JULY 4, 2018
IT IS A SATURDAY in late April. The home of José Lemos, whose daughter is about to be married, is in uproar. The groom is late, and the guests have already started arriving. Among them is the pompous Dr. Valença who, believing that every grave man should take at least two minutes to retrieve his handkerchief and blow his nose, “took three minutes when he had a heavy cold and four when he was well.” Also present is Justiniano Vilela, who only wears short trousers and thus “revealed a pair of fine, immaculate, brilliant white socks whenever he sat down.” And then there’s Calisto Valadares, who believes that the Scriptures “made a serious omission in excluding the piano from among the plagues of Egypt.”
Finally, the groom shows up, the parents and the bridal couple set off for church, and the guests are left waiting for their return. But they soon become impatient. “Goodness they’re taking their time!” the bride’s younger brother exclaims. Justiniano Vilela, on the pretext of needing to stretch his legs, wanders off into the house in search of a snack to quell his “rebellious” stomach. A young lady plays the piano, to Calisto Valadares’s infinite regret. The minutes pass, long as hours. Then, finally, the wedding party returns, and everyone is ushered into the dining room:
The joy of pilgrims reaching Mecca could not have been greater than that of the guests when they saw the long table, groaning with roast meats and desserts and fruit and set with china dishes and glasses.
After a brief silence — “a silence such as the silence that precedes a battle” — the guests eat, Lieutenant Porfírio gives one of his celebrated after-dinner speeches, and the evening proceeds without incident. The following year, the newlywed couple give birth to a son.
This, more or less, is all that happens in “Luís Duarte’s Wedding,” a short story by Machado de Assis (1839–1908), the celebrated Brazilian writer and journalist. Though a literary titan in his native Brazil, he is little read in English despite the admiration of writers such as Philip Roth, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Salman Rushdie. Susan Sontag called him “the greatest writer ever produced in Latin America,” while Harold Bloom, in his book Genius, settled for the narrower distinction of “the supreme black literary artist to date” (thus saying, as usual, nothing of literary interest but speaking volumes about himself). And yet, to most English-language readers Machado remains one of those overlooked 19th-century writers, like Benito Pérez Galdós or Eça de Queirós, too often advertised as the local variant of a familiar dish — the Spanish Balzac! The Portuguese Proust! — rather than a distinct artist in his own right.
Of these, Machado de Assis is surely the most idiosyncratic, which may explain the comparisons to so many disparate writers: Sterne, Hardy, James, Kafka, Flaubert, Borges, Calvino, Nabokov. Critics have hurled the entire canon at him just to see what will stick. Yet the light and playful Machado always manages to wriggle out of his comparative harness; his fiction is too narratively restless to remain in one place for very long — in stark contrast to Machado himself, who never went anywhere. He spent his entire life in the city of his birth, Rio de Janeiro, working in the Ministry of Agriculture, Commerce, and Public Works until just a few months before his death.
At the same time, he produced a body of writing that includes nine novels and numerous plays, several hundred short stories, five collections of poems, and more than 600 newspaper columns. He translated Hugo and Dickens into Portuguese and was an avid reader of French literature, especially the work of Mérimée, Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, and Guy de Maupassant. As the literary scholar K. David Jackson remarks in Machado de Assis: A Literary Life (2015), Machado became “one of the century’s most cosmopolitan writers” despite hardly ever leaving the city.
To English-language readers, Machado is primarily known for his novels Epitaph of a Small Winner (1881), Philosopher or Dog? (1891), and Dom Casmurro (1899), some of which have appeared in more than one translation. Yet he has always had the reputation of being a master of the short story form. (One critic, Agrippino Grieco, even suggested that Machado’s novels would have been better as short stories.) Now, thanks to an epic undertaking by translators Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, we finally have a chance to experience the Brazilian writer’s range in full. For this reason alone, The Collected Stories of Machado de Assis, a handsome doorstop of a book, is a major literary event. It brings together all seven collections Machado published in his lifetime, from Rio Tales (1870) to Relics From an Old House (1906), including the characteristically short, caustic prefaces he appended to each.
“Luís Duarte’s Wedding” displays many of Machado’s enviable gifts as a writer: the apparent simplicity of language, the uncanny ear for dialogue, the generous appetite for human comedy. Characters come alive in a single stroke. When Dr. Valença shows up, he rebuffs the groom’s father and “immediately went to greet the mistress of the house and the other ladies.” Later, when the dandified after-dinner speaker Lieutenant Porfírio greets the bride and groom, he “bowed very low, and remained in that posture, so that (from a distance) he resembled one of those old-fashioned lampposts.”
One of the pleasures of reading Machado is to encounter this comedy of detail, of human particulars. In “Mr. Diplomat,” an uncle is asked to play a quadrille on the flute during a dinner party. “I can’t,” he answers, “I’ve got a callus on my finger.” Later, when he is asked again, he uses a different excuse: “I can’t. After a meal, playing the flute always gives me indigestion.” Neither the uncle nor his comments are particularly important to the story, yet these bits of life jutting from the story’s frame ground it in what V. S. Pritchett called “the inexplicable continuing human experience.”
There is a worldly hunger in Machado’s writing, an openness to both life and art. He was a voracious reader and an avid theatergoer fond of sprinkling his stories with the garnish of allusion. Rarely do we turn a page without stumbling into La Rochefoucauld or George Sand, Goethe or Shakespeare, Dante or Homer. For Machado, literature begets more literature. He delights in playing with form and narrative; in this volume there are stories written as lectures, stories written entirely in dialogue, and stories in which literary theory itself is mocked.
In their introduction, Costa and Patterson write that Machado “pulls back the curtain and invites us to watch his own process of invention.” His self-conscious narrators — K. David Jackson calls them “narrator-protagonists” — have a habit of shouldering their way into the stories they’re telling, either to clarify something or to correct the reader’s anticipated response. Yet rather than alert us to the story’s artifice in the tired postmodern mode, Machado’s narrative gimmicks often have the opposite effect: they confirm the story’s truth, its realism.
In “The Blue Flower,” a young man is sent to Paris to become a doctor. There, he falls in love with a Russian princess, and the narrator suddenly intrudes:
Don’t be alarmed: the Russian princess I speak of was, at least according to some, a child of Rue du Bac and had worked in a fashion house until the Revolution of 1848. In the middle of the revolution, a Polish major fell in love with her and carried her off to Warsaw, where she was transformed into a princess with a name ending in –ine or –off, I’m not quite sure which.
The direct address to the reader doesn’t break the fiction spell; on the contrary, by hinting that he has researched or spoken to others about the princess, and by admitting to his own forgetfulness (“I’m not quite sure which”), the narrator only deepens the apparent truthfulness of his account. He has added another dimension to the narrative. This is fiction in 3D. Finally, the fact that the Russian princess is largely peripheral to the story only enhances the effect of this seemingly irrelevant aside. As always in Machado’s fiction, the apparently trivial is never unimportant.
In Machado’s novel Epitaph of a Small Winner (also translated as The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas), the narrator writes early on that he has written the book with “the pen of Mirth and the ink of Melancholy.” There is plenty of mirth in Machado, but the lightness of his touch is deceptive. As we read on, the somewhat labored theatricality of the early stories (lovers are forever exchanging letters or running into one another at the theater) gives way to a deepening psychological terrain. “The Alienist,” one of his best (and longest) stories, is a darkly comic parable of bureaucracy, madness, and power equal parts Kafka and Monty Python. I laughed out loud several times as I read it but found, upon reaching its conclusion, that what I had initially experienced as comic had become tragic. It is as if Don Quixote had been condensed to a 50-page novella.
It is, finally, Machado’s melancholy that lingers. He once described his writing as being “nearsighted”; he liked to focus on the small and hidden things in life, the things the “grand vistas don’t notice.” In this respect, he can sometimes evoke Chekhov or the great Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga. Like theirs, his stories often give the impression of having been written because something was lost. In his preface to the late collection Assorted Stories (1896), Machado quotes Diderot: “My friend, let us always tell stories […] Time passes, and the story of life comes to an end, unnoticed” — which might usefully serve as an epitaph to much of his writing. His best stories are precise attempts to notice life, to save it from the oblivion we sleepwalk toward.
The narrator of “Midnight Mass,” for instance, recollects a conversation he had when he was 17 that he has “never quite understood.” At the time, he was lodging at the home of a notary whose adultery his 30-year-old wife resignedly accepts. One Christmas Eve, when the husband has gone off to his lover and everyone else in the house has gone to bed, the narrator is reading and waiting for midnight so that he can attend his first mass in the big city. The notary’s wife, who cannot sleep, enters the room in a white dressing gown “loosely tied at the waist,” which the narrator finds oddly romantic:
[She] gradually leaned forward, resting her elbows on the marble tabletop, her face cupped in her outspread hands […] Her unbuttoned sleeves fell back to reveal her forearms, which were very pale and plumper than one might have expected […] She picked up the two ends of her dressing-gown belt and kept flicking them against her knees, or, rather, her right knee, because she had crossed her legs.
The two of them casually talk about novels (the narrator is reading The Three Musketeers), sleeping habits, the paintings on the wall — in short, nothing of consequence. Yet the brilliance of the story hinges on all that is left unsaid.
In the end, the narrator goes off to midnight mass and the wife returns to bed. Nothing has happened between them. So why has the narrator “never quite understood” their conversation? Machado offers no answer, and so we are left to wonder at the narrator’s incomprehension. Does he not realize that the wife was flirting with him? That she was quite possibly trying to seduce him? Or is it some other aspect of their conversation that’s confusing him? And how moving that “never quite” is! The narrator, anticipating our response, wants to qualify his ignorance a little, wants to seem a little less naïve than he really is. Behind the story is another, less obvious story — so finely moving because the narrator is so reluctant to reveal it.
Regret, disappointment, the passing of time — these grow to become Machado’s most poignant subjects. Another fine story, “Fame,” follows the composer Pestana, who is celebrated throughout Rio for his catchy polkas though he longs for the immortality of true musical genius. (His polkas all have wonderfully meaningless titles such as “Fine Words Butter No Parsnips” and “Hey Missus, Hang On to Your Hamper.”) He spends his nights at his piano in a room filled with portraits of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and Schumann as he desperately tries to compose something of lasting artistic merit, “an eternal shuttlecock between his ambition and his vocation.” In a beautiful passage, he gazes out the window, thinking, “[The stars] resembled a host of musical notes fixed in the night sky waiting for someone to reach out and unstick them; a time would come when the sky would be empty, and the Earth would be a constellation of musical scores.”
No matter how much he dedicates himself to his music, however, Pestana cannot reconcile himself to the fact that he is not the next Mozart or Bach and will never be more than “the undisputed master of the polka.” At the end of his life, as he lays dying from a fever, his publisher visits to ask him to write a polka for the conservatives that have just been elected to form a government. Pestana bitterly jokes that he’ll write two polkas (“the other will come in handy for when the liberals are back”) and then dies “at peace with his fellow men and at war with himself.”
The story’s pessimism is typical of Machado’s later writing and sets an undeniably modern, skeptical tone. And yet it is pessimism aimed not at individual human beings so much as at the fate of humanity itself. We are doomed to pedal away in our cycles of bitterness and regret, suffering and despair, for the simple reason that what we understand least of all in life is ourselves. And how could it be otherwise, given how little time we have on this earth and how much of what we experience is inevitably lost?
In a late story titled simply “Life!” Machado imagines a conversation between the Wandering Jew Ahasuerus and Prometheus at the end of time. Ahasuerus, condemned to wander the earth in eternity, has wearied of all that he has seen of life. “[D]o you know what it is like,” he asks, “to see the same thing over and over again, the same alternation of prosperity and desolation, desolation and prosperity, endless funerals and endless hallelujahs, sunrise after sunrise, sunset after sunset?”
And yet, despite his cynicism, Ahasuerus is gradually tempted by Prometheus’ vision of a new life on Earth. The Greek Titan promises Ahasuerus that he will be the link between the old world and the new, its ruling king, and that the eternal wanderer will find his rest at last. “The passing world cannot understand the eternal,” Prometheus says, “but you will be the link between the two.”
The exchange, however, is merely a dream of Ahasuerus’s. Sitting on a rock overlooking the emptied, desolate Earth, he nods away as the last day draws to a close. Circling above him are two eagles:
FIRST EAGLE: Woe is he, this the last man on earth, for he is dying and yet still dreams of life.
SECOND EAGLE: He only hated life so much because he loved it dearly.