novel than a short story, is enough to recommend that collection, but A Chapter of Hats has the most stories, also a recommendation.

I would not be surprised if all sixty MoWL would fit in a single 400 page book, but such a book does not exist.  During Machado’s lifetime these stories were published in five short collections.  A set of translations of those five books is a pleasant thing to imagine, and would be even more pleasant to own.

Machado’s short fiction is surprising in how much it is unlike the novels.  The author’s puzzle-solving and digressive how-fiction-works tomfoolery are reserved for the novels.  The short stories are focused and more directly purposeful.  While the novels are always about the Rio de Janeiro upper class, the stories explore every corner of the city.

I think I will spend the next couple of days looking at a few of them, not to worry about their status as MoWL, but just to enjoy what I found in them.


  1. "not to worry about their status as MoWL, but just to enjoy what I found in them"

    Which is, of course, the higher of the two callings.

    The world is full of MoWLs. Sometimes I cannot believe how lucky we are.

  2. I think they should have kept it The Alienist: it has a cooler 19th century sound.

  3. I agree with both comments.

    First, the translator of the five volume boxed set of Machado's stories should revert to The Alienist. People even know what that means now, or have at least read another book of that title, or have at least heard of a book with that title.

    Second, there are certainly enough masterpieces to keep us busy. Thus the need for arguments about them - imagine the poor readers of this post groaning "What! Sixty more!" It's exhausting.

  4. I should like a chart listing the specific gravity of each of Machado's stories. And a chemical analysis of each as well. Cold, hard facts; enough of this readerly subjectivity.

    Or, I should like to see them arranged by height. Yes, height will do fine. A true masterpiece should tower over the field, yes?

  5. Now that I know how to do. Have you seen my Rise of Whitman \ Decline of Whittier table? Or - it's not really the same thing, I guess - the Hawthorne graph?

    If I had access to a shelf of Portuguese short story anthologies, I could count appearances. Three stories appear in three of four books mentioned above, for example: "Dona Paula," "The Hidden Cause," and "A Pair of Arms." Include the WwB translations and the Oxford Anthology of the Latin American Short Story and "Midnight Mass" and "Wallow, Swine!" join the list. Those stories would tower over the rest if I were to make a bar graph.

  6. Those are excellent tables and a fine graph (complete with graphics, no less). I'm not sure that's quite what I'm looking for, though.

    What we need is something like the international prototype platinum/iridium metre against which to measure poems, stories, plays and novels. We'll be able to ask, Is X more or less of a poem/story/play/novel than the prototype? I can see only good things of this.

    Hmm. We could measure poems/stories/plays/novels against the international prototype metre. Is "Young Goodman Brown" more or less than a meter of story? Yes, I think I'm onto something here.

  7. Ah, that I do not know how to do.

    Really all I know how to measure is human behavior.

  8. You have to forgive me; I was sort of thinking off-kilter out loud, as it were. Measuring human behavior is actually very close to what I think I'm thinking about. Reading your blog makes me think more than I usually do about how readers respond to fiction; usually I think in terms of how writers put it together, and the reader is a shadowy hypothetical creature. Anyway, it occurred to me tonight that the "prototype metre" I'm thinking of is internal to each reader (of course). Mostly I've been thinking about how we judge works of art, as in to what we compare it when we meet it. I'm nowhere near my absurd international standard, but I think I'm closer to figuring out what the internal standards might be.

    Also, I lack the ability to discuss literature in any revealing way, so I make fun of literary criticism because that's easier.

    Also also, I don't know how to measure human behavior; my only hope is to report it with some accuracy.

    I've been made an offer by a very small and very new publishing house on one of my early novels. I have no idea what I'm going to do about it.

  9. I must try one of his at some point - is there any novel or collection of stories good and readily available (preferably in free digital form)?

    Although I may have already asked you that at some point...

  10. Tony - many copies of A Chapter of Hats seem to be floating around. Second-hand copies are cheap.

    Digitally - see the Words without Borders link above for two first-rate stories, and the 1921 Brazilian Tales for three more, one great, one pretty good, one questionable.

    That collection has the first appearance of Machado in English, so almost all translations are under copyright.

    Scott - Measuring human behavior, that is what social scientists are trained to do, and how I make my living. Just find something to count.

    So counting pages in poetry anthologies does not measure the importance of poets, but may well measure other people's judgment about the importance of poets.

    I guess I do have a sort of international standard for judging works of art: I trust the judgments of other good readers.

    The reader is a shadowy, hypothetical creature. Book blogs provide ample evidence of that.

    Congratulations on the publisher attention!

  11. A few of these untranslated MoWLs are described here.

  12. Ah, yes, look at that. I would like to read those.