The Brazilian novelist Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908), although only recently “discovered” outside Brazil, ranks among major world authors of the 19th century. His works are notable for their pessimistic view of human nature and their sophisticated psychological insights.
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis never left Rio de Janeiro, where he was born. His father was a mulatto house painter, and the future novelist received most of his “formal” education in the kitchen of a girls’ school where his stepmother was a dishwasher. At 17 he became a typographer’s apprentice and later a proofreader. For most of his life he supported himself—and later his cultured Portuguese wife, five years his senior—from his earnings as a middle-ranking bureaucrat. He was sickly from childhood, suffered from epilepsy, and lived in fear that he would suffer an attack in public. As a poor mulatto, he considered himself inferior even when lionized by a public that, to be sure, never really understood him.
Although Machado de Assis began writing early and was widely acclaimed by the time he was 25 years old, it was not until a serious bout with illness and a long convalescence in the late 1870s that he developed his great insight into the human soul. Some critics note his intuitive awareness of the subconscious, his references to what would later be called fetishism, and his belief in man’s irrationality, and they consider him a depth psychologist ahead of his time. In any case, his illness stripped from him the last vestiges of romanticism. During this period of illness he also had the opportunity for much reading in English, French, and German, although his artistic development is firmly rooted in the Brazilian milieu.
Machado de Assis’ first novel in this new period was Epitaph for a Small Winner (1881). Told in the first person by a character who has already died, it recounts the petty concerns and meaningless acts of selfishness that typify the lives of ordinary men. Ten years later he wrotePhilosopher or Dog”, a novel about a man who goes—or has always been—insane; one critic has dubbed Machado de Assis an encomiast of lunacy. The next novel of prominence was Dom Casmurro (1900), the theme of which is man’s inability to love.
Machado de Assis also wrote many short stories, some of which have been translated into English. Apart from the potboilers he turned out for serialized publication in Sunday supplements, he left a substantial collection of novels and stories that are rich, perceptive, and humane.
Photo: Joaquim José Insley Pacheco (1864)
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