From Portuguese: CAPTAIN OF THE VOLUNTEERS by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story Um Capitão de Voluntários by Machado de Assis, which was first published in 1905)

No sooner had the Republic been proclaimed, than Simão de Castro set his mind to embarking for Europe. Before he did so, he gathered all his letters and notes and tore them up – all except the story you’re about to read, which he entrusted to his friend Marcelo, with the intention of having it published once Simão had departed; but Marcelo didn’t do so because, as he explained in a letter to Simão, he thought it might hurt the feelings of an acquaintance. Simão replied that he was happy for Marcelo to do whatever he thought fit; as he didn’t have any literary aspirations, he wasn’t really bothered whether it was published or not. But now that both of them – and the acquaintance – are dead, I’m publishing it myself.


There were us two men and the two women. The two of us used to go there to amuse ourselves, but eventually it was out of friendship. I became friends with the owner of the house. After supper – which used to be taken early in 1866 – I’d go there to smoke a cigar. The sun would enter from the window that looked out on a hill with some houses at the top of it; the opposite window looked out on the sea. I’m not going to tell you the street name or exactly where it was, other than it was in Rio de Janeiro; and I’m not going to tell you my friend’s name either, so let’s just call him X. He was big and strong. One of the women was called Maria.

When I entered, X would be in the rocking chair. There wasn’t much in the way of furniture, and what there was was simple. After X had shaken my hand, I’d go and sit by the window, alternately looking round the room or out at the street. If Maria wasn’t already there, she’d appear shortly. Neither of us had much interest in the other; X was the only real connection we had.We’d have a chat, I’d go home, and they’d go to bed. On some evenings we’d play cards, and eventually I’d spend most of the evening there.

I was in thrall to X. To his figure in the first place. He was robust, whereas I was weedy, but my weak, feminine look would disappear next to his masculinity, his broad shoulders, his wide hips, his strong legs and his large feet, which hit the floor so decisively when he walked. I had a thin and sparse moustache; he had long, thick, curly whiskers; when he was thinking or listening, he had the habit of running his fingers through them, making them even more curly. His large, beautiful eyes completed the picture; they smiled even more than his mouth.

X was forty, I was twenty-four. He’d had an eventful life in various places, from which he’d eventually retreated to that house, with Maria; I’d had no life to speak of and hadn’t lived with anyone. And to cap it all, he had something Castilian about him, some of the blood that circulates in the pages of Don Quixote.

They’d fallen in love a long time ago: Maria was now twenty-seven and seemed to have had some education. I heard that the first time they’d met had been at a masked ball in the old Provisional Theatre. She was wearing a short skirt and had been dancing to the sound of a tambourine. Her feet were beautiful, and it was they, or her story, that first caught X’s eye.

I never asked her how it had all started; all I know is that she had a daughter, who was at a boarding school and didn’t come to the house; it was Maria’s mother who used to visit her there. Our relationship was reserved: we simply accepted the situation as it was.

A couple of months after I started going there, I got a job in the bank; but our relationship remained the same. Maria would play the piano; sometimes she and her friend Raimunda would manage to drag X to the theatre, and I’d go with them. Afterwards we’d have tea in a private room; and, once or twice, if the moon was shining, we’d end up taking a trip over to Botafogo.

Barreto didn’t take part in any of that; it was only later that he began visiting the house. He was good company – cheerful and chatty. When the two of us left the house one night, he started talking about the two women and suggested courtship.

“You choose one of them, Simão, and I’ll take the other.”

That stopped me in my tracks.

“Or rather,” he continued, “I’ve already chosen – Raimunda. I like her a lot. You can choose the other.”


“Who else?”

What Barreto said was so tempting that I failed to object in any way whatsoever. Everything seemed natural and necessary. So, yes, I agreed to choose Maria. Maria it was! She was a few years older than me, but that would be ideal for teaching me in the ways of love.

The two of us embarked upon our mission of conquest with ardour and tenacity. For Barreto it was quite easy: Raimunda didn’t currently have a lover, but had recently split up – unwillingly – with a young man who’d gone off to marry a girl from Minas; and so she soon allowed herself to be consoled.

One day, when I was having lunch, Barreto came in and showed me a letter he’d received from her.


“Yes. And you two?”


“So, when?”

“Just wait. I’ll tell you when.”

I felt rather ashamed afterwards. With the best will in the world, I hadn’t had the courage to express my feelings to Maria. It’s not that I was passionate about her: rather, it was curiosity. Whenever I saw her – so elegant and fresh-looking, so warm and lively – I was overcome by a completely new feeling. On the one hand, I’d never been in love; on the other, Maria was my friend’s companion. I’m writing this, not to make myself out to be particularly honourable, but simply to explain my shyness. X and I had been the best of friends for a number of years. He had absolute confidence in me, he told me about his business dealings and his past life. Despite the difference in age between us, we were like students in the same class.

I was thinking so much about Maria that something I said or did must have given her a glimpse of my feelings; in any case, when we shook hands one day, I felt that she left her hand in mine longer than usual. Two days later, when I went to the post office, she happened to be there sending a letter to Bahia.

Did I tell you she was from Bahia? Well, now you know. She spoke to me before I’d noticed her. I helped her attach the seal, and we started making our way out. I was about to say something, when I noticed X standing by the door.

“I’ve just sent a letter to my mother,” she explained rather rapidly.

Then she said goodbye and headed for home, while X and I walked off in the other direction. He took the opportunity to sing her praises; without entering into any details about how their relationship had begun, he told me they were deeply in love; he was a happy man.

“I won’t get married: we’re like husband and wife, and I’ll die by her side. There’s only one thing that bothers me: that I live such a long way from my mother.”

He stopped walking and added, “My mother knows.”

Then he started walking again. “She knows. She made a vague remark about it, but I understood: she doesn’t disapprove. She knows that Maria is serious, a good person. My mother’s happy as long as I’m happy. Marriage wouldn’t add anything to it.”

He told me a lot more, which I heard as if in a trance. My heart was pounding and my legs felt weak. I couldn’t think of anything to say, and if I’d tried it would have come out all garbled.

After a while, X noticed how quiet I was, but he misinterpreted it. He laughed and said he was boring me with all that.

“Not at all!” I protested. “It’s fascinating to hear about people for whom I have nothing but respect.”

I think I was giving way to the inevitable. When I left him, I no longer felt so tormented. My first impressions, from what he had told me, had disappeared, and all that remained was a delicious curiosity. X had described Maria as a modest and homely person – no mention of her physical attractions. But, at my age, I didn’t need any direct mention of them. As I walked along, I could see her as if she were there in front of me. I could see her languid but firm gestures. And I was feeling more and more entranced.

When I got home, I wrote her a long and diffuse letter, but I tore it up within half an hour and went to have something to eat. Finally, I went to X’s house.

It was late in the evening. He was in the rocking chair. I sat down in my usual place and looked around the room and out at the hill. Maria arrived some time later and clearly wasn’t in the mood for conversation. She sat and dozed a bit, then played the piano a bit, and then left the room.

“From first thing today,” X told me, “Maria’s not been able to think of anything other than collecting contributions for the war effort. “I told her it might not be a good idea to look as if… You understand… In her situation… But she’ll get over it. She has these mad ideas from time to time…”

“And why shouldn’t she?!” I said.

“Well, why not?” replied X. “I’m not saying the war in Paraguay is not a war like any other war, but – believe me – I can’t get excited about it. I was outraged after Olinda, indeed, but then I calmed down and I really think we’d have done better if we’d joined López against the Argentinians.”

“Not me. I prefer the Argentinians.”

“I like them too, but I think it was in the interest of our people to stick with López.”

“Not at all! I was almost on the point of signing up as a volunteer.”

“Ha! I wouldn’t have signed up even if they’d made me a colonel.”

I didn’t pay much attention to the rest of what he said because I was listening out for whether Maria would return. So I just mumbled indeterminate replies at what seemed appropriate points. But the devil of a girl just would not and would not return.

I suggested we play a round of voltarete.

“Why not?” he said.

We went into the office. X placed the cards on the table and went to call Maria. Eventually I heard a whispered conversation, the only part of which I could make out was:

“Come on! It will only be for half an hour.”

“How tedious! I’m not feeling well.”

She was yawning as she entered the office. She told me she could only play for half an hour as she had a headache and wanted to go to bed early.

She sat down to my left like a heap of woe, and we began the game. I regretted having torn up my letter; I could remember some bits of it that would have described my feelings with the necessary warmth and persuasiveness. If I’d kept it, I would have given it to her that night. She often came to the top of the steps to say goodnight before closing the gate. That would have been the moment I could have given it to her; it would have eased my agony.

After a while, X got up and went to get his tin tobacco box from the writing-desk. At that point, Maria did something that took my breath away: she raised her hand of cards to shield her eyes, turned her face and gave me a piercing, mesmeric look. It was just a matter of seconds.

By the time X came back, rolling a cigarette, Maria had lowered her cards and was pretending to study them. Trying to compose myself, I stared at my own cards, but without managing to say anything. Fortunately, Maria calmly filled the silence by saying one of the words of the game – Pass or Stick, I don’t remember.

We played for about an hour, by which time Maria’s eyelids were drooping, and X suggested it was time to go to bed. I took my leave and went into the corridor, where I’d left my hat and walking-stick. Maria stood at the door of the room, waiting to accompany me to the gate. As I was about to descend the steps, she flung an arm around my neck, pulled me to her, and kissed me full on the lips. Rapidly but passionately. And I felt something pushed into my hand.

Wishing me goodnight, she closed the gate.

I was stunned, still feeling the impression of her lips on mine, still with the vision of her eyes, but somehow I managed to walk down the steps. And that something was still in my hand.

Once I was out of sight of the house, I ran to the nearest streetlamp and looked at it. It was an advertisement for a haberdashery shop, on the back of which, written in pencil was: “1 o’clock tomorrow afternoon. The jetty for the Niterói ferry. Wait for me there.”

Emotions came in great, breaking waves, and for the next few minutes I had no idea where I was or what I was doing. Until, that is, I found myself in the Largo de São Francisco de Paula, where I read the card again. Then I forced myself to walk a bit further, until I came to a halt again not far from a couple of policemen, who probably wondered what I was up to. Fortunately, hunger eventually overcame my emotions and I went to the Hotel dos Príncipes to get something to eat.

I didn’t get to sleep until the early hours but, even so, I was up at six, and the morning was slow agony. I got to the jetty at ten to one. Maria was already there, swathed in a cloak and with a blue veil covering her face. We boarded a ferry that was about to depart.

It was a relief to leave the shore. There were few other passengers at that time of day, and everything – the bobbing boats, the birds and the bright blue sky – seemed to be serenading this first proper conversation between the two of us. But what we said was so awkward and confused that I can’t remember more than half a dozen words, and none of them was the name of X, and none of them referred to him at all. We both felt like traitors, me towards my friend, and Maria towards her companion and protector; but there wasn’t time enough for either of us to actually mention it, and there certainly wasn’t enough time for the infinity of what we wanted to say to each other.

Our hands met and remained, our eyes met and remained, and our hearts were probably beating at the same insistent pace. At least, that’s how I felt when I parted from her after the circular trip to Niterói and São Domingos and back. At each of those stops, I suggested we disembark, but she declined; and when we got back to Rio, I suggested we get a closed carriage, but she just said, “What on earth would people think of me?!” Her modesty made her even more beguiling. So we said goodbye, and I promised I’d carry on coming to visit them, as usual, in the evenings.

I didn’t pick up my pen to write about my happiness, so I’m omitting the most delightful parts of our romance – all the rendezvous, the letters, the words, the dreams, the hopes, the endless longing, and the waves of desire. Romances are like calendars in that, for all their variety, they have to follow the same days and months, the same feast days and festivals. Our calendar didn’t even stretch from one half-moon to the next; not even an eclipse of the sun.

Maria was a model of grace, life and movement. She told me she was from Bahia but had been brought up in Rio Grande do Sul, in the countryside, near the border. When I asked about her first meeting with X, in the Temporary Theatre, dancing to the beat of a tambourine, she told me it was true, she’d been dressed in Castilian style and had been wearing a mask. When I asked her if she’d dance with me – even if only a lundu – but without the mask, she seemed shocked:

“It would drive you mad!”

“But X wasn’t driven mad.”

She laughed: “He’s still not in his right mind. Imagine if this was all I did…”

At which point she made a lightning-quick twirl, which could, indeed, have almost driven me mad.

Our three months ended suddenly, as three months of that kind often do. Maria simply failed to turn up one day. She was usually so punctual that I felt disconcerted as soon as the appointed hour passed. Five, ten, fifteen minutes; then twenty, then thirty, then forty… I can’t tell you how many times I walked up and down, in my living room, in the corridor, looking and listening, until it was beyond doubt that she wasn’t coming. I’ll spare you the details of how depressed I felt, of how I lay rolling about on the floor, talking to myself, shouting and crying. When all that tired me out, I wrote her a long letter, hoping she’d reply and explain why she hadn’t come. I didn’t send it; instead, I went to their house that night.

Maria told me she hadn’t come because she was afraid she’d be spotted and pursued by someone who’d been following her about for some time. I had, indeed, heard something about some neighbour or other who’d been courting her assiduously; once, she told me he’d even followed her as far as the door of my house. I accepted her excuse and suggested another place to meet, but she didn’t seem to think it appropriate. She thought it would be best for us not to meet until any suspicions had died down. She’d stay at home. I didn’t realise that the main reason was that her ardour had diminished.

She seemed like another person. You can’t imagine what became of that beautiful creature: it was like fire and ice; but fierier and icier than anyone.

When I became convinced that everything was over, I decided not to return but, even so, I didn’t lose all hope. Imagination, which makes the past seem present, made me believe that, through my own efforts, I could restore those first weeks. Five days later, I returned; I couldn’t live without her.

X welcomed me with his big, childlike smile, his honest eyes and his firm, sincere handshake. He asked me where I’d been. I said I’d had a bit of a temperature and, by way of explaining my low spirits, which I couldn’t shake off, I said I’d still got a headache. Maria understood everything, but that didn’t make her show any kindness and, when I left, she didn’t go out to the corridor as she used to do.

All of that increased my anguish. I even thought of killing myself, including – by way of romantic symmetry – taking the Niterói ferry again and throwing myself overboard in the middle of the bay. But I didn’t take that idea, or any other, further.

I needed to speak to someone and, when I bumped into my friend Barreto, I told him everything. Of course, I asked him to keep it secret, in particular not to say anything to Raimunda.

That very night, Raimunda knew everything. She was a feisty lady who loved nothing better than to get involved in other people’s business. She probably wasn’t particularly interested in either me or Maria, but it would be something new, and she decided to reconcile us. And that’s the real reason why I’m writing this.

She spoke to Maria a few times. Maria professed ignorance at first but ended up confessing everything. She regretted her foolhardiness. I imagine she didn’t say all that directly: it would have been by way of circumlocutions, imprecise phrases and, at times, just gestures.

I learnt all that from a letter Raimunda herself sent me, which included an account of how she’d managed to get Maria to talk. Raimunda was evidently very pleased with herself. Her letter ended with an invitation to call round.

“Don’t despair,” she said, when I got there. “I told her you might kill yourself.”

“And I will!”

“Well, not yet. Hold on.”

The next day, the papers had a list of citizens who’d gone to enlist as volunteers the previous day. Among the names was that of X, who’d been given the rank of captain. I didn’t believe it first of all, but it really was him. One of the papers even mentioned his father, who’d been an officer in the navy, and went so far as to say what a fine figure of a man X was. So, yes, it was definitely him.

At first I felt elated: we’d be alone. Maria certainly wouldn’t be going south with him as an auxiliary. But, after a while, I recalled what X had said about the war; it seemed strange that he’d have volunteered, although he was, indeed, prone to making grand gestures from time to time. He’d said he wouldn’t go even if they made him a colonel, and there he was accepting the rank of captain. And then there was Maria. Given his great affection for her, and how little enthusiasm he had for the war, how could he leave her so suddenly?!

It had been three weeks since I last went to their house. The news of his enlistment was justification enough to pay them an immediate visit, without need for further explanation. I went there straight away after lunch.

Adopting a serious expression appropriate to the circumstances, I entered the house. X came into the living room after a few minutes. The constrained look in his face contrasted with his words, which he tried to make cheery. Shaking my hand, he said, “So, you’ve come to see the Captain of the Volunteers?”

“I’ve come to hear that it’s not true.”

“Not true?! It couldn’t be any more true. It was probably the latest news that did it… I’m not sure. Why don’t you come with me?”

“So it’s true?”


After a few moments of silence, rather lost for words, and trying to mask my real feelings, I muttered that it would be better if he didn’t go, and I mentioned his mother. X replied that his mother was all for it; after all, she was the widow of a military man. He tried to smile, but his face was stony, and his eyes seemed to have lost focus. We said very little after that.

Eventually he got up from his chair, saying he needed to wind up some business or other. At the front door, he said, rather haltingly:

“Come for dinner one of these days, before I leave.”

“I will.”

“Look, why don’t you come tomorrow?”


“Or today, if you’d like.”

I wanted to give him my regards to Maria; it would only have been natural, but I didn’t have the heart.

As soon as I got to the foot of the steps, I regretted not doing so. I went over our brief conversation in my mind; I thought I must have looked tongue-tied and confused. He’d seemed not only reserved, but also haughty. I had a vague feeling of unease. His handshake when he entered the living room, and when I left, seemed different.

That night, Barreto came to see me. He’d also been stunned by the news and asked me what I knew. I told him I knew nothing, but I did tell him about my visit in the morning, about our conversation and my suspicions.

After a few moments, he said, “Maybe it’s a mistake.”

“How come?”

“Raimunda told me today that she spoke to Maria, that Maria denied everything at first but then confessed all, and that she refused to carry on seeing you.”

“I know.”

“Yes, but apparently he was in the next room and caught the end of the conversation. Maria went and told Raimunda that he’d changed completely. Raimunda offered to go and see him, to get a first-hand impression, but I wouldn’t let her. Then I saw the news in the papers. Later I saw him walking down the street. He was stepping out as usual, but he looked terribly preoccupied – not like him at all.”

Taken aback as I was by this confirmation of my own impression, I nevertheless went there the next day. Barreto offered to go as well; I could see he just wanted to give me support, but I said no.

X hadn’t said anything to Maria; I found them in the living room, and I can’t think of any other occasion in my life when I’ve felt more awkward. I shook their hands, but without looking at Maria. I think she was diverting her eyes too. Whereas he, lighting up a cigarette, hardly paid any attention to us at all.

At dinner he spoke as naturally as he could, but without much success. The effort to appear normal was even more apparent in his face than it had been the previous evening. In order to explain his low spirits, he told me he was due to embark at the end of the week, and the nearer it came, the harder he found the thought of it.

“But I’ll be fine once we’ve set sail. I’ll be myself again, and then, on the battlefield, I’ll be the man I’m meant to be.”

Those were the sort of words he used, like an actor who’s just started practising his lines. I noticed that Maria was on the brink of tears. I learnt later that, like me, she’d only learnt of his decision from the newspapers – which suggests something more personal than patriotism – and that, the night before he was due to embark, she’d wept as she tried to persuade him not to go. All of which explains why she said nothing at the table.

X tried to fill the silence, talking about battalions, recent appointments and the chances of victory, before going on to recount random anecdotes and bits of gossip. He did his best to seem cheerful. At one point he said it was a foregone conclusion that he’d return as a general, but he seemed to find the joke even less amusing than we did. So the dinner ended in silence.

Sitting again in our armchairs, the two of us smoking cigarettes, he tried to say something else about the war, but thought better of it. Before leaving, I invited him to come to dinner at my house.

“I can’t. There’s too much to do in the next few days.”

“Come for lunch then.”

“Not even that. But I will come and see you on the third day after I get back from Paraguay.”

I understood that to mean that the first two days would be reserved for his mother and Maria, which suggested there might not be any hidden motives for his decision.

Not only that, but he told me to choose something as a keepsake, perhaps a book. Instead, I chose the latest photograph of him, which he’d had taken at the request of his mother, and in which he was wearing his captain’s uniform. In order to complete the picture, I asked him to sign it; promptly, he wrote, “X, Captain of the Brazilian Volunteers, to his loyal friend Simão de Castro.” But his expression was even more grave, and his eyes even more sinister. He ran his fingers nervously through his moustache, and we parted.

He embarked on the Saturday, leaving Maria with the necessary resources for her to live here in Rio, or in Bahia, or in Rio Grande do Sul. She preferred the latter, and went there, three weeks later, to await his return. I wasn’t able to see her before she left: she’d closed her door to me, just as she’d closed her face and her heart.

Before a year had passed, it was reported that X had died in battle, at which he’d evidently displayed more valour than skill. I heard that he’d already lost an arm, and I suppose it was the shame of being crippled that made him throw himself, suicidally, at the enemy. That was probably the case because he had a taste for grand gestures. But the reasons wouldn’t have been straightforward.

I was also told that Maria had died in Curitiba, on her way back from Rio Grande, although some people said she’d died in Montevideo. Her daughter was only fifteen years old.

I remained here with my regrets and my fond memories. Until it was just regrets. And now it’s just admiration, a particular admiration, an admiration which is as great as it makes me myself feel small. No, I wasn’t able to do what X did. In fact, I never knew anyone like X.

And why am I persisting with that stupid letter?! Let’s call him by the name he was given at the font: Emílio. Gentle, strong, simple Emílio.


The following biographical details have been translated from the Academia Brasileira de Letras website.

Machado de Assis (Joaquim Maria M. de A.), a journalist, short-story writer, feuilletonist, novelist, poet and playwright, was born in Rio de Janeiro on 21 June 1839, and also died there, on 29 September 1908. He was the founder of Chair No. 23 of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. A good friend and admirer of José de Alencar, who died about twenty years before the establishment of the Academy, it was natural that Machado should choose the name of the author of O Guarani as his patron. He was President of the Brazilian Academy of Letters for more than ten years, the Academy becoming known, familiarly, as ‘The House of Machado de Assis.’

He was the son of Francisco José, a labourer, and Leopoldina Machado de Assis. His mother died when he was little, but information is scarce about his early years. He was brought up on Livramento Hill and was an altar server at Lampadosa church.

Without the means to have proper schooling, he published his first literary work – a poem called Ela (She) – in the Marmota Fluminense magazine in 1855. The next year he got a job at the National Press Works as an apprentice typographer.

By 1859 he was a proof-reader and correspondent for the Correio Mercantil newspaper and in 1860 he became a member of the editorial staff of the Diário do Rio de Janeiro newspaper. He also wrote regularly for the magazine O Espelho, where he made his debut as a theatre critic, for the Semana Ilustrada – from 1860 to 1875 – and for the Jornal das Famílias, where he mainly published short stories.

His first book, Queda que as mulheres têm para os tolos (How Women are Attracted to Fools), was printed by Paula Brito in 1861, although he was described as its translator. In 1862 he became theatre censor, an unpaid role, but one which gave him free entry to performances. He also began to collaborate with O Futuro, which was produced by Faustino Xavier de Novais, the brother of his future wife.

His first book of poetry, Crisálidas (Chrysalids), was published in 1864. In 1867 he was appointed assistant director of the government bulletin Diário Oficial. Three months after Faustino Xavier de Novais’s death in 1869, he married his friend’s sister, Carolina Augusta Xavier de Novais. She was a perfect companion during the remaining 35 years of his life and introduced him to the Portuguese classics and the works of various English authors.

His first novel, Ressurreição, was published in 1872. Shortly afterwards he was appointed first official at the state secretariat of the ministry of agriculture, commerce and public works, thus embarking upon the civil service career that would be his main source of income throughout the rest of his life.

In 1874 he began to publish, in instalments in the Globo newspaper, the novel A mão e a luva (The Hand and the Glove). He also wrote feuilletons, short stories, poetry and serialised novels for newspapers and magazines such as O Cruzeiro, A Estação and Revista Brasileira.

One of his plays, Tu, só tu, puro amor (You, just You, Pure Love) was staged at the Imperial Dom Pedro II Theatre in 1880. From 1881 to 1897 he published his best feuilletons in the Gazeta de Notícias.

1881 saw the publication of the book which would give a new direction to his literary career – Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memories of Brás Cubas), which had been published in instalments in the Revista Brasileira from 1879 to 1880. He also revealed himself as an extraordinary short story writer in Papéis Avulsos (Loose Pages, 1882) and in a number of subsequent collections of short stories.

In 1889 he was promoted to director of commerce at the ministry.

He had continued to work for the Revista Brasileira in the period when it was under the direction of his great friend José Veríssimo. The group of intellectuals connected with the Revista had the idea for creating a Brazilian Academy of Letters and, when the Academy was inaugurated in 1897, he was elected President, a task he devoted himself to for the rest of his life.

His oeuvre covers practically all literary genres. His first works of poetry were the Romantic Crisálidas (1864) and Falenas (Moths, 1870); this was followed by indianism in Americanas (1875) and parnassianism in Ocidentais (Occidentals, 1901).

The Contos fluminenses (Rio Stories) were published in 1870 and the Histórias da meia-noite (Midnight Stories) in 1873; the novel Ressurreição (Resurrection) in 1872, A mão e a luva in 1874, Helena in 1876 and Iaiá Garcia in 1878, all of which were considered part of his Romantic period. From that point onwards he moved into the phase of his masterpieces, which evade literary categorisation and which make him the greatest Brazilian writer and one of the greatest authors in the Portuguese language.

During his life, his work was edited by the Livraria Garnier from 1869; in 1937, W. M. Jackson, of Rio de Janeiro, published the Obras completes (Complete Works) in 31 volumes. Raimundo Magalhães Júnior organised and published, in Civilização Brasileira, the following volumes of Machado de Assis: Contos e crônicas (Stories and Feuilletons, 1958); Contos esparsos (Random Stories, 1956); Contos esquecidos (Forgotten Stories, 1956); Contos recolhidos (Collected Stories, 1956); Contos avulsos (Separate Stories, 1956); Contos sem data (Undated Stories, 1956); Crônicas de Lélio (Lélio’s Chronicles, 1958); Diálogos e reflexões de um relojoeiro (Dialogues and Reflections of a Watchmaker, 1956). In 1975 the Machado de Assis Commission, which was established by the ministry of education and culture and was chaired by the president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, organised and published, also in Civilização Brasileira, the Edições críticas de obras de Machado de Assis (Critical Editions of the Works of Machado de Assis), in 15 volumes, comprising short stories, novels and poetry by that greatest of Brazilian writers.

Publications: Desencantos, comedy (1861); Queda que as mulheres têm para os tolos, prose satire (1861); two comic plays: O protocolo and O caminho da porta (1863); Quase ministro, comedy; Crisálidas, poetry (1864); Os deuses de casaca, comedy (1866); Falenas, poetry (1870); Contos fluminenses, short stories (1870); Ressurreição,  novel (1872); Histórias da meia-noite, short stories (1873); A mão e a luva, novel (1874); Americanas, poetry (1875); Helena, novel (1876); Iaiá Garcia, novel (1878); Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas, novel (1881); Tu, só tu, puro amor, comedy (1881); Papéis avulsos, short stories (1882); Histórias sem data, short stories (1884); Quincas Borba, novel (1891); Várias histórias, short stories (1896); Páginas recolhidas, short stories, essays, plays (1899); Dom Casmurro, novel (1899); Poesias completas (1901); Esaú e Jacó, novel (1904); Relíquias da casa velha, short stories, criticism, plays (1906); Memorial de Aires, novel (1908).

Published posthumously: Crítica (1910); Outras relíquias, short stories, criticism, theatre (1932); Crônicas, feuilletons (1937); Correspondência (1932); Crítica literária (1937); Páginas escolhidas (1921); Casa velha (1944).

To mark the centenary of Machado’s birth, in 1939, Monteiro Lobato wrote the following at the request of the Argentinian newspaper La Prensa:

‘The short stories of Machado de Assis! Where can we find stories more perfect in form, more sparkling with ideas and more permeated by philosophy? Where can you find stories more universal and more human whilst simultaneously local and individual? We’d need to go to France to find one of his brothers in the person of Anatole France. But Anatole France blossomed in the most propitious of gardens, amidst a highly developed civilisation, encouraged by all sorts of awards, and surrounded by all the finesse of comfort and art; Machado de Assis was born into poverty, amidst the squalor of colonial Rio, and received no awards other than his own auto-approval, and his monthly wage was scarcely enough to live on. Rather than having readers throughout the world, like Anatole France, Machado de Assis had just half a dozen friends as his readers. The paltry sum for which he sold the copyright for all his works to the Garnier publishing house […] shows clearly how limited was his readership.

Even so, despite all these limitations, it was his pen that produced the first masterpiece of Brazilian literature, Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas), a book that’s going to surprise the world one day. They’ll all be saying: ‘How on earth could this have appeared in such an inferior country, in a South American backwater?!’

And then he gave us Dom Casmurro (Mr Grumpy), that perfect novel, and Esaú e Jacó (Esau and Jacob) and Quincas Borba and, finally Memorial de Aires, a work that brings style and romance to emptiness, to the emptiness of old age, to the emptiness of his own almost seventy years.

In between the novels, he was producing short stories – and what stories! What marvellous stories, different from anything produced in Brazil, or in the whole of America! Stories without tricks, without stage props, without lots of landscape, everything based on the most meticulous design, like the paintings of Ingres. Human types and more human types, souls and more souls – an immense procession of figures more vivid even than their models. And with what style, with what purity of language!

There are few great heights in Brazilian literature: plenty of writers, plenty of books, plenty of printed paper, but also plenty of vain pretension and, in recent times, plenty of impostors. But all those defects have been redeemed by the appearance of works of eternal value, works that will endure as long as the language in which they were written. ‘Missa do Galo’ (Midnight Mass), ‘Uns Braços’ (A Pair of Arms), ‘Conto Alexandrino’ (An Alexandrian Tale), ‘Capitulo dos Chapeus’ (A Chapter of Hats), ‘Anedota Pecuniária’ (A Pecuniary Anecdote) [Translations of the first four are available in John Gledson’s A Chapter of Hats (2008)] – it’s difficult to choose between Machado’s stories, because they’re all drawn from the same spring. Ah! If only Portuguese wasn’t this clandestine language…

Before writing these lines, I re-read several of Machado de Assis’s works and it’s only because I promised La Prensa I would that I forced myself to speak about him, so little, so insignificant, so miserable did I feel! I felt ashamed of judgements I’d made previously in which, either out of snobbery or stupidity, I’d dared to make ironic remarks about such work. And, given that I didn’t withdraw from this undertaking, at least it gives me a chance to undergo public penance – because, in all honesty, I find it grotesque that anyone nowadays should dare to speak about Machado de Assis without removing their hat. Our attitude should be marked by complete and reverential humility. If anyone doubts that, let them re-read ‘Conto Alexandrino’ or ‘Missa do Galo.’

In your presence, Machado, we’re all bit players…

The wariness with which Machado de Assis lived his life in Rio de Janeiro was supremely felicitous in his case – a difficult case, of extreme intellectual superiority allied to extreme awareness that it wouldn’t do to flaunt it, in view of the colour of his skin and his mundane job in public administration. How many proud but empty ministers must have been his legal and social superiors – superior to him, who was, simply on his own merits, the highest of the highest in Brazil! Time’s broom has already swept the names of all those bigwigs, all those ‘superiors,’ into the bin; but the name of Machado de Assis continues to rise higher and higher.

He was oddly gregarious. He always liked literary associations and societies, going so far as to found an academy of ‘immortals’ (the Brazilian Academy of Letters), of which he was the president, and he was the only one who really became an immortal, without the quotation marks. The explanation may reside in his innate need to observe ‘the puppet show’: gathering the puppets around whatever human stupidity, he had them conveniently to hand for his study, just as, in his laboratory, an anatomist has a collection of rabbits, dogs and monkeys in cages for his experimentation.

Machado’s philosophy was permeated by melancholy: he’d studies the guinea pigs too much, he knew the human soul too well. A calmly resigned philosophy, the ultimate point of which appears in Brás Cubas, that hero of self-satisfied vulgarity, who concludes his posthumous memoirs with the balance sheet of his earthly existence, a positive balance sheet. How come, positive? ‘I didn’t have children, I didn’t pass on to any other being  the legacy of our misery.’

The life of Machado de Assis also had a positive balance. He didn’t have children and, given that he couldn’t pass on his genius, at least he didn’t pass on to any other being the colour of his skin, his stutter, his epilepsy, his disenchantment with the puppets. And there could have been nothing more generous in his life. What a terrible thing for any being – even for a being of some capacity – to carry the stupendous burden, for your whole life, of being the child of Machado de Assis!

‘Do you know who that is, the sad old crow coming out of that office?’

‘That miserable-looking mulatto, the one with the hunchback?’

‘Yes, that one. That’s the son of Machado de Assis…’

Just imagine the look of pious sympathy this piece of information would evoke!

Nature permits geniuses only one child: their work. Machado de Assis understood this better than anyone and, having given the world this most beautiful child, he walked sadly away from the madding crowd, with the tranquillity of those who’ve succeeded in the most challenging of all tasks – that of not leaving behind the merest shadow of pain.’

For his part, Lima Barreto – who was initially often referred to as the true successor of Machado – was less fulsome in his praise:

Not denying his merits as a great writer, I’ve always found a considerable aridity in Machado, a marked lack of sympathy, a lack of generous impulses, some puerile characteristics. I’ve never imitated him and he’s never been my inspiration. You can mention Maupassant, Dickens, Swift, Balzac, Daudet, perhaps, but Machado, never! You could go as far as Turgenev or Tolstoy in order to find my exemplars; but Machado, no! […] Machado wrote […] hiding what he felt so as not to be humiliated […] I’m not afraid to say what I think and what I feel, without calculating whether I’m going to be humiliated or praised. I think that’s a big difference.

(Obras Completas de Lima Barreto, Correspondências, Vol.2, 1956).

"House by the Railroad," Edward Hopper, 1925


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