The critic recognizes in forms the fateful element’, wrote Lukács in 1910: ‘form is his great experience’.footnote1 He was thinking of Roberto Schwarz. ‘Dona Placida’s life has the concise brevity of an eighteenth-century conte philosophique’, Schwarz writes in A Master on the Periphery of Capitalism, his monograph on Machado’s Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. And: ‘the terrible fatalities contained in nineteenth-century Naturalism, without forgetting that its analytic coldness—universalist and classical in its style—has something jokey and crazed about it, which acts as Brazilian local colour.’footnote2 Conte philosophique, Naturalism, classical coldness, local colour . . . Elsewhere in Master, it’s ‘small talk’, ‘operetta’, ‘dirty jokes’; in Schwarz’s review of Paulo Lins’s City of God, it’s ‘the great gangster movies’; in his essay on Brecht’s Saint Joan of the Stockyards, it’s ‘abstract variation and the arabesque’.footnote3 And so on, and on.

Most of us open a book, and see words on a page; Schwarz sees forms—often more than one, pulling in opposite directions (‘In Machado’s prose, small talk and great abstractions form an inseparable comic duo, like Laurel and Hardy’.footnote4) One thinks of Cézanne’s motto, recalled recently by T. J. Clark (another critic for whom forms are the fateful element): ‘Je vois, par taches’.footnote5 I see by patches, by marks, or dabs, or spots; I see by discrete technical quanta to be specified—in Master, again: ‘a sublime kind of dirty joke’, the ‘cheapened aspect’ of operetta—with unpretentious, uncompromising precision.footnote6

Plenty of pretence, by contrast, in the figure Schwarz has so often written about: Machado’s narrator-protagonist, who will typically ‘change his mind, his subject, and his mode of speech at almost every sentence, and will not hold to the same course for more than a short paragraph’.footnote7 This volubility—volubilidade: the propensity to turn and roll (volver) now in this, now in that direction—is however not a weakness but a cunning, cynical way of impersonating with total impunity the various roles available to the Brazilian ruling class, ‘from paternalist concern to bourgeois indifference, from a cultivated, well-intentioned liberalism to the unfettered authority of godfather/slave-owner and back again’.footnote8 The result is the ‘erratic, loose story line’ of Machado’s late novels, whose radical segmentation—160 chapters in Brás Cubas, 148 in Dom Casmurro, 201 in Quincas Borba: on average, each about a page long—multiplies ad infinitum the opportunities for capricious injustice.footnote9 It’s a perfect instance of Schwarz’s idea of form: ‘(a) a rule for the composition of the narrative and (b) the stylization of a kind of conduct characteristic of the Brazilian ruling class’.footnote10 A specific plot shape, as the stylization of a specific class conduct. If one wonders what a Marxist analysis of narrative should be like, Master is it.

Abstract of social relationships. Schwarz reads a novel, and sees forms; and within forms, he sees classes.footnote11 Style and plot add up to a social grammar which pervades, as in Simmel or Goffman, all sorts of everyday interactions. At one extreme are the actions of ‘the heads or heirs of Brazilian extended families’:

to whom their social dependents—and actual slaves—owed obedience and fidelity. Since these roles would alternate according to the momentary convenience of the rich, their dependents were continually at a loss to know with whom they were dealing. There was no way for them to foresee whether they were paying respect to a godfather and sponsor who would reciprocate; to a figure of authority who would brutalize them; or to a modern person of property, to whom inferiors were perfectly indifferent, to be treated like strangers.footnote12

Godfather, sponsor, authority, modern proprietor: all this, at the top of the pyramid. At the opposite extreme—in a colonial-postcolonial situation, the ‘middle’ strata tend to have little weight—are three characteristically Brazilian figures of subjection: slaves, whose main narrative role consists in ‘pointing up the sinister aspects of the ruling class’; the poor, who, since ‘an honest independent life’ is made impossible for them, end up living ‘at the whim of chance’; and the agregado, or ‘dependent’, whose life—‘less arduous than the others’, yet maddeningly ‘dominated by “favour”’—offers for its part a ‘caricature of the “free man”’.footnote13

A world ruled by cruelty, chance and favour: we have here, in the words of Schwarz’s teacher, Antonio Candido, ‘the “structural reduction” of a . . . course imposed on the Brazilian ruling class by historical circumstances’.footnote14 ‘A historical structure is imitated by a literary structure’, echoes Schwarz in an essay on Candido’s work whose very title—‘Objective Form’—makes clear what is for him the essential aspect of literary conventions.footnote15 ‘A part of the original historical conditions reappears as a sociological form’, he adds in ‘The Importing of the Novel to Brazil’; ‘in this sense, forms are the abstract of specific social relationships.’footnote16