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Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908)


Brazilian novelist and poet, a predecessor to the imaginative fictions of Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. Machado de Assis' career brought him from the lower social classes to the intellectual elite. His work reflects the trends of several European literary movements of the19th-century, including romanticism, realism, naturalism, impressionism, and symbolism. He is widely regarded as Brazil's greatest novelist. Machado wrote nine novels, eight short-story collections, four volumes of poetry, 13 plays, and numerous critical essays. He often satirized bourgeois values and behavior.

"For some time I debated over whether I should start these memoirs at the beginning or at the end, that is, whether I should put my birth or my death in first place. Since common usage would call for beginning with birth, two considerations led me to adopt a different method: the first is that I am not exactly a writer who is dead but a dead man who is a writer, for whom the grave was a second cradle; the second is that the writing would be more distinctive and novel in that way. Moses, who also wrote about his death, didn't place it at the opening but at the close: a radical difference between this book and the Pentateuch." (from The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, 1881)

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis was born in Rio de Janeiro, the son of a mulatto house painter and a Portuguese woman. He was the grandson of freed slaves – in Brazil the slavery was not abolished until 1888. His mother died in his early childhood, and Machado was raised by his step-mother, a mulatto woman, who worked as a diswasher at a girls school. He also spent some time with his wealthy godmother, Dona Maria José de Mendonça Barrozo Pereira. Machado received little formal education; French he learned from a neighboring baker. Little is known of his childhood. He suffered from a speech impediment, and epilepsy, which he described as "nervous phenomena" or "original sin."

While working as a printer's apprentice at the National Press, Machado began to write. Later he was employed as a salesman and a proof-reader at Paulo Brito Bookshop. His early works Machado published in such periodicals as A Marmota Fluminense, Correio Mercantil, Diário do Rio de Janeiro, and A Semana Ilustrada. In his mid-twenties, he began to gain fame as a poet, and by the late 1860s he had became a successful Brazilian man of letters.

Between 1862 and 1864 Machado de Assis was a member and a censor of Conservatório Dramático Brasileiro. In 1869 he married Carolina de Novaes, a cultured Portuguese woman from a distinguished family. They had no children, but the marriage was happy and harmonious. From 1873 he was employed as a clerk and then as a Director of the accounting division at the Ministry of Agriculture. When his health broke down in 1879, Machado went to a health resort, from where he emerged with a new vision of literature. He dictated to his wife Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas (1881, Posthumous Reminiscences of Bras Cubas), in which the narrator tells his story after his death. In 1897 he founded and became first president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. After nearly losing his sight, Machado de Assis rarely traveled outside his native city. Due to excessive intake of bromides, he suffered also for diarrhea. Machado de Assis died on September 29, 1908.

The so-called romantic phase of Machado de Assis' literary career encompasses his first four novels, some short fiction, a few plays, much of his poetry and a considerable number of journalistic sketches and critical writing. The second phase began with his novel Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas, which marked a break with the literary conventions of the day. In its explanatory preface Machado acknowledged his debt to the British writer Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) and the French novelist and travel writer Xavier de Maistre (1763-1852). Machado's stories have also been compared to those of Henry James in their psychological depth. The use of an unreliable first-person narrator, multiple perspectives, philosophical speculations, self-consciousness, and other experimentations with literary techniques also anticipated the 20th-century avant-garde.

The novel, which first appeared in serialized form in the Revista Brasileira, begins with the demise and burial of Brás Cubas, a well-to-do citizen. He had expired at "two o'clock on a Friday afternoon in the month of August, 1869". In eternity, Brás Cubas, the whimsical narrator, has plenty of time to think about life and death. "The gaze of public opinion, that sharp and judgmental gaze, loses its virtue the moment we tread the territory of death. I'm not saying that it doesn't reach here and examine and judge us, but we don't care about the examination or the judgment. My dear living gentlemen and ladies, there's nothing as incommensurable as the disdain of the deceased." (The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, transl. by Gregory Rabassa, 1997, p. 52) Brás Cubas died of pneumonia after inventing an antihypochondriac poultice, which could help melancholic humanity. He tells about his genealogy, philosophy, life, and comments on his writing. The reader also meets Quincas Borba and Virgília, with whom Cubas had an affair. One of the shortest chapters, titled "Uselessness", reads in its entirety: "But, I'm either mistaken or I've just written a useless chapter."

Machado de Assis' later novels include Quincas Borba (1891, Philosopher or Dog?), narrated in the third person. Machado parodied Darwinism and natural selection. Quincas Borba has a handsome, medium-sized dog named Quincas Borba. He believes that "since Humanitas, according to my doctrine, is the principle of life and is present everywhere, it also exists in the dog, so, therefore, he can have a human name, be it Christian or Muslim ..." After his death Borba has left his friend Rubião all his wealth and property, with one condition: Rubião must take care of his dog.

Dom Casmurro (1899), a sort of Bildungsroman, has for decades been obligatory reading at Brazilian schools. Bento Santiago, 'little Bento', lives in a world of privileged security. Before his birth, his mother has made a pact with God: she has promised Him to bring little Bento up to be a priest, but Bento has other plans. He falls in love with his next-door neighbour Capitu Pádua, believing that he will be happy as her husband. However, infantile paranoia robs him of everything, and he ends in solitude. He is a lawyer and bitterly and ironically presents evidence of Capitu's infidelity, but the validity of his statements can be constantly questioned; there is a hidden story within Dom Casmurro's narrative. "What is here, if I can put it this way, is like dye that you put on your beard and hair, and which only preserves the external habit, as they say in autopsies; the internal parts will not take dye. A certificate saying I was twenty years old might fool others, like any false document, but not me." Bento believes that Capitu has betrayed him with his best friend Escobar. The remarkable likeness between his son Ezequiel and Escobar is thrown into doubt by the fact that Ezequiel likes to imitate other people.

Machado de Assis was a sharp observer of the human mind and its dark sides. Like many authors of his period, he had adopted a reformist concern, but his view was colored with skepticism concerning the "Naturalist documentary method" and the possibility of human goodness; reality is the ultimate truth that destroys illusions. Irony was for him a vehicle for social criticism – especially sensitive he was about the plight of women. He avoided regionalism and looked toward Europe for his literary models. The influence of the French Parnassians is seen Machado's verse; Paris and its intellectual denizens was in general an object of admiration to the Brazilian cultural elite. On the other hand, in the English-speaking world, such modern writers as John Barth and Susan Sontag have acknowledged their literary debt to Machado. Harold Bloom said in Genius (2002), that Machado is "a kind of miracle, another demonstration of the autonomy of literary genius in regard to time and place, politics and religion".

For further reading: Machado de Assis: the Brazilian Master and His Novels by Helen Caldwell (1970); The Craft of an Absolute Winner by Maria Luisa Nunes (1983); Figuras femininias em Machado de Assis by Ingrid Stein (1984); The Deceptive Realism of Machado de Assis by John Gledson (1984); A personagem feminina no romance de Machado de Assis by Therezinha Mucci de Xavier (1986); Machado de Assis by Lúcia Miguel Pereira (1988); Machado de Assis: estudo crítico e biográfico by Lúcia Miguel Pereira (1988); Retired Dreams by Paul B. Dixon (1989); Machado de Assis by Silvio Romero (1992); Machado de Assis, the Brazilian Pyrrhonian by José Raimundo Maia Neto (1994); Machado de Assis, ed. Richard Graham (1999). In Finnish: Suomeksi kirjailijalta on julkaistu mm. tarina kokoelmasta Contos Fluminenses Tyyni Tuulion toimittamassa antologiassa Espanjan ja Portugalin kirjallisuuden Kultainen Kirja (1953). Parnassians: Influential literary movement in France in the second half of the 19th century. Its members included Théophile Gautier, Leconte de Lisle, Théodore de Banville, Sully Prudhomme, Francois Coppée, Léon Dierx, Jean Lahor, and J.-M. de Heredia. Gautier saw that a poet must be objective and the poems must be fashioned as tangible as in the plastic arts.

Selected works:

  • Pipelet, 1859 (play, from the novel Les Mystères de Paris by Eugène Sue)
  • As bodas de Joaninha, 1861 (play, with Luíz Olona, music by Martin allu)
  • Desencantos: fantasia dramática, Poesias completas, 1861
  • Gabriella, 1862 (play, prod.)
  • O protocolo, 1862 (play, prod., in Teatro, 1863)
  • O caminho da porta (play, in Teatro, 1863)
  • Chrysalidas, 1864
  • Quase ministro, 1864 (?, prod. 1863)
  • Montjoye, 1864 (from a play by Octave Feuillet, prod.)
  • Suplíco de uma mulher, 1865 (from a play by Émile de Girardin and Dumas fils, in Teatro, 1937)
  • Os deuses de casaca, 1866 (play, prod.)
  • O barbeiro de Sevilha, 1866 (from a play by Beaumarchais)
  • O anjo de Meia-Noite, 1866 (from a play by Théodore Barrière and Edouard Plouvier)
  • translator: Os trabalhadores do mar, by Victor Hugo, 1866
  • A família Benoiton, 1867 (from a play by Victorien Sardou)
  • Phalenas, 1870
  • Contos fluminenses, 1872
  • Ressurreiçao, 1872
  • Como elas são tôdas, 1873 (from a play by Musset)
  • Histórias da meia-noite, 1873
  • A mão e luva, 1874
    - The Hand and the Glove (tr. Albert I. Bagby, Jr., 1970)
  • Americanas, 1875
  • Helena, 1876
    - Helena (tr. Helen Caldwell, 1984)
    - Films: TV series 1952, prod. TV Paulista, starring Jane Batista, Paulo Goulart Filho, Vera Nunes, Hélio Souto; TV series 1975, prod.
    Rede Globo de Televisão, dir. Herval Rossano, starring Lúcia Alves; TV series 1987, prod. Rede Manchete, starring Luciana Braga, Thales Pan Chacon and Elias Andreato
  • Iaiá Garcia, 1878
    - Iaiá Garcia (tr. Albert I. Bagby, Jr., 1976) / Yayá Garcia (tr. R. L. Scott-Buccleuch, 1977)
    - Films: TV series 1953, prod. TV Paulista; Que Estranha Forma de Amar, 1977, prod. E.C. Filmes, dir. Geraldo Vietri, starring Berta Zemel, Paulo Figueiredo and Dina Lisboa; TV series 1982, prod. TV Cultura, starring Elaine Cristina, Dênis Derkian, Arlete Montenegro, Fúlvio Stefanini
  • Tu, só tu, puro amor, 1881 (play, prod. 1880)
    - You, Love, and Love Alone (tr. Edgar C. Knowlton, Jr., 1972)
  • Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas, 1881
    - Epitaph of a Small Winner (tr. William L. Grossman, 1952) / Posthumous Reminiscences of Braz Cubas (tr. E. Percy Ellis, 1955) / The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (tr. Gregory Rabassa, 1997)
    - Bras Cubasin kuolemanjälkeiset muistelmat (suom. Hilkka Mäki, 1991)
    - Films: 1968, Viagem ao Fim do Mundo / Voyage to the End of the World, prod. Fernando Campos Produções Cinematográficas, Talula Abramo Campos Produções Cinematográficas, dir. Fernando Campos; 1985, Brás Cubas, dir. Julio Bressane, starring Luiz Fernando Guimarães; 2001, Memórias Póstumas, dir. André Klotzel, starring Reginaldo Farias, Marcos Caruso, Petronio Gontijo
  • Papéis avulsos, 1882
  • Histórias sem data, 1884
  • Quincas Borba, 1891
    - The Heritage of Quincas Borba (tr. 1954) / Philosopher or Dog? (tr. Clothilde Wilson, 1954) / Quincas Borba (tr. Gregory Rabassa, 1998)
    - Film 1987, prod. Cyro del Nero S.A., Embrafilme, Quanta Centro de Produções Cinematográficas, dir. Roberto Santos, starring Paulo Villaça, Brigitte Broder, Helber Rangel, Fúlvio Stefanini
  • Várias histórias, 1896
  • Não consultes médico, 1896 (play, prod. 1896, in Teatro, 1910)
  • Páginas recolhidas, 1899
  • Dom Casmurro, 1899
    - Dom Casmurro (translators: Helen Caldwell; 1953; R.L. Scott-Buccleuch, 1966; John Gledson, 1997)
    - Films: 1968, Capitu, dir. Paulo Cesar Saraceni, starring Isabella, Othon Bastos, Raul Cortez, Rodolfo Arena; 2003, Dom, dir. Moacyr Góes, starring Marcos Palmeira, Maria Fernanda Cândido, Bruno Garcia, Luciana Braga
  • Poesias completas, 1901
  • Esaú e Jacó, 1904
    - Esau and Jacob (tr. Elizabeth Lowe, 1966)
  • Relíquias de Casa Velha, 1906
  • Memorial de Aires, 1908
    - Counselor Ayres' Memorial (tr. Helen Caldwell, 1972) / The Wager: Aires' Journal (tr. R.L. Scott-Buccleuch, 1990)
  • Teatro, 1910
  • Crítica, 1910
  • Correspondência, 1932 (ed. Fernando Nery)
  • Obras completas, 1937-42 (31 vols.)
  • Adelaide Ristori, 1955
  • Obra completa, 1959-62 (3 vols., ed. Afrânio Coutinho)
  • The Psychiatrist and Other Stories, 1963 (tr. William L. Grossman & Helen Caldwell)
  • Casa Velha, 1968
  • The Devil's Church and Other Stories, 1977 (tr. Jack Schmitt and Lorie Ishimatsu)
  • Teatro completo, 1982 (ed. Teresinha Marinho, et al.)
  • Contos: uma antologia, 1998 (2 vols., ed. John Gledson)
  • Teatro de Machado de Assis, 2003 (ed. João Roberto Faria)
  • A Chapter of Hats: Selected Stories, 2008 (tr. John Gledson)

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