Sunday, December 10, 2017

John Barth: The Brazilian Connection

 For Andrei, with friendship


In 1878, Machado de Assis found himself fretting over the future of fiction. The first two novels of a young Portuguese novelist had just arrived in Brazil, boisterous, bawdy, and bursting with novelty, and in one bolt critics had bandied for encomia still unreceived by Machado. Eça de Queiroz, the Portuguese novelist in question, with The Crime of Father Amaro and Cousin Bazilio had just introduced literary Realism in Brazil. Because the avant-garde haven’t stopped slinging mud at literary realists since the 1960s, it’s easy to forget that once upon a time the literary realists were the avant-garde. Brazilian literature, before Eça changed it, performed a decorative role, helped to while away the time, provided a trampoline for a political career. In its pages sentimentality trumped cynicism, happiness crept upon endings with the regularity of a Sunday sermon, morality did not deviate from what housewives could digest, except when it celebrated adultery, so long as the adultery were true and passionate, for who doesn’t love a good love story? Rather than scalpelize society, books condoned and consolidated its mores. Machado, since his debut in 1860, had done little to challenge this capitulation to decorum.

Eça owed his popularity to his lively eroticism, taste for scandalous themes, irreverent humor, and caustic criticism of manners and institutions. His novels marked the downfall of the chaste characters, stuffy moralizing, prudence, and fear of outraging that characterized Brazilian Romanticism. His speedy success meant that writers would have to readjust themselves, to change or shrivel in the wake of a new aesthetic model. This included Machado, who so far had published steadily with modest success but without swaying the critics. He did readjust, eventually, but not before launching a desperate attack on Eça. Writing under a biblical pseudonym, Eleazar, he lambasted the offending novels in two reviews published in the newspaper O Cruzeiro. In hindsight it was an unusual move for him. Eça had made his reputation provoking everyone and lived to keep controversy alive in the press for weeks on end whereas the legend of Machado has slipped him into a misanthropic hermit who shied away from polemics. Thrashing him, then, was unusual behavior.
Oh, they’re gorgeous! They deserve a place in Bell Henderson’s Rotten Reviews and Rejections. Dale Peck would swoon for them. They’re unfair, distortive, spiteful, reeking of envy – they have all the ingredients to make them readable, entertaining, and immortal. The Crime of Father Amaro, for instance, “was implacable, consequent, logical realism, taken to puerility and obscenity.” Speaking of Eça’s penchant for sordid details, “One knew not in our idiom such photographic and servile reproduction of minute and ignoble motives.” The bestial amorality of the characters upset him; Luiza, the adulteress in Cousin Bazilio, “is rather a puppet; I don’t mean to say she doesn’t have nerves and muscles; in fact she doesn’t have anything else, don’t ask her for passions or remorse; even less a conscience.” He accused him of plagiarism, plot inconsistencies, poor psychology, and grilled him for focusing on the “animal phenomenon” instead of capturing positive feelings, which proves he totally missed the reasons Eça had to savage Portugal’s vulgar, vapid, hedonistic middle-class. Nowadays Brazilian scholars, since Eça's star hasn't dwindled in Brazil since then, feel embarrassment for those reviews and lament Machado’s myopia. There's no reason for that, when they came out neither Eça was the greatest Portuguese novelist ever yet, nor was Machado the greatest Brazilian novelist ever yet.

The Ecian duet went on to sway other reviewers and to captivate readers, leading Cousin Bazilio to receive a second printing in Brazil the same year. Eça had come to stay, starting a national obsession over him that hasn't abated. The writer Monteiro Lobato baptized this mania ecitis, as if it were a disease. Perhaps he was right; in an essential book to understand his reception in Brazil, O Brasil na vida de Eça de Queiroz, Heytor Lira paraded several acts of devotion: fans travelling to Paris to visit the street he lived in as a consul; a reader allegedly going insane trying to memorize The Maias’ 200 000 words. In 1893, when a weekly polled the six best Portuguese-language novels the results showed a clear preference: Eça nabbed the 1st, 2nd and 4th spots; Machado only the 3rd and 5th (The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas and The Hand and the Glove, respectively). His success led a major newspaper, the Gazeta de Notícias, to hire him in 1880 as foreign correspondent, and he spent the next 17 years supplying it with articles about European politics and culture. Eça’s regular presence in the Brazilian press only cemented his status.

Nothing personal moved Machado against Eça, whom he also recognized as a promising talent; what upset him was his commitment to Zola’s school. He equated Realism with immorality, vulgarity, and inhumanity. At the same time, he recognized that the Romantic novel was on the way out. What happened next has kept scholars busy since then. Whereas Eça kept on writing pretty much the same way until his death, Machado underwent a radical change. Up until 1878 he had written “stories in traditional molds, wherein every element is cleared up by the narrator,” claimed João Cezar de Castro Rocha in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper when he published Machado de Assis: Towards an Aesthetics of Emulation. Historians tend to divide Machado’s oeuvre in two phases: before and after Eça; the disparity in quality has intrigued them. For Castro Rocha, Machado’s “amazing jump in quality” stemmed from a mix of envy and a struggle for relevancy. Cousin Bazilio had sold 3 000 copies in a few months and turned a novice into a star; Machado, in turn, had been publishing for over a decade without rapturous accolades. More importantly, owing to the nationalistic spirit of the time, these reviewers had hailed Eça with a frenzy reserved only for French and English writers; his novels had proven that even a peripherical language like Portuguese could produce literature comparable to major European languages. Machado, so far, had failed to convince his countrymen of th same. Castro Rocha suggests that, threatened by Eça’s aesthetic revolution and the shift in readers’ taste from Romanticism to Realism, Machado, fearing to become irrelevant, had to rethink his conception of fiction. Brás Cubas, serialized between March and December of 1880 and published in book form in 1881, not only made tabula rasa with previous novels such as Helena and Resurrection, it began a new era.

Past critics have explained Brás Cubas away as the first Brazilian novel to adopt Realism. Lacking the right jargon, they used whatever they had at hand. But given Machado’s exasperation at Zola’s disciples, it never sat well with his second phase. If his post-1878 novels seem more “realistic,” it’s only because he had to absorb its conventions to better ridicule them in order to dismantle them. Predating Vladimir Nabokov by several decades, he understood that “realism” was a mode of writing as artificial as any other. In Portugal, Eça had forced his peers to either satirize or emulate his style. Machado sought emulation, but of different role models. Since he didn’t want to submit to a form he cared nothing about, he dug up and polished discarded 18th century narrative techniques; instead of adapting to the “New Idea,” as the press then called Realism, he adopted old ideas in a deliberately anachronistic, quirky, ironic, self-conscious way, becoming paradoxically more avant-garde than his contemporaries. Castro Rocha’s study shows how Machado reused the concepts of imitatio and aemulatio, predominant in Western literature since Antiquity until Romanticism dethroned them with the myth of the creator-genius who forges from his own inspiration without paying heed to ancient models. Realism went one step further by building on direct observation (Zola down the mine shaft) and from documentation (Flaubert reading a library for Salammbô). Machado instead aped, quoted, distorted, stole (nowadays we’d say appropriated), and dialogued with the Western canon in an irreverent manner. Brás Cubas’ first book edition came out with a note “To the Reader” wherein the narrator acknowledges his debt to Laurence Sterne and Xavier de Maistre. In the third edition’s preface, he added Portuguese novelist Almeida Garrett’s Travels in my Homeland (1846), another odd olio indebted to Sterne and a precursor of second-phase Machado. Since the 1980s, thanks to Enylton de Sá Rego’s study of Machado’s oeuvre in light of Menippean tradition, it’s become clearer that in his mature work he was interested in the novel’s form as it had normalized itself since Balzac’s time. Foreshadowing 20th century metafiction, he turned the craft into writing’s raison d’être, and wondered whether “normal” novels could be composed at all. Like the realists his language denotes a world, but it also plays with the reader; opposing Flaubert’s invisible narrator, he created a noisy, garrulous one. Unlike Zola, he did not pick up his topics from headlines; rather he turned 3000 years of Western philosophy, history, and literature into a playpen.

It goes without saying that this avant-garde bravura did not translate into short-term success. Brás Cubas, for instance, didn’t get a second edition until 1896. Capistrano Abreu, a major critic at the time, felt squeamish about calling it a novel. Silvio Romero chided Machado for breaking up linearity and abolishing the traditional plot. “It’s a book of mundane philosophy, under the shape of a novel", derided an
1881 anonymous reviewer. It was “deficient, if not false,” it “only philosophized about characters of a perfect vulgarity; it's deficient in its form because there's no crispness, there's no painting, but sketches, there's no composition, but random brushstrokes.” Machado knew full well that he not only had to fight against ruling tastes, but that he had also to educate the public on the tradition in which he inserted himself. As Brás Cubas writes, “That Stendhal should have confessed to have written one of his books for a hundred readers is something that brings on wonder and concern. Something that will not cause wonder and probably no concern is whether this other book will have Stendhal's hundred readers, or fifty, or twenty, or even ten? Five, perhaps.” In 1996 Wilson Martins neatly summed up Machado’s reception: “In Brazil in the 19th century, Machado de Assis was an 18th century writer (Sterne, Fielding, Xavier de Maistre…); in Brazil in the 20th century, he became a 19th century novelist; in the universal literature of the 20th century, he begins to be seen as a 21st century writer.” According to Castro Rocha, Machado’s reputation has grown because his art foreshadows post-modernist techniques like the now common practice of recovering, reinterpreting and rewriting classics, and revitalizing exhausted forms. Although Eça won the battle in 1878, Machado has fared better than him since then. (For what it’s worth, they’re both in Harold Bloom’s Genius, one closer to the other than they ever were in real life.) Machado attracts more attention nowadays because his work not only resonates with modern literature, but because in John Barth’s case even helped create it.


John Barth never hid that his discovery of Machado’s novels in the 1950s helped him find his own voice; he thanked him in essays, prefaces, interviews. He’s more immune to anxiety of influence than to exaltation of influences: his voice is so unique he doesn’t mind flaunting them. However, in Brazil, for a long time, this was unknown. Even though Sá Rego's O Calundu e a Panacéia (1989) briefly sketched Machado's reception in the USA, he overlooked Barth. Academically, he became a juicy subject around the 1960s thanks to Helen Caldwell’s The Brazilian Othello of Machado de Assis (1960) and Machado de Assis: The Brazilian Master and his Novels (1970). For the reader in the street, though, he never became a household name, not even at the height of the Latin American Boom. American writers, likewise, seldom acknowledged him. Reviewers, instead of cottoning to him, subjected him to cautious, supercilious mixed reviews. Earl Fitz has written a comprehensive essay about this, “The Reception of Machado de Assis in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s.” When Brás Cubas’ translation came out in 1952 (with the title Epitaph of a Small Winner), few saw a masterpiece ahead of its time. New Republic's S. M. Fitzgerald accused it of cheap nihilism; Anthony West, at the New Yorker, labeled it a “minor classic.” Other critics admired Machado but worried that his irony, pessimism, and cynicism would not sit well with American readers slumbering under the spell of Cold War-enforced complacency. His attack on all values demanded that readers confront their deep-seated certainties, which they were unwilling to do at the time. Eisenhower was president, Nixon vice-president, senator McCarthy was hunting reds, North Korea was going red, communist spies were smuggling atomic secrets, allegedly, and the Rosenbergs were working double shifts to become worthy subjects of Robert Coover’s best novel. It was hardly the time to contest traditional values.

Fitz can’t hide his personal feelings when he all but blames Barth for Machado’s failure at getting a foot in America's door. His major sin was omitting Machado from his transformative essay “The Literature of Exhaustion.” In this panegyric to Jorge Luis Borges, Barth argued that the Argentinian master's technical innovations had the potential to rejuvenate fiction, which had stagnated in outdated modes of realism. Fitz berates him for not having used Machado as a role model instead, since his own innovations could have done the same trick. I sympathize with his rationale: Barth had just become a phenomenon thanks to Giles Goat-Boy’s unexpected hit at campuses; a good word by him would have done wonders. By ignoring Machado, he remained in obscurity since nobody else with Barth’s stature championed him in America. Basically, he had missed his chance.

No writer, of course, has an obligation to manage his peers’ careers.  Barth himself, with his usual candor, has explained that his early infatuation with Machado, although important, didn’t last long. He discovered him in the early 1950s, but by 1967 was already under Borges’ thrall. His reflections about Machado date from the 1980s, and in them he’s careful to identify him as one element in his self-development, not the defining element. Barth tends to circumscribe Machado’s influence to his first novel, The Floating Opera (1956). Its composition didn’t so much coincide with Machado’s arrival in America as it came to life because to it. In the preface to 1988 edition, Barth indicated that he wrote it between the Spring and Summer of 1955. By then he had read The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1952), Dom Casmurro (1953), and Quincas Borba (1954, entitled Philosopher or Dog?), all published by Noonday. 
Given the smugness rampart in America, divulging Machado or publishing an off-kilter novel like The Floating Opera didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. But looking back, it does. By then, two factions presumed to control fiction: social realists, usually leaning to the left, had rejected Modernism and returned to the 19th-century realist novel; existentialists like Sartre, Camus, Malraux, and Moravia, infatuated with “emotional cripples” (to use Mary Midgley’s spot-on description of Meursault), had decided to fight the social realists’ gross materialism by filling the novel with metaphysics and subjectivism. Apparently, Existentialism was a great meal ticket: Humbert Humbert lies about being a “chief consultant in the production of a film dealing with ‘existentialism,’ still a hot thing at the time.” One side worshipped matter; the other, mind; each despised the other; neither cared much for language, form, structure, beauty. Fortunately, a third faction emerged around this time that didn’t like the other two either. It wasn’t really a faction; it was too loose and eclectic a thing to have a headquarters. Rather, it was a new transnational attitude or temperament towards fiction. Although Nabokov had single-handedly kept craftsmanship alive in the USA against the tone-deaf verbal drudgery of both sides, the ‘50s teemed with signs of fracture everywhere. In 1955 alone, Samuel Beckett translated Waiting for Godot into English, Juan Rulfo published Pedro Páramo, and Alain Robbe-Grillet Le Voyeur. Raymond Queneau’s Oulipo was just around the corner. In Italy, while Italo Calvino was going back to fantasy in the Our Ancestors trilogy, Giorgio Manganelli was writing loving essays on anti-realists like Nabokov, Edwin Abbot, H. P. Lovecraft, and Thomas Love Peacock. The Latin Americans had everything ready, but needed to be noticed. In 1954, when Noonday was concluding its Machado translations, Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man received its first scholarly edition since the 19th century; it’s a novel about fakes. Next year, two other novels about fakes showed up that changed American literature: Lolita and William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, the latter paving the way for every long hard book from Thomas Pynchon to Sergio De La Pava. It was also around this time that a few young writers began cutting their teeth in fictions with peculiar traits whom Robert Scholes a decade later would dub “the fabulators.” One of them was John Barth.

So although Machado had a hard time making a name for himself in America, it was the best of times to be ignored. If his fiction was going to be misunderstood and overlooked, it might as well do so in the company of other avant-garde books faced with the same predicament. His innovations were in synch with the upheavals in world literature. The neglect he endured was no worse than the contempt writers felt who tried different things and were upbraided by audience and critics alike. Machado was no more ignored than Gaddis, whose treatment at the hands of lazy reviewers prompted Jack Green’s honorable diatribe, Fire the Bastards!. And it was because writers like Barth, Vonnegut, and Hawkes were being traduced, that Scholes wrote his celebratory essay, The Fabulators. So the question, for me, isn’t, “Why was Machado so unlucky?”, but, “Why should he have been the lucky one?” But although he didn’t sway either the man in the street or the man in the newsroom, his novels had the ingredients to enrapture a young novelist at odds with ruling tastes. Barth gravitated towards him precisely because neither fit with the times.

In 1988, he wrote that he overcame certain difficulties in writing because

I discovered by happy accident the turn-of-the-century Brazilian novelist Joaquim Machado de Assis (Epitaph of a Small Winner, Philosopher or Dog?, Dom Casmurro). Machado – himself under the influence of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy – taught me something I had not quite learned from Joyce’s Ulysses and would not likely have learned from Sterne directly, had I happened to have read him: how to combine formal sportiveness with genuine sentiment as well as a fair degree of realism. Sterne is pre-Romantic; Joyce is late or post-Romantic; Machado is both Romantic and romantic: playful, wistful, pessimistic, intellectually exuberant.

20 years before, he explained to Alan Prince that Machado’s importance to him and how “I got my Sterne by way of Brazil.” In the 1984 essay “The Spanish Connection,” he reminisced about his awe at discovering the Machado translations which he “read as if they had just been written.” They “did not have the term ‘Postmodernism’ in our critical vocabulary back in the 1950s, but Machado’s combination of formal playfulness, narrative self-consciousness and self-reflexiveness, political skepticism, and emotional seriousness tempered with dry comedy – they add up to a kind of proto-postmodernism which appealed to me very strongly indeed.” Without him, he wouldn’t have moved beyond Realism.

Barth, alas, did not remain infatuated with Machado throughout his life. In his essay “Borges and I: a mini memoir” (1991), he claimed that “Joaquim Machado de Assis (1839-1908) happens not to be a writer of ongoing importance to me; in a recent conversation about him on the BBC, I realized (in midst of praising him as a Proto-Postmodernist) that I haven’t reread him since the Penn State 1950s and scarcely remember now what his novels are ‘about.’” That’s a pity. These words, however, don’t change the importance Machado had for him. He didn’t just give him an initial spark of inspiration; he gave him forms, genres, and a pre-realist literary tradition. The satire of philosophy and intellectuals in The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy begins in The Floating Opera. Metafictional tropes already thrive in its pages. But that goes unnoticed because prejudice against his first two novels has hardened into clichés about them.

To talk about these novels, we must first understand what they are. There is an old literary tradition where philosophy is the butt of jokes. Northrop Frye tried to rechristen it anatomy, but I prefer the term the Romans had for it: Menippean Satire. This genre, created according to legend by Menippus, practiced by his discipline Lucian, and immensely popular during the Renaissance when Lucian’s works were rediscovered, influenced Rabelais, who then influenced Laurence Sterne. Defining Menippean satire has kept many scholars busy. They don’t agree on a definition, especially because they all recognize that its spirit resides in a constant reinvention that eschews rigidity. “There is no Menippean satire which is quintessentially Menippean: there is no paradigmatic Menippean satire and there is no such thing as a 'pure' Menippean satire,” defends David Musgrave in Grotesque Anatomies. “A form which is based on disjunction and impurity can have no final, refined form.” Musgrave prefers to speak of Menippean satires, plural, since each epoch has its own variety. However, core features must exist, otherwise scholars couldn’t trace their transmission from author to author for the past 2000 years. Musgrave and W. Scott Blanchard may disagree a bit with Frye and Mikhail Bakhtin’s classic definitions, refining them, but they still hold. Frye, in Anatomy of Criticism, made an interesting distinction between the novel and Menippean satire, which may resemble a novel since it’s a voracious beast that digests all genres. It “differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylized rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent.” This describes Todd Andrews and Joe Morgan, characters so trapped in their theoretical tunnels of reality that they push everything else out of their tight parameters. Comparing them to the characters of John Galsworthy and Leo Tolstoy doesn’t help. They have more in common with Voltaire’s Professor Pangloss, perennially optimistic in the face of escalating catastrophe, or with whatever crackpot erudite diner Love Peacock deemed worthy of sitting at the table of his imagination. Todd’s symbolic name alerts us to this genealogy. As he self-consciously explains in the first pages, Todd is similar to Tod, German for Death, a rather apt name for a man planning a spectacular suicide. This humorous symbolism can be found throughout Menippean characters, from Thomas Carlyle’s Diogenes Teufelsdröckh (Latin and German for “god-born devil-dung”) to Love Peacock’s perennially gloomy Mr. Toobad. It goes all the way back to The Satyricon in which Petronius names a crude nouveau rich Trimalchio (Latin for “Greatest King”), a bombastic name for a philistine devoid of any nobility. Barth knew what he was doing. “My muse is ineluctably the comic muse,” he once wrote. But his comedy was not the comedy of Saki or Kingsley Amis. His targets were not social manners or situations, but philosophy and pedantry, the philosophus gloriosus, the pretentious philosopher. This was true in Lucian’s time, but the genre is concerned with pretentious intellectual behavior in general. As Frye explained, it “deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes.” Philosophy and intellectual fads have long supplied it with material for laughs, from Voltaire hounding Leibniz’ Optimism to Malcolm Bradbury taking on Structuralism and Deconstruction in Mensonge. It’s only natural that Barth, with his comical temperament, in an environment where Existentialism was all the rage, would single it out for ridicule. Another aspect, overlooked by Frye, is that it repudiates coherence and totality; it finds holes in systems and delights in the messiness of uncontrollable life. If the Menippean satirist’s compatible with any school, it’s perhaps Skepticism. Paradoxically, he tends to love to show off encyclopedic erudition - something Barth’s early novels don't make use of - even if he knows that harnessing total knowledge is impossible. No matter how much he tries, he can never be exhaustive enough, and that’s a corrective to the delusions of system-builders. Another way of counteracting the goal of coherence involves emphasizing the unreality of fiction. As such, these writers tend to subvert fictional tropes, which means many of them use metafictional techniques.

It’s clear to me that Barth’s The Floating Opera is a Menippean Satire. I don’t know if he was conscious of it; probably not; as scholars say, writers are sometimes unaware that they’re writing Menippean satire when they’re doing it. It’s also clear to me that he was exposed to this tradition thanks to Machado's Brás Cubas. As such, I want to explore two aspects of this influence: first, how he uses some of its general features; second, how he was writing metafiction long before he discovered Jorge Luis Borges. How Barth received this from Machado has not yet been adequately studied. Even Fitz in an interesting essay, “The Influence of Machado de Assis on John Barth’s ‘The Floating Opera’”, was way often off track. For one thing, he followed David Morell’s lead in overvaluing the similarities with Dom Casmurro. “With respect to The Floating Opera, there can be no doubt that Dom Casmurro is the work that most influenced the construction of Barth novel.”

There are at least seven features that illustrate the extent of [Dom Casmurro's] influence: the narrators of both novels are lawyers who become involved in complicated love relationships; within each relationship (each of which is centrally involves the protagonist/narrator), a child is born, but the identity of the father is in doubt; each self-conscious narrator considers suicide but does not carry through with the plan; each narrator describes in detail the exact day on which the proposed suicide will take place; both narrators attend the theater in advance of their anticipated suicides; both narrator see the child that may be theirs and decide not to commit suicide; finally, both narrators compare life to an opera.

Fitz didn’t go beyond comparing mere plot points; as such he failed to discuss the transmission of deeper influences, which are a lot more crucial to understanding the development of Barth’s voice.


Several people have insisted in Barth’s change of style after The End of the Road. Charles Harris has claimed that “His first two novels are fairly straightforward and realistic.” Morell, in John Barth: An Introduction, described them like this: “So far in his fiction he had portrayed contemporary incidents and characters, had made the action and locale appear believable, had provided dialogue sounding more or less the way people talk – had, that is, relied on the techniques of realism.” If we accept this, however, we must also wonder what’s unrealistic about Barth’s 17th century Maryland in The Sot-Weed Factor, for which he even read contemporary legal documents in order to make it believable. Furthermore, if we accept Morrell’s view, does Candide’s inclusion of that epoch-changing contemporary incident, the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, make it a realistic novel too? But the earthquake is there less to ground the story in a realistic setting than as intellectual fodder. As the historian Mark Molesky suggests in This Gulf of Fire, the earthquake was a conceptual game changer for the Enlightenment, and informs Voltaire’s critique of Optimism. Whatever contemporary settings Barth appropriates, he does it also for intellectual reasons.

Morell has also speculated on the time gap between Barth’s second novel and The Sot-Weed Factor. This 4-year delay, for him, occurred because “while he prepared to write the book his ideas about the nature of fiction changed drastically.” And yet Barth himself once remarked that The Sot-Weed Factor constituted, not a rupture, but the culmination of a loose trilogy. But others tend to agree with Morell. Scholes, in Fabulation and Metafiction, remarked on Barth’s preference for one-dimensional characters, or types, in The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy:

These thick crusts of type-characterization certainly obliterate any potential for profoundly developed individual personalities. Such characters are closer to pre-novelistic kinds of characterization than to the deep individuality of the realists. Their vitality is mainly a matter of accumulated facets and functions, rather than an accretion of telling idiosyncrasies. Yet Barth has learned enough from the realists – as his first two novels show – to make stereotypes like Greene and Spiegelman behave with psychological rightness.

For him, his early characters were too neat. Machado, however, even if Zola didn't bowl him over, saw the usefulness of psychological realism. After all, it helped knowing how to use it if his goal was to subvert it. What defines characters like Greene and Spiegelman is their subjection to one single idea, in conformity with Frye’s definition of Menippean characters. However, one need only consider Todd’s nihilism and Joe Morgan’s Sartreanism to see that we’re not that far away from their monomanias. William H. Gass also divided Barth in two periods: “I think you can see that in someone like Barth: the first few Barth books are not Barth yet. Lots of people prefer those books, but they are not Barth the Artist yet.”

A Floating Opera, then, tends to be dismissed as an early foray into realism, alien to his later efforts. And so it goes on underappreciated. I don't dispute that The Sot-Weed Factor is a superior work of fiction, but this insistence on differences blocks discussion about continuities. Barth himself encouraged this reading; in the Prince interview he claimed that The Sot-Weed Factor had allowed him to work with “irrealistic premises” and freed him “from the stricture of realism,” and since then scholars have repeated this. However, there’s nothing physics- or logic-defying about his picaresque novel; it has a heightened sense of ridicule, an unhinged way of looking at the world, a continuous movement forward that precludes introspection, but it never strains plausibility. A reader wanting a historical novel from this period working from actual irrealistic premises, is better off reading Calvino’s The Cloven Viscount or The Nonexistent Knight.

The illusion of realism depends less on what events are told and how they adhere to physics, than how they’re organized. Organization, structure and vision decide whether a novel about a man lechering after a nymphet becomes well-behaved social realism or Lolita. It was because Machado used the 19th-century realist novel’s whole shebang - adultery, suspicion, jealousy, arrivisme, concerns over social standing – that critics pegged him as a realist. They were looking at content, no at form. Sá Rego, in his preface to The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, reminds us why Machado broke new ground: “One of the conventions challenged by Brás Cubas is the traditional form of the novel itself. Nineteenth-century novels usually represent life through a convincing plot and a smooth and captivating narrative in which the reader is passively drawn and pulled along. In presenting to the reader the supposedly real-life actions and feelings of the characters, the author pretends to be absent from the text.” (I’m using Gregory Rabassa’s translation.) Brás Cubas’ status as a dead man may give it a supernatural tinge, but that’s hardly enough to suspend realism’s tropes either; Machado could still have employed conventional narrative techniques; there are countless Victorian ghost stories that don’t differ a jot from the way Chekov rendered the real world. The fact that the narrator is dead is less important than how the author uses that condition to create a new way of narrating.

Although The Sot-Weed Factor is a much better novel than The Floating Opera, it’s less radical in some ways. It reads like an exciting historical novel aware and respectful of its genre codes. Its 18th-century flavor has less to do with Sterne’s techniques than Fielding’s: it has fewer author intrusions and moments of self-consciousness, it’s rigidly linear, and it seldom challenges the reader’s assumptions of how novels are composed; instead it thrills him with its convoluted plot, swift pacing, comedy, and suspense. It’s so engrossing I forgot for long stretches that I was holding a novel and merely delighted in the tale, as if it were one of Dumas’ adventures novels.

The Floating Opera, described by Barth as a “nihilistic comedy,” parodies Albert Camus’s famous statement that suicide is the “one truly serious philosophical problem” by creating a Meursault-like nihilist, Todd Andrews, bent on blowing himself up and lots of bystanders at the same time, since nothing matters anyway. His second novel, too funny for me to be a “nihilistic tragedy” as he called it, replaces Camus with Jean-Paul Sartre and goes after Existentialism with a healthy dose of reductio ad absurdum. Taken to its extreme logical outcome, existentialism breeds inhuman creatures like Joe Morgan, a violent History teacher with a pedagogical penchant for punching the premises of Being and Nothingness into his wife, for her own sake. Existentialism, in Barth’s books, was not a humanism. If he was unaware of where he wanted to go as a fictionist, his parodies of his time’s ruling philosophies show that he had a clear idea of where he did not want to be.

Although Morrell compared The Floating Opera to Dom Casmurro, it has more affinities with Brás Cubas. Neither has a very exciting plot. Machado’s novel is about a “dead man who is a writer” narrating his life, amidst many divagations, covering his inconstant adulterous relationship with Virgília, his quick passage through politics as a deputy, and his devotion to divulging the philosophy of mad philosopher Quincas Borba, inventor of Humanitism, a panacea for the world’s problems. But Brás Cubas catches pneumonia and dies without achieving success at anything, his life a tremendous failure. The premise of an observer contemplating his life from a distant point is transfigured in The Floating Opera. It begins with Todd Andrews in the 1950s analyzing the events of a single day in 1937 when he had an epiphany: “I would destroy myself on this day.” He had planned to achieve this by setting off a bomb aboard a boat. Todd, however, is no less a failure than Brás; he’s bungled his blowing himself up, so he’s not a dead man writing posthumous memoirs but, as he puts it, the memoirs of an “almost-death.” The practice of quoting while rewriting one’s predecessors, what Castro Rocha calls aemulatio, is common practice in Menippean satire. Both narrators are composing autobiographies; they digress and wander back and forth in time; they leave off revealing things for future chapters: Barth learned from Machado not to tell the story linearly. Both books include romantic triangles: if Brás Cubas engages in a typical 19th-century-fiction adultery, Todd goes at it with Jane, the wife of Todd’s best friend, Harrison, who approves of it. Since Brás Cubas is writing from the endpoint he can review his life as a complete fiasco, which feeds his cynicism; Todd is already nihilistic thanks to experiences in World War I, his father’s suicide and a heart disease that can kill him without warning. This ailment convinces him of life's meaninglessness. Brás narrates his life slowly since he’s stuck in a tedious afterlife; although Todd is not physically dead, spiritually he’s given up on life since 1937: in the 16 years since his botched suicide attempt he’s devoted himself to nothing else but explaining everything that converged upon that decision. The two protagonists, however, in spite of their self-centered inquiries, get lost in ramblings in spite of themselves, commenting on language, science, philosophy, love, friendship and whatever captures their fancy.

A healthy mockery of realistic tropes also brings them closer. Sterne was one of the earliest novelists to realize that realism was just a set of conventions, having witnessed Defoe and Richardson take it further than Cervantes. According to Robert Alter in Partial Magic, “Sterne is one of the shrewdest literary critics of his century, and a central insight of his novel is that any literary convention means a schematization – and thus a misrepresentation – of reality.”

Tristram Shandy abundantly illustrates, moreover, that a new ‘authentic’ literature liberated from conventions is a sheer impossibility. The act of literary communication can take place only by virtue of certain tacit contractual agreements between writer and reader – about the meaning and nature of words, about typography and pagination, about chapter divisions, about characterization and motivation, about cause and effect in narration, and much more. Whatever Sterne’s commitment to spontaneity, he knows that the attempt to transcend these conventional agreements would reduce the literary feast (Fielding’s favored metaphor) to mere word-salad, and so instead he makes us continually conscious of the conventions, exploring their limits, their implicit falsity, their paradoxical power to transmit fractional truths of experience.

When Balzac in the early 19th century decided that the novel should compete with the civil registry, Sterne’s lessons on self-conscious fiction took a backseat to the detailed description of society. When Machado emulated him, he was the century's nearly lonely voice. Menippean satire, says Blanchard in Scholars’ Bedlam, serves to remind readers “of the limits of human understanding.” In the past, when literature was equated with philosophy and theology, this meant that the Menippean satirist aimed his calamus at philosopher, priests, doctrinaires, etc., with their totalizing systems and doctrines. Several of Lucian’s surviving works deal with philosophers arguing amongst themselves and finding holes in their own beliefs. It’s no wonder that the genre had its heyday in the Renaissance at the time of the explosion of knowledge thanks to Gutenberg’s printing press. As the novel became popular in the 18th century and found a readership in the middle class, Menippean satire adjusted itself to see the realism’s tropes as a system no less dangerous than the delusions of philosophers to explain everything. When Machado published Brás Cubas, this delusion had reached its zenith. As Musgrave explains, the genre is a “remedy to systematizations and hierarchizations of literature and it is always a supplementary remedy to notions of completeness of the ‘Institution of Literature.’” When Machado reviewed Eça’s novels, he was particularly venomous about his propensity for inventorying details. To mock the realist belief that minutia equals truth, Brás Cuba exacerbates dates and numbers, facts and exactitude: he gives the reader the dates of everything, situating him in a precise timeframe, overwhelming him with information. Readers seldom ever know a protagonist’s birthdate, but we know that he’s born on October 20, 1805. No ellipses for him. Much, much rarer is knowing the exact time of death: “With that said, I expired at two o'clock on a Friday afternoon in the month of August, 1869, at my beautiful suburban place in Catumbi. I was sixty-four intense and prosperous years old, I was a bachelor, I had wealth of around three hundred contos, and I was accompanied to the cemetery by eleven friends. Eleven friends!” This excess of dates is nothing new; in Seneca’s The Apocolocyntosis, one of the surviving Menippean satires from Antiquity, the narrator plays around with the exact hour of Emperor Claudius’ death.

Barth was writing at the height of the realist novel's hegemony after Modernism had receded in the '30s with literature answering the war's call to contribute through "engagement". Todd’s no stranger to redundant meticulousness: “I’m fifty-four years old and six feet tall, but weigh only 145.” He’s full of years like a diary: he enlists in 1917; his father loses his business in 1929 and hangs himself the following year; Jennine, who may or may not be his and Jane’s daughter, is born on October 2, 1933; on January 10, 1935 Harrison’s father dies, which initiates a litigation that Todd must win in order to save his friend’s inheritance. Sometimes it even seems that Todd is replying to Brás. He knows for instance the precise number of times he made love to Jane between 1929 and 1937. “If [Harrison] didn’t know that I had made love to her exactly six hundred seventy-three times, it’s because Jane neglected to keep score as accurately as I did.” Machado, who had chastised Eça for the way “the unnecessary and the torpid were treated with minute tenderness and narrated with the exactitude of an inventory,” and who had ironized that realism “will only achieve perfection the day it tells us the exact number of threads a chambray handkerchief or a kitchen mop is composed of,” would have loved this narrator who kept track of the all the times he slept with his best friend’s wife as if they were sums in a ledger. Although he was writing in more puritan times, he nevertheless attempted to quantify Brás’ sexual activity with a prostitute called Marcela: “... Marcela loved me for fifteen months and eleven contos, no more, no less."

Completeness, as Menippean satirists know, is impossible. Both Barth and Machado satirize realism’s belief that more details equal more reality. Todd’s effort to understand everything that conspired to his suicide attempt is itself a classic Menippean predicament: an encyclopedia of his own life, a project fraught with failure from the start for it can never be exhaustive enough. No day of his life obsesses Todd as much as the day he decided to blow himself up. However, although he spends 16 years studying himself to understand it, he can’t be sure if it was June 21 or 22; he’s not only unsure, he doesn’t bother to look it up although he could. Reality is vaster than a verbal model of it can comprise and comprehend.

Scholars tend to agree with Frye that Menippean satire deals less with social behavior than with mental attitudes. Specifically, it scoffs at academic fads during the Menippean satirist’s time. Blanchard mentions the humanist Lorenzo Valla who was not above writing mock-encomia to the celebrated Saint Thomas Aquinas. In the case of Rabelais, Sterne and Voltaire this translated into a concern over education, or bad education, particularly bad education stemming from new, fashionable but pigheaded systems. For the typically suspicious Menippean satirist, if too many intellectuals like something, it’s bound to be bonkers. Frye also singled out this genre for “its ability to handle abstract ideas and theories,” and for submitting characters to ideas. “At its most concentrated, the Menippean satire presents us with a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern.” Although Dr. Pangloss is the classic example, Todd himself tries to live according to a rigid “philosophical position” which he describes as “being less than consistent in practically everything, so that any general statement about me will probably be inadequate.” Barth's later characters have the habit of imposing their private systems on reality. Giles, from Giles Goat-Boy, strides through the narrative certain of success because he looks at the world from the perspective of an archetypical hero in a quest aware of hero quests structures; he knows he’s going to triumph because that’s what heroes do. The realistic novel leans towards polyphony controlled by an objective narrator: conflicting voices espouse their worldviews in an orderly fashion. However, Todd and Brás Cubas overwhelm the narrative with their first-person egocentrism, shut off from counter-worldviews. As such, "reality" is exposed as a very subjective construction.

Frye also stated that this genre “is not primarily concerned with the exploits of heroes, but relies on the free play of intellectual fancy and the kind of humorous observation that produces caricature.” Menippean satirists distrust philosophers, so it’s not surprising that Machado featured a mad philosopher in two of his novels. Morrell believes that Todd works as a lawyer because Bentinho, in Dom Casmurro, is a lawyer too; that’s plausible, but he ignores the fact that it allowed Barth to emphasize the similarity between lawyers and philosophers as verbal swordsmen, manipulators of abstractions, abusers of logic and experts in persuasion. Rhetoric, after all, has been one of Menippean satire’s targets since Petronius; it’s a telling synchronicty that The Satyricon’s oldest surviving fragment starts with invectives against rhetors. For the Menippean satirist, every philosopher is a sophist. “I've been interested in the law as a kind of philosophical phenomenon since student days,” said Barth to Alan Prince. Todd conflates these two professions. “I am not a philosopher,” he says, although like Brás he can’t shut up about them, “but I am a mean rationalizer, and once the world has forced me into a new position, I can philosophize (or rationalize) like two Kants, like seven Philadelphia lawyers.” Not even Kant’s safe from quantification: he’s worth 3 ½ Philadelphia lawyers.

The word “philosopher” pops up 16 times in Brás Cubas; “philosophy,” 24. Here Quincas Borba was a minor figure before he got a novel named after him (or his dog; critics aren’t sure). Humanitism has long defied interpretation; scholars see in it a parody of everything from positivism to scientism, from Nietzsche to social Darwinism. Although Brás tries to live according to its principles, it’s not until Quincas Borba that we get a definition:

   “There's no such thing as death. The meeting of two expansions, or the expansion of two forms, can lead to the suppression of one of them, but, strictly speaking, there's no such thing as death. There's life, because the suppression of one is the condition for the survival of the other, and destruction doesn't touch the universal and common principle. From that we have the preserving and beneficial character of war. Imagine a field of potatoes and two starving tribes. There are only enough potatoes to feed one of the tribes, who in that way will get the strength to cross the mountain and reach the other slope, where there are potatoes in abundance. But, if the two tribes peacefully divide up the potatoes from the field, they won't derive sufficient nourishment and will die of starvation. Peace, in this case, is destruction; war is preservation. One of the tribes will exterminate the other and collect the spoils. This explains the joy of victory, anthems, cheers, public recompense, and all the other results of warlike action. If the nature of war were different, those demonstrations would never take place, for the real reason that man only commemorates and loves what he finds pleasant and advantageous, and for the reasonable motive that no person can canonize an action that actually destroys him. To the conquered, hate or compassion; to the victor, the potatoes.”
    “But what about the point of view of those exterminated?”
   “Nobody's exterminated. The phenomenon disappears, but the substance is the same. Haven't you ever seen boiling water? You must recall that the bubbles keep on being made and unmade and everything stays the same in the same water. Individuals are those transitory bubbles.”

Menippean satire, as I’ve said, feeds off its time’s intellectual fads. Modern readers may lack historical references to understand what Machado may be satirizing here. This is my interpretation, but a fad much in vogue in Brazil during his time was Social Darwinism. It was framed around a debate known as the “Indian Question.” Nobody knew what to do with native Americans. Up until the 19th century, slavers had raided their villages to furnish farms with forced labor. However, the abolition of slavery and the Industrial Revolution turned them redundant, and a nuisance. During the Romantic period, Indians became a favorite literary topic because of their folkloric allure, exalted as the continent’s authentic roots, since there was no danger in celebrating a conquered people in novels and poetry. In real life, though, public opinion deemed them vagrants, criminals and backward subhumans standing in the way of progress, that is, of cattle grazers and farmers extending their plantations into the hinterland. The question posed in society was: integrate or exterminate them? John Hemming wrote a thorough account of this in Amazon Frontier. Darwin never argued that evolution entails species exterminating each other in a struggle for life; he meant fitness in the sense of pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, of species snuggling in a harmonious whole and keeping each other in equilibrium. His contemporaries, however, grasped the usefulness of interpreting fitness in the physical sense. The “might makes right” philosophy found an intellectual justification in Social Darwinism. It gave European empires an excuse to fight one another for territorial and to wipe out primitive people blocking their ambitions. Suddenly natural sciences seemed to condone imperialism. If the purpose of life was nothing but a ferocious battle wherein the weak died out without mercy in the name of progress, then the extermination of the weakest species lost its moral horror under the biological imperative. There was nothing academic about this in 19th century Brazil, where Indians were indeed blamed for hindering the nation’s development. Brazilian intellectuals, plagued by an inferiority complex, looked up to Europe as a model; they wanted to reach its level fast, and some didn’t think the price of genocide was a bad deal. That’s why Auguste Comte’s positivism held mass appeal there: in its essence positivism posits that only science works; it did away with metaphysics and enshrined rationalism. At its worst, it was a religion of science. Taken to its extremes, it cancels morality in the name of pragmatism. Machado de Assis could hardly have ignored these debates; he would have known that benevolent intellectual ideas often hide inhumanity behind them (see how Humanitism surreptitiously hijacks Humanism into its nomenclature), that science evolves faster than moral sense does. He knew that excess of rationalism bred fanaticism, that progress could be just a cover to normalize madness.

Barth, like Machado, reveled in the mind’s potential to breed horrors in behalf of beautiful ideals. Nested in a college environment during a turbulent decade, he was no stranger to how natural and social scientists enthusiastically adopt the craziest ideas. In Giles Goat-Boy, the villain, WESCAC, an A.I. created by utopians which becomes a menace to society, was a crude way of addressing the risks of rampart science and reason. But Giles Goat-Boy is Barth at his most Menippean; it’s encyclopedic in the way it crunches together popular fads going on at Academe in the 1960s. Its characters are mostly intellectuals enslaved, if not dehumanized, by their own logic. Even Joe Morgan would have felt at home at New Tammany. But Barth first began playing with the danger of fashionable ideas in The Floating Opera, whose Todd embodies Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus to reveal its inherent nonsense.

Fitz claims that Todd owes his cynicism to Brás and Bentinho, which may be true; but that’s ignoring how that served a deeper purpose in his critique of his time's philosophy and literature. Todd’s dabbling in suicide takes us right into Camus, whose work is implicitly referenced. He spouts stuff like, “everything we do is ridiculous,” and his refrain “I think I’m not interested” alludes to the emotional detachment of existentialist characters. Todd is another emotional cripple, one among many who littered the existential novel in its heyday; he’s Roquentin and Meursault rolled into one and on nitrous oxide: disconnected from humanity, save for a near-mystical experience of oneness with an enemy soldier in World War I; putting on a façade to get on with other people because he knows that friendship “sure is impossible”; amoral enough to blow himself up and others without remorse; drifting through a simulacrum of life at the mercy of chance in a world without meaning. Todd, in other words, is a deliberate walking cliché straight out of Les Deux Magots’ beer-stained tables. In the same way Barth rewrites Machado, he also rewrites The Myth of Sisyphus, taking Camus’ despair at meaninglessness in a new direction. On the morning Todd tries to explode himself, he writes in his bathroom mirror these nihilistic maxims:

I Nothing has intrinsic value.
II The reasons for which people attribute value to things are always ultimately irrational.
III There is, therefore, no ultimate “reason” for valuing anything.

After some thought, he adds including life to III. Then writes two more:

IV Living is action. There’s no final reason for action.
V There’s no final reason for living.

Todd screws up his suicide; the bomb doesn’t go off; he still contemplates throwing himself into the river, but then thinks: “On the other hand, why bother?” He comes back home and rewrites V:

V There’s no final reason for living (or for suicide). 

This is a comic reply to Camus. The Myth of Sisyphus is a pretty silly book. What I love so much about it is its self-importance. Right on page 1 anyone who prizes intellectual humility will get in trouble with the petulant narrator who confidently asserts, after 2500 years of philosophical inquiry in the West, that “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” The classicist Robin Wakefield mentions somewhere that the much humbler Protagoras pioneered a tool called subjective suffixes: saying “this is true” is not the same as saying “this is true to me.” Protagoras would have said, “to you, Albert, to you.” To him it mattered. The book’s effectiveness depends on whether it’s pandering to a community that from the get-go agrees with its premise. Although I can sympathize with Camus' need to find a meaningful reason to keep on living, which he does, it's quite histrionic of him to revolve his search around suicide. People generally find meaning to their lives without preceding it by a detailed analysis of whether or not the utter meaninglessness of our birth is so traumatic that it can only be ameliorated by self-destruction. 

As we all know, Camus concluded that, no, suicide is not the answer to meaninglessness. I mean, phew!, what a relief to know that. Next, he provided a few alternatives to suicide that are so primary that any ordinary person trips over them by the sheer thoughtless act of living an ordinary person’s life. But I’ve always thought that there’s a good what-if short-story waiting to be written here: what if Camus had said, “Yeah, life is meaningless, absurd, nothing matters, nothing can redeem it, we might as well do ourselves in”? Would that have generated a spontaneous mass suicide movement? Would Hitler have interrupted World War II while his pet Heidegger organized a congress to debate it? Or would he have been quietly dismissed as a crank? From the perspective I’m writing, the narrator of The Myth of Sysiphus is a character out of a Lucianic dialogue, an honest-to-goodness philosophus gloriosus swollen with smugness. He thinks that he has something very, very important to say to all of Mankind for no better reason than that he’s the one saying it.

Understanding Todd’s cynicism as part of a critique of ideas is much more important than ascertaining whether he got it from Brás. If life is meaningless, if nothing matters, suicide makes as little sense as continuing alive. And so Todd drifts back into life because, well, because. Who cares? Why not? It’s not like the Universe gives a damn either way. With that one sentence, "There’s no final reason for living (or for suicide).", Camus’ hysterics are cut down to size and exposed for their vacuity. What was his urgency? As Musgrave says, Menippea acts as a pharmakon, a corrective. Barth did not go to Camus with reverence, for that is not the manner of the Menippean satirist; he locked on the wobbly bits of his system to make it crumble.


Scholes drew attention to the fabulators’ attraction to metafiction. “A sense of pleasure in form is one characteristic of fabulation,” he explained in The Fabulators, and added, “The structure, also, by its very shapeliness, asserts the authority of the shaper, the fabulator behind the tale.” He also argued that art works better when it moves away from representing reality to focusing on “the power of words to stimulate the imagination.” In other words, “Realism exalts Life and diminishes Art, exalts things and diminishes words.” Thus the fabulators announced “a return to a more verbal kind of fiction. It also means a return to a more fictional kind.” When Scholes included Barth in this group, he had Giles Goat-Boy in mind. Like other critics, he didn’t hold his first two novels in high esteem. This prejudice has obfuscated how much of Barth’s original voice can already be heard in them. They already show dissatisfaction with the novelistic dogmas of their time. If they come steeped in the form and philosophy of their time, they’re mixtures of decadent realism and existentialism, full of fissures, without faith in these isms. The goal was not to enforce them but to make a farce of them.

The Floating Opera is a novel aware of its fictionality. In this it’s also quite Menippean. As much as Todd tries to record his whole life, the book itself never allows the reader to forget that that life is a fiction contained in a physical object he’s holding in his hands and created by an author called John Barth. Metafiction was not a gift he received in the ‘60s thanks from Borges; it was something he was already practicing in the ‘50s.

When Brás Cubas starts his memoirs by saying, “I am not exactly a writer who is dead but a dead man who is a writer,” he’s pointing out his narrative amateurism. So he discusses with passion the craft itself. “For some time I debated over whether I should start these memoirs at the beginning or at the end, that is, whether I should put my birth or my death in first place.” Todd also introduces himself as an amateur: “Good heavens, how does one write a novel! I mean, how can anybody stick to the story, if he’s at all sensitive to the significances of things? As for me, I see already that storytelling isn’t my cup of tea: every new sentence I set down is full of figures and implications that I’d love nothing better than to chase to their dens with you, but such chasing would involve new figures and new chases, so that I’m sure we’d never get the story started, much less ended, if I let my inclinations run unleashed.” 
Todd struggles with the limits of language to convey meaning, a Menippean concern. He’s wary of any stable meaning because he’s conscious that words are representation of things, not the thing itself. Like Brás Cubas he interrupts, resumes, insists, clarifies, cuts out, digresses, in a bid to be clearer, always failing. Often they fail because the mind can’t stay focused long enough to think neatly, rigorously, criticing an inherent flaw in the brain of a species that thinks itself rational using that same brain. The mind, Menippean satirists never fail to repeat, is the stage at which things start going wrong. Divagating interruptions abound: Todd gets away from the main narrative, follows tributaries, focuses on small details, augments them, forgets what he was writing about, slides through another path, goes back to the start. This careful carelessness helps feign a sense of spontaneity. Here’s Brás opening Chapter III, “Now that I've mentioned my two uncles, let me make a short genealogical outline here." (My italics. Rabassa’s translation here doesn’t quite express the original’s casualness; it’s more like, “But since I’ve mentioned…”, which gives a stronger sense of an unplanned idea creeping in). These sudden bursts of distractions overwhelm the dead narrator; he spends the entire Chapter LXXXVII trying to recall the name of a man; only at the end does he say, “Ah! Now I remember.” Once Todd asks the reader, “Where were we?” as if forgotten.

Brás must teach to the reader to read his novel: sometimes he does it directly, sometimes he uses allegories. For instance, at one point he relates a childhood episode, about a man, João, who told him dirty jokes; Brás’ brother, fated to be a priest, ran away from him. “Not I. I allowed myself to stay without understanding at first, later understanding, and finally finding him amusing.” This is an apt description of how the novel itself sneaks upon the reader and lodges itself slowly in his mind; it’s a strangeness that requires adaptation. Todd, too, prepares readers for the rhythm and structure of his narrative: “It has always seemed to me, in the novels that I’ve read now and then, that those authors are asking a great deal of their readers who start their stories furiously, in the middle of things, rather than backing or sidling slowly into them.” Like Brás he undermines expectations for those seeking conventions: “For example, I’ve got this book started now, and though we’re probably a good way from the story yet, at least we’re headed toward it, and I for one have learned to content myself with that.” The reader should not expect linearity but “a piece at a time, after my fashion – which, remember, is not unsystematic, but simply coherent in terms of my own, perhaps unorthodox, system.” Before him Brás had already posted warnings about the narrative’s singularity: “It must be said, however, that this book is written with apathy, with the apathy of a man now freed of the brevity of the century, a supinely philosophical work, of an unequal philosophy, now austere, now playful, something that neither builds nor destroys, neither inflames nor cools, and, yet, it is more than a pastime and less than an apostolate.”

Both narrators like to address the reader directly to tease him or insult him, a stapple of metafiction. “I think he prefers anecdotes to reflections,” says Brás, “like other readers, his confrères, and I think he's right." Todd apologizes for his lack of talent: “Patience, friend; it's not my aim to mystify or exasperate you. Remember that I’m a novice at storytelling.” He even promises to write in a more normal fashion. “No doubt when I get a hang of storytelling, after a chapter or two, I’ll go faster and digress less often.” But this game’s charm involves frustrating the reader’s hopes; the famous contract isn’t binding here. The reader's even challenged to drop the novel. Todd starts a chapter saying, “If you’re still with me,” aware that his gambit may be off-putting. No less dangerous is harassing the reader. "But the book is tedious, it has the smell of the grave about it; it has a certain cadaveric contraction about it, a serious fault, insignificant to boot because the main defect of this book is you, reader,” complains Brás. “You're in a hurry to grow old and the book moves slowly. You love direct and continuous narration, a regular and fluid style, and this book and my style are like drunkards, they stagger left and right, they walk and stop, mumble, yell, cackle, shake their fists at the sky, stumble, and fall...”

The book form, the physical object itself, is a presence the reader is not allowed to forget. “If the reader isn't given to the contemplation of these mental phenomena, he may skip this chapter and go straight to the narrative,” Brás allows. Todd says, “The last half of this book, I’m afraid, will be nothing but these explanations I’ve promised and postponed.” Reading this on page 43, with 200 more to go, the reader is being exposed to "reality" in book form. By constantly referring to their narratives by chapter, by emphasizing artificiality, they’re not just pulling the reader out of the illusion well-behaved novels sigh for; they’re telling him he’s holding in his hands an actual object that has been built and that can be opened, closed, perused, interrupted, manipulated. (Apropos of book design, Barth follows Machado in using roman numerals instead of Arab numbers for chapters. Machado also gave Brás Cubas and Dom Casmurro chapters with titles, a practice Barth used in his first four novels.) Brás often refers to previous chapters by their numeral. “I think I said in Chapter XIV that Marcela’s dying of love for Xavier,” he says in XVI, and the reader feels tempted to go back and check. Or else he orders in XXXVII, “Reread Chapter XXVII.” Todd, too, asks the reader in XXIV to go back to XX; in XXVII he asks him to “look back into” III. Thus they constantly deny the reader his craving for illusion and exert their control upon him.

Both narrators also emphasize the novel’s actual moment of construction. Todd says, “I can’t finish, reader, can’t hold my pen fast to the line: I am convulsed; I am weeping tears of laughter on the very page!” Or else he commands, “Understand it now, because I may not live to end the chapter!” Brás Cubas inserts his own regrets about the memoirs even as he’s composing them: “I’m beginning to regret this book.” And in Chapter LXXII he ponders, “Maybe I’ll leave out the previous chapter.” Or else he mentions tentative chapters: "What looks like a simple inventory here are notes I'd taken for a sad and banal chapter that I won't write.” Instead of a neat, coherent depiction of reality, they cobble together fragments of a work in progress, emphasizing that its construction is arbitrary and could have turned out some other way.

Machado did manage to be more radical than Barth, he performed bolder feats; just think of Chapter LV, the famous “The Old Dialogue of Adam and Eve,” a wordless chapter where Brás and Virgília have a conversation using just dots and punctuation. (It’s worth noting that Almeida Garrett, whom Machado admired greatly, had suggested the idea in Travels In My Homeland: “Where chronicle is quiet and tradition speaks not, I’d rather have a page full of small dots.”) CXIV is all dialogue; CXXXIX has nothing but lines of dots; CXIX lists maxims. One contains a single line; another just reproduces a tombstone epitaph. Barth is more conventional in form: his novel has 29 chapters and 252 pages; Brás Cubas has 160 chapters and only 203 pages! The brevity of each chapter encourages this frantic eclecticism. Barth, notwithstanding a few typographical games involving facsimiles, doesn’t surpass Machado’s audacity here; he'd do better in the future.


According to Fitz, Barth's second novel “contained only echoes of Machado de Assis; already Barth was beginning to define his own distinctive voice.” Fitz’ interpretation doesn’t depart from Barth’s own version of Machado’s role in his work. In his second novel, Barth indeed toned down the metafictional aspects and diluted the affinities; in many ways, The End of the Road does resemble a realistic novel more. Curiously, even in this he seems to have emulated Machado. As Sá Rego remarked, Quincas Borba is also less unconventional since its premise, a “fish out of water” type of story, depends more on social conventions and a recognizable form for its humor to work. After Barth’s first novel, direct similarities between the two, of the sort that Fitz enumerated, dwindled. However, if Menippean satire and metafiction are salient features of that distinctive voice, then we need to reassess his statement. For critics, Barth’s forays into metafiction began with Lost in the Funhouse, a consequence of him discovering Borges’s short-stories. In fact it was already in the pages of his debut novel. I can't understand how so many critics misread its intentions. (As an aside, Rhett McNeil, in “Just How Marginal Was Machado de Assis? The Early Translations and the Borges Connection,” remarks that the only evidence we have that Borges ever read Machado – since he never mentions him once in his entire oeuvre – comes from Barth’s essay “Borges and I: a mini memoir,” wherein he relates their discussing Machado’s fiction.)

Why did Barth respond so well to Machado? Although nearly a century apart, both started from the identical conudrum of how to move beyond literary realism. Barth has probably never learned that Machado became the writer we nowadays celebrate because he himself was going through that dilemma. Because his best novels were the first to be translated into English, he showed up in America as a fully formed sui generis novelist at odds with 19th-century fiction. People translate books, not their historical contexts. But Machado had once faced young Barth’s predicament. Having solved in 1881 the problem of avoiding prevailing models of fiction, his solutions found their way into Barth. It’s not incorrect, then, to think of him as a precursor of the Latin American Boom. A decade before Borges and Gabriel García Márquez opened new paths, Barth had quietly smuggled Machado’s innovative techniques into American fiction. Brian Boyd, in the essay “Nabokov and Machado de Assis,” argued that had Machado been known sooner he would have influenced writers like Nabokov and James Joyce. We don’t need to speculate about that; even unknown, Machado’s inside American postmodernist literature's DNA thanks to Barth, exerting an undying but unsung influence.
But although he publicly praised Machado, nobody else appears to have read him at the time, for which reason the extent of his legacy doesn't gets its due. Even now he flies below radars. But his story is worth knowing, for in the meeting between Barth and Machado we witness the miracles of literature: borders breaking down, the old and the young becoming contemporary, and how a translation in the right moment can replenish a nation’s fiction.
Revised in October 2021