Highlights from the book Machado de Assis: A Literary Life, by K. David Jackson


In his in-depth work, K. David Jackson, Professor of Portuguese at Yale University, focuses on the oeuvre of Machado de Assis, rather than on more personal aspects of his life. If, on the one hand, you wish you’d get to know more about the man behind some of the greatest works of the Latin American literary canon, Jackson’s choice is understandable. Machado was a very private person, who led a rather uneventful and quiet life, totally devoted to his artistic objective: the construction of a philosophical and fictional world.

This detailed work by K. David Jackson isn’t, therefore, your typical biography, but a fascinating study of Machado’s output, illuminating unsuspected aspects of his fiction and acquainting the reader with hidden facets of his creative process.

Here are some of the most engaging points made in the book:

1. Biographical landmarks: Machado de Assis, known as the Wizard of Cosme Velho (the neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro where he lived), was the co-founder and first president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters (1897). His most famous works are the Carioca Quintet (a set of five novels published from 1881 to 1908: The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas; Quincas Borba; Dom Casmurro; Esau and Jacob; Counselor Aires’ Memoirs). He died in 1908 at the age of 69. His image was used on a Brazilian banknote in 1988, and he was the featured author at the International Literary Festival Party of Paraty (FLIP) in 2008, to celebrate the centenary of his death.

Brazilian academy of Letters

2. His importance: According to Jackson, Machado’s writings ought to be placed alongside the works of Dostoevsky, Gogol, Hardy, Melville, Stendhal, and Flaubert.

3. Innovation: Having started off as a romantic writer and progressively become associated with the Realist artistic movement in Brazil, Machado is said to have anticipated the modernist narrative features found in Proust, Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Camus, Mann, and Borges.

4. Features: Machado’s work is hybrid and cannibalistic (intertextual). Through extensive reading, he assimilated and digested an incredible amount of information on Western culture as a whole (arts, music, philosophy, and literature), and based on these sources produced a very original body of work, using the social context of the city of the Rio de Janeiro during the Empire as a means to discuss and represent, mainly through parody and satire, universal truths and human dilemmas.

5. His most important works (such as The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas and Dom Casmurro) feature unreliable character-narrators, whose hallucinations dreams and obsessions are said to anticipate Freud’s psychoanalytic theories.

6. Theater and opera: These are among the main influences in the construction of the fictional space of Machado de Assis. Rio de Janeiro hosted a great number of European theater and opera companies in the 19th century, which allowed Machado to be exposed to a lot of comedic operas (opera buffa) and plays, which are not only frequently referenced in his fiction, but are also woven into the fabric of his works.

7. Shakespeare’s Othello: the classic story of the Moor who kills his wife Desdemona out of jealousy is reflected in the feelings – if not the actions – of important protagonists of Machado’s fiction. Othello is, for example, one of the main inspirations of Bento Santiago, the character-narrator of Dom Casmurro, whose insecurity and obsessions prompt him to write his memoirs as a way of persuading himself and the readers that his wife, Capitu, had an affair with his best friend Escobar, bearing an illegitimate son, Ezequiel.

Desdemona and Othello, Théodore Chassériau, 1847.

8. Social Darwinism and Positivism – dominating scientific theories at the time – were strongly criticized and ridiculed by Machado, especially through the fictitious philosophy of HUMANITAS, summarized by the motto To the Victor, the Potatoes, created by the mentally unstable character Quincas Borba, who first appeared in The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. He later made a comeback in the novel Quincas Borba (although, in typically oblique Machadian fashion, he’s not the protagonist of the book).

9. Main themes: Machado’s work is a profound depiction of Rio de Janeiro society during the Empire. This microcosm, however, is used by the author only as a familiar context for the highlighting of universal themes, such as legitimacy, chastity, honesty, hypocrisy, adultery and cruelty, which receive a modernist treatment in his hands.

If you haven’t had the chance to read Machado de Assis yet, K. David Jackson’s book will surely whet your appetite. For those, like me, who have read and reread Machado on a regular basis, Jacksons’ work was a surprising and welcome source of new interpretations of the familiar novels and short stories the Brazilian author is most famous for.

Jorge Sette

Which novels do you wish you had written yourself?


When you are at the stage of brainstorming for a nonfiction blog post or a piece of creative writing, it’s inevitable to remember a couple of articles, books and novels related to the topic you read at some point and enjoyed. They will be a source of inspiration and influence in your writing, making you somehow even slightly jealous, wishing you had thought of that first. But, of course, you would also have needed the right language to encapsulate it. After all, more important than the plot itself is how you say things.

Take the book Life of Pi by Yann Martel, for example, whose original idea some people claim was stolen from our Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar. Well, plagiarism is hard to establish, there are a lot of gray areas, but one thing I’m sure of: Martel did not write the same story nor, most definitely, used the same language as Scliar. Jorge Luis Borges, in his marvelous piece Pierre Menard, Autor del Quixote, from the book Ficciones takes this idea even further, asserting that a book written with the exact same words by a different author at a different time would be read in a new way, due to the dissimilar historic contexts, and therefore would not be the same book at all. I agree.

After reading a comment on Facebook by a friend saying that she is full of ideas for blog posts but do not find the time to write them (yes, we all know how teachers are busy!), I made a joke saying that all my good ideas had already been stolen by the likes of Shakespeare, Tolstoy or Philip Roth.

Then I though for a moment, and decided to give serious consideration as to which novels I really wished I had written and why. This is my humble list:

Books I wish I had written

Books I wish I had written

1.The Human Stain, by Philp Roth: it’s hard to discuss this book without giving a bit too much away, so apologies for the spoilers. The story of a light-skinned black boy who grabs the opportunity to pass for a Jew in 1950’s America and later becomes a Classics Professor at a small college is a complex account of the choices you make in life and the responsibilities and consequences that come with them. The need to make concessions and compromise basic values to achieve a bigger goal is the central theme of the book. The deep moral dilemma you face when you take such a radical decision, including the necessity to abandon and cut relations with your family and community to start a new life somewhere else as a completely different person, is evaluated by the author from unusual and unexpected angles in this impressive book. As irony is the hallmark of Roth, the book starts with the most paradoxal of incidents: the professor, noticing that two of the students enlisted in his class never seem to be present, asks the class the question which brings about his doom: “do they exist or are they spooks?” The latter being an old loaded word, a racist epithet for blacks. It turns out that the Professor, never having seen those students before, meant spooks in the most common sense of the word, that is, ghosts, and, after all the pressure and hassle he goes through, without support from any of his colleagues and students – for a number of political reasons – he decides to resign and end his career. I would love to have written this story for its universality: any minority can identify with what Coleman, the Jewish/Black professor, goes through, and can easily put themselves in his shoes. Given the opportunity would you do the same? Would you change your race, color, nationality, sexual orientation or gender? Or would you just give up all of your chances of fully growth and spend the rest of your life as a second class citizen in a society that will only offer you the fulfillment of your whole potential if you are the right color?

The Human Stain

The Human Stain

2. Dom Casmurro, by Machado de Assis: this must be the book I reread most often in my entire life. I know it almost by heart. What attracts me is the way the characters are so well-rounded and fully developed, leaping out of the page as if you could go for a walk and talk to them. This does not mean, however, that you will know them any better. This is the whole point of the story. The dissimulation, the fact that we never know anyone completely. The impossibility of dealing with only one version of the reality. I can’t get enough of the artistry of the author, who, narrating the story in the first person, never lets the reader be sure about what really happened: was the main character’s wife an adulterer? Is the boy she gives birth to his son or his best friend’s? The doubt will corrupt his marriage and ultimately destroy all the love in his life. He becomes empty and isolated, having chosen the version of reality which will cause him the most pain and damage. Don’t we all choose the latter?

Dom Casmurro

Dom Casmurro

3. We need to talk about Kevin, by Lionel Shriver: a professional woman is in love with her work and her husband. She writes and publishes travel guides, having the chance to go places, tour interesting and remote regions, avoiding getting stuck in a housewife’s rut, being independent most of the time. Yet, she can count on a loving husband to comfort and look after her when she comes back home after a long trip: this is a dream life. She has the best of both worlds. Then, what else is it that society claims will make every woman even happier and more complete: to have a baby. From the birth of Kevin, her firstborn, to the dantesque crime scene at the end of the book, We need to talk about Kevin reads like a nightmare. You can’t put it down. A thriller in every sense of the word. But one that goes way beyond the limitations of the genre. Shriver’s ambitions are a lot more encompassing. She discusses the nature of evil. Is it caused by nurture or nature? How is it created? Has Kevin always been the monster she feared he was or was his low self-esteem caused by his mother’s lack of love and care that turned him into a criminal? Was the mother’s resentment for having to give up all the pleasure and independence of her former life, her pre-baby life, toxic enough to corrupt and undo the little creature? The sense of guilt of a mother for not conforming to the patterns of a society that takes motherly love for granted only contributes to the character’s anguish and mental confusion. Of course, the book will show different perspectives of the scenarios we painted, but the conclusion will be up to the reader.

We need to talk about Kevin

We need to talk about Kevin

These are all great themes and I don’t need to tell you how masterfully these concepts and ideas are exploited by those wonderful writers. The angles they illuminate, the perspectives they reveal would hardly have occurred to the average reader. That’s why they are geniuses and we are blog writers. But we can always try to get closer to their art in our writing. According to Malcolm Gladwell, another writer whose books I wish I could have written (although they are nonfictional), all it takes is a dedication of 10,000 hours of work to become a world class master at your craft.

Which books would you like to have written yourself? Let us know.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

“You’re so vain” (Books I think are about me)


I got a funny reaction to my blog post on Wuthering Heights (http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-j0) from an anonymous reader. He or she wrote to me saying: “You are so vain, you probably think Wuthering Heights is about you”. I suspect this is an adaptation of a line of an old Carly Simon song, who allegedly was referring to Mick Jagger. In a way, I found the comment rather amusing, and, to be quite honest, remarkably true. Even more worrying: I tend to think that every single book I love is about me! As a matter of fact, it only interests me if I can somehow relate to it. And I guess this is what happens to every reader, at least the more romantic ones, like me. So, yes, you got it right, dear anonymous e-mail writer.

Take for example some of the best books I have read (and often reread) : Dom Casmurro (by Machado de Assis), Nemesis (by Philip Roth) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (by Tom Wolfe). They are really all about me.

cover_35e51c11-6ac1-4399-be38-98245079bc22

Dom Casmurro, by Machado de Assis.

The first time I read Dom Casmurro I was still in high school, and totally fell in love with Capitu. The kiss she and Bentinho exchange while he is combing her hair and she drops her head back, making their faces align in opposite directions, is  one of the most romantic scenes I remember as a teenager. Imagine my surprise when I saw a repeat of that scene decades later in the movie SPIDER MAN! This time he was hanging upside down from a wire fence while Mary Jane was looking up.  The same kind of kiss. Also, like Bentinho, the main character in Dom Casmurro, I can be quite jealous in a relationship and totally understand how paranoid it must feel to have your kid grow up to look like your best male friend. And the best thing is, every time I read the book again, I find new clues that indicate that Capitu must have been unfaithful, although we can never be one hundred per cent sure, as the story is very cleverly told from the point of view of the narrator only, who happens to be Bentinho, the husband.

NemesisRoth

Nemesis, by Philip Roth

Nemesis by Philip Roth is a very universal story, and if you can’t identify with it, I’m afraid you have a problem. Although I’m not Jewish and am fortunate enough not to be physically disabled (the story is about the terrible consequences of the outbreak of a polio epidemic in the mid-1940s New Jersey), I fully identify with the book’s themes. The main message, as I see it, is, if you are struck by tragedy, if you have a disability of any kind, or anything else people may look down upon or reject you for (and that probably applies to all of us), there is no point in blaming God or the Universe for it. Get on with your life, it’s your responsibility to make the most of it and restore or construe your own meaning for happiness. Or fight back. This is something everyone needs to hear: take full ownership of your failures and problems, and deal with them. No one else will care as much. Tough, but real.

Bonfire-of-the-Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe

The Bonfire of the Vanities: the main character finds himself in a kafkaesque situation: he gets lost in a dangerous part of  the city while driving back from the airport with his mistress, and accidently seems to strike a young black man he was sure was trying to mug them.  What a nightmare!  Was it a hit-and-run accident? Should they tell the police straightaway? But the wife will find out about the mistress then. Was the kid really hit, all they heard was a little noise (“thok”) after all. Surely the boy was OK. What decisions do they need to make? Mistakes are inevitably made along the way and there are terrible consequences. Moreover, there are many third parties (journalists, community leaders, attorneys, politicians, etc) trying to profit politically from the situation. Nothing is as morally simple as it first looks. Interesting questions. The reader gets deeply involved in the plot and its turns. “Unputdownable”. Besides, it’s very tempting to picture myself living the good life of a succesful Wall Street yuppie in a huge two-story apartment off Park Avenue in Manhattan…without the tragedy! Another book that COULD be about me.

So I’m really sorry if the anonymous e-mail writer intended to hurt my feelings accusing me of believing that Wuthering Heights is about me. Catherine, one of the book’s main characters, says at one of the most important plot points in the story: “I am Heathcliff!”  Well, so am I!

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.