Lorna Scott Fox at The Baffler:
THE GREATEST AND MOST UNDEFINABLE of Brazilian writers was born in poverty in 1839, the son of domestic workers tied to an estate. He barely attended school, suffered from epilepsy and poor eyesight all his life, and was visibly a mulatto in a stratified, racially paranoid society which would only abolish slavery in 1888. Yet Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis confounded every law of determinism to acquire staggering erudition, several foreign languages, and an entrée to Brazil’s white elite. In a career spanning almost fifty years—he is said to have published his first sonnet at the age of fifteen—he produced a vast trove of novels, stories, chronicles, essays, and poetry.
Such is the originality of his mature work, however, that full appreciation by critics and readers was slow in coming, at home and abroad. His contemporaries, then heatedly debating the criteria for a national literature, felt he was lacking in local color or brasilidade; despite the panegyrics of latter-day tastemakers like Harold Bloom and Susan Sontag, and—lest these names suggest otherwise—the entertaining readability of his work, he is even today not a household name.