The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas

Carlos Zilio, 1970_estudo_06_47x32,5


Commentary on the novel by Machado de Assis by the translators of his short stories into English

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis had already published four novels when he wrote The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, serialized in serial form in 1880 and published as a book in 1881. The work received mixed reviews, some readers feeling that it lacked plot, that the characters were uninteresting, that it was more a philosophical treatise than a novel. This is a criticism already foreseen by Brás Cubas, who apologizes to those readers who love the “straight and solid narration, the regular and fluent style”, “and this book and my style are like drunks, they veer to the right and to the left , they start and stop, mutter, roar, laugh, threaten the sky, slip and fall”.

The first English translation, by William L. Grossman, did not appear until 1953, which was not surprising in view of the fact that Machado was virtually unknown in Europe and North America until after World War II. It was only a few years later, mainly in the 1960s and 1970s, that critics inside and outside Brazil began to recognize the novel as a work of extraordinary originality.

Critics often say of posthumous memories that it came out of nowhere and that it was nothing like Machado's previous work. True, his youthful novels were fairly conventional in tone and style and subject matter, but many of his short stories are radically eccentric and show a particular taste for the fantastic and the grotesque, e.g. "The Alienist", "A Visit from Alcibiades". ”, “The canon or Metaphysics of style”, or “Ideas of Canary”; and the familiar way Brás Cubas addresses the reader is already there in “Miss Dollar”, which dates from before 1870.

The tales also share a fascination with madness, of which there is plenty in these stories. posthumous memories, such as: the delirium of Brás Cubas when he was sick; his hallucinatory vision of Virgília after his encounter with the ruined Marcela; the madman on the ship that takes Brás Cubas to Portugal; and, of course, Quincas Borba's descent into insanity. For anyone familiar with Machado's tales, the world of Brás Cubas seems all too familiar.

The literary models that Machado mentions in his preface are Laurence Sterne, Xavier de Maistre and Almeida Garrett, but behind the title there may also be an ironic reference to the Memories from beyond the grave by Chateaubriand, published posthumously in 1849 and 1850. Those memoirs filled two volumes; its author was a diplomat, politician, writer, historian and supposed founder of French Romanticism. Brás Cubas' posthumous memoirs (which are written from beyond the grave) fit into a measly two hundred pages and the narrator is, by his own careless admission, a complete mediocrity whose life can be summed up in a series of negatives.

Echoes of Sterne, Maistre and Garrett are definitely all there, in the brief chapters, the oblique chapter titles, the non sequiturs and half-assed philosophy, and yet in many ways the book is also a simple nineteenth-century realist novel, with its attacks on the hypocrisy of middle-class society and the standard themes of adultery, money, marriage , avarice and prodigality. Machado manages to perfectly combine realism and the fantastic; and the novel's fragmentary, allusive style and its frequent inclusion of us readers now strike us as very modern, as does Brás Cubas' insistence that this is not a novel at all, more than once.

As in Machado's short stories and other novels, there are frequent references to classical texts, especially the Bible and Shakespeare. Biblical references – the road to Damascus, the Beatitudes, the parable of the wedding feast, Adam and Eve, Moses – are all used to bathetic effect [1]. For example, the great breakthrough discovery to the Brás Cubas' “road to Damascus” is that he cannot possibly marry a lame girl, even if he loves her. With the many quotations and allusions to Shakespeare, we are often reminded that the author is much smarter than we are, or is he perhaps leaving clues for more alert readers? An example: when Brás Cubas, in a melancholy mood, has a flash of light and adopts a phrase said by Jacques in as you like it [2] – “It is good to be sad and say nothing” – he, it seems, entirely ignores Rosalind's retort: ​​“Then it is good to be a pole”. That is left for us to notice – or not. When Brás Cubas begins scribbling the opening lines of Virgil's Aeneid, "I sing of weapons and man," he is at his least heroic, ready to do exactly what his father wants and agree to an arranged marriage and a wife. arranged career, too.

Another frequent feature in Machado's work is the use of not-exactly-accurate quotations. Quincas Borba is particularly fond of tinkering with the texts of other philosophers – Pascal and Erasmo are two examples – to adjust them to his own purposes and perhaps to give him the appearance of being superior to other scholars. Or is this yet another example of Brás Cubas' theory of man as a thinking errata? Or one more way to trick the unsuspecting reader?

As for the social and historical context of the novel, the first thing to note is that in 1805, the year of birth of Brás Cubas, Rio de Janeiro (founded in 1565 and so named because the Portuguese had arrived there on January 1502, 1763 ) was a colonial city, and since 1808 it was the seat of the viceroy who ruled all of Brazil on behalf of the Portuguese monarch in Lisbon. In XNUMX, while the boy Brás Cubas began his domestic tyranny, the city underwent an extraordinary transformation with the unexpected arrival of the royal family and the entire Portuguese government, forced to flee Napoleon's invasion of Portugal.

Rio de Janeiro thus briefly became the capital of the entire Portuguese Empire and quickly acquired most of the trappings of a fully fledged capital – a government, a royal court, luxurious public buildings and even a central bank. . This process seemed destined to be reversed after the fall of Napoleon in 1814, but the Portuguese king, Dom João VI, refused to leave Rio, despite increasingly desperate pleas from his own government. The impasse was finally resolved in 1822, when Dom João VI's son, Dom Pedro I, declared himself emperor of an independent Brazil and the link with Portugal was finally broken.

Some of these key dates and events are mentioned in the novel, but because Machado mentions so few of them, the reader is inclined to speculate whether they are, in fact, significant. For example: In 1805, Brás Cubas is born; this is also the year soldiers of African descent wore medallions bearing the portrait of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, leader of the Haitian Revolution, who inspired black slaves around the world to fight for their rights. And on the day immediately following the birth of Brás Cubas (we are informed of the precise date), Napoleon loses the battle of Trafalgar and thus the supremacy of the seas, a fundamental factor in his final overthrow. In 1806, Brás Cubas is baptized and a very elegant party is given; this also marks the beginning of British military attacks in the Rio de la Plata region, beginning a long period of British interference in Brazilian affairs, which is echoed throughout the novel.

In 1814, Brás Cubas's father throws an extravagant party to mark Napoleon's final downfall, the emphasis being on the party. In 1822, Brás Cubas falls in love with Marcela; Meanwhile, Dom Pedro declares Brazilian independence. In 1842, Brás Cubas meets Virgília again and they begin their affair; at the same time, several liberal rebellions are quickly crushed by the government. In 1869, Brás Cubas dies; in the same year, a pro-Brazil government is installed in the capital of Paraguay during the final stages of the long and bloody war between Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina.

It could be argued that Machado's mention of these historically significant dates serves to show how little the events impact the lives of the novel's utterly self-absorbed characters, all of whom are comfortably well off. Those who are not well off, like Eugênia or Dona Plácida – both marked by the stain of illegitimacy – are rejected or used and, ultimately, relegated to lives of abject poverty.

The theme of slavery is present throughout the novel, but Machado's message is carefully hidden behind a restrained subtlety or an apparently indifference. blasé - after all, Brazil didn't abolish slavery until 1888, some eight years after the novel's first publication, and Machado himself was the grandson of a freed slave. Sometimes slaves seem almost invisible: they are part of an heirloom, a spoiled child's favorite mount, not to be trusted, only objects of reproach, and spoken of as if they were chattel or livestock. Here is Quincas Borba pondering the chicken wing he is eating for dinner: “I want no other document of the sublimity of my system than this very chicken. He fed on corn, which was planted by an African, let's suppose, imported from Angola. This African was born, grew up, was sold; a ship brought it, a ship built of wood cut in the woods by ten or twelve men, carried by sails, which eight or ten men wove, not counting the ropes and other parts of the nautical apparatus. Thus, this chicken, which I had for lunch just now, is the result of a multitude of efforts and struggles, carried out with the sole aim of satisfying my appetite”.

And when Brás Cubas finds his former slave Prudêncio, now a free man, beating the slave he, in turn, bought, Brás Cubas is shocked, but then comes to an oddly celebratory conclusion: to undo received blows – transmitting them to another. I, as a child, would ride him, put a bridle in his mouth, and beat him without compassion; he groaned and suffered. Now, however, that he was free, he had control over himself, his arms, his legs, he could work, play, sleep, unfettered from his former condition, now it was that he surpassed himself: he bought a slave and paid him, with high interest , the sums he had received from me. See the subtleties of the marauder!”

The harsh treatment inflicted on slaves by Brás Cubas' insufferable brother-in-law, Cotrim, is excused by the fact that he is involved in the slave trade and, moreover, "one cannot honestly attribute to the original nature of a man what is pure effect of social relations”. The message seems to be that violence and abuse beget more violence and abuse, a corrosive message that resonates to this day.

No one escapes Machado's scathing vision of humanity, which is dictated by greed, ambition and selfishness. From his position beyond the grave, Brás Cubas is finally free to be totally honest about himself and others, to write, as he himself says, “with the pen of mockery and the ink of melancholy”. Perhaps the only unmediated moment of emotion comes with the death of Brás Cubas' mother and with Brás Cubas' apparently genuine grief, from which, however, he actually recovers very quickly, as if the grief were just one more obstacle between him and his fun.

The book is a catalog of failures: Brás Cubas does not marry, does not produce his anti-melancholy poultice, does not become a Minister of State or a newspaper editor; Lobo Neves does not become a minister, let alone a marquis; Eugenia doesn't marry anyone; Eulália does not assert herself in the world, she does not even live past the age of seventeen; and Quincas Borba doesn't publish his philosophy book and he doesn't even manage to be completely crazy. Machado presents us with an almost entirely nihilistic view of life and humanity. And yet the narrator and the novel draw us in, because the narrative voice is so seductive, so funny, so often outrageous, and always utterly frank. And is it that, perhaps, we recognize ourselves, so flawed, in the narrator and in the other characters? And is that, perhaps, the question that the novel asks the reader?

*Margaret Jull Costa e Robin Patterson translated the volume into English The collected stories of Machado de Assis (Liveright Publishing Corporation). (

Translation: Anouch Neves de Oliveira Kurkdjian

Originally published in the magazine Paris Review, on June 16, 2020.


Translator's notes

[1] In the original, “bathetic effect”. from latin bathos; literally, "depth." It is a literary term to designate the comic effect arising from the contradiction between a serious pretension or topic and a banal one. When it happens unintentionally, it betrays the artist's ineptitude, but Machado used this juxtaposition intentionally, so that the effect is comic and critical, or if you like, ironic.

[2] Shakespeare's pastoral comedy.

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