The Old house/Casa velha
Machado de Assis
Translated and annotated by Mark Carlyon
The position of Machado de Assis as the greatest of all Brazilian novelists (or indeed of all Latin American novelists) is virtually undisputed among literary critics both within and outside Brazil. By entering his name into one of Brazil’s leading online booksellers, I came up with over 200 titles currently available; these included the novels, short stories, plays, poems and essays as well as biographies and a vast array of literary criticism. A friend who owns a publishing house, on hearing that I was translating Machado de Assis, very kindly sent me three books: The Feminine Character in the Novels of Machado de Assis; Machado de Assis and Brazilian Modernity and The Geography of Machado de Assis.
Although such massive academic interest undoubtedly attests to the greatness and fascination of this author, it must inevitably have the side-effect of what could possibly be called the Shakespeare syndrome: of transmitting the idea that this is an inaccessible writer, reserved for an elite who understands. There can be few ways of getting to know a work better than by translating it, and my experience of translating The Old House has convinced me that nothing could be further from the truth.
Machado is a writer who rarely wastes words; he is contained, austere and extremely subtle.
I will draw a parallel with a scene from the 1991 film “Meeting Venus”, in which Glenn Close plays a diva. In the scene, the Hungarian conductor, whose production of Tannhäuser is threatened by union action, says to her that if needs be they could do the opera in front of the fire curtain with the singers dressed in raincoats. In other words, Wagner’s music speaks for itself; just as Machado’s text does.
This short novel about a conflict that develops within an aristocratic family, set in the imperial capital in 1839 and narrated in the first person by a priest who becomes involved in the drama, has all the signs of a writer of genius, culminating as it does in the extraordinary dialogue in which the matriarch of the family, fiercely opposed to the marriage of her son to a girl of lower social class whom the family has adopted, reveals the hypocrisy of the priest who has espoused the young couple’s cause.
It is a book that one cannot put down.
The Old House requires knowledge of the historical context that provides a backdrop to the story. In this respect John Gledson’s essay, included in the book, is of inestimable value. After reading the essay, in my view, the text assumes an entirely new dimension. After a lifetime of studying and translating the author, the subtlety of Professor Gledson’s perceptions are worthy of Machado himself.