de Assis, Joaquim Maria Machado 1839-1908
Brazilian novelist, short story writer, poet, critic, playwright, essayist, and journalist.
Machado de Assis is thought by many to be Brazil's greatest writer. Although he wrote in many genres, he achieved his greatest literary successes in both the novel and short-story forms. A complex blend of psychological realism and symbolism, Machado's fiction is marked by pessimism, sardonic wit, an innovative use of irony, and an ambiguous narrative technique. His best known novel, Memorias postumas de Brás Cubas (Epitaph of a Small Winner), is often cited as the first modern novel of the western hemisphere. Another, Dom Casmurro is thought by many to be the finest novel ever written in both Americas. But Machado is also acknowledged as the father of the modern Brazilian short story, producing more than 200 works that use a wide range of styles and forms. Earl E. Fitz has remarked that "whether we consider him primarily as a short story writer of as a novelist, Machado de Assis deserves—and is beginning to receive—recognition as one of the true modern masters of Western narrative."
Machado was born in Rio de Janeiro on June 21, 1839, to a Portuguese mother, who died when he was ten, and a mulatto father. Machado had epilepsy and a speech impediment, which are thought to have made him very self-conscious. During his teens he met many prominent literary figures while working as a printer's apprentice. These acquaintances helped Machado get his first works published. He was an early success, and his work was widely acclaimed by the time he was twenty-five. In 1860 he entered the civil service, to which he dedicated himself, and he eventually attained the directorship of the Ministry of Agriculture. Over the next decade, while working for the Ministry, Machado wrote mostly poetry and several comedies—drama being his first literary passion—before he gave more serious attention to narrative fiction. During the 1880s and 1890s Machado wrote what many critics consider his greatest fiction: the novels Epitaph of a Small Winner, Quincas Borba (Philosopher or Dog?), and Dom Casmurro; and the stories in Papeis avulsos, Historias sem data, Varias historias, and Paginas recolhidas. In 1897 Machado was named the first president in perpetuity of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, of which he was a founding member. He held this title until his death on September 29, 1908, of arteriosclerosis.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Having a much broader range than his novels, Machado's short fiction is concerned with the destructiveness of time, the nature of madness, the isolation of the individual, conflicts between self-love and love for others, and human inadequacy. Often humorous, Machado's stories portray the thoughts and feelings, rather than the actions, of characters who often exemplify Brazilian social types. Machado's stories deal satirically with cultural institutions and contemporary social conditions. His short fiction eschews description or narration in favor of selfrevealing dialogue and monologue. Unlike his novels, very few of Machado's more than two hundred short stories have been translated into English, but those that have represent his most accomplished works in the genre. These include "The Psychiatrist," which struggles with the twin questions of who is insane and how one can tell; "Alexandrian Tale," a satirical attack on the tendency to use science to cure human problems; "The Companion," one of Machado's most anthologized tales, in which a man hired to care for a cantankerous old invalid is driven to murder him instead; and "Midnight Mass," regarded by most as his best single story, which relates the events surrounding an ambiguous love affair between the young narrator and a married woman.
Outside his native Brazil, Machado's short stories are relatively unknown, and consequently they have received little international critical attention. This is due to the fact that Portuguese is not widely accepted as a literary language, and Brazilian literature, in particular, comprises a small part of the traditional Western canon. According to Fitz, "had [Machado] written in French, German, or English, for example, [he] would be as well-known today as Flaubert, Goethe, or Shakespeare." Recent comparative studies have linked his short stories with those of such masters as Henry James, Anton Chekhov, and Guy de Maupassant. Some critics have interpreted Machado's narrative art as being part of the realistic trend in literature, but most have identified his work with the modern movement, linking the style and technique of his fiction to writers such as Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Thomas Mann. Other scholars have examined Machado's works as an influence in the construction of a postcolonial Brazilian national identity and for indications of the author's stand on racism and civil rights. As international readers have slowly discovered his fiction through translation, most agree that Machado's narrative art is the work of an unrecognized genius.