Friday, July 18, 2008

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas

I can't believe it's taken me so long to discover the Brazilian writer Machado de Assis. His Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (originally published 1881; translated by Gregory Rabassa, Oxford University Press, 1997) is, as the title suggests, narrated by a dead man--the very first chapter is titled "The Author's Demise."

Brás Cubas's narrative voice is lightly ironic, a quality that I enjoy in writers as different as Jane Austen, Italo Calvino, and Gabriel García Márquez. Brás Cubas is skeptical and self-deprecating, as well--pointing out his own blindnesses, follies, hypocrises, and failures unsparingly.

But the novel also illustrates the limitations of approaching life ironically. While passion and commitment are shown to be absurd--delusional when not hypocritical--the alternative is a life of detached bemusement. Brás Cubas's litany of missed opportunities, bypassed possibilities, and half-hearted pursuits eventually becomes rather sad. He's not the first person who when at college is "a profligate, superficial, riotous and petulant student," and afterwards desires nothing more than "to prolong the university for my whole life forward..." As much to give his life some drama as out of true feeling, he ultimately embarks on a long-term affair with Virgília, the wife of an opportunistic politician; the affair doesn't end particularly well.

Like Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, the Posthumous Memoirs calls attention to its own constructedness as literature--the narrator refers to previous events in his life by chapter number, for example, or engages in self-conscious typographical experiments. Chapter CXXXIX, "How I Didn't Get to Be a Minister of State," for example, consists entirely of a lengthy ellipsis. The next chapter--titled "Which Explains the Previous One"--begins, "There are things that are better said in silence. Such is the material of the previous chapter."

But apart from his wit, what makes Brás Cubas such an enjoyable companion is his unflattering honesty about himself and his motives--greed, fear, lust, envy, indolence, boredom, a desire to avoid difficulty and embrace immediate pleasure. Motives which, on reflection, are uncomfortably familiar.

"Perhaps I'm startling the reader with the frankness with which I'm emphasizing my mediocrity. Be aware that frankness is the prime virtue of a dead man. In life the gaze of public opinion, the contrast of interests, the struggle of greed all oblige people to keep quiet about their dirty linen, to disguise the rips and stitches, not to extend to the world the revelations they make to their conscience. And the best part of the obligation comes when, by deceiving others, a man deceives himself, because in such a case he saves himself vexation, which is a painful feeling, and hypocrisy, which is a vile vice."

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