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“Dom Casmurro,” by Machado de Assis, teaches us to read — and reread — with precise detail and masterly obfuscation.
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By Benjamin Moser
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It is one of the mysteries of my life as a reader that I did not, at first, like Machado de Assis.
I was 19 when I first read him, a year into studying Portuguese at college. I fell into the subject by happenstance, knowing nothing about the language or the peoples that spoke it, but I took to it, discovered an affinity for it, wanted to learn more. And one thing I learned was that Brazil’s greatest writer was someone called Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis; I doubt I had ever heard the name before. I was curious, and felt I should read him. Not yet confident enough in my language skills, I found a translation of his 1899 novel “Dom Casmurro.”
And, reader, I didn’t get it.
I had to force myself to finish it. For years, I didn’t pick up another one of his books. When at last I did, I was bewildered by my initial impression. Where first I had been bored, I was now enthralled. Where I had seen salon chitchat, I now saw the musings of genius. I wanted more.
Eventually, Machado became one of those rare writers of whom I can now say, with a high degree of confidence, that I have read every word he published. I felt something more than the admiration one feels for an impressive writer. I felt something familiar to generations of his Brazilian readers: love.
It is one of the unexpected services of Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson’s new translation of DOM CASMURRO (Liveright, 270 pp., $27.95) that they have helped me solve the mystery of my first impression. As I was reading their translation, I pulled out the first one I had read, one of the many that came before. I saw that the difficulty of translating Machado is not that his language is so precise and clear: That would seem to make the task easy. The challenge for the translator is that the writer uses precise and clear phrases (“Good morning!”) in a way that turns their precision and clarity against them and suggests something else. Rather than letting these lines stand, slyly winking and furtively smiling, the earlier translator had tried to nudge the reader too firmly toward that something else.
Like someone discovering a magnificent garment that has been washed at the wrong temperature and then stuffed into the dryer, I winced.
The slimy, slippery theme of “Dom Casmurro,” after all, is not knowing, not being sure, and its language reflects that theme. The question at the heart of the novel has launched a thousand essays in every Brazilian high school. Did the beautiful Capitu betray her husband, Bentinho? It’s the kind of question teachers love, because it is guaranteed to get a good discussion going. Half the students will say that she did — and half the class, with just as much conviction, will say she didn’t. Machado has sown clues everywhere. The mystery is what they add up to.
It doesn’t, at first, seem like a mystery novel. We meet Bentinho as an old man. Returning home on a commuter train, he is accosted by a neighbor who insists on reading him some of his poems. Tired, he nods off; the next day, he learns that the offended poet has given him the nickname Dom Casmurro. Jull Costa and Patterson have wisely refrained from translating this name (which even Machado warns against looking up in the dictionary), since it could only sound silly in English: something like Mr. Grumpy.
Bentinho lives in a northern suburb of Rio de Janeiro, in a house that he has ordered built and decorated precisely like the house in which he grew up, in another part of town. It was an attempt “to restore what once was and what I once was,” he writes. “If all I was missing were other people, fine, a man can more or less console himself for such losses, but I myself am missing, and that lacuna is everything.”
Soon, though, we leave that gloomy house and return to the original, where, on a November afternoon, a 15-year-old Bentinho overhears his mother and José Dias, an obsequious hanger-on, discussing the need to dispatch Bentinho to the seminary. His pious mother, a young widow, had promised God that her son would become a priest, but as he enters adolescence, he is growing close to a neighbor girl, Capitu. Until he overhears this conversation, it has not occurred to him that he is in love with Capitu. Of course he is. The pair vow undying love. He goes to the seminary; eventually, he manages to leave. They marry. They have a child and are deliriously happy — until, right before the end, Capitu points out that their son’s eyes resemble those of Bentinho’s dead best friend, Escobar.
What follows are some of the most pitiless pages in world literature: bam, bam, bam. Even though you know exactly where this is going — and for more than a century, every Brazilian reader has known exactly where this is going — the end comes as a blow.
Was it, so to speak, worth it?
Did Capitu betray Bentinho with Escobar?
At first blush, “Dom Casmurro” seems like a conventional romance. Boy meets girl. Obstacles ensue and are overcome. Machado takes his time unrolling his scenes. The first section, the November afternoon when Bentinho realizes he is about to be sent to the seminary and understands that he loves Capitu, takes up nearly half the book. Everything is explained. Every character is introduced in microscopic detail. Everything seems bright and sharp, and we have all the time in the world — until, right at the end, the author muddies everything. We realize that there were clues scattered everywhere. But what do they mean? We have to comb those pages, and, when we do, we see why such an apparently simple question — Did she? Didn’t she? — becomes such a rich one.
This is one reason that, even if the translation I originally read had been better, I might not have understood this book. More than perhaps any book I know, “Dom Casmurro” has to be read more than once. It teaches us to read in much the same way that Vermeer teaches us to see — by looking, and then looking again. A pretty young lady is standing at the window, talking to a servant or gazing at a letter: a theme for both Vermeer and Machado. Nothing is happening, but the longer we look, the more we grow aware of everything that we’re seeing, and everything we’re not. We look again. Everything is there. Nothing is there. Like Vermeer, Machado withholds an answer. Or does he?
“You cannot easily correct a confusing book, but you can add almost anything to a book full of omissions,” Machado writes, giving us his notorious side-eye. “Whenever I read one of the latter sort, I don’t mind in the least. What I do when I reach the end is close my eyes and imagine all the things I didn’t find in it. What a host of fine ideas come to me then! What profound thoughts! The rivers, mountains, churches I did not find in its pages all appear to me with their flowing waters, their trees, their altars.”
He continues: “Because, dear reader, everything can be found outside an inadequate book. And just as I fill in someone else’s lacunae, you can do the same with mine.”
Benjamin Moser is the author of “Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector” and “Sontag: Her Life and Work,” for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. “The Upside-Down World: Meetings With the Dutch Masters” will be published in October.
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