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A note from Larry Rohter on Machado de Assis

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis

March 15, 2021 by Larry Rohter

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis is as foundational to Brazilian literature as Mark Twain is to American. The two were contemporaries, grew up in societies disfigured by slavery, and had mordant senses of humor that pervaded their work, but in many other respects, especially as regards style, they were markedly different. Nevertheless, Brazilian literature can be divided into two clearly defined periods: what came before Machado, as he is generally known, and what followed, with all that came after indelibly stamped with his influence. Just as Faulkner called Twain “the father of American literature,” Brazilian writers and critics routinely refer to Machado simply as “The Master” or “The Wizard.”

Part of Machado’s genius arises from his bold and playful experiments with novelistic form. In the nineteenth century these were considered quite radical, even anti-literary, but they have drawn the admiration not just of contemporary Brazilian practitioners of the novel but English-language writers as diverse as Philip Roth, Susan Sontag, Allen Ginsberg, John Updike, and Salman Rushdie, who calls Machado “a writer one hundred years ahead of his time.” I don’t propose to consider that aspect of Machado’s work here, since Dave Eggers does so with great enthusiasm in the foreword to the new translation of The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas that we are about to read together, and Machado himself comments on the method of his apparent madness in Chapter LXXI of the same book. Instead, I would like to try to cast some light on Machado the man, the times he lived in, and the causes and issues that shaped and engaged him.

Context is everything, as the saying goes, and that is especially true in Machado’s case. Though widely read and cosmopolitan in his tastes, he never traveled outside Brazil, and his many novels and short stories focus on what are ostensibly purely Brazilian situations and themes. As Eggers notes, Brás Cubas, first published in serial form in a Rio de Janeiro newspaper in 1880, is above all “a comedy of class and manners and ego, and it’s a reflection on a nation and a time.” So in hopes of enriching our understanding and enjoyment of the book, here are some observations about three aspects of its setting and circumstances that seem especially pertinent.

First and foremost, the Brazil into which Machado was born and lived most of his life was not a republic but the only monarchy in the Western Hemisphere—an Empire in fact, with Pedro II, crowned in 1841, two years after Machado’s birth, at its head until 1889. There was a formal court, based in Rio, the capital, and a national aristocracy, composed largely of plantation owners and merchants, which coveted the many titles of nobility available. Congress and the cabinet, both of which had limited powers, were filled with dukes, marquises, counts, viscounts, and barons who had received their titles either for services to the Emperor or through purchase. That same elite also dominated the court and social life, which often overlapped.

All of this provided rich fodder for Machado. Since titles were not hereditary, social climbers and the nouveau riche spent much of their time scrambling to rise and gain official favor through ostentatious displays of wealth or obsequiousness. “In our country, vulgarity is a title, mediocrity a coat of arms,” Machado wrote in 1861. The novel’s title character comes from this striving class, and the novel contains several set pieces in which the pretensions of his family are on display: a dinner to celebrate the fall of Portugal’s archrival Napoleon, a conversation in which the callow main character receives career orientation from his father about serving in congress.

Machado himself had a very ambiguous relationship with this privileged ruling caste. He circulated in their world, but was not of it. Born in a poor neighborhood of the capital, he dropped out of school at fourteen and was very much a self-taught and self-made man. After some years as a typesetter and proofreader, he became a journalist and then a translator and writer. Eventually, he was offered, and gratefully accepted, a job as a government bureaucrat, first in the Ministry of Public Works and then as assistant director of the Official Gazette. Machado was also a fervent monarchist, and would remain so even after the Emperor was overthrown on November 15, 1889: Pedro II had knighted Machado in 1867, and his daughter and heir to the throne, Princess Isabel, also took a personal interest in his career and welfare.

This brings us to a second fundamental fact about Machado and his time—one that in our current intellectual and political climate many might consider more important even than his nationality or class—and that is the importance of race. Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, in 1888, when Machado was nearly fifty years old, and he was himself a man of color trying to make his way through a milieu that was almost entirely white. Machado grappled with this fact throughout his life, and its significance permeates his work, including The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (though, with one notable exception, mostly in understated and modulated ways). “I know Your Excellence would prefer a subtle lie,” a character in one of his short stories proclaims, “but I know of nothing more subtle than the truth.”

By birth, Machado was biracial, what Brazilians of his time called a mulatto; current parlance would classify him as a mestiço, or mixed-race person. His father, Francisco José de Assis, a house painter, was the child of slaves who had been manumitted, while his mother, Maria Leopoldina da Câmara Machado, was a white washerwoman who had emigrated to Brazil from the impoverished Azores islands off the coast of Portugal; she died of tuberculosis when he was ten. What distinguished the family (Machado also had a sister, who died young) from the multitude of others mired in poverty was the patronage of an influential political clan: Machado’s godmother, who provided lodging to his family, was the widow of a prominent senator; and his godfather a decorated military officer. Machado’s two forenames were chosen so as to honor them.

At the age of thirty, Machado married a white woman five years older than he, Carolina Augusta Xavier de Novais. Her family, immigrants from Portugal, objected to the match because of his race, but the couple remained together until her death thirty-five years later. Though the target of prejudice in this and other instances, Machado generally tried to steer a moderate course on anything having to do with race or politics—which at the time of the publication of Brás Cubas revolved mainly around the abolition of slavery. His novels are filled with jabs at that institution—sometimes explicit, more often implicit or indirect—but Machado was reluctant to directly or publicly attack slavery. That led to criticism by other prominent black or mulatto intellectuals and abolitionists, who viewed him as something of what today might be called a “race traitor.”

In Brazil, slavery was an even more central and deleterious a feature of national life than in the antebellum United States. During the period the transatlantic slave trade was legal, about 500,000 Africans were kidnapped and subjected to the horrendous Middle Passage to southern ports; for Brazil, the comparable figure exceeds four million. Slavery in Brazil was not a primarily regional phenomenon, as in the United States, but present in every corner of a country larger than the continental US, from the Amazon in the north to the Pampas in the far south. It was especially prevalent, though, in the capital and the area around it. When Brazil conducted its first census in 1872—by which time Machado had already published his first novel, a short story collection, two volumes of poetry, and six plays—of the nearly 500,000 people living in the province of Rio de Janeiro, 37.39 percent, or three of every eight, were enslaved. Hence the almost-constant presence of slaves hovering in the background of many of the episodes making up Brás Cubas.

In his 2002 book Genius, the American critic Harold Bloom described Machado as “the supreme black literary artist to date,” an assessment that, aside from pigeonholing the writer’s achievements, Machado himself would in all likelihood have rejected. During his lifetime, Brazil’s principal cultural influences came not from Portugal, its mother country, but from France, and Machado shared that passion. Brás Cubas begins his memoirs with a reference to Stendhal, the text that follows is chockablock with mentions of other French writers and cultural figures (major and minor), and Machado himself translated works of Victor Hugo, Molière, Dumas, and Racine. (He translated Shakespeare, Dickens, and Poe too, but that is a tale for another day). In 1897, Machado also was a founder and first president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, modeled on the Académie Française, with membership limited at any one time to forty “immortals.”

One of the most important French intellectual currents present in Brazil during the second half of the nineteenth century, indeed until Machado’s death in 1908, was the philosophy known as positivism. First enunciated by Auguste Comte in reaction to the excesses of the French Revolution, positivism evolved into both a religion and a political movement, which, grosso modo, were based on the notion that the embrace of pure rationality in the form of science would lead mankind to the highest state of development. The theory was especially popular among the Brazilian professional classes, including lawyers, engineers, scientists, and military officers: Positivists led the military coup that overthrew the emperor in 1889, and the national flag they adopted, still in use today, displayed Comte’s motto, “Order and Progress.”

The eternally skeptical Machado, however, was buying none of this, and Brás Cubas is in part a satire of positivism. The book’s dead narrator has a friend named Quincas Borba, a philosopher cum conman who concocts an odd doctrine called humanitism and eventually goes mad. Through exaggeration, Machado has great sport skewering some of the more outlandish precepts of positivism: Humanitism is a delirious melange of parts that don’t fit, with elements drawn from Nietzsche, Darwin, and Buddha, thrown together to create a panglossian vision of the world. Machado enjoyed himself so much, in fact, that his next novel, published in 1891, was called Quincas Borba (first translated into English as Philosopher or Dog?). A third novel, Dom Casmurro, from 1899, completes what has come to be known as Machado’s “realist trilogy”—so designated because of the pessimistic, ironic tone they have in common.

Any great writer is obviously more than the sum of his or her parts, and so it is with Machado. The forces, events, and influences I’ve enumerated here were by no means determinative, any more so than the stutter or the epilepsy that afflicted him. They are not insignificant, either, but several million of Machado’s contemporaries lived through the same period, spoke the same language, and had similar experiences. Yet only he was capable of producing The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas and the magnificent body of work of which it is part. As Harold Bloom said of him, this time correctly, Machado is indeed “a kind of miracle.”

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