From Portuguese: MR BARRETO by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story O caso Barreto, first published in the newspaper A Estação  in 1892 and in the collection Relíquias de Casa Velha in 1938.)


on’t be late tomorrow, Mr Barreto,’ said his section head. ‘We have to deliver this copy to the Minister.’

‘No problem. I’ll come early.’

‘But if you go to the dance, you will wake up late.’

‘No, Sir. I’ll get up early.’

‘Is that a promise?’

‘I’ll get up early. Don’t worry. I’ll see to the copy. Bye for now.’

Anyone reading this would immediately predict that Clerical Officer Barreto will awake late the next day. But anyone reading this would be wrong. He opened his eyes as soon as the clock struck six and he didn’t go back to sleep. If he went to bed at ten or eleven at night, he usually woke up at half past eight or nine; but, after going to the theatre, to a dance, to a meal and spending the night on the town, he usually woke up at eleven in the morning. In that case, he’d have his breakfast, and spend the rest of the day in Brás Tobacco, in Ourives Street. The first consequence of this way of life was a reputation for being a lazy good-for-nothing; the second was he never got promoted. A clerical officer for eight years, some people had taken to calling him Johnny-Go-Nowhere. Plus: apart from frequent absences, he used to leave the office early, whether with permission or on the sly. ‘So, how is it,’ you ask, ‘that they gave him any work, let alone important work?’ Well, he had nice handwriting and was a fast worker, not to mention that he was bright. With the support of his well-off father, he could have graduated and become a deputy, but he was such a wastrel and so averse to serious study, that…

He couldn’t believe it and had to ask his father to repeat what he’d just said:

‘They have reorganised the secretariat and are engaging new staff. You shall commence as a clerical officer. Fortunately there is no exam, so you cannot escape. And that is that: your career depends on you. You know very well that I have lost what I owned, that you mother will not live long and nor shall I. Your other relatives are keeping afloat, just about, but I doubt they will be disposed to support vagabonds. So, nose to the grindstone!’

His mother died, his father died and Barreto was left completely alone, apart from an aunt who used to give him money and food. But aunts die as well, and this aunt passed away ten months before the section head entrusted him with the copy on the understanding that he’d complete it first thing in the morning…

He woke up early, which was no small thing, because the dance had finished at two and he’d arrived home about three. It had been a wedding ball – the marriage of a college friend who’d gone into the law. Only an articled clerk, but with excellent prospects. His bride was rich – the granddaughter of an Englishman, as a result of which the family was full of blond heads and ginger whiskers. But most of them were upper-class Brazilians: senators, counsellors, capitalists, nobility, uniforms, decorations, expensive jewellery, décolletages, dress trains, silk clothes, intoxicating perfumes. Barreto had danced like a spinning top and he’d wallowed in all that beauty and opulence, especially the bride, who was as pretty as pretty could be. Add to that the wine, and then say whether there wasn’t just cause to wake up at mid-day.

His concern about the copy could explain why the clerical officer got up early. But it has to be admitted that what woke him up first of all was the excitement of the night before and all those memories. You’d be right in saying it wasn’t exactly waking up: it was interrupted sleep which stayed interrupted. He looked at the clock in frustration: six forty. And he remembered the copy. Mm… I need to finish off that copy…

And, still lying down and staring at the wall, he placed his spirit feet – if you’ll pardon the expression – on it and leapt into the dance. The people, the dances, the quadrilles, the conversation, the laughter, the eyes and all the rest – everything obeyed his imagination. The evocation of the previous night was so strong he could even hear the music and the sound of the dancing feet. He was reliving those sweet hours that had passed so quickly. So near but so far.

Given that going to dances, enjoying himself and generally having a good time had almost been part of this young man’s birth right, why was he so excited now? A long, silk train, a beautiful hair-do, two pearls above the forehead and two eyes below it. She wasn’t beautiful, but she was certainly graceful and elegant. Forget about passion, if that’s what you’re thinking. Think, instead, about simply meeting someone socially. It leaves its mark for hours, perhaps even for days, but then it’s forgotten. Barreto danced with her a bit, spoke to her a bit, listened to her a bit and they looked into each other eyes a bit.

But she wasn’t the only young lady who stood out. There were others, starting with the bride, who made a profound impression on him, because she made him think of marriage.

‘What if I got married?’ he asked himself as he stared at the wall.

He was twenty-eight. High time. The scenario had been enchanting: the ballroom, with all those pictures, all that pomp, all that life, all that happiness of family and friends, all those pleased-as-punch guests. They couldn’t get enough of it:

‘A wonderful party!’

‘What a beautiful bride!’

‘Made for each other!’

‘Are you enjoying the dance?’

‘Absolutely delightful!’

All those sights, people and words had bestirred our clerical officer, whose imagination was taking flight in his narrow little bedroom. Or rather, was extending its wings over the universe.

Lying on his back, with his legs bent and his hands clasped under his head, he started putting together, for the very first time, a plan for his life. He started looking at things seriously and calling up all the strength he’d need to fight and to conquer. Swinging between last night and the future. Between the magnificence of last night and how to have a bit of that himself. You don’t need to go to the moon to find happiness, he thought. And his imagination confirmed that ratiocination by showing him yesterday’s bridegroom with his own face superimposed.

Yes, he said to himself. A little willingness here and there, and I could go a long way. It’ll have to be that one. Her father looks rich. Or at least he’ll be able to start us off with something. And then it’s up to me. Quite a girl! Don’t like the name much: Ermelinda. The bride’s name is lovely: Cecilia! Lucky devil! The luckeee devil! He’s landed smack in the right nest there!

Smack in the right nest made Barreto laugh and, still laughing, he rolled on to his side. He looked at his shoes, a few feet from the bed. It occurred to him the cockroaches might have taken some of the polish off. But they were alright. He relaxed. He looked lovingly at the shoes. Not only were they smart and well-made, but they spoke of his petit feet, something he was particularly proud of. He hated big feet, which he called ‘coachman’s feet’ or ‘devil feet.’ This went as far as extracting one of his own feet from under the blankets and contemplating it for a few moments. Then he covered it again and scratched it with one of the toenails of his other foot. That brought to mind the saying ‘You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,’ and he smiled. You scratch my sole, I’ll scratch yours, he thought. And, without even noticing how one idea led to another, he started thinking about the soles of shoes. And sole the fish. Delicious! Especially with a drop of lemon! And soul as in body and if you were solely soul, you wouldn’t need any other type of sole. Which would be a shame. At this point, his memory sang him a snatch of an aria from some operetta or other. Yes, a lovely tune, a witty couplet.

A very pretty singer, that Jenny. And what a voice! He tucked the sheet round his shoulders.

The singer reminded him of an old man in the audience one night. Looking at her so dotingly, so open-mouthed, that some of the lads began laughing. Barreto had started laughing too, even more openly than the others. The old man got mad, came over, grabbed him by the collar and was about to hit him, but Barreto gave him such a sharp one-two that he staggered back a few paces. Then there was a right hullabaloo: people, shouting, whistles, and they ended up in the police station. There he found out the old fellow had wanted to wipe the smile off his face not because he thought he was laughing at him, but because he thought he was laughing at the singer.

‘Me, Sir?!’

‘Yes, you, Sir!’

‘But I think she’s great! As far as I’m concerned, she’s the best singer we have.’

He managed to convince him, and the police sent them on their way in peace.

A married man! he thought to himself, remembering that episode. When I get married, I’ll have to change my ways.

He started thinking again about the dance, the young woman’s train, her pearls. Yes, a good marriage. He couldn’t think of anyone more elegant… But there was someone prettier: one of the Amaral girls, for instance. Julinha, with her big green eyes – eyes which brought to mind that poem by Gonçalves Dias… How did it go? Eyes bright and burning… That set my soul yearning!

He kept trying to remember how the stanza began… Eventually he managed. He repeated the stanza, once, twice, three times, until he’d got it off by heart, never to forget it again. A beautiful poem! Ah, he was a great poet! Some of his stuff is going to be immortal, like ‘Once more, Goodbye!’ And Barreto recited the beginning aloud:

‘At last I see you! At last let me say

‘As I kneel at your feet, there was never a day

‘When I ceased to adore you, no matter how far away.

‘All of my worry and all of my pain

‘Was that you’d forget me, forget even my name.

‘Don’t say, now I see you, that all was in vain!’

‘Very, very nice!’ he exclaimed, lying on his back once more. ‘And that other stanza – how does it go? The one that ends: “I wanted to live, and I lived!”’

But this time it was no good. His memory didn’t supply the missing verses. Instead, it brought him some of his own, but he rejected them out of hand. Unworthy to stand alongside those of Gonçalves Dias. To restore his self-respect, he told himself it was time to be serious. Childish poems, certainly, but every child writes poetry. Twenty-eight years old. Time to be serious. And marriage returned, like a needle that could thread itself into his heart and into his head. Julinha Amaral was no great shakes and, besides, she had something going with Counsellor Ramos’s son, who worked for his dad’s law firm and who everyone said would go far. All of Baron Meireles’s daughters were pretty, except the youngest, who looked positively evil. Which didn’t stop her dancing like an angel.

But Ermelinda… Yes… Ermelinda isn’t so pretty, but you can’t exactly say she’s ugly. It’s just that she has those tiny eyes and stubby nose. But she’s quite nice. A lovely voice… ‘A golden tongue will steal your gold,’ as the saying has it. It was only yesterday…

He remembered, more or less, a discussion he’d had with her at the end of the second waltz. They were strolling. Not knowing quite what to say, he’d mentioned the heat.

‘Hot?!’ she’d said, surprised.

‘Well, it’s not hot, as such, but the waltz made me a bit hot.’

‘It had exactly the opposite effect on me. I’m feeling cold.’

‘I hope you’re not catching something.’

‘No, it’s just how I am. Waltzing makes me cold. Mummy thinks I’ve come into this world to turn everything on its head. Are you surprised?’

‘Well, rather. You see, there’s quite a lot of movement…’

‘We have a subject for discussion!’ Ermelinda interrupted. ‘It’s the only way to get some advantage from the heat. If we’d agreed, there wouldn’t be anything to talk about. But this way… I insist that waltzing makes me cold.’

‘That’s not a bad idea. So if I said you can’t waltz for toffee…’

‘I wouldn’t believe you. Let me prove it…’ She extended her hand.

Barreto swept her into the whirlpool of the waltz. She did, indeed, waltz very well. But what most impressed our clerical officer, apart from her elegance, was the ease and grace of her conversation. The other girls aren’t like that, he told himself after he’d accompanied her back to her chair. And now he repeated the same words. She really was very witty. A better bride he couldn’t find, not at the moment, at least. A good man, her father. Wouldn’t turn him down just for being a clerical officer. The thing was to become part of her circle, go to the house, often. Seems they have season tickets for the Lyric Theatre. He vaguely remembered her saying that yesterday. Maybe deliberately. Yes… it was deliberate. The looks she gave him… quite saucy. Ermelinda! On second thoughts, not such an ugly name. Ermelinda! Ermelinda! How could he not have liked such a lovely Ermelinda name?! Ermelinda! He realised, with some surprise, that he was saying her name out loud.


He laughed, and repeated:

‘Ermelinda! Ermelinda!’

Marriage had stuck well and truly in his mind. And the idea of marriage was accompanied by the idea of rising in society by his own merits. It was time to break out of his clerical-officer chrysalis, time to open his section-head wings. What did he lack? He was intelligent and practical, he was well-presented and of respectable family. What was needed was energy and application. So, set to it! Dear me! Why hadn’t he gone along with his father, picked up his degree and got himself a seat in the Chamber of Deputies? He might have been a minister by now. Twenty-eight wasn’t too young. He wouldn’t be the first. No reason why not. Him giving the orders. And he remembered the minister entering the secretariat, and he imagined himself as minister, the uniform, the hat, the epaulettes… He immediately realised that was a long way off. Not now – not possible. But it was time to get a decent job. When he was head of section, married to one of the most elegant women in Rio de Janeiro, good family, good dowry – that would make up for past errors…

Suddenly he thought, I’ve got to finish off the copy.

And it occurred to him that the best way to get ahead was to work at it. He grabbed hold of the clock on the little table by his pillow. It had stopped. But it was going when I woke up, wasn’t it?! He put it to his ear and shook it. Nothing. He wound it up. A couple of ticks, and then it stopped.

Murmuring ‘Blast that wretched clockmaker!’ he sat up on the side of the bed, leant back a little and rubbed his stomach. He’d eaten well at the dance and wasn’t hungry. Ah! The dances he’d give, with magnificent suppers! At this point it occurred to him how envious his colleagues at the secretariat would be when he told them about the party and how he got on. Matter-of-fact, though. Not like someone who wasn’t used to that sort of thing. He’d talk naturally, a bit here and a bit there, like he wasn’t really interested. And he thought up what he might say and how he might say it. But what if someone thinks he looks the worse for wear.

‘Been on the binge again, have you?!’

‘No,’ he’d say, ‘I went to the dance.’

‘Ah! So you did go to the dance! What was it like then?’

‘The dance?’ he’d say, nonchalantly. ‘It was great.’

And on he went with the imaginary conversation, composing, amending, deleting, in such a way as to end up telling all while looking as if he was saying nothing. Would he mention Ermelinda or not? He debated that with himself for over ten minutes before deciding that, if they asked, there’d be no harm in mentioning her, but if they didn’t there wasn’t any point, was there? None at all.

He spent another ten minutes having random thoughts. Then he jerked his legs out of the bed.

My God! I bet it’s late!

Having put his slippers on and set off for the bathroom, he immediately noticed how the dancing had tired him out. His first thought was to have a rest. There was an old armchair beside the wash-stand that would serve the purpose. But then he thought that would take too long, and he didn’t want to arrive late at the secretariat. He’d leave early, so as to be there by half past ten at the latest. He had a nice, soapy, relaxing bath, as was his wont and, as was his wont, looked at himself twenty or thirty times in the mirror. He liked to have a good look at himself, not only to make an adjustment here or there, but also to admire his body. Finally, he started to get dressed, which was no small thing, because he was particular about his socks. No sooner had he selected one pair than his eye fell on another. But then that pair wouldn’t do either and he took out another, before going back to the first, all the time comparing, putting back, switching. In the end he chose a cinnamon-coloured pair, put them on, and continued to get dressed. He took a shirt, threaded the buttons through the holes and put it on. He made sure the collar and shirt front were nice and neat, and only then did he proceed to the choice of tie, which was more complicated than the socks. He usually chose the tie first, but on this occasion he’d been thinking about how to reply to the section head when he says:

‘Well, well, well! Very good! You got up early today! Shall we get on with the copy then?’

His reply would be:

‘Thank you, Sir, but you can be assured that when I say I’ll do something, I do it even if it’s raining cats and dogs.’

He screwed up his nose over the final bit and duly amended it:

‘…when I say I’ll do something, I carry it out to the letter.’

Getting so tied up in cats and dogs and carrying it out to the letter was what had made him forget to choose the tie first. He went to the drawers and chose one, but not until picking up, putting down, picking up and putting down again ten or eleven of them. The one he chose was silk, same colour as his socks. Then he had a good long look at himself in the mirror and went to put on his new patent-leather shoes. He’d already given them a polish. All that remained was to put them on. But, before he did so, he noticed that the Gazeta de Notícias had been shoved under the door. (There was a servant in the house, who distributed the newspapers.) He picked it up and put it on the table beside his hat, so as to read it while he was having his breakfast, as usual. Suddenly he noticed a report on the dance. Amazing! Given that the dance finished so late, how could the paper carry a report?! It was only a short report, however, and had probably been written just after midnight, before the party was over. Nevertheless, the reporter wrote about it enthusiastically. It was clear he’d really been there. Barreto liked his use of adjectives, his respectfulness towards the host, and he noticed there was a mention of Ermelinda’s dad. Almost mechanically, he sat down in the armchair and was in the process of folding the paper when he saw a big headline above a long article. He looked closer. It was a report about a terrible incident. A man in Flores Street had killed his wife, his three children, a baker and two policemen, and had wounded three other people. Running down the road, he’d threatened everyone he came across, and they’d all taken to their heels except for two intrepid men. One of them had a stick and whacked it over his head. Soaked in blood, he’d carried on running in the direction of Conde Street, where a police patrol arrested him after a fierce struggle. The scene was vividly described. Barreto read it twice. Then he skimmed the bit about the post-mortem, before having his attention drawn to the statements of the witnesses. They were all in agreement that the murderer had never given anyone cause for complaint. He was thirty-eight years old, originally from Mangaratiba, and worked at the Naval Arsenal. It seems he had an argument with his wife, and two of the witnesses said they heard him say: ‘That scoundrel won’t be coming back here!’ But other witnesses didn’t believe something like that could have caused it: the murderer’s wife was a respectable woman, hard-working and level-headed. They thought it was more likely a moment of madness. The last paragraph said the murderer ended up rolling around on the ground, out of his head with grief. Weeping for his wife and children.

‘What a horrible thing!’ Barreto exclaimed. ‘Heaven help us!’

With the paper on his knees, he stared at the floor, reconstructing the scene from what he’d just read. After that, he went back to the paper and read some more, the editorial, the telegrams, a humorous article, five or six court reports, the theatre reviews. Then he stood up suddenly, remembering that he didn’t have time to spare. He finished off getting dressed, gave his hat a good brush, put it on in front of the mirror, and left. When he got to the end of the corridor, he noticed he was carrying the Gazeta to read at breakfast, even though he’d just read it. He returned and pushed the paper under his door. Then he went out into the street and headed for the nearby hotel where he usually had his breakfast. He walked quickly to make up for lost time but, in the end, habit got the better of him and he slowed down to his normal pace. Or perhaps it was because of the beautiful Ermelinda: the bridegroom had come back into his head, and was promptly followed by Ermelinda. And Ermelinda was promptly followed by the thought of marriage, which stayed in his head until he reached the hotel.

‘Breakfast, breakfast, and make it snappy!’ he shouted as he sat himself down at the table.

‘What would you like?’

‘Do me a ham and eggs. But quickly!’

‘With the usual?’

‘No, no potatoes today. Peas… Oh! I might as well have potatoes. Potatoes, but little ones. Where’s the Jornal do Commercio?’

The waiter brought him the newspaper and he began reading it while they were making his breakfast. He went straight to the news of the murder. When they brought him his ham and eggs, he asked what the time was.

‘Ten to twelve,’ the waiter replied.

‘You must be joking!’ exclaimed Barreto.

Although it was against his nature, he tried to wolf down his breakfast as fast as possible, because now he knew he really was late. Never mind: he’d promised to finish off the copy, and finish it off he would. Although… he could always think up an excuse. An accident. Or what? An illness was too obvious and he’d worn that one out. He was fed up of headaches, fever, stomach problems. Insomnia? No. A sick relative? Up all night? He remembered he’d already used that one too.

By the time he’d drunk the last drop of tea, it was half past twelve. He got up and left. But he stopped in the street. When would he get there? Too late to finish off the copy. What was the point of going to the secretariat so late? The problem had been that murder. Three columns of it. The wretched man! Killing his wife and children! What’s the betting that drink was behind it? It was thus that Barreto approached Ourives Street – aimlessly, led by his legs – and entered Brás Tobacco, where he came across two of his friends.

‘So, what’s new?’ he asked as he sat himself down. ‘Seen any skirt?’


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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