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My Life and Triumphs

Tom Hennigan

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, by Machado de Assis, translated by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux, Penguin Classics, 368 pp, ISBN: 978-0143135036

Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, by Machado de Assis, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, Liveright, 256 pp, ISBN: 978-1631495328
First published as Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas in serial form in Revista Brasileira in 1880

The process governing the fate of literary reputations is a mysterious one. Two of the most difficult questions in literature are why some works get the reception they deserve when others do not and what allows a number of writers transcend geographic and linguistic borders while others fail to find an audience beyond the culture that produced them. In Ireland we might think international renown is the natural fate of great writers. But Brazilians can set us straight. The man they widely consider their supreme literary artist is almost wholly unknown abroad. It is not that Machado de Assis has lacked foreign admirers. His partisans in the English-speaking world have included Susan Sontag (“The greatest writer ever produced in Latin America”), John Updike (“A master”), Philip Roth (“A great ironist, a tragic comedian”), Salman Rushdie (“A writer a hundred years ahead of his time”) and Allen Ginsberg, who called him “Another Kafka”.

These literary endorsements are all culled from the new Penguin Classics translation of Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, referred to here as Memoirs), one of two new renderings into English to appear this year of the novel foreigners consider Machado’s most important work. But they have been around for several decades, the remnants of previous campaigns to sell the English-reading public on the Brazilian. We can take it that these efforts failed since in a foreword writer David Eggers express his joy at discovering a “glittering masterwork” while lamenting that “for no good reason at all, almost no English speakers in the twenty-first century have read it”. Brazilians on the whole are unfazed by the fact Machado is little known abroad. After all it is of a piece with the country’s marginal role in world affairs, cultural or otherwise. At least they get to read him. Instead it is typically foreigners that are left feeling like Sontag, who in a 1990 essay declared herself “astonished that a writer of such greatness does not yet occupy the place he deserves”.

By this she obviously meant a place in the world canon of great writers, because in Brazil Machado’s genius is universally acknowledged. His status as a great ‑ for some the greatest ‑ Brazilian is in itself a remarkable achievement because though his life was outwardly uneventful its trajectory would even today be depressingly rare in a country that in many ways has been totally transformed since his time. Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1839 to a washerwoman from the Azores and a house painter whose own parents had been slaves. In certain regards the young boy was lucky. His parents, unusually for their lowly social position, were literate and taught him to read and write and an early intellectual mentor seems to have been the widow of a senator to whose estate his family was attached. Even so, as the poor descendant of slaves, orphaned young, who lived the first fifty years of his life in a slave-owning country, Machado faced huge obstacles when making his way in a grotesquely unequal society permeated by racism even towards free people of colour such as himself. Nevertheless, he rose to become a high-ranking civil servant who was acquainted with the emperor Dom Pedro II. His marriage to a Portuguese woman was a socially successful as well as a life-long love match. And as a journalist, critic and author of novels, short stories, plays and poetry he enjoyed national renown in his lifetime, which ended in 1908 with him ensconced as the first president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters.

The great Brazilian critic Roberto Schwarz went so far as to say that the young country’s modest literary output before Machado only deserves attention today because of the role it played in the preparation of his work. It is with him that this prelude ends and a proper national literature begins. More specifically the moment can be dated to 1880, when the Memoirs appeared in serial form in the Revista Brasileira. The first half of Machado’s career belongs to the prelude. The second produced the five novels and collections of short stories that not only won him acclaim in his lifetime but have secured his reputation in his homeland ever since, indeed strengthened it as the radical, not to say subversive, nature of his achievements becomes more apparent with the passage of time.  

But this deepening appreciation has done little for his profile abroad. This must have something to do with the fact he wrote in Portuguese. Though it has more native speakers than French, the language is nevertheless less influential, for reasons that have nothing to do with linguistics. As a result, those writing in it have a harder task breaking out of the Lusosphere and gaining an international audience than authors working in, say, English, Spanish or French. Then there is the fact Machado not only wrote in Portuguese but from Brazil, which despite its great size has always played a peripheral role in the global imagination. Sontag was probably right when she argued he would be better know “if he hadn’t been Brazilian and hadn’t spent his whole life in Rio de Janeiro ‑ if he were, say, Italian or Russian, or even Portuguese”.

There is also an irony, which a supreme ironist like Machado would appreciate, contained in the possibility that his initial reception in Brazil partially explains his limited reach abroad. The level of sophistication his short stories and novels achieved from around 1880 meant his early readers could not deny his importance to the nation’s emerging literary culture but this does not imply he was necessarily understood or indeed loved. In his literary criticism Machado attacked the emphasis Brazilian writers placed on the country’s exuberant nature and mythical stories involving early contact between Europeans and Indians in the terrestrial paradise. For him these were not relevant to its lived experience. Worse, these laboured efforts to construct a national identity were being attempted using imported forms. After an apprenticeship spanning four novels Machado’s aesthetic solution to his own search for a literary form that best allowed him to tackle Brazilian reality was the creation of Brás Cubas. He ditched his favoured third-person narration, instead sitting the reader down inside the head of Cubas, who tells us in the opening chapter: “I am not so much a writer who has died, as a dead man who has decided to write.” From his grave, our garrulous guide retraces the fecklessness, creeping ennui and eventual failure of his spoilt life as if it were some sort of triumph. This makes for great comedy, largely generated by the unreliable nature of our narrator. Ambiguity creeps up on the reader as the book progresses. Does Cubas really think his life was a triumph? Or do we detect a seam of sarcasm running through his memoirs, his boastful tone in reality a self-mocking one? The literary method used to achieve this Machado adapted from Laurence Sterne, the Irish-born writer his work is famously associated with. In an opening note to readers Cubas says he has adopted the “free form” of the author of Tristram Shandy and his French disciple Xavier de Maistre and Machado has him use Sterne’s digressive technique as a means of charming and deceiving readers while in turn giving them a window onto his thoroughly reprehensible character. With digression becoming an key element in his fiction from Memoirs on, some have sniffed that Machado was a mere imitator. But he improved on Sterne by marrying his method to the psychological depths then being added to the novel by the French, whose realism he otherwise rejected. This allowed him to infuse his works with the technical pyrotechnics found in Tristram Shandy but without leaving readers feeling, like VS Pritchett, “that one had been cornered by some brilliant Irish drunk”. For all the fun Machado has with them, by the end of his memoirs Brás Cubas exists as a more fully realised and complex character than Tristram and company.

Brazilian readers had never read the like of it before, at least not from one of their own. Such a quantum leap in quality perhaps inevitably produced something of a bemused response. There was a tension between the acclaim and doubts about where Machado’s work fitted into the culture. Here there were no native types in picturesque settings as readers followed a rich reprobate around as he misbehaved in the drawing rooms of Imperial Rio. This left some of Machado’s peers furious and instead of founding a Machadean school many writers who followed him were often critical. Poet Mario de Andrade, who was the driving force behind São Paulo’s Modern Art Week festival in 1922, which did so much to shape the country’s arts in the twentieth century, expressed this alienation when he claimed that Machado wrote with his back turned to Brazil. It took several decades for everyone to catch up, a process led by several gifted critics whose exposition of just how rooted in Brazilian reality Machado’s vision was culminated in 1990 with a revolutionising analysis by Roberto Schwarz. Rooted in the Marxist tradition, his A Master of the Periphery of Capitalism showed how adapting the self-conscious artifice of Sterne gave Machado a method to produce a devastating psychological portrait of the country’s ruling elite and so a quintessentially Brazilian work. The unreliable narrator technique is employed to explore the hypocrisy of a group that thought of itself as part of the modernisation project of the liberal Atlantic world even as its power was rooted in patriarchy, clientelism and slavery. The novel’s capricious style reflects the capriciousness of a class which communed with the great European thinkers while their slaves were brutalised. The ostensible artifice of Machado’s style is part of what his great English critic John Gledson terms his “deceptive realism”. 

It might be that the innovativeness and subtlety of his technique, combined with his highly discreet life, acquaintance with the emperor and social success blinded people to what Machado was at. Lima Barreto, Brazil’s most important black novelist after Machado, dismissed him as “a man of the drawing room, loving of delicate things, without a great, wide and active vision of humanity and Art”. But it is hard now when reading the great novels not to think that Machado, the mulatto outsider, loathed much of the social world he shone in and operated within it as a spy. The Memoirs is an exposé of power, laying bare the moral corruption of his country’s dominant class. As a black artist Machado has faced questions about his supposed lack of political engagement and why slaves and slavery seemed only incidental to his work. But he unsparingly maps the psychological universe of Brazil’s slave-owning patriarchy. If those who live under it come over as incidental it is because that is about how important they are to Cubas as he pursues his life of unearned self-gratification.

This delayed realisation within Brazil that Machado was not just an innovative stylist with an essentially pessimistic vision of “universal” questions about human nature but radically engaged with his society’s social realities must have hampered the spread of his reputation in the rest of South America. Though the continent is home to great regional variety it shares a common history of conquest, colonisation and slavery, meaning its societies have to varying degrees the same scarred legacy. As the first great novelist from Latin America, Machado had developed a highly advanced home-grown method for engaging with this reality. But if it took time for Brazilians to realise this we should not be surprised if their Latin neighbours, less familiar with the subtleties of Brazilian reality, also missed it. The impact of Machado on Spanish-speaking Latin America was so slight that in her 1990 essay Sontag hinted that this explained his failure to win an international readership further afield, with the major novels only translated into English in the 1950s. Theoretically a natural conduit, the region instead ignored him “as if it was still hard to digest the fact that the greatest author ever produced in Latin America wrote in the Portuguese, rather than the Spanish, language”. This, she suggested, reflected Brazil’s status as “the outsider country, regarded by the rest of South America ‑ Hispanophone South America ‑ with a good deal of condescension and even racism”, its writers ignored by the neighbours. As evidence she cites the fact the Memoirs were translated twice into English before a Spanish edition eventually appeared in the 1960s and Jorge Luis Borges (“the second-greatest writer produced on that continent” ‑ a description surely designed to provoke) seems never to have read Machado. But Sontag was mistaken. In fact Machado lived to see the first Spanish edition of Memoirs published in Montevideo as early as 1902, one of his letters praising the quality of the translation. So he was introduced early to Spanish-speaking South America but when his first masterpiece was still considered something of a stylistic marvel but essentially philosophical work, its intensely Brazilian ‑ and by extension Latin ‑ preoccupations still waiting to be decoded. (It is telling that the first of his books translated in Buenos Aires was Esau and Jacob. Set during the upheavals around the replacement of the Brazilian empire by the First Republic, this late masterpiece had the most contemporary political setting of his novels and the Spanish edition was brought out by the publishing arm of La Nación newspaper just one year after it was published in 1904).

This failure of Machado to “take” in the rest of South America meant that when the rest of the world became infatuated with Latin literature during the “Boom” of the 1960s he was still a relatively obscure figure in the region. He thus missed another chance to reach a wider audience even though he was so obviously a precursor of the generation of young writers who like him sought to create new literary forms to better express Latin American reality. Instead the long overlooked Latin author to find belated recognition in the 1960s was the ageing Borges following his receipt with Samuel Beckett of the Formentor Prize in 1961. Leaving aside the debate about which (if either) of the two is Latin America’s greatest writer, Machado and Borges, though from different eras, different countries, different social backgrounds, do share some striking commonalities. Like that of Joyce, their fiction is also a great celebration of reading. In a region under the sway of French culture both were influenced by the English tradition. In their literary criticism both grappled with the challenge of writing in a new continent while growing up in the shadow of the long tradition of the Old World. Both rejected the idea that South American writers should limit themselves to local or regional realities, defending their right to explore universal themes. Which is why both rejected narrow “nationalist” literature, indianismo in the case of Machado, gauchismo in that of Borges, and the writing of each had an epistemological propensity. Both as a result awoke some resentment among their domestic audiences. Many critics have identified the two as forerunners of Latin America’s great literary effervescence which won a global audience in the 1960s. Salman Rushdie once said if Borges is the writer who made García Márquez possible “then it is no exaggeration to say that Machado de Assis is the writer who made Borges possible.” Gabriel García Márquez acknowledged the influence of Borges, but it has long been widely accepted, and is an assumption shared by Sontag, that Borges was unaware of Machado. How can Machado have “made Borges possible” if Borges never read Machado and came from a cultural milieu that had proved impervious to his charms?

And yet there has been some interesting work in recent years that hints that Borges might indeed have been familiar with the work of his Brazilian predecessor. In March 1934 Machado’s short story “The Fortune-Teller” appeared in a weekend supplement of the Buenos Aires newspaper Critica, edited by Borges and fellow modernist writer Ulises Petit de Murat. It seems highly improbable that a voracious reader like Borges would have been unaware of a story of such striking quality and originality appearing in his magazine ‑ and being a polyglot might even have been its translator. It is also relatively easy to sketch a possible route by which Borges came to know of the Brazilian master. In 1916 eleven of Machado’s short stories were published in Madrid by Rafael Cansinos-Asséns (with a foreword lamenting the unavailability for readers of the “delicious” Memoirs). Though largely forgotten today Cansinos was a leading light in the Spanish avant garde, a poet, novelist, prolific translator and enthusiastic promoter of Machado. He was also a formative influence on the young Borges when he lived in Madrid. Looking back later in life Borges would remember the tertulias (literary salons) Cansinos hosted as his “point of departure” and over half a century later wrote in his “Autobiographical Essay” of 1970: “I still like to think of myself as his disciple.”

It would be remarkable if, having recently translated a South American writer, and his most radical short fiction at that, Cansinos made no mention of it when the brilliant Argentine started attending his literary gatherings. So it is eminently reasonable to accept the conclusion of Machado translator Rhett McNeil in his study of this Borges connection that it “seems probable that Borges, under the tutelage of Cansinos and the influence of his ‘far-flung’ reading, read his mentor’s translation of Machado, published in Madrid just three years before he and his family arrived there”. As corroboration McNeil then cites an amazingly overlooked piece of evidence, considering the interest around possible linkages between Machado and Borges. It is contained in the 1991 essay “Borges and I”: a mini-memoir by US writer John Barth, who has written extensively about the influence the two South Americans had on his own formation as a writer. In the essay Barth recounts two conversations with Borges which make clear he had read and admired Machado, with the detail that he was aware of Sterne’s “salutary influence” (Barth’s phrase) on his work, which would hint that he was familiar with the Memoirs. Rushdie might have been drawing a more literal lineage for South American fiction than he realised. The question as to why Borges never wrote about or publicly discussed Machado if aware of him is one of the more interesting ones thrown up by the cultural relationship between Brazil and Argentina. He would not be the first writer to hide the influence of a progenitor. Or maybe he did not share Cansinos’s evaluation. Perhaps relevant is that Machado was of a race and country Borges notoriously denigrated. His friend Adolfo Bioy Casares once recorded in his diary Borges commenting: “I was asked if I liked Brazil. I said no, because the country is full of negroes.” So possibly having been in a position to introduce the world to an obscure master, one of the great stars of the Boom years did not do so. And instead of Machado the Brazilian writer to come to prominence during the 1960s was the genial Jorge Amado, a wonderful storyteller but not of Machado’s stature. (The more complex works of Clarice Lispector were also largely overlooked until recent years and poor João Guimarães Rosa, the one writer who rivals Machado as Brazil’s greatest, remains virtually unknown abroad, the few translations of his work into English decades out of print.)

It is also entirely possible that Machado’s ironic style and pitiless vision mean that beyond Brazil he is always destined to be something of a cult writer, a cause célèbre among a select following who think more people should read him. Two excellent reasons to do so now are the new translations of the Memoirs out this year. Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson have followed their epic translation of all Machado’s collected short stories released two years ago with what is now the best translation of his seminal novel for Liveright. For Penguin Flora Thomson-DeVeaux has also produced a wonderfully fluid version that comes with an excellent introduction and extensive notes, especially useful on the Brazilian context, that will enrich the reader’s appreciation and be required for students of the text.

Both translations capture the unique voice of Brás Cubas, who tells us he wrote his memoirs “with the pen of mirthful mockery and the ink of melancholy”. They convey Machado’s gamesmanship with the reader, his ambiguity and subversive irony and narrative inventiveness that even today leaves many readers amazed they have in their hands a book written 140 years ago but which remains thrillingly bold in its ambition to explore the novel’s possibilities. His Mexican admirer the novelist Carlos Fuentes said he rescued the nineteenth century novel from the earnestness of realism and naturalism by reclaiming the great creative tradition of Cervantes. Part comedic parody of the adultery novel, part study of a life undone by human weakness, the impact of Memoirs’ wit remains intact even if the reader knows nothing of Brazil, rewarding Machado’s belief that the Brazilian writer should feel free to tackle universal questions about the human condition. But it is also one of the great studies of his country. Machado remains an excellent portal into the Brazilian psyche. Much has changed since the 1880s but Brás Cubas would feel quite at home among his country’s current elite, much of which still spouts its belief in Western liberalism while continuing to operate for its own benefit an exploitative system rooted in clientelism. But the ills dealt with in the Memoirs are not just Brazilian. Machado has provided a literary means of examining the legacy of imperialism, corruption, racial and economic oppression, issues we grapple with still. Not to mention elite hypocrisy, a politically explosive subject in contemporary life, and not just in the case of Brazil.

Finally another reason to read the Memoirs is because it is only the start of the journey. Those who enjoy it should then turn to its spin-off Quincas Borba, which started to appear in 1886 and is superbly translated by Gregory Rabassa. This leads to Machado’s next novel, the one Brazilians generally consider his greatest. Published in 1899, Dom Casmurro is a devastating psychological study of the impact on human lives of misogynistic patriarchal societies and its translation by critic John Gledson (to whom this essay owes a drink) deserves a revival in our Me Too era. Also featuring an unreliable narrator drawn from Brazil’s elite, Dom Casmurro was another Machado work that took time to be fully decoded. Readers and critics spent decades debating whether or not Capitu had betrayed her husband, our narrator Bento, when the novel, trapped in his worldview, is a study of his jealousy, the social conditions which produced it and the terrible consequences that followed. Then there are the short stories ... But if you have got this far you need no further encouragement and already understand why Sontag wanted Machado to occupy “the place he deserves”. For our sakes, not his.

1/9/2020

Tom Hennigan is the South America correspondent of The Irish Times and is based in São Paulo, Brazil.

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