Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Machado de Assis

There is an article in New York Times about the Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis on the occasion of his death centenary. Rather coincidentally I am in the middle of reading his novel "The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas" which has to be one of the most hilarious books I have read in a long time. It is hard to summarize but it is sort of Brazilian Tristram Shandy (he explicitly mentions it as one of his influences in the preface). I will try to write about it in more detail when I am done with it but for now here is the synopsis from the book to whet the appetite of those who haven't read it. (Susan Sontag also wrote an essay on the novel which is collected in "Where the Stress Falls".) And of course you can't but love a book which starts with a "dedication" like this: "To the Worm/Who/Gnawed the Cold Flesh/of My Corpse/I Dedicate/These Posthumous Memoirs/As a Nostalgic Remembrance"


"Be aware that frankness is the prime virtue of a dead man," writes the extraordinary narrator of The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas. "The gaze of public opinion, that sharp and judgmental gaze, loses its virtue the moment we tread the territory of death. I'm not saying that it doesn't reach here and examine and judge us, but we don't care about the examination or the judgment. My dear living gentlemen and ladies, there's nothing as incommensurable as the disdain of the deceased." Indeed, writing his memoirs from the other world gives Bras Cubas a certain freedom from both social and literary conventions. And while he may be dead, he is surely one of the liveliest characters in fiction, a product of one of the most remarkable imaginations in all of literature, Brazil's greatest novelist of the nineteenth century, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis.

Famous in his lifetime and still revered throughout Latin America, Machado de Assis has remained little known in the English-speaking world. He represents an important antecedent for the experimental fictions of Borges, Cortazar, Fuentes, and others. In this wildly inventive book, de Assis is, in fact, much closer to such postmodern masters as Calvino, Kundera, and Marquez than to the conventions of the nineteenth century realist and romantic novel, which the narrator continually and hilariously mocks.Irrepressibly whimsical, irreverent, chatty, and charmingly self-absorbed, Bras Cubas is forever intruding into his narrative, questioning, lecturing, and elbowing the reader, commenting on his writing and its highly unusual style--"this book and my style are like drunkards, they stagger left and right, they walk and stop, mumble,yell, cackle, shake their fists at the sky, stumble, and fall"--congratulating himself on particular chapters, wondering whether to cut others out, and interrupting his life story with all manner of digressions, from a philosophical discourse on the purpose of the nose to a visionary ride on the back of a rhinoceros to find the origin of the centuries. Along the way we're treated to a marvelous cast of characters, including the outlandish philosopher Quincas Borcas, who asserts that "asceticism is the perfection of human idiocy," and Virgilia, the beautiful married woman with whom Bras Cubas carries on a passionate and not-so-secret love affair. By turns flippant and profound, The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas is the story of an unheroic man with half-hearted political ambitions, a harebrained idea for curing the world of melancholy, and a thousand quixotic theories unleashed from beyond the grave. It is a novel that has influenced generations of Latin American writers but remains refreshingly and unforgettably unlike anything written before or after it.


dan visel said...

There's a lovely essay on him by William Gass somewhere - is it in A Temple of Text? not sure, but I suspect you'd like it.

Alok said...

Thanks for the tip. Will try to find it. I don't think it is in The Temple of Text though, but will need to look again.

Kubla Khan said...

there is something on him on Three percent. related to his name. it is a beautiful name really.

btw, as you say, it is quite a hilarious book, more so because the narrator does not think so.

Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften said...

I've come across your blog serching for information regarding Nabokov's Pale Fire, which I'm currently beginning to read. I see that you have a wonderful taste in literature, very close to mine, actually, for instance when it comes to hungarian writers (whose works I'm also just starting to get into) and general mittleuropean ones, e.g. Thomas Bernhard.

But the reason I'm posting here is because I write from Brazil, land of Machado de Assis and a few other generaly neglected masters, and to say that I'm pleased you have found about his work, which means he's not totally overseen abroad after all.

I read in this NYTimes piece a most unfortunate comment by a critic, Antônio Gonçalves Filho, who says "Actually, they are making the writer white, like Michael Jackson. All of a sudden, he's become 'universal.'"

Machado is the most universal brazilian writer. He's one of the few who managed to transcend our provincialism, gathering from the works of Sterne, Shakespeare and the greeks to explore the human condition in its essence. A contemporary critic of his used to call him "our most greek writer". And not for one moment that meant he forgot about his origins or the place he lived. That is very much reflected in all of his novels, short stories and chronicles with much verve and zest.

But I digress. Here is a nice account of Machado's oeuvre and place in the literary tradition. It's by a fellow countryman of yours, I believe, and it's a must read:

Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften said...

Also, the Telegraph has this review of a short story collection that is being published in the UK with a translation by proeminent Machado scholar John Gledson (my own copy of Machado's short stories, in portuguese, was edited by him). It left me curious about english writter Saki, have you read anything he wrote?

Alok said...

DMoE: thanks, and I am glad you found the blog interesting and useful.

I was also struck by that comment in the nyt article. I think there are potential pitfalls on both sides. Reducing fiction to its universal elements and stripping it of cultural specifics impoverishes it but great work of art always manages to transcend cultural boundaries and in the process can act as our window to a different culture. I can't understand what is the idea behind claiming a writer for one's own culture exclusively. Just pathetic isolationism and provincialism, really can't think of anything else.

I was actually very surprised to see just how cosmopolitan Assis was in his references and influences. And this was back in 19th century! General discussions of latin american literature for some reason exclude Brazilian own general impression was that pre-"boom" literature in latin american was very provincial, culture-specific and "primitive" (as Mario Vargas Llosa calls it) in style.

I have read a few short stories by Saki. I remember one called "The storyteller". Very lightweight, can be read for diversion I guess but not much more - a few of his stories were part of our english text book in lower high school.

also thanks for the links. That Ghose guy is indeed from India...It makes me feel less of a freak!! Also You have got a great name for yourself. I have thought quite a few times changing my own name to same.

kubla: Yeah, Just saw the entry on that blog and agree about the name.