Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Notes on Machado de Assis using his characteristic form

I. No more than 37 pages into Quincas Borba, the 1891 Machado de Assis novel, I have no idea what the story might be.  A schoolteacher inherits a fortunes and a dog from a mad philosopher, whose great saying is “TO THE VICTOR, THE POTATOES” (Ch. XVIII).  The teacher is the victor, and thus he gets the potatoes, although I wonder about the dog.  An earlier translation of the book is in fact titled Philosopher or Dog?  Both philosopher and dog are names Quincas Borba.  I guess this setup could go anywhere.

II.  The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (1881) could go anywhere, and does, while also going nowhere.  Thinking over the story, I am surprised to recall how little there is.  A man of leisure has a long-term affair with a married woman which eventually fizzles.  He has other ambitions which also fizzle.  Eventually, he dies, after which he composes his memoirs.  How is that a novel?

III.  The story of Dom Casmurro (1899) is more substantially novelistic.  A teenage boy, Bentinho, does not want to go to the seminary, and does not want to become a priest.  He is in love with the girl next door, the startling and original Capitú; she, for some reason, loves him, too.  They scheme to keep Bentinho at home.  Aside from some peculiar digressions by the narrator, the adult Bentinho, and the knowledge, from the early chapters, that something separates the lovers, the novel is almost a conventional love story.  That lasts for about a hundred pages.  Then the novel spins off into the void, but slowly, sneakily.

IV.  Although I would not guess it from the novels, Machado de Assis was full of stories.  He published over 200 of them among which – I have opened the Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story (2006) to Machado’s biography on page 37 – he “exhibits a polished, concise, and masterful style in sixty-three stories.”  In fact, “at least sixty are masterpieces of world literature.”   I greatly admire the confidence and precision of the biographer’s judgment.

V.  It would be useful, certainly, if someone would translate and publish Machado’s final five volumes of short stories, home of the 63 world-class masterpieces, in their original format and order.  Maybe half of them have wandered into English elsewhere, in three short collections, in this anthology, and in the little 1921 volume I wrote about here.  That means I am missing out on at least thirty masterpieces!  Of world literature!

VI.  In 480 pages of stories, the Oxford Anthology gives 63 (10 stories) to Machado de Assis.  Next is the linguistic innovator João Guimarães Rosa (56 pages, 6 stories), then the mysteriously symbolic Clarice Lispector (37 and 9).  Érico Veríssimo, father of the author of Borges and the Eternal Orangutans, has three stories in 27 pages; no one else has more than two stories.  The anthologist admits that this distribution slights Jorge Amado “who never specialized in the story per se.”   So that’s Brazilian literature from one angle.

VII.  I guess I will spend the next week or two pawing through Machado de Assis, although not in this irritating format.  I believe one more reader will join me.  Outstanding.


  1. I've been remiss posting a review of the 10 stories in the Oxford anthology. To make up for it, here's a link to two more by Machado. The first story is another translation of a piece in the Oxford ("Wallow, Swine!" - better title, better translation I think). The second story is to be read for pleasure. So, you're now just short by 29 world masterpieces.

  2. Oh, thanks, thanks. One more to check off the non-existent list. Thanks, too, for pointing me toward the Oxford Anthology, which I should have investigated months ago.

  3. It is unfortunate that such masterpieces are hardly reproduced (translated and printed) for mass consumption. Our establishment, with their sights on the money than the legacy, produce for us cheap literature. We jumped on board and think we are reading masterpieces. Thanks for this insight and revelation. The bad thing is that I know I am not going to get any of his books soon. But that wouldn't mean I won't try.

  4. Nana, you should definitely try the story "Justice Unbalanced" at the link Rise provides. It may look all too relevant. "Steal something big! Steal something small! Steal however you desire!"

    Maybe the internet really will someday solve some of these publishing and distribution problems.

  5. @AR thanks very much.

    @Rise thanks for the link.

  6. Well, Jorge Amado never did specialise in the short-story, so why would the editor fear he's slighting him?

  7. Because people using the Anthology for literary historical canon-judging purposes - people like me - may conclude that the anthologist does not believe that Amado is important. No no! protests the anthologist in a methodological footnote.