Monday, December 5, 2011

We know absolutely nothing of the texts we gnaw - more gnawing on Dom Casmurro

More Machado de Assis and Dom Casmurro.

1.  What I would like to do, but cannot, is map out my Crazy Theory about Dom Casmurro, which would resolve the multiple layers of the novel into a single ingenious solution.  Having read the novel once and browsed through it, I do not have more than the barest beginning or first scraps of evidence for my idea.  It will have to wait for a re-read.

In brief:  Our unreliable narrator destroys his happy family life because of his unreasonable jealousy.  But if Dom Casmurro is a combination of Othello (an admitted association) and Iago (a hidden one), then things frankly go too well for everyone.  A common interpretation is that the novel parodies tragedy, but I wonder if it actually conceals tragedy. Next time through.

2.  The unreliable narrator game works only if the novelist imposes some sort of limits on the unreliability.  If everything is in doubt, the novel crumbles.  The fictional writer cannot simply lie, but must also provide some way for the canny reader to identify the lies.  Thus, the need for a narrator who lacks control over his narrative, who is insane or boastful  or weakly self-deluded.  My Crazy Theory really demands an insane narrator.

3.  Jenny, at Shelf Love, works on the problem, the most difficult question in the novel: who is the person at the center of the novel?  He is “a tight-lipped man who doesn’t tell stories” (his “Casmurro” nickname means something like “taciturn”), but here he is telling stories for 260 pages.  She points to a place where the narrator himself tells me that my job is to “fill in the missing middle” (Ch. 55).

4.  Jenny picks out another good example of Machado’s rule-making.  Casmurro and Capitú’s son Ezekiel looks suspiciously like Casmurro’s best friend, Capitú’s presumed lover.  Or does he?  Casmurro insists that he does, that this resemblance is the strongest justification for his jealousy and subsequent actions.  But chance resemblances are a recurring theme of the novel – does the narrator understand this himself?  Is it an unconscious suggestion of his doubts?  A perverse form of proof?  Does the resemblance between son of friend exist or not, and how can we decide if all we have is the narrator’s version of the story?  Another odd Nabokov correspondence here: see Despair (1936).

5.  What other puzzles do I need to solve, or play with, when I next read Dom Casmurro?  A friend of the narrator writes a Panegyric to Saint Monica that baffles me.  The symbolic role of a child who is killed by his leprosy sticks out too much for my comfort.  And what about the worms?

I went so far as to pick up old books, dead books, buried books, open them, compare them, in order to track down the text and the meaning…  I tracked down the very worms in the books that they might tell me what was in the texts they gnawed.

“My dear sir,” replied a long fat worm, “we know absolutely nothing of the texts we gnaw, nor do we choose what we gnaw, nor do we like or dislike what we gnaw: we gnaw.” (Ch. 17)

That’s what I will do next time: track down the worms and watch them gnaw, and maybe even gnaw on the book alongside the worms.


  1. He is “a tight-lipped man who doesn’t tell stories” (his “Casmurro” nickname means something like “taciturn”), but here he is telling stories for 260 pages.

    Does this remind anyone else (who's read both) of a certain other, certainly at least somewhat unreliable, narrator we've recently been hanging out with (that is, Jacques Deza [also a nickname])? Another one for gnawing, that was, at least that's how I tried to deal with it.

  2. Oh yes. Yes yes. And Machado and Marías share a relevant touchstone - both writers were deep readers of Tristram Shandy, the first modern novelist, I think, who put the events of his story not in their temporal but their psychological order.