Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Playful Pen and Melancholy Ink

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

"For some time I debated over whether I should start these memoirs at the beginning or at the end, that is, whether I should put my birth or my death in first place." So begins this brilliantly odd, expressly modernist Brazilian novel, first published in serial form—and to great acclaim—in the 1880's. It is the tale of an unheroic, unremarkable, now perfectly dead man, a wealthy bachelor named Brás Cubas, who, in the bantering, satirical, narratively intrusive style of Sterne and Thackeray and deMaistre (and clearly foreshadowing Proust), guides the reader on a quixotic and retrospective journey through his remarkably Oblomovian life, a life distinguished less by action, by deed, than by a host of hair-brained theories and plans, including the desire to invent and market a balm for all of the melancholy in the world.  

This novel is really about the particular perspective from which it is told, a distinctly privileged point of view, the tale told through the eyes of an indolent, irreverent, facetious, and very lively dead man, "an extremely uncommon form of autobiography, written from beyond the grave, with all the advantages of perfect hindsight."  Thanks to this unique perspective, the narrator, Brás Cubas, is free to write and express himself with impunity, with little regard for the probity, scruples, and good faith that mar the artistry and candor of so many a writer today.  Joseph Conrad, a near contemporary of Machado de Assis, famously declared, with regard to his novella Heart of Darkness, opening the door to the modernist novel itself, that the writer "writes only half the book; the other half is with the reader." And so it is, too, with The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, a novel that demands that the reader play "an active, creative, and critical role." If you are a fan of such wry, self-conscious, and richly digressive novels as The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Vanity Fair, and Voyage Around My Room you will delight in this wondrous tale. 
Here is one more little taste:

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, who was born and died in Rio de Janeiro, 1839-1908, was a poet, novelist and short story writer who is often described as the father of Brazilian literature. He was of mixed Portuguese and African ancestry.  Among his other best known works, are Epitaph of a Small Winner, Philosopher or Dog?, and Dom Casmurro. The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas was translated into English by Gregory Rabassa. 

Peter Adam Nash

No comments:

Post a Comment