‘Midnight Mass’ by Machado de Assis

Midnight Mass by Machado de Assis, 1894

The magic trick:

Building tension through the things not said or done

It’s not often you dust off a century-old classic and find a masterpiece of sexual tension. In a Christmas story no less.

But this is what you find with “Midnight Mass.”

Our narrator recalls a Christmas Eve when his friend’s wife kept him company while he waited up to attend a midnight mass.

They don’t talk about attraction. They don’t talk about desire. They don’t talk about intent.

But those topics are certainly hanging heavily in the air.

It’s a masterpiece of the implied and unsaid.

And that’s quite a trick on de Assis’s part.

The selection:

There were pauses too. Twice I thought I saw her going to sleep; but her eyes, shut for an instant, opened soon after, with no sign of sleepiness or fatigue, as if she’d shut them to see better. At one of these moments, I think she saw me absorbed by her presence, and I remember she closed them again – whether slowly or hurriedly, I don’t know. There are impressions from that night which seem truncated or confused. I contradict myself, and get mixed up. One that I still have fresh in my mind is that, on one occasion, this woman who was merely nice looked beautiful, truly beautiful. She was standing with her arms crossed; out of respect for her, I tried to get up; she didn’t let me, put one of her hands on my shoulder, and made me sit down. I think she was going to say something; but she shivered, as if she had felt the cold, turned her back on me and went to sit on the chair where she’d found me reading. From there she gave a glance at the mirror, which was above the settee, and talked about two pictures hanging on the wall.

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