An Interview with Dr. Lucia Granja about Brazil’s Most Famous Writer, Machado de Assis

Granja: “Machado de Assis is the first important interpreter of Brazilian society and he found a literary way of representing it.”

Machado de Assis is one of the most well-known Brazilian writers in the world. Harold Bloom cites Machado de Assis in the Western Canon and Susan Sontag refers him as “the greatest writer ever produced in Latin America”. Professor Lucia Granja, a leading expert of Machado de Assis studies in Brazil, kindly answered my questions on Machado de Assis and Brazilian literature.

You published books and articles on Machado de Assis. Just to put Machado in perspective for the readers, could you briefly define us who Machado de Assis is for Brazil? 

Machado de Assis is without any doubt the greatest Brazilian writer. He was the first important interpreter of Brazilian society and he found a literary way of representing it. At the same time, Machado de Assis had a similar scale of his contemporaries, such as Henry James, Gustave Flaubert, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. These and other writers share, in my view, the fact that they are novelists and thinkers.

Most of the novels and some short stories of Machado de Assis have been translated into English. Some of his novels have two translations. I know that you are following Machado’s afterlife in Europe as well. I am wondering when you compare his reception in the US and Europe, could you observe any differences?

Machado de Assis made several efforts, throughout his career, to have his novels translated into European languages. We have evidence that he asked for permission, to Garnier’s Brothers, a couple of times, to translate Bras Cubas into German. As he was one of the main authors of the Garnier’s publishers (the Brazilian branch of the society), he must have dreamed about the French translation. Unfortunately, Machado de Assis did not have this recognition in his life, as he wished. There were two episodes of translation into Spanish, in Latin America, not in Europe, between 1902 and 1905. In French, that was an important mediating language at that scenario, considering the largest and most prestigious slice of cultural production, Machado de Assis wasn’t translated until 1910, when Garnier Frères published Quelques contes (Várias Histórias) and, in 1911, Memoires posthumes by Braz Cubas, both translated by Adrien Delpech. In 1911, Garnier Hermanos published in Spanish Varias Historias, Postumas Memorias by Blas Cubas and Don Casmurro, all translated by Rafael Mesa Lopes. In 1913, Quincas Borba was translated in Spanish by J. Amber. As we know, Machado de Assis passed away in 1908 and he has followed only the two attempts of internationalization that took place in Latin America. In other words, Machado de Assis missed the moment of seeing his novels and tales translated and well-received abroad, which would have early placed him among the greatest of the time. In relation to English, the increase in the United States’ interests in Latin America that happened after the Second World War put Machado de Assis on the translation route. Since then, paradoxically, Machado de Assis grew in world importance after having his work translated into English. In other words, in terms of world recognition, it was not French and Spanish as mediating languages ​​that served to the internationalization of Machado’s literature.

Machado de Assis is a canonical writer in Brazil but I know that you also argue he was not only writing for a Brazilian/national audience. Can we define Machado as a world literature writer? 

Yes, I suppose so, as he knew he could be. Machado de Assis thinks humankind in several of his dimensions if we consider the “nature” of human qualities, such as vanity, for example, in its various manifestations, or if we think about social productions, such as “madness”. About this last one, just look at “O alienista”, a long story, or short novel, published in the early 1880s. A scientist obsessed with the study of “cerebral pathology”, having the aim of defining and studying all its manifestations, ends up closing all inhabitants of a small town in an asylum, a “crazy house”. After doing so, he realizes that he was more dangerous than the others and, freeing the “crazy people”, he closes himself in the “Casa Verde”. What to say about the short story “Theory of the Medallion”, through which a father talking about the future of his son who has just turned 21 years old, explains that his best life goal would be to be a “medalhão”, that is a public figure of notoriety. The problem is that to achieve it the means are not to give substance to the aim but to think about all kinds of ways of creating appearances. Taking it to the extreme, we still generalize Machado de Assis’s observations and commentaries on human behavior, moral deviations, political inconsistencies and so on. He is, as some of his contemporaries on world literature were, a deeper analyst of universal themes.

Machado de Assis

It is also very hard to safely categorize Machado de Assis under a literary period or tradition. He can be read as a realist writer but at the same time a modernist, even a postmodern writer to some extent with the narrative techniques he uses/experiments. In that sense, his works have been always revisited with changing perspectives and I think they were always somehow relevant. Do you find his work relevant today for a common global reader? 

In Machado de Assis, the critical sense and keen observation of social and moral standards and behaviors, about which men are inconsistently contradictory, frivolous, and even silly, are completely valuable for our contemporary readers.

Many writers in Brazil were also journalists in the 19th century and maybe this tradition is still valid. Could you please elaborate on the relationship between journalism and literature in Brazil? 

I can think about how deep is the relation between Machado de Assis and journalism. As were several of his contemporaries, Machado de Assis was a writer who was very involved with the periodical press, where the conception and realization of his books began. He extracted many of his texts from this everyday matter, but he also invented literary forms that dialogued with new journalistic forms and questioned the status of fiction in the “reality” of the news. Some of the traces that are understood by literary criticism as a “singularity” in Machado de Assis’s work should be considered in relation to a “poetic” of newspaper writing. This reflection does not question the individual talent and the highlights attributed by the critic to the Machado text, but it is understood in the dialogue and, mainly, in the answers that Machado de Assis’s literary work proposes to aesthetic and contextual questions of his time. In this sense, the singularity is reinterpreted as a result of Machado de Assis’s fixation to the periodic support. It seems to me that the association of Machado de Assis with the figure of the writer-journalist, which presupposes the understanding that the newspapers were constituted of a textual universe in which the texts communicated in a constant and continuous way, is one of the paths for the understanding of the relationship between journalism and literary novelty in Machado de Assis, as well as in the writers who were around the newspaper of the 19th century, most of them indeed.

Brazilian literature is mostly represented through novels in world literature. Is novel still the main literary genre in Brazil? Or could you observe a shift or blending of genres through the 19th century to contemporary Brazilian literature?

Contemporary Brazilian literature has experimented all kinds of genres but I think that novels and tales are still quite important. If we observe, for instance, a great contemporary Brazilian writer, as Milton Hatoum or Raduan Nassar, they wrote novels and tales above all.

Are there untranslated Brazilian writers you would like to recommend for US publishers? 

I would say Luiz Ruffato, but his work has been translated. We could increase this translation list. He has a really deep and sensitive way of dealing with literary forms and language.

About Lucia Granja:

Lúcia Granja is a Brazilian Literature Professor at UNICAMP (The University of Campinas). She holds a degree in literature from the University of Campinas (1986) and got her Ph.D. in Literary Theory at the same University (1997). She did two postdoctoral works in France (2008, French Literature at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales/Denis Diderot Paris VII University; 2013, Cultural History, Versailles University).  She has published articles, book chapters and books on the works of Machado de Assis and also Garnier’s Brothers publishers activities in France and Brazil, as well as the relations between literature and press (Brazil-France) and serial columns (crônicas). Among these works, she has published Machado de Assis, antes do livro, o jornal: suporte, mídia e ficção (2018); Machado de Assis, escritor em formação: à roda dos jornais (2001); ANDRIES, Lise & GRANJA, L (editors). Literaturas e escritas da imprensa: Brasil-França (2015). In English, she has published book chapters “The Brazilian and the French Bas de Page”, in Suriani & Vasconcelos (editors). Books and Periodicals in Brazil 1768 – 1930: A Transatlantic Perspective (2014) and “Crossing a century: printers, booksellers and publishers in nineteenth-century Brazil”, in ABREU, M. e SURIANI, A. C. (editors). Connecting people through books, magazines, and theatre – a cultural revolution (2016).

About the Editor:

Basak Bingol Yuce is a world literature scholar, journalist, and literary translator based in the US. She holds a PhD degree in comparative literature from Binghamton University. One of her areas of study is Brazilian literature. Dr. Yuce’s journalistic work focuses on literary and international journalism. She is a regular contributor to Turkish media outlets. Dr. Yuce translated books and articles from English, French and Portuguese into Turkish, among them the works of Clarice Lispector, Terry Eagleton, Antonio Candido, André Aciman, Ken Bruen, and Harold Bloom.

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