Esau and Jacob, 1904, seventh novel by Machado de Assis, fourth of his amazing late run. This one, Esau and Jacob is another ingenious masterpiece, although not a particularly welcoming one. I suspect it requires a bit of commitment to the Machado project.
The obstacle, for me, was a theme that fussed with late nineteenth century Brazilian politics. Helen Caldwell, the novel’s translator and premier Machado scholar, makes a convincing case that the novel works as an allegory – over here is the soul of Brazil, over there a cluster of symbols of Brazilian monarchism, and on like that. Oh no no no. Knowing about this interpretation helps explain some of the flatter parts of the novel, but it is not needed for the hilly and even mountainous passages, so let us never mention it again.
If you want to write the book, here is the pen, here is paper, here is your humble admirer; but, if you only want to read, keep quiet, and go from line to line, I will grant you permission to yawn through a couple of chapters, but wait for the rest, have faith in the narrator of these adventures. (72)
Yes, have faith! For Esau and Jacob is another of Machado’s brilliantly digressive narrated novels. As another anonymous narrator explains in a preface that the text in front of me is the seventh manuscript volume of the notebooks of the recently deceased Counselor Ayres. I know something the contemporary reader would not have known, that Machado’s next and final novel is titled Memorial de Aires (1908). Most curious.
Counselor Ayres is then the writer and narrator of Esau and Jacob. He is an omniscient narrator, wandering into any character’s thoughts, prayers, or private moments as he likes. One character whose thoughts receive particular attention is Counselor Ayres, who functions, as per his diplomatic title, as an adviser to the protagonists of the novel. Nowhere outside of the preface is there a hint that this same Counselor Ayres is telling the story. The reader only knows the truth from the preface.
Very clever, having the narrator as a character while never letting on, except that someone else spoils (or enhances) the joke. Some readers may not be all that interested in cleverness. Fair enough. I recommend the earlier Dom Casmurro to their attention, a devilishly clever book, but less merely clever.
Ayres narration is primarily about a pair of young twin brothers who fall for the same woman, the mysterious Flora. “Mysterious” is Ayres’s word, Ayres the character, not the narrator; the character Ayres is puzzling away at the motives and behavior of Pedro and Paulo and Flora just as the narrator is, perhaps our one clue within the text that they are one and the same. Flora becomes something of a real character while the twins are part of the book’s flatness, really brought into service only to help create Flora. At the point where Flora is introduced (the passage I quoted above is about the narrator’s irritation that the reader has likely predicted her existence before he could properly introduce her), I realized that the novel’s title is a red herring – Esau and Jacob did not fight over a woman, no one is going to sell his birthright for a mess of pottage , etc. And if I have been misdirected by the title, who knows what else has tricked me.
I begin to write about the actual story and characters and find myself back to the cleverness of how the story is told. That is the kind of novel Esau and Jacob is; those are the novels Machado de Assis wrote.