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Machado de Assis | Scene4 Magazine | November 2008 |
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november 2008

by Andrea Carvalho Stark

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The wind blew gently and the leaves rustled with a whispering sound. Although they weren’t the leaves of her youth, they nevertheless questioned her: “Paula, do you remember the leaves of yesterday?” For that is the peculiar thing about leaves, the generations that pass on tell the newcomers what they saw, and that is why all leaves know and ask questions about everything. “Do you remember the leaves of yesterday?(*)  

Machado de Assis still whispering in our ears things that he saw in a past time. The time has gone, the wind has changed but not his stories. Only leaves blowing in the wind can explain – even to a curious child - what is literature. And what is the work of Machado de Assis.  

Brazilian literature is celebrating in 2008 the centenary of a Master: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis was born in June 21, 1835, in Morro do Livramento, a poor community in Rio de Janeiro, son of a Portuguese mother and a father - son of slaves. The left-handed, black and stutterer boy grew up and became a recognized writer among his contemporaries in a life that lasted till September 29th, 1908.  

For me, Machado de Assis was always an enchantment. I first met his name because of a school task with the short story “The Mirror”. I was 15, and became extremely astonished by the story of a military man who without his uniform did not see his thoughtful image.

But Machado de Assis should not be only in the schools, he should be in every corner – so we could see us thoughtfully. What he wrote was always a mirror, but made of a different stuff to the one in the story I read when I was 15. Machado de Assis’ mirror reflects everything with accurate contours – even today.  

That beautiful image is being displayed in a exhibition at the Brazilian Academy of Letters, an institution founded by Machado de Assis in 1897.  


There is another image that belongs to the same moment of this picture. Here the young man faces the camera. He looks shy.


Those two images together are almost cinema, there is a kind of mysterious movement arising from them. Machado de Assis was 25 in those pictures. At that time he was an enthusiastic young man writing poetry, while working in Francisco de Paula Brito´s typography as a reviser. A time when he met people from literature and the theater world in the reign of D. Pedro II and heard histories about prima donnas, specially one: Augusta Candiani. It is under the pseudonym Manassés that he writes a touching paragraph about Candiani in July 15, 1877 in the magazine Ilustração Brasileira, but it is Joaquim Maria who is mirrored: And today Candiani comes back, after such a long silence, to wake up the echoes of those days. The elderly men as me are going to remember a little about their youth: one of the best things in life, maybe the only.  

For today’s young people, Machado de Assis is a subject for the university entrance exams, themes of intelligent questions about literature, perhaps only one more ordinary school task. Instead of reading his work, some youngsters read the summaries available on the web. But his own biography would be able to show them an example of overcoming and self-determination.  

That is the greatest charade Machado de Assis has left, as Professor Ronaldes de Mello and Souza considers: As well as Dostoievski, who lived in an extremely hard situation, Machado de Assis overcame the obstacles that he found in different moments of his life, especially because he submitted himself to a systematic and complex self-education process, that made him one of the most self-taught person in the history of  literature.  

We talked about Machado de Assis with Ronaldes de Melo e Souza and also with John Gledson(**) – one of the most important of Machado´s translators - about the Brazilian writer abroad and the translations to the English language. 

Ronaldes de Melo e Souza is a Brazilian Literature teacher at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). He has recently launched the book O romance tragicômico de Machado de Assis, where he considers Machado de Assis work according to the theory of comicality and the tragicomic bend in nine novels by the Brazilian writer.  

Black, stutterer, poor and suffering from epilepitic seizures in a slavery society in the 19th century, Machado de Assis could not have remained. But he did. We asked to Professor Ronaldes de Melo e Souza: Why does Machado de Assis remain? Because his work maintains an intertextual dialogue with Western literature’s greatest writers. Not only for that, but also because he maintains an interdiscursive dialogue with mythology, philosophy, history, religion and the others Western-European discourses. Above all, his literature remains because his work is original, not only in his own time, but also in ours.  

That incredible originality has been translated to an endless matrix. Even after hundred years, we still have so much to say, to read and to talk about Machado de Assis. Professor Ronaldes believes that In the last years, in Brazil and abroad, we see a large number of studies about Machado de Assis, confirming that the Brazilian writer is placed among the greatest literary creators in the 19th and 20th centuries. That proves his originality and explains his role as a precursor of the 20th century fictional literature revolution. Due to the complexity of his work, endless studies must be done, if we want to understand his universe that is structured subtly. 

Although Machado de Assis is recognized as one of the greatest writers in Brazilian literature, he is almost an unknown name in the Western literature panorama. Despite have been greeted by Susan Sontag as “the greatest writer ever produced in Latin America” surpassing even the argentine Jorge Luis Borges. And being considered by Harold Bloom as "the supreme black literary artist to date". Woody Allen also read Machado and declared that the Brazilian is "a brilliant and modern writer whose books could have been written this year”.  

Some believe that this is so because of the translations we have so far, more than the fact that – to the world – we still being a peripheral culture. There is still a long road to be taken. A road that began in the 50´s with the translations of Helen Caldwell. We talked to Professor John Gledson about the translations of Machado de Assis to the English. Do they contribute and do justice to the original work? In general they do do justice to the original. The translations made for the Noonday Press in the 1950s, by Helen Caldwell, William Grossman and Clotilde Wilson stood the test for four decades; though it was a good idea to do new ones. But there are exceptions, and it is as well to warn people of them, especially as at least one of them is still in print. In 1991, a version of “Dom Casmurro” was printed in England, by Peter Owen, and later take up by no less than Penguin Classics, which deliberately omitted 9 chapters! I think it has probably disappeared from view by now. What is less well-known is that the translations of “Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas” and “Quincas Borba” done in the 90´s by Gregory Rabassa (the famous translator of “Cien años de soledad”) are plagued by errors and infelicities. Unfortunately, the high reputation of the translator and the publisher, Oxford University Press, means that it has taken longer for them to be unmasked. I have had nothing but complaints from anyone who has to use them, in teaching for example. The trouble is, of course, that very few people who know Portuguese read the translations, and those who do don’t know Portuguese. Even so, these translations often sound clumsy to my ear. I have written an essay, “Traduzindo Machado de Assis”, published in a collection of essays written for the Concurso Machado de Assis, published by the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Relations, in which I illustrate this in one chapter from” Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas”.

Professor John Gledson is, undoubtedly, the greatest expert in English language about the work of Machado de Assis and his contribution has been singular to the name of the Brazilian writer in the English speaking world. Professor Gledson has written several works about Machado de Assis and also has translated several of his novels and short stories. Some of those – twenty, to be more precisely - are recently published in the collection “A Chapter of Hats and Other Stories”, (Bloomsbury, London, 2008). What criteria has Professor John Gledson followed to choose the stories to this collection? In “A Chapter of Hats...”¸ I deliberately chose most of the stories from the later collections, and not from “Papéis Avulsos”. This is not because I don’t admire those stories, or think them important, but because I have a certain fear that their general themes may make them seem more derivative, and their humour less original. “O alienista” I excluded for different reasons – its length, which would have meant it took up too much of the book, and the fact that there already exist at least two English translations of it, both quite acceptable. On the positive side, five of the stories, including, incredibly enough, “A Chapter of Hats” itself, and “The Fortune-teller” (A cartomante) are not included in either of the previous collections. It may be that there is a slight bias towards social realism in the book, but I hope it isn’t too pronounced: sardonic stories like “In the Ark”, “The Mirror” and “An Alexandrian Tale” are included. In other words, I tried to be representative, and just simply choose the best stories. Some, like “A Hidden Cause”, or “A Famous Man” choose themselves.  

Regarding recent studies about Machado de Assis - in the English-speaking world - what are the most important contributions? Can we mention, for example, Harold Bloom and Susan Sontag? Recently, in English, and by English-speaking writers, there is only Bloom’s chapter, and a large volume, called The Author as Plagiarist: Machado de Assis, edited by João Cezar de Castro Rocha, and published by the Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture, at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth (ISBN 1-933227-10-9). Many of the essays in this volume are translated from Portuguese, but some 10 are by English speakers, and the volume includes an extremely useful bibliography of Machado de Assis in English, by K. David Jackson, which lists both translations and books and articles on Machado. We might point to Michael Wood’s article, “Master among the ruins”, originally published in the New York Review of Books, who does realise that Machado is a master “not in spite of his Brazilian background and themes but because of them” – the article is partly a review of Roberto Schwarz’s “A Master on the Periphery of Capitalism”. I think this is a sensible position, but it is by no means universally accepted. Bloom’s chapter is perhaps the worst example of the opposite tendency – for him, Machado’s Brazilian background might as well not exist (though he is also the greatest Black writer to have existed, and the only one on the list of 100 “greats”). I have to say I suspect tokenism, and when I see Gregory Rabassa’s new translations being praised, the suspicion that they have not been read grows in my mind. Susan Sontag’s article, by contrast, is excellent, and the fruit of a truly enthusiastic and insightful reading. The lesson of all this, I think, is that Machado’s reputation needs to be built on solid foundations, and harnessing him to some literary trend he only half belongs to, or overplaying his biographical credentials, will not necessarily do much good. Such things don’t help readers to read the books with pleasure and insight, and how far can we go without them?

What are the biggest charades in Machado de Assis´ Portuguese language that a translator must solve in a translation to English? There are many – he is not easy to translate, though not difficult in the same way as, say, Guimarães Rosa. An obvious one are his adjectives, especially those referring to people’s character or parts of the body – eyes, of course, are famous, but often gestures are ambiguous too. Here’s an example of eyes, not one of the most famous, but which I remember because of the struggle I had with it: “mas era lhana, graciosa e tinha essa espécie de olhos derramados que não foram feitos para homens ciumentos.” (“A desejada das gentes”). Here is my final version: “but she was affable, charming, and her eyes had a liquid quality about them, not made for the jealous among us.” Not as good as the original, of course, but as faithful as I could get, and checking back I find I had other, less good versions before this one. Another category concerns “relações de favor”, a phrase difficult to translate in itself – relations of patronage, clientelism, dependency, we could say. Very often, this pervasive phenomenon of Brazilian society means that words are more loaded in Portuguese than their English equivalents. Yet they are central to the fiction – the translation which omitted the 9 chapters from Dom Casmurro also translated “agregado” (“dependent”) as “a friend of the family”. Half the book is destroyed, if José Dias’s position and motivation are misunderstood.  

The recognition of Machado de Assis in the Western literature promises new chapters. Also the singular importance recognized in his own land confirms the great power of Brazilian literature. It seems that the writer has followed the movement of the leaves that has asked Dona Paula: “Do you remember the leaves of yesterday?”

Yes, Dear Joaquim, we do. Because the wind is a thing that does not cease. The new, old and future generations say thank you in a whisper.  

Sans adieu.  

We do recommend:   

A Chapter of Hats and other stories. Machado de Assis, translated by John Gledson, Bloomsburry, London, 2008.  Here the reader can find “Dona Paula” – one of the most touching Machado de Assis stories; “The Mirror” – my  first  Machado de Assis –  and much more. Twenty wonderful and touching short stories carefully translated by John Gledson. In English.   

Afterlives: The Case of Machado de Assis. Susan Sontag, New Yorker,  May 7,1990. An essay by the American literary critic, the one mentioned in John Gledson’s interview. In English.  

Bibliografia Machadiana 1959-2003. Ubiratan Machado, Edusp/Nankin, 2005. In this book the reader can find what has been written about Machado de Assis from 1959 to 2003. It’s a complete bibliography by the writer and literary critic Ubiratan Machado -  a result of five years of research in newspapers, books and magazines in Brazil and abroad. Also from the same author, Dicionário Machado de Assis, published by The Brazilian Academy of Letters, 2008.  

Dom Casmurro. Machado de Assis, organized by Leila Guenther and Paulo Franchetti, Ateliê Editorial, 2008. A new edition of one of the most famous novels by Machado de Assis. Comments  by Leila Guenther. Includes an essay written by Professor and literary critic Paulo Franchetti about the novel and its critical history during the 20th century. In Portuguese.   

Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds. Harold Bloom, Warner Books, 2002. This is the book where the eminent best-seller literary critic Harold Bloom declares Machado de Assis as one of the world’s greatest.  

Machado de Assis – A  Brazilian Academy of Letters website  Biography,  reviews, chronology and more. Research and organization by Brazilian Academy of Letters (ABL).   

Machado de Assis.  Dau Bastos, Garamond Publishing House and Biblioteca Nacional, 2008. The newest biography about the Brazilian writer by the literary critic and writer Dau Bastos. In Portuguese.   

O Romance Tragicômico de Machado de Assis.  Ronaldes de Melo e Souza, Editora da UERJ, 2008. Ronaldes de Melo e Souza investigates nine novels by Machado de Assis following  the theory of comicality and the tragicomic bend in his narrative.  

Páginas Esquecidas: Uma Antologia Diferente de Contos Machadianos. Machado de Assis, organized by Alvaro Marins, Língua Geral Publishing house, 2008. A collection of Machado de Assis short stories that are not so well known. Organized by the literary critic  Alvaro Marins, including an essay about Machado de Assis short stories. In Portuguese.  

The Author as Plagiarist: the Case of Machado de Assis. Edited by João Cezar de Castro Rocha, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, 2006. In this volume Antonio Candido, Alfredo Bosi, Hélio de Seixas Guimarães, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and José Saramago write about Machado de Assis.  

The Brazilian Othelo of Machado de Assis: A Study of Dom Casmurro. Helen Caldwell, Berkeley-Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1960. The American critic approaches Machado de Assis’ novel “Dom Casmurro” to Shakespeare´s “Othello”. One of the first important essays about Machado de Assis in English. Already translated in Portuguese.   

(*)From “Dona Paula”. A short story by Machado de Assis translated in English by John Gledson in “A Chapter of Hats and other stories” (Bloomsburry,London, 2008). 

(**)This interview was originally given in English.

We would like to thank:
Paulo Franchetti, Fabio Akcelrud Durão, Danielle Corpas and Ubiratan Machado for their precious help.

Young Machado de Assis – by Insley Pacheco (1830 - 1912)
(Cover) Machado de Assis at 55, in 1890 – by Marc Ferrez (1820 – 1850).


©2008 Andréa Carvalho Stark
©2008 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Andréa Carvalho Stark is a writer in Rio de Janeiro
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives
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