Wit leaps centuries and hemispheres. It does not collect dust, and, when done right, it does not age. The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, is a case in point. Long forgotten by most, it’s one of the wittiest, most playful, and therefore most alive and ageless books ever written. It is a love story—many love stories, really—and it’s a comedy of class and manners and ego, and it’s a reflection on a nation and a time, and an unflinching look at mortality, and all the while it’s an intimate and ecstatic exploration of storytelling itself. It is a glittering masterwork and an unmitigated joy to read, but, for no good reason at all, almost no English speakers in the twenty-first century have read it ... But it survives, and must be read, for the music of its prose and, more than anything else, for its formal playfulness. A new translation, by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux, is a glorious gift to the world, because it sparkles, because it sings, because it’s very funny and manages to capture Machado’s inimitable tone, at once mordant and wistful, self-lacerating and romantic ... This is an atheistic book, where there is no judge but one’s conscience, and where the offender lies alone, in a box permeated by worms, recounting his life and failures without any heavenly consequence. It’s funny, too. It is wholly original and unlike anything other than the many books that came after it and seem to have knowingly or not borrowed from it.
Brás Cubas channels in longer form the adventurous spirit of his short stories from this period, in which well-to-do residents of Rio converse with an ancient Greek statesman (A Visit from Alcibiades) or report on their discovery of a society of talking spiders (The Most Serene Republic) ... Though Schwarz contends that Brás’s allusive, digressive style satirizes the asininity of the Brazilian upper classes, there’s a closer target of Machado’s wit: the author himself. He shares with Brás a love of historical and literary allusion, a compulsion to compose aphorisms, and a delight in extended metaphors and fanciful anecdotes even, sometimes especially, if they shed no light on the topic under discussion. Brás Cubas indulges and amplifies Machado’s playful pedantry. In one four-paragraph-long chapter, he manages to squeeze in references to Suetonius, Seneca, the Battle of Salamis, the Augsburg Confession, Emperor Claudius, Lucrezia Borgia, Oliver Cromwell, and Bismarck; this passage is notable in its pomposity and the disarming effect it has on the reader, but it’s not atypical of Machado’s fiction. His obscure allusions (he read at least six languages), reflecting an autodidact’s pride in beating the stuffed shirts at their own game, have sent scholars scrambling to uncover hidden meanings and track down references to long-forgotten texts ... That Machado imbues Brás with his own wit and charm complicates the satirical nature of the novel; along with the accusatory tone Brás sometimes takes toward his audience, his appeal reminds readers of the thousands of ways, large and small, they account for their behavior and their place in an exploitative society. Indeed, Machado, the assiduous civil servant, must have recognized his own complicity with the Brazilian slave economy and confronted the dead end of self-exculpation.
We read not for plot, in the usual sense, but to be close to Brás Cubas, his disarming candor and deeply merited self-disgust, and for the questions he prompts: What is a life, if defined outside of incident and achievement? What is a novel?...The two new translations have their differences, but are remarkably complementary. Flora Thomson-DeVeaux’s edition is a gift to scholars. Her introductory essay and notes offer a rich guide to Machado’s work and world — and an important corrective. Machado has been described as reticent on race. In fact, Thomson-DeVeaux reveals, his fiction is drenched in references to the slave trade ... Thomson-DeVeaux’s version can feel mustier and blurry ... This is a book of refusals — the hero’s refusal to commit to anything or anyone, his refusal to satisfy conventional narrative expectations, all anchored by his underlying refusal to see himself clearly, even as he presents his life for our inspection ... For a writer with a bottomless bag of tricks, his core achievement is, finally, more humble and infinitely more dazzling than any special effect. It’s not exploring what the novel might be, but looking at people — purely and pitilessly — exactly as they are.