Tuesday, October 4, 2011

But I’m either mistaken or I’ve just written a useless blog post - Machado de Assis at his best

No, I need to compensate for the dud.  I am not exactly reading but thumbing through The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1881), the first of Machado de Assis’s mature novels, the novel where the author severed himself from his earlier work and created something distinctively his own.  Something like this:



But I’m either mistaken or I’ve just written a useless chapter.

That is the entirety of chapter 136.  I will bet that for many readers, this chapter by itself is either a recommendation for the book, to see how this kind of writing works, or a clear warning to avoid Machado de Assis.

“Uselessness” is the only single sentence chapter in the novel, if I count this as more than one sentence:


How I Didn’t Get to Be Minister of States


The narrator of the novel, the author of the memoir, is recently deceased, dead at sixty-four of pneumonia, as he tells me in the first chapter.  In the hands of almost any other writer, the mechanics and curiosities of posthumous authorship would occupy some substantial part of the book, allowing the real author to demonstrate his imaginative chops, but Machado de Assis does nothing of the sort, provides no glimpses of the afterlife or gags about publishing in heaven.

The posthumous gimmick solves a couple of technical problems.  First, the memoirist can complete his story, all the way to his death.  Second, he is freed from worry about what anyone else might think of his life.  Machado de Assis wants a reliable narrator, one who may have trouble understanding himself, but otherwise has nothing to hide.

The narrator is also free to wander, double back, digress and regress, but I do not believe he needs to be dead to do that.  He cites the “free-form” of 18th century writers Laurence Sterne and Xavier de Maistre as models.  Chapter titles include “What Aristotle Left Out,” “The Author Hesitates,” and “The Defect of This Book,” yet a story is told, a surprisingly ordinary one.  Girl trouble, mostly.  The telling of the story is the extraordinary thing.

In the novel’s fictional preface, Brás Cubas calls his book “playful” and “melancholy” and suspects that it will have about five readers.  But he does not mean to be obscure or unfriendly:

The work itself is everything: if it pleases you, dear reader, I shall be well paid for the task; if it doesn’t please you, I’ll pay you with a snap of the finger and goodbye.

I had thought that I was just browsing the novel, but I seem to be reading it again.

I am using the Oxford University Press edition, translated by Gregory Rabassa.


  1. I loved this novel, and chapter 139--oh, what a model of brevity with those ellipses only! However, that OUP edition you cite (and which I also read) had such a staggering number of typos that I wish somebody would tell me what went wrong there: just carelessness, nepotism, some copy editor's planned revenge? Whatever, a fine work regardless.

  2. Oh yes, it's stunning. Oxford University Press! Greatest Brazilian novel! I see that when I read the novel 3 years ago, the typos are the only thing I wrote about.

    I'm sure the typos have all been cleaned up in the paperback edition. I'm just hop over to Amazon and - Holy mackerel! The list price of the paperback is $35! Are they out of their minds?

    But, checking the available pages, the typos do, in fact, seem to have been fixed. Erasmus' Praise of Polly, the imaginary encomium to his parrot, has reverted to Praise of Folly, an actual book.