Reviews

Finding the Humor in the Macabre in “The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas”

Our review of the new translation of Machado de Assis’s "The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas."

When you pick up a book from the late nineteenth century, you might prepare yourself to read a musty language that has aged so much it feels otherworldly. Machado de Assis’s books, however, are not like that. His books not only feel evergreen, but they also seem to anticipate the taste of a reader from a century and a half later. One of his most celebrated works, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, is being rejuvenated this summer with a new translation by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson. When first published in 1881, the book breathed new life into Brazilian literature. The new translation feels even fresher.

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis is hugely popular in Brazil. His statue adorns the entrance to the Brazilian Academy of Letters, which he founded in 1897. His eminent stature in Brazilian literature makes it all the more surprising that he is virtually unknown in the rest of the Americas. Even Jorge Luis Borges, another genius from Latin America with a reputation for his expansive reading, never mentions Machado de Assis. Susan Sontag wrote an essay hailing him as the greatest writer to emerge out of Latin America. Carlos Fuentes called him a miracle. Harold Bloom declared him “the supreme black literary artist to date.” If it wasn’t for such influential admirers who tried to draw attention to his fading image, Machado de Assis’s name would have disappeared into oblivion long ago. 

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas builds on a macabre conceit—Brás Cubas, already dead, is recounting his adventures from beyond the grave. This vantage point allows Brás Cubas to talk about his life with the kind of blithe irony and callousness only accessible to those who have nothing to lose or gain. Brás Cubas was born wealthy with high expectations. However, success and security elude him all his life. He falls in love a few times, but he doesn’t get to marry or start a family. His political career never takes off. At the end of his life, such is his detachment from the world that he decides to dedicate his memoirs not to any person, but to the first worm to gnaw the cold flesh of his corpse.

Brás Cubas narrates the events of his anticlimactic life with a humor that makes it hard to suppress a laugh. He is shipped to Lisbon for school after his father discovers that Brás Cubas had been stealing money to seduce a girl with jewelry. Upon returning from a “profligate, superficial, riotous” life in a European university, he reluctantly agrees to his father’s request that he start a fruitful relationship with a woman named Virgilia, the daughter of an important politician. Brás Cubas’s hopes of wedding Virgilia, which would have led to a seat in the Brazilian legislature, falls apart when another motivated bachelor swoops in and marries her. 

Virgilia continues to exert a magnetic pull on Brás Cubas, and they go on to develop an adulterous affair. After Virgilia leaves the town with her husband, Brás makes an unsuccessful foray into politics with a rousing speech on the size of the shakos worn by soldiers guarding the streets of Rio de Janeiro. These plots and subplots have the kind of farce and wit one expects from a modern sitcom. In one subplot, Virigilia’s ambitious husband turns down a political appointment as a Governor just because the announcement came on the ill-fated thirteenth day of a month.

Brás Cubas also likes talking to the reader directly the way a cheeky vaudeville stage-performer interacts with an audience. He devotes an entire chapter berating the reader for getting restless, “You’re in a hurry to get old, and the book progresses slowly; you love direct, sustained narrative, a regular, fluid style, whereas this book and my style are like a pair of drunkards: they stagger left and right, start and stop, mumble, yell, roar with laughter, shake their fists at the heavens, then stumble and fall.” He is not exaggerating. 

Brás Cubas frequently interrupts his story to make a pithy observation or a snide comment. Sometimes he fills pages describing intricate details of his mental state—he has a whole chapter where, under a delirium, he flies on a hippopotamus to the beginning of time to meet a personified form of Nature. At other times, he dismisses the need for any explanation and urges the reader to move on. The fact that Machado de Assis’s technique of breaking the fourth wall and using flashbacks is still so widely used in television shows and films — in Annie Hall, American Psycho, Wolf of Wall Street to name a few — is one of the reasons his century-old works somehow feel familiar even today.

If there is anything to glue this discursive, scattered style of writing, it is the parody philosophy of Humanitas developed by Brás Cubas’s closest friend, Quincas Borba, who sees himself as a spiritual descendant of Pascal. Quincas Borba elucidates his philosophy to Brás Cubas over a dinner of greasy chicken wings. Humanitas is an incessantly optimistic worldview where the whole world is one connected organism and all worldly events, including disasters and wars, simply serve to advance the relentless march of Humanitas. Under this philosophy, all human interactions are ultimately positive—a lover’s kiss is Humanitas loving Humanitas, a hangman’s execution of a condemned man is Humanitas correcting Humanitas’s transgressions. This is Machado de Assis’s tribute to Voltaire’s Pangloss and Gottfried Leibniz. However, the absurdity of Quincas Borba’s outlook is not lost on Machado de Assis—Quincas Borba starts succumbing to dementia as he struggles to find the perfect distillation of Humanitas and he dies “swearing repeatedly that pain was an illusion.”

Under the tutelage of Quincas Borba, Brás Cubas tries to rationalize his misfortunes with Humanitas. If Quincas Borba is Don Quixote trying to outdo Pascal, Brás Cubas is his loyal Sancho Panza. Brás Cubas knows that Quincas Borba’s mental state is deteriorating but he clings to the friendship and the solace of Quincas Borba’s philosophy. The unfailing optimism of Humanitas has a neutralizing effect on Brás Cubas’s petulant pessimism but doesn’t completely eliminate it. One of Humanitas’s dictum is that the apotheosis of a human life is childbirth and that the only genuine misfortune is that of never being born. Brás Cubas, however, dies childless. In the last line of the memoir, he tries to add a positive spin to this failure, “I did not have children, and thus did not bequeath to any creature the legacy of our misery.” This is a tragedy even Brás Cubas cannot shrug off.

Machado de Assis’s style in The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas has been compared to the realism of Henry James, Vladimir Nabokov, or Gustave Flaubert. It is a distinctly realist writing that scrutinizes social relationships through the perspective of an egotistic, spoiled protagonist and is unencumbered by political movements of the time. Historical movements like the fall of Napoleon, the declaration of Brazilian independence, and the shadow of slavery in Brazil are barely incidental to Brás Cubas’s life.

Machado de Assis was one of the most learned men of his time and the book is filled with references, both overt and subtle, to classical European texts and South American history. Thankfully, the new translation comes with helpful footnotes with explanations. Brás Cubas employs characters from the scriptures and Shakespearean plays to add bathetic color to his memories. Aristotle and Dante get enlisted to describe his predicaments with women. These expansive and erudite references not only demonstrate the literary prowess of Machado de Assis but also, strangely enough, add to the lightheartedness of the book.

When it comes to translating Portugese literature, one cannot find a more qualified translator than Margaret Jull Costa. She has previously translated luminaries in Portugese language like Eça de Queiroz, Fernando Pessoa, and the Nobel prize winner José Saramago. Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas isn’t her first translation of Machado de Assis either. Just last year, she partnered with Robin Patterson to publish a collection of translated short stories by Machado de Assis. Machado de Assis’s style of writing doesn’t leave much room for a translator’s interpretation. The most a reader can ask for is that the translation brings out the irony, wit, and playfulness of Machado de Assis’s prose. In that respect, this new translation by the duo is sure to impress. The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas is a tragicomic adventure of a man trying, and ultimately failing, to find his place in the nineteenth century Brazilian aristocracy. It is also a peek at the luminosity of Machado de Assis’s craft. With 160 short chapters in only 256 pages, the book may be a quick read but, when it ends, the reader is left yearning for more.

FICTION
The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas
By Machado de Assis, Translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson
Liveright
Published June 16, 2020

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