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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Counselor Ayres' Memorial

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

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To purchase Counselor Ayres' Memorial

Title: Counselor Ayres' Memorial
Author: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Genre: Novel
Written: 1908 (Eng. 1972)
Length: 196 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: Counselor Ayres' Memorial - US
Counselor Ayres' Memorial - UK
Counselor Ayres' Memorial - Canada
Ce que les hommes appellent amour - France
Tagebuch des Abschieds - Deutschland
Memoriale di Aires - Italia
Memorial de Aires - España
  • Portuguese title: Memorial de Aires
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Helen Caldwell
  • Also translated by Robert L. Scott-Buccleuch as The Wager (1990)

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Our Assessment:

B : solid; leisurely-paced and melancholy-tinged

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian* . 25/2/2005 Alfred Hickling
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 30/1/2010 Thomas Sträter

[* review of a different translation]

  From the Reviews:
  • "The narrative is presented as journal entries of sometimes staggering inconsequentiality (...) while what direct action there is gets eked out in parsimonious, stiff-jointed prose. Yet for all the downbeat philosophising, De Assis's mundane meditations on age and missed opportunity accrue a sombre musicality of their own, like a slow, rheumatic march towards the tomb." - Alfred Hickling, The Guardian

  • "Es ist eine Meditation über das Alter und die Jugend. Dem Genre des intimen Tagebuchs geschuldet, geschieht recht wenig in der Residenzstadt Rio de Janeiro. Besuche, Spaziergänge, Ausflüge in die kaiserliche Sommerfrische Petrópolis, Abendgesellschaften, ein wenig Politik, unterbrochen von Mussestunden, die dem pensionierten Botschaftsrat Aires genügend Zeit zur Reflexion geben. In mildes Licht der Ironie getaucht, reihen sich Alltagsbeobachtungen, Gespräche, Konfessionen in lockerer Folge zu einem wehmütigen Blick auf das Erdentreiben, das trotz dem Lokalkolorit sich auch in einer europäischen Metropole ereignen könnte." - Thomas Sträter, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       As Machado notes in a brief Foreword to this novel, he had already mentioned Counselor Ayres' Memorial -- Ayres' diaries -- in his previous novel, Esau and Jacob (which also features the character). As Helen Caldwell notes in her Translator's Introduction, the Portuguese title of the novel, Memorial de Ayres (also: Memorial de Aires): "means both Ayres' memorial (of and to himself) and Ayres' notebook or diary" -- and that is indeed exactly what the novel is. The novel is in diary-form, beginning in early 1888, starting exactly a year after the sixty-two-year-old Ayres' return from Europe and his retirement from the diplomatic service; Machado suggests these parts of the diary: "relating to the two years 1888-1889, if pruned of certain incidents, descriptions, and reflections, could present a connected narrative that might hold some interest". (Machado ends his Foreword with the nicely put: "The rest will appear some day, if some day comes"; alas, he died that year, and so some day never came.)
       Ayres spent most of his career -- "thirty-odd years" -- abroad, but settles back in Brazil: "Here I am, here I live, here I shall die". The diary entries selected to open the novel are from a day that has both some reflection -- it is the one-year anniversary of his return to Brazil -- as well as also setting the action into motion, as his widowed sister Rita sends a note asking him to join her the next day at the cemetery, to visit the family tomb. Dutifully he joins her -- and, while there they see a young woman, Fidelia, whom Ayres is quite taken by. (Oddly, he had apparently just met her a few days earlier at Rita's, and even spoken with her for a few minutes, but she didn't make that much of an impression there; Rita had to remind him of the encounter; it suggests that Ayres is as much taken by context (specifically the surroundings of loss) as the woman herself.)
       Fidelia is a young widow. Learning that, Ayres, in a playful mood, argues she will marry again. Rita is adamant that she won't:

     She won't marry. It is enough to know the circumstances of her marriage, the life they had together, and her grief when she was widowed.
       The daughter of a plantation owner, Fidelia had married a doctor, the son of her father's political enemy. The marriage led to the couple becoming estranged from their families, and, holding a grudge, even after her husband's death Fidelia's father refused to speak with her.
       The back and forth between Ayres and his sister leads to a friendly little wager, Rita betting that Ayres could not get Fidelia to marry him. This then is, pretty much, the plot of the novel -- will she or won't she, expanded slightly to whether or not she will marry anyone, as Ayres is realist enough to know that he's much too old for the young woman. A widower himself -- his wife buried back in Europe --, Ayres can't however entirely suppress his attraction to and longing for Fidelia; fortunately, he has enough self-control and good manners so that the situation doesn't get creepy or awkward; at worst, he lets his fantasy (and dreams) run a bit wild. His narrative is, however, tinged with melancholy, the old man and romantic aware that youthful love is beyond him now, but still feeling the pangs of missing it. His claims that he stands above it -- "... enchanting Fidelia ! I do not write this because I desire her, but because it is so: enchanting" -- are transparent examples of protesting too much, but make for the novel's wistful autumn-of-life feel.
       Among the friends Ayres regularly sees is the Aguiar couple, Dona Carmo and Aguilar. They remained childless, but were very close to the son of one of Dona Carmo's friends, a boy, Tristão (yes, Machado is a bit heavy-handed with the names ...), to whom Dona Carmo was practically a mother. Now grown, he had gone to Europe -- and gradually stopped being in touch with them, breaking their hearts. But Dona Carmo has now gotten close to Fidelia, and treats her practically like another substitute child -- Ayres refers to Fidelia and Tristão as their: "two foster children" --; their closeness also gives Ayres more occasions to see Fidelia.
       Unsurprisingly, the attractive young Fidelia soon has suitors; one, Osorio, seems particularly promising -- but he is turned away. But then Tristão returns -- also into the Aguiars' fold -- and, of course, he and Fidelia are fated to fall in love.
       As the dates suggest, the novel also covers the time of the abolition of slavery in Brazil -- "Good that we did away with it ! It was time", Ayres agrees. Fidelia's father had slaves on his plantation; he dies during this period, and Fidelia inherits the property, and part of the story deals with her dealing with it, an interesting small sub-plot of the times.
       Presented in the form of mostly quite short diary entries, in which Ayres recounts the limited goings-on around him, as well as the occasional reflective thoughts, Counselor Ayres' Memorial moves at the leisurely pace of a retired man with no great obligations -- and only a few dreams that are so obviously out of any feasible reach (i.e. Fidelia) that he accepts them as the airiest of dreams. There's a nice melancholy, wistful feel to it all, without Ayres ever feeling too sorry for himself; he knows his place, and sees what is best for Fidelia.
       As usual with Machado, the role of the act of writing, and its form, are significant -- and the narrator aware of them. At various times Ayres observes, for example:
I cannot leave off writing the Memorial ! Here I am again with the pen in my hand. Truly, it gives a certain pleasure to pour out on paper things that want to come out of the head by way of memory and reflection.
       And there are the amusing self-reflexive twists on the chosen form:
     If I were writing a novel I would strike the pages of the 12th and 22nd of this month. A work of fiction would not permit such an equivalence of events.
       It is a pretty low-key novel as far as drama goes; what there is is largely off-scene -- Fidelia's difficult relationship with her father, for example. But it's still a quite pleasant wending journey, even as Ayres is not at the center of the blossoming romance -- though he also can't escape being a peripheral part of it and is, for example (somewhat to his annoyance), asked to be best man at the wedding .....
       Tristão is politically active -- but that in Portugal, where he spent some time before his return to Brazil. Nevertheless, even in Brazil he apparently continues to be active in Portuguese politics -- and successful, necessitating a return to Europe. It makes for a somewhat odd conclusion -- though at least it gives Ayres some closure, Fidelia now far away.
       For a novel of longing -- an old man's reflection on a life nearer its end, youth little more than faded memories, and love and passion no longer in realistic reach -- Counselor Ayres' Memorial is fairly but also appropriately subdued, in both tone and action. It's an agreeable little work -- anything but lively but nevertheless quietly affecting and memorable.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 July 2020

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Counselor Ayres' Memorial: Reviews (* review of a different translation): Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis: Other books by Machado de Assis under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Brazilian author Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis lived 1839 to 1908.

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