13 September 2023
Machado de Assis, Portinari and the Bilingual Brazilian Book Club at the British Library
Rafael Pereira do Rego is the Interim Programme Manager and Area Specialist at the Eccles Centre for American Studies
It was a great pleasure for the Eccles Centre to welcome the Brazilian Bilingual Book Club to the British Library during the celebration of their 100th edition on Saturday 15th July. The Embassy of Brazil has been running the Book Club for the past nine years with a wide network of international members and friends. This special edition at the Library was an opportunity to deepen ties between our two institutions and to celebrate and invite discussion and reflection on Brazilian literature and culture through the Library’s collections.
The star of the event discussed during the Book Club – and for which we brought a special edition for the show-and-tell presentation – was the classic novella O Alienista (translated in English as ‘The Psychiatrist’ or ‘The Alienist). Originally published in 1882, by the illustrious Brazilian writer Machado de Assis, it is a wonderful short satirical work with an elegant and concise style centred on Dr Bacamarte, an alienist – the designation of psychiatrist in the nineteenth century, from the French ‘aliéniste’ – and his scientific experiments in the town of Itaguai, near Rio de Janeiro. There he established the Casa Verde (Green House) – a cross between a 19th century prototype of a psychiatric asylum and a scientific laboratory – to conduct experiential studies on the human mind. Dr. Bacamarte used his scientific power to define which denizens of the town should be confined to the asylum according to his shifting ideas of normality. As the narrative unfolds, the alienist gets lost in a madness of his own making. O Alienista was included recently in Machado de Assis: 26 Stories (2019) translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, which among other translations of the title, are available at the British Library.
Machado de Assis is the most celebrated classic Brazilian author, so it is natural that the Library’s holdings will encompass some of his works, but it was very exciting to see the scope and depth of our collections reflecting the interest that his books have attracted from the time of their first publications in Britain. There are over 300 copies of various works by and about Machado de Assis, including some of his earliest works acquired in the nineteenth century, many of which are rare volumes. Nadia Kerecuk, the creator and convenor of the Book Club, very kindly made a list of all of our holdings available. For instance, the British Library holds the first edition of one of his most famous novels Dom Casmurro published in 1889, and the poetry collections Chrysalidas (1866), and Phalenas (1869). In addition, we have some beautiful editions including the 1948 version of the novella with illustrations of one of my favourite Brazilian artists, Cândido Portinari1.
Last year when I visited my hometown, Rio, there was a lovely and comprehensive exhibition at Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil providing an overview of the various facets and languages explored by Portinari – and including some of the illustrations that are present in the selected 1948 edition, as well as from other illustrated editions of Machado de Assis’ Memoria Postumas de Braz Cubas and Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha.
Both Machado de Assis and Cândido Portinari had this incredible capacity to capture the human condition and Brazilian-ness in ways that feel both universal and culturally specific. Portinari was a keen enthusiast of Machado de Assis’ work and both lived in one of the neo-colonial elegant houses in Cosme Velho, a bucolic neighborhood in Rio and perhaps one of my favourite areas of the city. They came from a rather deprived childhood but with unwavering talent and determination, came to represent big names in literature and visual arts.
The 1948 edition was sponsored by the bibliophile and executive Raymundo Ottoni de Castro Maya (1894-1968). It is part of a wider collection named Os Cem Bibliófilos do Brasil (100 Bibliophiles of Brazil) named after a bibliophilic society created by Castro Maya. The society was composed of a hundred personalities of the time, among intellectuals, executives and society figures, which met annually to produce and publish works by great authors of Brazilian literature, illustrated by notable visual artists. In 30 years, they published names such as Machado de Assis, Guimarães Rosa, Jorge Amado, José Lins do Rego, Lima Barreto and Mário de Andrade, with their literary work illustrated by major visual artists such as Di Cavalcanti, Portinari, Iberê Camargo, Cícero Dias, Carybé, among others.
The Brazilian media tycoon Roberto Marinho was part of the select society, alongside names that might be very familiar to Brazilians, such as Walter Moreira Salles, Maria do Carmo de Melo Franco Nabuco, Horácio Klabin, Gilberto Chateaubriand, Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho, Lineu de Paula Machado, D. Pedro Gastão de Orléans and Bragança, Celso Lafer, Clemente Mariani and Niomar Moniz Sodré Bittencourt.
The artisanal publication of these beautifully illustrated editions was an important initiative, which resulted in the publication of authors and artists portraying Brazil in a variety of themes and motifs. At the same time, it is revealing of the Eurocentric references of Brazilian elites, importing values, techniques and cultural codes to the ‘developing’ country. Castro Maya based this collection on European publishing trends, especially from France where he lived. The publications were generally composed by hand and printed on manual presses. The paper had great quality specifications with rough texture and watermark, supplied by French manufacturers. Many books were engraved with different techniques such as etching, dry point, xylography and lithography.
Each edition took about a year to be completed and each member of the society would receive their own exclusive copy with their names identified and within loose sheets, so the binding could be personalised according to the owners’ tastes. Print runs were limited to about 120 copies. The Society launches took place at gala dinners at Rio’s most exclusive Country Club – established by British executives in 1916 and since then the meeting point of the crème de la crème of carioca society – when auctions were held of the original illustrations not included in the final edition. I was very pleased to find out that the British Library has 20 published copies of the collection Os Cem Bibliófilos do Brasil! Rare and exclusive copies of the beautiful pas-des-deux between classic authors of Brazilian literature and notable visual artists. I hope you can explore more the collection available at the British Library.
After the show-and-tell presentation, O Alienista was specifically addressed during the hybrid meeting of the Brazilian Bilingual Book Club, with members joining from overseas via MS Teams. Nadia Kerecuk prepared a historical background of the publication and a series of questions to direct the engaging discussion with the members of this successful bilingual and bibliophile ‘society’ with the welcomed accompaniment of delicious snacks and wine. Notwithstanding the indisputable differences between the Country Club in Rio and the British Library in London, we could say this was an exclusive gala afternoon!
1To learn more about Candido Portinari’s work please check the five-volume catalogue raisonné available at the British Library organised by his son Joao Candido Portinari as part of the major Portinari Project which has the aim of cataloguing thousands of paintings, drawings and printings, as well digitally processing images and oral history outputs. Some of the audiovisual content of this project is also available via the online platform here.