In her book, Borges: A Writer on the Margins, Beatriz Sarlo describes the ‘curious sensation’ of lecturing on Borges at Cambridge: ‘There I was, an Argentine woman in an English university, talking about another Argentine who today is considered “universal” . . . Borges’s international reputation had purged him of his nationality.’ What is at stake, culturally and politically, in this ‘purging’? The case of the Brazilian writer Machado de Assis (1839–1908) offers us the chance to locate two sets of readings as—unequal: agonistic?—parts of the global literary system.footnote1 The first is rooted in the national-historical experience of the periphery; the second, based in the dominant metropolitan centres (first Paris and London; now indubitably the United States) seeks to identify new entrants to the canon of world literature: masterpieces fit to set beside the great works of the established tradition. What is the relation between these readings—or rather, between the conceptual matrices that lie behind them? And what should it be?

First, however, it should be noted that although Machado’s world-literary status is very high today, it was almost non-existent before 1950. True, his most outstanding late works had been translated into French several decades before: Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas in 1911, Dom Casmurro in 1936; while Anatole France had written an avant-propos to a study of his oeuvre as early as 1909. Anglophone readers had to wait until 1952 and 1953, respectively.footnote2 Since then, more of Machado’s work has been translated, and critical studies by non-Brazilians have trickled out.footnote3 Helen Caldwell’s important contribution, discussed below, was published in 1960. At first, literary recognition came mainly through avant-garde intellectuals and writers who had a feel for quality and innovation: the Horizon Books editor and novelist Cecil Hemley; his author, Susan Sontag;footnote4 the experimental novelist John Barth.footnote5 Hemley’s appreciation may be quoted at length, in view of all it foreshadows:

I have to confess my debt to the great Brazilian author Machado de Assis, whose works I have admired since I first came into contact with them eight years ago. I was always a great fan of Laurence Sterne, and as a young man wrote prose that was greatly influenced by him. It is plain that Sterne was also one of the writers who opened Machado’s eyes, so that Machado and I were close even before we met. That said, the meaning of the Brazilian writer for me was not so much in those obvious technical elements—such as the short chapters and the sudden interruptions into the narrative by the author—that he borrowed from Sterne. What I found particularly stimulating was his radical break with the realist tradition . . . Machado showed me a way to make the classical novel contemporary.footnote6

More recently, American scholarly studies on Machado have adopted a range of theoretical approaches: from New Criticism to Deconstruction, from Bakhtinian ideas of carnival to Cultural Studies, as well as the postmodern taste for metafiction and hybridized styles and conventions. More surprisingly, perhaps, Machado’s work, created in another time and another country, not only offers no resistance to such literary theories but almost seems specifically designed to illustrate them; the point of contact being his questioning of realism or representation, and the salience of form, conceived in radical distinction from the narrative.

In Brazil, critical approaches to Machado have evolved differently. Critics here were dealing not with a great unknown writer but with an anodyne national classic. Yet although his reputation was assured, Machado’s greatness did not form part of Brazilian life or letters. His intellectual and artistic subtlety, far superior to that of his compatriots, distanced him rather than bringing him closer to his country. His refined taste, his discreet irony, with no hint of provincialism, his literary skill—all this was admired, but set his work apart from the instabilities and tensions of a young nation, marked by its recent colonial past. Machado’s achievements were seen as victories over an ungrateful context rather than the expressions of it, and as such had no sequel. Depending on the point of view, his perfections could even be seen as drawbacks.footnote7

This approach was turned inside out from the 1950s on. The Master’s Olympian distance remained; but now it functioned as a decorative screen, serving to conceal his incisive relationship to the present. Critical attention shifted to his literary processing of the surrounding realities—hitherto a largely neglected aspect of his work. In place of the researcher into the fixed qualities of the human soul, above and beyond history, indifferent to the particularities and conflicts of his own country, came the mischievous dramatist of Brazilian experience. He was not merely the descendant of such international luminaries as Sterne, Swift, Pascal or Erasmus, as his cosmopolitan compatriots would have it; he also studied, with astonishing discernment, the work of his local predecessors—lesser, if not far lesser, writers than himself—in order to deepen it. For better or worse, Rio’s chroniclers and novelists had created a tradition whose picturesque trivialities Machado would expand in several dimensions, pinpointing the nerve of modernity inside them and raising a strictly local experience to the level of the great art of his time.footnote8

By the 1970s, Machado’s supposed disdain for social questions had been disproved by Raymundo Faoro, who collected together all the observations on the surrounding society that are scattered throughout his books. Faoro was able to use these numerous and very pointed references as the basis for a 500-page work on the transition from a caste society to one of classes.footnote9 Slave labour and the colonial popular classes, widespread clientelism and a tropical location, the Emperor and his Court: all lent a specific character to the urban, part-Europeanized civilization of Brazil. In subsequent stages of critical engagement, the composition, rhythm and texture of Machado’s novels have been viewed as the artistic formalization of specific aspects of the ex-colony’s reality, captured most precisely where it thought itself least backward and most civilized. Once explored by the novelist’s imagination, these disguised signs of civilizational lag took their place in a web of connections and implications, some of them highly modern as well as uncomfortable: Brazilian patterns of patriarchy, its special mixture of liberalism, slavery and clientelism, the sui generis intermeshing of its social classes, inseparable in turn from the destinies of Africans transported here as slaves. Just as much at stake has been the ongoing evolution of these factors and the manner in which they have been integrated into the present-day world, whether as problems or potential solutions. The result was that both aesthetic questions relating to the form and internal dynamics of Machado’s work, and questions of originality, now came to include reflection on the specific traits and historical significance of the social formation itself.footnote10