15 September 08 | Chad W. Post

I absolutely love pronouncing Machado de Assis’s name. It flows in a lively, exotic way—especially when spoken with an exaggerated accent—and is one of the longest author names I know of.

When we first started Open Letter, Machado de Assis’s Epitaph of a Small Winner (aka, The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas)was one of the first books we tried to get the rights to. Unfortunately (for us), FSG decided instead to reissue this in their “Classics” series with a beautiful (and spooky) new cover (and foreword by Susan Sontag).

Even if the rest of the book completely sucked, it would still be worth publishing it for this opening paragraph:

To the Reader: When we learn from Stendhal that he wrote one of his books for only a hundred readers, we are both astonished and disturbed. The world will be neither astonished nor, probably, disturbed if the present book has not one hundred readers like Stendhal’s, nor fifty, nor twenty, nor even ten. Ten? Maybe five. It is, in truth, a diffuse work, in which I, Braz Cubas, if indeed I have adopted the free form of a Sterne or of a Xavier de Maistre, have possibly added a certain peevish pessimism of my own. Quite possibly. The work of a man already dead. I wrote it with the pen of Mirth and the ink of Melancholy, and one can readily foresee what may come of such a union. Moreover, solemn people will find in the book an aspect of pure romance to which they have become accustomed; thus it is and will remain, disrespected by the solemn and unloved by the frivolous, the two great pillars of public opinion.

The reason I’m posting about Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (it’s even fun to spell!) is because the 100th anniversary of his death is coming up (Sept. 29th), and the New York Times has a decent overview article on him.

Over the next quarter century Machado produced the five somewhat interlinked novels that made his reputation. Though foreign critics tend to regard the exuberantly nihilistic “Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas,” published in 1881, as his masterpiece, many Brazilians prefer the more melancholy “Dom Casmurro” (1899), which focuses on the corrosive effect of sexual jealousy.

“As an English friend of mine said to me, he’s the best,” Roberto Schwarz, one of Brazil’s foremost experts on Machado, said in a telephone interview from São Paulo. “What you see in the five novels and his short stories from that period is a writer without illusions, courageous and cynical, who is highly civilized but at the same time implacable in exposing the hypocrisy of modern man accommodating himself to conditions that are intolerable.”

One of the surprising things in this article is the sort of resentment that some people have about his popularity outside of Brazil. Not often that this sort of thing happens to a foreign author:

For the most part, Brazilians have been delighted to see Machado’s prestige rising, though they too question why it took so long. And a few dissenters complain that the Machado now celebrated in the English-speaking world is a misrepresentation.

Enthusiasts in the United States and Britain “are making Machado appear less and less like Machado,” the critic and author Antônio Gonçalves Filho argued last month at a symposium in São Paulo. “Actually, they are making the writer white, like Michael Jackson. All of a sudden, he’s become ‘universal.’ ”

Regardless, Dom Casmurro and Epitaph of a Small Winner are both worth reading, and for more info about his life and works, this piece by Zulfikar Ghose is really interesting.


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