Thursday, December 1, 2011

I have never quite understood a conversation... - "Midnight Mass," the greatest story, or so I am told, of Machado de Assis

The Machado de Assis book I want to get to is his 1899 novel Dom Casmurro, which Jenny at Shelf Love describes here (brief response to Jenny: Yes!).  I am going to continue my Machado-like indirect approach, though, and puzzle over another short story, the 1894 “Midnight Mass.”  Jenny and other readers of Dom Casmurro will see the relevance.

The first paragraph:

I have never quite understood a conversation that I had with a lady many years ago, when I was seventeen and she was thirty.  It was Christmas Eve.  I had arranged to go to Mass with a neighbor and was to rouse him at midnight for this purpose.

The first phrase is itself classic Machado.  The entire seven page story is the narrator trying to understand that conversation.  Was his landlady, Conceição, in the couple of hours before midnight, trying to seduce him?  Or did the timid seventeen year old just wish that she were?  Was he perhaps just detecting signs of Conceição’s frustration with her husband, who is at a liaison with a married woman, or her longing for someone else with whom she is in love?  Is she knowing or innocent; are her desires active, or unconscious (“I didn’t understand her denial; perhaps she didn’t understand it either”)?

The narrator’s response to Conceição is convincingly adolescent; he is all too conscious of her physical presence:

From time to time she wet her lips with her tongue.

Although thin, she always walked with a certain rocking gait as if she carried her weight with difficulty.  I had never before felt this impression so strongly.

She took the ends of her belt and tapped them on her knees, or rather on her right knee, for she had crossed her legs.

The idyll or seduction is interrupted by the neighbor on his way to Mass.  Conceição’ final words are:

“Hurry, hurry, don’t make him wait.  It was my fault.  Goodbye until tomorrow.”

Her fault that she kept the narrator from his appointment?  Or her fault that she was too passive, that she did not make the first move?  Or is she even talking to the narrator at that moment?

The narrator, by the end of the story, has no idea, nor does the reader.  Machado’s strategy is to multiply possible interpretations.  Some of the possibilities I mentioned above do not become visible until the last sentence.

“Midnight Mass” is often picked as Machado’s greatest story.  Or so says the editor of the Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story, although, amusingly, he omits it from his collection, perhaps because it was already included in The Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories (1997).  I read “Midnight Mass” in The Psychiatrist and Other Stories; William Grossman translated.


  1. Yayks. I own a copy of The Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories. I forgot all about it. So, Machado was in it. I need to check that story now.

  2. Just this one story, I think. The Latin American book also has the Lispector short story that the Brazilian editor says is best and then omits.

    But other stories are duplicated. No idea.

  3. This man is really good. I am glad I'm discovering more varied writers. And great ones as that.

  4. And think, in Brazil kids read Machado de Assis in school.

  5. Multiplying possibilities, yes, that's it. Nothing eliminated. It's like those electrons everyone's talking about now: they are going through all the trajectories at the same time, and so are Bentinho and Capitu.

    Jenny (Shelf Love)

  6. I have other scents I want to pursue, but I should finish this thought tomorrow with Dom Casmurro, see how that novel makes its case through uncertainty. See how many trajectories there really are.