Thursday, October 22, 2015

When less is more (Machado de Assis)

We get so used to hearing (in advertisements for example) that more is always better that we sometimes forget the original (and probably more accurate) proposition that less is more.  It often is better to be left wanting more than to be so gorged that the charm of whatever we were reading or watching is lost.  While I often think that the BBC television series are too short at 6 shows per season, having to come up with 13 or more shows in a US series overtaxes the writers and makes it far more likely that the show will jump the shark by the third or fourth season.

This is definitely a lesson I need to absorb as I try to translate some of my visions to the stage.  I have a tendency to write dialogue that isn't strictly necessary to advance the plot.  A bit early on is ok, as it is establishing setting and character, but in the later parts of the play this just pads things out.  Certainly I agree with Chris Jones of the Tribune that most plays could be improved by trimming out 15-20 minutes. (While I still wish I had managed to see it, it sounds like The Iceman Cometh is absurdly long and needs much editing.)  So I will have to apply a scalpel to my own work as I edit it.

It is a little harder to tell about novels, since in some cases the plots really do require a long time to advance them, though personally I prefer novels to stay below the 300 page limit.

Sometimes even 300 pages can seem too long.  I have been reading a fair bit of Machado de Assis lately, and I find even his short novels have a tendency to drag for me.  I suppose this is 1) because so little actually happens in them and 2) he keeps expressing the philosophy that nothing we do on earth really matters since we are all destined for the grave (and many of us will go mad along the way).  I have some respect for such a bleak view, but it does get boring in large doses.  This is actually a shame, since there was a quite interesting section towards the end of Philosopher or Dog? where we shows a bit of a kaleidoscopic view of society where almost everyone is wrapped up in their own issues and only a few have the inclination to help out the main character, even though he had given them a hand up early on in their careers.  It is a bit of an embarrassment to be reminded that they should be grateful, so there is a bit of a relief when the madman is finally put away.

While the language is generally quite refined and genteel, de Assis has an incredibly jaded view of humans in general and Brazilian society specifically.  Most of the characters in his novels are quite aware of how useless they are (politicians or, worse, aspiring politicians) with only a very few of them doing anything remotely productive, such as serving as a lawyer, a newspaper editor or a bureaucrat who actually does work (this puts this character in the same company as Alexander Herzen as opposed to the idle office holders in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina).  Indeed, this productive bureaucrat is a complete workaholic and seems to miss the books in his study more than his wife when he goes off on a tour of Europe.  (It wasn't clear, but I imagine he managed to convert this over to a busman's holiday where he would meet some bankers in England and so forth.)  While one could certainly say that, in the long run, very little than anyone does makes any difference (Bogie's "hill of beans"), that seems a cop out of a different sort.  I am much more inclined to believe (along with the main character of Kurosawa's Ikiru) that work, even government work, can have a meaningful and positive impact on society.  Sure, that playground that Watanabe built will crumble someday and all the kids that swung on the swings will be dead -- and at some point solar flares from the sun will evaporate all life on Earth -- but is that a reason to give up the struggle? 

I say no.  So in that sense, I am somewhat out of sync with de Assis in the first place.  In the second place, since this is all he has to say (along with way too much detail about the failed love affairs of his main characters), I think all of his books and even the Alienist would have been better off at about half their length.

That said, in small doses and well-spaced out, he can be an enjoyable read.  I would certainly start with the short stories, which often are a bit more upbeat.  A Collection of Hats is a good collection, as is the edition of The Alienist (from Hackett) that also includes 7 short stories.

Here are his major works:
R 1881 – Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, also known as Epitaph of a Small Winner)
R 1881 – O Alienista (The Alienist)
R 1891 – Quincas Borba (also known in English as Philosopher or Dog?)
    1899 – Dom Casmurro
    1904 – Esaú e Jacó (Esau and Jacob)
R 1908 – Memorial de Aires (Counselor Aires's Memoirs, also known as The Wager)

From this list, I would definitely start with Epitaph of a Small Winner, as it is his best (and certainly best-known) novel.  This one does seem to draw a bit upon Sterne's Tristram Shandy, whereas Quincas Borba seems to draw more upon Don Quixote, though it is an ironical inversion of Don Quixote where the main character travels relatively little and does very little aside from pressing himself insistently upon a friend's wife and trying to steal away her honor.

The Alienist is worth reading.  The others all have moments, but do seem too long in my view.  I don't expect to change my views after reading the remaining two novels (Dom Casmurro and Esau and Jacob), but I'll update this post if my views do shift.  As should be clear from this post, I'll be taking a bit of a break from Machado de Assis for the time being.

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