Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (muh-SHAH-dew dee ah-SEES) was born to a Portuguese mother from the Azores and a mulatto house painter from Rio de Janeiro. Though Brazil is often said to be a country without racism, some of Machado’s critics attribute the pessimism evident in his works to feelings of inferiority about his mixed-race heritage; it is also sometimes attributed to his physical ailments, particularly the epilepsy so little understood in his day. His novels reveal what some call “smiling, bitter pessimism,” and others, “sad, bitter irony.”
Machado de Assis began his literary career as a poet in the transition period between Romanticism and Brazilian Parnassianism, which was less objective and impersonal than the French prototype. He also wrote plays and excellent short stories. His first three novels, beginning with Resurreicão (resurrection) in 1872, though in the Romantic vein, betray a realistic author intent on suppressing emotion. His first great success was The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, whose supposed author beyond the grave wrote “with the pen of jesting and the ink of melancholy” to prove that nothing leads to nothing. Philosopher or Dog? introduces Machado de Assis’s only really virtuous character, and he is a madman. In this work the administrator of the estate of a wealthy Rio philosopher learns that nothing is permanent except the affection of the dog that was the rich man’s...
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