This latest book by Helen Caldwell demonstrates that she probably knows Machado de Assis (1839-1908) better than anyone else living today. Her approach is sound in reassessing Machado’s biography and novels, eschewing long-accepted statements about his eccentric character and refuting stale concepts about his fiction. From the biographical material she causes to emerge the image of a man warmly human, friendly, courteous, and loyal; an affectionate husband, fond of children and animals; a person who takes pleasure in conversation, music, books, theatre, dancing, and chess-by no means the gloomy, churlish, sarcastic introvert who was ashamed of his Negro blood.
In her evaluation of his fiction, Miss Caldwell seeks to show “that his novels constitute a history of his spiritual life and growth . . . [that] each novel was an artistic experiment never repeated, which in one respect or another represented an advance over its immediate predecessor.” She notes that he early begins to employ a narrative technique that allows the characters to relegate the author to a minor role and that they become progressively more human, complicated, and contradictory. She indicates that in his later novels, i.e. his masterpieces, he subordinates social problems to struggles within the heart, motivated by hatred, greed, vanity, and self-love. She properly interprets Posthumous Memoirs of Braz Cubas as a comic work, contradicting those who would regard it as a narrative of deep pessimism. She consistently remarks that the outstanding element of all of Machado’s fiction is its superlative comedy, generated through irony, parody, satire, wit, and humor. She indicates that the titles of his novels are resumes, as it were, of the works and that the strands of symbolism weave in and out among the elements. She builds up a good case in identifying Carmo of Ayres’s Memorial with the author’s wife Carolina at different ages. She conscientiously points out similarities or allusions in his writings to works of great masters (Homer, Xenophon, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Erasmus, Cervantes, Sterne, Dickens, Shelley, Le Sage, Fielding, and Eça de Queiroz) whose works the Brazilian author read to advantage. She calls attention to his jabs at the Naturalistic school of fiction.
In conclusion, Miss Caldwell interprets the man and novelist with profound understanding and deep sympathy and, in so doing, produces a study remarkable for its depth, careful documentation, systematic analysis, unusual perceptiveness, and fine literary discrimination. Her book demonstrates conclusively that Machado de Assis merits acclaim as a great master of modem fiction.