The rise of Machado de Assis to world eminence was even more of a miracle than it normally is for those few writers who attain it. He was of mixed race, epileptic, an orphan, half-educated, unhealthy and myopic, and he never once left his native Rio de Janeiro, yet he taught himself English and French, inveigled himself into Brazil's literary milieu, wrote a vast amount in almost every literary vein, and became (by unanimous vote) the president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, a post he held from 1897 until 1908. All this while holding down a regular job as a civil servant. He was one of the very few writers who not only received a state funeral, but deserved it.
Modern readers receive a surprise upon delving into Machado's work. "Oh, it's Brazilian," they think whilst hefting the volume in their hand. "It's bound to be exotic, full of strange animals and customs and beautiful prostitutes, and magic, and gods with African names, and revolutions, and violence . . ." They think wrongly, however, for Brazil's literature has always been wider and more varied than we foreigners have realised, and, furthermore, Machado was writing at a time when Brazil's literary consciousness was still almost completely European. He inhabits the same territory as Manzoni of Italy (1785-1873) and Eca de Queirs of Portugal (1843-1900). His influences were first French and then English, but naturally and inevitably he also kept abreast of Portuguese letters, once famously accusing Eca de Queires of having plagiarised Madame Bovary in Cousin Basilio.
Despite this, Machado's voice is more similar to Eca than to any other of his great contemporaries. There is the same irony, the same mockery, the same limpid style, the same urbanity and lightness of tone, and the same preoccupation with protagonists who have plenty of time and money, but who make nothing of their lives. Eca de Queires has been neglected in the English-speaking world, but he is at least comparable with Flaubert, Dickens, Zola and Balzac. Machado, on the other hand, is not only comparable to Eca, but also seems to have been born 100 years before his time, which is perhaps why he appeals to modern writers as diverse as Salman Rushdie, Paul Bailey and William Cooper. The latter also, incidentally, writes like Machado, in snack-size chapters that tempt you to read just one more before you feed the cat, or get out of the bath, or turn off the light. Cooper also compares for wit and deftness of touch. Machado would have laughed at me for what I am about to say (and please, dear reader, do not be put off) - but he is really a post-modernist writer. Of course we all know that there is nothing remotely new about post-modernism - Homer begins the Odyssey half-way through, after all, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses is composed of letters - but there is more of it about these days. Alongside Machado's very 19th-century habit of confiding directly in his readers, we find a text that has been deliberately and playfully fragmented. We are offered delightfully whimsical and irrelevant passages of light philosophising, we find chapters that are only one sentence long, chapters which are quite strangely inconsequential, chapters about why Machado has not written a chapter, chapters consisting of dots and punctuation marks. We are referred to other chapters, as if Machado is spoofing a legal document or an academic tract, and he reflects often upon the text itself, so that, as he says, "I have already compared my style to the progress of a drunk." But what an entertaining drunk! This is the kind of drunk who has had three glasses of excellent red wine, has loosened his belt by one notch, and has just hit his stride. …