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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Esau and Jacob

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

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To purchase Esau and Jacob

Title: Esau and Jacob
Author: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Genre: Novel
Written: 1904 (Eng. 2000)
Length: 276 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: Esau and Jacob - US
Esau and Jacob - UK
Esau and Jacob - Canada
Esaü et Jacob - France
  • Portuguese title: Esaú e Jacó
  • Translated by Elizabeth Lowe
  • Edited and with Foreword by Dain Borges
  • With an Afterword by Carlos Felipe Moisés
  • Previously translated by Helen Caldwell (1965)

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Our Assessment:

B : many clever bits and writing, but lumbers along

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph* . 20/1/1966 Robert Baldick
The NY Rev. of Books . 18/7/2002 Michael Wood
The NY Times Book Rev. . 26/11/2000 Jenny McPhee
Sunday Times* . 6/2/1966 Frederic Raphael
The Times* . 20/1/1966 .
TLS* . 17/2/1966 Jean Franco

*: Refers to a different translation than the one under review here.

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, and many rather underwhelmed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Alas, the story is a heavy allegory on the human condition (.....) All the principal characters express themselves in ornate aphorisms, and their physical activity seems to be confined to flower-arrangement." - Robert Baldick, Daily Telegraph

  • "In a subtle parody of bourgeois life in Brazil at the time, the twins' trials are recorded by the distinguished Aires, who is unaware of the damning portrait he is painting of his country's culture, society and politics. Nevertheless -- and herein lies the author's genius -- Aires' story is riddled with the eloquent utterances of great truths. Elizabeth Lowe's elegant translation is accompanied by interesting and informative essays about the author and his work." - Jenny McPhee, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The amiable tone of Machado de Assis's book, his self-deprecating apostrophes to the reader and his polite humour make one hope for a masterpiece, but I found too much asked of my sympathy. (...) It is strictly for those who must read Brazilian fiction." - Frederic Raphael, Sunday Times

  • "The tale is flimsy whether viewed as it stands or, if we are to believe the translator, as an allegory of Brazil's history, but it is redeemed by the author's modernity of outlook and his lightness of touch." - The Times

  • "Esau and Jacob is thus a political fable which though about Brazilian society can be applied to the political game in any liberal democracy. Indeed all through the novel the frivolity and senselessness of political partisanship is brought out (.....) One of her virtues as a translator is a liveliness of style; her chief defect is a muddled effusiveness which is far from the clear irony of the original" - Jean Franco, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       Esau and Jacob does feature twins, but their names are Pedro and Paulo -- and the story does not mirror the biblical one about birthright. They are born to a wealthy, important Brazilian family, their father Santos having quickly put his humble beginnings behind him -- "He earned a lot quickly, and he made others lose it" --, while by the time they were born their beautiful mother:

Natividade mingled in the highest circles of the time. She had just become a part of society, with such art that she seemed to have been born there. [...] She was written about in the newspapers, she belonged to that dozen planetary names who shine amid the plebeian stars. Her husband was a capitalist and director of a bank.
       The parents have high hopes for the boys, already at their birth certain: "Pedro would be a doctor, Paulo the lawyer. That was the first choice of professions" -- and imagining them then rising to even greater heights. They do follow these pre-chosen paths, and naturally eventually embark successfully on these careers:
One promised health, the other winning a case, and often they were able to deliver, because they lacked neither talent nor luck.
       But from early on the parallel paths of the identical twins are rocky, as sibling rivalry rears its ugly head and they find themselves constantly at odds. Its nature is already decisively determined early on: "The opinions of Pedro and Paulo grew so strong that one day they attached themselves to something", where Machado has an adolescent Pedro eye and then buy an engraving of Louis XVI on one of their outings -- and Pablo, not to be outdone, purchases an engraving of his own: of Robespierre. They hang their respective paintings at the head of their beds -- but these don't last long, as things escalate quickly, from the boys defacing each other's engraving to them ripping them up. From there on their differing opinions only harden, the one a royalist, the other a would-be republican -- with their personal conflicts and differences playing out against the backdrop of Brazilian politics in those rapidly changing times (the twins were born in 1870, and the novel covers the time from their birth through the end of the century, a turbulent time in Brazilian history).
       The twins do not only compete in politics, but also with regard to a woman, a storyline which is a significant part of the novel. Both are very taken by Flora, the daughter of Batista, a politically ambitious lawyer who had already been a provincial governor. Both Pedro and Paulo woo her, but neither is destined to win her -- but even when they can no longer fight for her attention the twins remain at odds; a brief reconciliation of sorts that also sees them elected to the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of the Brazilian Congress) -- albeit from differing parties -- only holds so long.
       Machado chronicles and ties in the Brazilian politics of those times well with his story, the brothers representatives of the two major power blocs. Major events such as the 1888 abolition of slavery are refracted through their different positions:
They were at the time living a great distance from each other, but opinion united them.
     The only difference between them was about the meaning of the reform, which for Pedro was an act of justice and for Paulo was the beginning of the revolution.
       Ultimately, when they are elected deputies:
Both supported the republic, but Paulo wanted more republic in it, and Pedro thought there was enough and to spare.
       The picture Machado paints goes beyond their experiences too in describing the changing times -- and the different pace, depending on place (in this somewhat far-flung story). So, for example, along the way, he sketches things like the Encilhamento, the financial bubble of 1890-2, in the capital:
Whoever did not see that, saw nothing. Cascades of ideas, inventions, concessions poured out each day, with the loud, flashy promise of making contos of réis, hundreds of contos, thousands, thousands of thousands, millions and millions of contos of réis. All financial paper, that is, stocks, rolled out fresh and eternal from the printing presses.
       Individual examples crop up too, like the teashop owner who comically struggles with the repainting of his shop-sign, a seemingly minor ambition that turns out to be fraught with complexity
       If the contesting brothers and their differences make for the foundation of the novel, Machado nevertheless builds a quite elaborate structure on it. Other characters are often at the fore -- notably the boys' mother, Natividade, as well as Flora -- but it is another, in particular, that in a way dominates the narrative, the diplomat Counselor Aires; indeed, a prefatory Note to the Reader explains that the narrative comes from the papers of Aires, a 'Last' notebook of his, from his collection of memoirs. (Aires features similarly in Machado's final work, translated as Counselor Ayres' Memorial.) He is an amiable, philosophically-minded man -- and a great reader:
     That done, Aires got into bed, mumbled an ode of Horace and closed his eyes. This did not help him sleep. He tried then a page of his Cervantes, another from Erasmus, closed his eyes again, until he slept. He slept little.
       Though the authorial voice comes to the fore at times -- an I occasionally addressing the reader -- Esau and Jacob is not a first-person account by Aires. Mostly, the narrator is omniscient; indeed, even the introduction of the character -- in the chapter: 'That Man Aires' -- affects that voice completely. But Aires' role in the story is also of a sort of omniscient advisor and observer -- including in mystifying Flora by describing her as: "inexplicable". (When he finally does trot out an explanation (inventing an answer on the spot): "Flora thought the explanation obscure".)
       The novel, like many of Machado's, is presented in many quick chapters -- 121 over just over 250 pages --, with often striking chapter-headings: 'When You Have a Beard'; 'Perhaps It Was the Same One !'; 'No, No, No'. And the narrator often turns and addresses the reader directly, commenting not so much on the story but on its telling. So, for example, one chapter begins:
     If Aires followed his inclinations, and I his, neither he would continue to walk, nor would I start this chapter. We would remain in the previous one, without ever finishing it. But there is nothing in memory that lasts, if some more forceful event claims our attention, and a simple donkey made Carmen and her song disappear.
       Machado does this thing very well, and some of these sections and chapters are among the most impressive parts of this novel; a chapter like 'Between Acts' is nearly perfect.
       In its conception, and in many of its details Esau and Jacob is exceptionally clever, a gentle satire encompassing all of Brazilian life and politics over the last decades of the nineteenth century. Several very well-drawn characters -- notably Flora, Natividade , and especially Aires -- particularly impress, but one of the problems of the story is that the twins never entirely come (each) into their own. They are too much vehicle -- representatives -- rather than full-fledged characters; the fact that they are not individual enough, beyond in their differences, compounds the problem. But even beyond that, Machado struggles with any sort of narrative momentum. For all that happens in the novel -- and in the Brazil of the times -- it is surprisingly plodding, to the extent that some of the best parts are those authorial elaborations on interludes, addressing the lack of action or the passing of time and how that is presented. Meanwhile, the moment-by-moment satire isn't enough to liven the narrative as a whole up.
       It's easy to admire Esau and Jacob for its cleverness, for everything from how the twins mirror the Brazilian situation to the authorial tone. But somehow it still falls surprisingly flat -- not completely so, but far too much.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 June 2020

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Esau and Jacob: Reviews: 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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