Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, often known as Machado de Assis, Machado, or Bruxo do Cosme Velho, (June 21, 1839, Rio de Janeiro—September 29, 1908, Rio de Janeiro) was a Brazilian novelist, poet and short storywriter. He is widely regarded as the most important writer of Brazilian literature. However, he did not gain widespread popularity outside Brazil in his own lifetime.
Machado’s works had a great influence on Brazilian literary schools of the late 19th century and 20th century. José Saramago, Carlos Fuentes, Susan Sontag and Harold Bloom are among his admirers and Bloom calls him “the supreme black literary artist to date.”
Machado is said to have learned to write by himself, and he used to take classes for free will. He learned to speak French first and English later, both fluently. He started to work for newspapers in Rio de Janeiro, where he published his first works and met established writers such as Joaquim Manuel de Macedo.
Machado de Assis married Carolina Xavier de Novais, a Portuguese descendant of a noble family. Soon the writer got a public job and this stability permitted him to write his best works. Machado de Assis began by writing popular novels which sold well, much in the late style of José de Alencar. His style changed in the 1880s, and it is for the sceptical, ironic, comedic but ultimately pessimistic works he wrote after this that he is remembered: the first novel in his “new style” was Epitaph of a Small Winner, known in the new Gregory Rabassa translation as The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (a literal translation of the original title, Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas). In their brilliant comedy and ironic playfulness, these resemble in some ways the contemporary works of George Meredith in the United Kingdom, and Eça de Queirós in Portugal, but Machado de Assis’ work has a far bleaker emotional undertone. Machado’s work has also been compared with Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.
Machado de Assis could speak English fluently and translated many works of William Shakespeare and other English writers into Portuguese. His work contains numerous allusions to Shakespearean plays, John Milton and influences from Sterne and Meredith. He is also known as a master of the short story, having written classics of the genre in the Portuguese language, such as O Alienista, Missa do Galo, “A Cartomante” and “A Igreja do Diabo”.
Along with other writers and intellectuals, Machado de Assis founded the Brazilian Academy of Letters in 1896 and was its president from 1897 to 1908, when he died.
Machado’s style is unique, and several literary critics have tried to explain it since 1897. He is considered by many the greatest Brazilian writer of all times, and one of the greatest in the world as a romance and short story writer. His chronicles do not share the same status and his poems show a curious difference with the rest of his work: while his Machado’s prose is serene and elegant, his poems are often shocking for the use of crude terms, sometimes similar to those of Augusto dos Anjos, another Brazilian writer.
American literary critic Harold Bloom considers Machado de Assis one of the greatest 100 geniuses of literature, to the point of considering him the greatest black writer of western literature. He places Machado alongside writers such as Dante, Shakespeare and Cervantes.
Machado de Assis was fascinated with the theme of jealousy, and many of his novels are built on this intrigue. One of his most popular ones, Dom Casmurro, is still widely read in Brazilian schools. The volume reflects Machado de Assis’ life as a translator of Shakespeare, and also his influence from French realism, especially Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola. In the novel, he also refers to Much Ado About Nothing, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and most importantly, Othello. In fact, Helen Caldwell wrote a book comparing the Shakespearian play to Dom Casmurro “The Brazilian Othello of Machado de Assis – A study of Dom Casmurro”. It gives new meaning to this story.