Larry Rohter | Machado de Assis

#APStogether February 26, 2021

I first stumbled upon The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas early in 1970, during my junior year in college. I had begun dating the woman who would marry me three years later, a linguistics student from Rio de Janeiro, and when I visited her dorm room I would of course leaf through her record collection and library. I already spoke Spanish and she had begun teaching me Portuguese, so when I saw the reference to “posthumous memoirs” in one of the titles on her shelf, I was naturally bewildered and intrigued, and I pulled out the book and began to read.

Initially I was shocked by the narrator’s blasé attitude about death, but soon began to relish the book’s irreverent, picaresque tone. To be honest, many of the specific cultural and historical references went over my head. But a hilariously mordant throwaway sentence like “Marcela loved me for fifteen months and eleven thousand milreis” didn’t need contextualization, and there were many, many moments like that as I plunged my way deeper into the book. I was fascinated, even if I did not fully understand everything I was reading.

When we moved to Rio in 1977, I had another go. We were living in Tijuca, where part of
Brás Cubas takes place, and around the city it was still possible to encounter vestiges and remnants of the world in which Machado de Assis lived: buildings, figures of speech, certain Rio types one would meet on the street, landscapes, social customs. All of this enriched my second reading of the book, and increased my admiration for its author. The mixture of trenchant social satire and bold formal experimentation seemed unlike anything I had ever read elsewhere, and by the end I was really hooked, determined to read as much of his work as I could. This guy is kind of a genius, I remember thinking. Why aren't we reading him back home?

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908), the mixed-race grandson of freed slaves, was born in Rio de Janeiro. Largely self-taught, he wrote many novels, stories, plays, and poems, eventually becoming the first President of the Brazilian Academy of Letters and gaining recognition as Brazil's greatest writer.

Larry Rohter studied history, political science, and economics at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and the Columbia University School of International Affairs. He was Newsweek magazine’s Brazil correspondent from 1977 to 1982 and served as Rio de Janeiro bureau chief of the New York Times from 1998 to 2008. He is the author of three books about Brazil, has written about Brazilian culture and politics for the New York Review of Books, and since January 2020 has been a columnist for the Brazilian weekly newsmagazine Época.

Reading Schedule

Day 1 (March 8) | Ch 1-10

Day 2 (March 9) | Ch 11-19

Day 3 (March 10) | Ch 20-37

Day 4 (March 11) | Ch 38-58

Day 5 (March 12) | Ch 59-77

Day 6 (March 13)| Ch 78-98

Day 7 (March 14)| Ch 99-122

Day 8 (March 15)| Ch 123-160 (end)

Day 1 | March 8
Ch 1-10

Right out of the gate, Machado de Assis (or just M) establishes his tone—arch and erudite, leavened with casual cynicism and droll self-mockery. But a playfulness with form is there too: very short chapters offer a hint of the amusing games to come.

In 1970, reading the dedication of these “posthumous memoirs” (PM) to the worm “that first gnawed at the cold flesh of my cadaver” made me squeamish and uneasy. A half century later, in the midst of a pandemic, it seems an appropriate memento mori.

“Why a duck?” the Marx Brothers asked. So why a talking, flying hippopotamus in Chapter VII? Why not a dragon or some specifically Brazilian beast, like a capybara or tapir? M seems here to be indulging a taste for the absurd, bizarre, and whimsical.

Day 2 | March 9
Ch 11-19

M offers a first glimpse of what it was like to live in a society built on slavery in XI. The matter-of-factness with which Brás Cubas (BC) recounts the way he tormented house slaves as a child—one of whom he rides like a horse—augments our disgust.

The lavish dinner in XII is one of my favorite set pieces in PM. M skewers the pretensions of BC’s family, the pompous rhetoric of the court, and the sexual hypocrisy of the era, all as seen through the eyes of a child hungry for dessert. Delicious!

An essentially transactional view of relations between the sexes—whether love, marriage, or an affair—recurs throughout PM, especially in this bloc. BC, giddy with desire, learns the hard way when he falls for the beautiful, calculating Marcela.

Day 3 | March 10
Ch 20-37

Poor Eugênia, with her “virginal charm” and “natural grace.” Of all the characters in PM, she may be the only who is wholly sympathetic—and BC treats her badly. Her only defect is physical, whereas all the others are disfigured by their moral failings.

Experimenting with margins, punctuation, and typography is common enough today, but Brazilians in 1880 must have found it disconcerting, even revolutionary. Methinks me spies the influence of “Tristram Shandy” in XXVI, with more to come in LV & CXXXIX.

You’ll notice that M occasionally stops the story for a chapter or two of philosophical musings. These increase as we plunge deeper into the novel, but they are not digressions. Many argue that they are its real essence, the plot being a mere scaffold.

Day 4 | March 11
Ch 38-58

In XLIII, BC’s rival in romance, Lobo Neves, makes his first appearance. “Lobo” means “wolf” in Portuguese, and “Neves” is “snow.” I’ve often wondered whether M was reading the Brothers Grimm while writing PM and decided to insert a very subtle joke.

As a dead man, BC is the ultimate unreliable narrator. Does he really love Virgília, as he claims, or is he merely motivated by jealousy, amour propre, & a desire for revenge? After all, BC describes himself as “a peacock” with “a great deal of vanity.”

In any case, a love triangle of the type that powered many a 19th-century novel is now in place. We know from “the mysterious woman” in I that it continues in some form until BC’s death. But M being M, how will he subvert convention and this plot device?

Day 5 | March 12
Ch 59-77

To me, LXVIII is the single most lacerating and psychologically profound chapter of PM. We see the trauma and suffering of enslavement being transmitted onwards, even after emancipation. And BC’s cynical misinterpretation compounds the tragedy.

With “Wide Sargasso Sea” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” in mind, I’ve sometimes wondered why no Brazilian novelist has yet rewritten PM from Prudêncio’s point of view. Chutzpah would be required, but it would be a book well worth reading.

Dona Plácida, BC’s go-between with Virgília, is a curious figure. Everyone else in PM is either from the elite or enslaved; she is the only representative of the white working class, and her life too is benighted. 19th-century Brazil was like that.

Does M ever reveal the hand he is playing? In LXXI, he seems to: “This book and my style are like drunkards, they veer right and left, stop and go.” But he also reproaches the reader as “this book’s greatest flaw.” (Critics get a comeuppance in CXXXVIII)

Day 6 | March 13
Ch 78-98

This bloc of chapters and the one that follows may be the most overtly political sections of PM, in the sense that M pulls back the curtain on ambition and the maneuverings it inspires, then and now. Is Lobo Neves that much different from today’s pols?

BC’s friend Quincas Borba first shows up in XIII and returns briefly in LIX. But from XCI on, as BC endures romantic and political disappointment, Borba and his goofy philosophy humanitism loom ever larger in BC’s life. A sign of his desperation?

For someone given to such high-flown theorizing, BC sure spends a lot of time down in the muck and mire of physicality. Just look at all those chapters with body parts as titles: the nose, eyes and ears, legs, and now, in XCVII, lips and forehead.

Day 7 | March 14
Ch 99-122

The elite’s obsession with status and the regard of others comes sharply into focus today. Besides chapters on “salutary effects of public opinion,” we have a scene in which Nhã-Loló’s father reveals lower-class origins through his love of cockfights.

Just to be clear, by calling BC’s last marriage prospect Nhã-Loló, M deliberately infantilizes her. It’s a nickname an enslaved nanny would give her charge, and we learn the girl’s real name only after death. Until then, she is just “Cotrim’s niece.”

The “half-dozen maxims” and bon mots in CXIX seem to be meant merely as throwaways, indicators of BC’s fundamental shallowness. But one stands out as a pithy summation of the trajectory of BC’s life & of the novel itself: “We kill time; time buries us.”

A historical note: the Hotel Pharoux, where BC spends so much time in his declining years, was a real place. Rio’s first modern hotel, founded in 1816 by a French exile, it closed only in 1959, & during its long zenith was often painted or photographed.

Day 8 | March 15
Ch 123-160

M so loved Shakespeare that I can’t help but think he is channeling the funeral oration from Julius Caesar in CXXIII. BC describes his brother-in-law Cotrim as a “ferociously honest character,” then reveals that he smuggles, hunts, and tortures slaves.

As BC’s fortunes decline, M grows increasingly playful with form. In CXXX, he tells us “this chapter is to be inserted between the first & second sentences” of the previous chapter. CXXXVI is one sentence on “uselessness”, and CXXXIX a blank page. What?

So much madness in this book! But mostly in the background, like the slaves. Besides Quincas Borba’s mental collapse in CLXIX and BC’s own occasional hallucinations, as in XLI, let’s not forget the madman on the ship taking BC to Portugal, back in XIX.

In the end, who is BC? Is his a life well lived? He’s a 19th-century playboy, a wastrel, but one who recognizes what he is. If, as he says in XLIX, love and procreation are part of life’s “capital forces,” no wonder “this last chapter is all negatives.”

But wait. Maybe BC gets the last laugh on us, his readers. “I came out even with life,” he avers, because of “the final negative in this chapter of negatives.” No spoiler alert here: let’s just say that his final sentence is devastating in its cynicism.

A note from Larry Rohter on Machado de Assis

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis is as foundational to Brazilian literature as Mark Twain is to American. The two were contemporaries, grew up in societies disfigured by slavery, and had mordant senses of humor that pervaded their work, but in many other respects, especially as regards style, they were markedly different. Nevertheless, Brazilian literature can be divided into two clearly defined periods: what came before Machado, as he is generally known, and what followed, with all that came after indelibly stamped with his influence. Just as Faulkner called Twain “the father of American literature,” Brazilian writers and critics routinely refer to Machado simply as “The Master” or “The Wizard.”

Part of Machado’s genius arises from his bold and playful experiments with novelistic form. In the nineteenth century these were considered quite radical, even anti-literary, but they have drawn the admiration not just of contemporary Brazilian practitioners of the novel but English-language writers as diverse as Philip Roth, Susan Sontag, Allen Ginsberg, John Updike, and Salman Rushdie, who calls Machado “a writer one hundred years ahead of his time.” I don’t propose to consider that aspect of Machado’s work here, since Dave Eggers does so with great enthusiasm in the foreword to the new translation of The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas that we are about to read together, and Machado himself comments on the method of his apparent madness in Chapter LXXI of the same book. Instead, I would like to try to cast some light on Machado the man, the times he lived in, and the causes and issues that shaped and engaged him.

Context is everything, as the saying goes, and that is especially true in Machado’s case. Though widely read and cosmopolitan in his tastes, he never traveled outside Brazil, and his many novels and short stories focus on what are ostensibly purely Brazilian situations and themes. As Eggers notes, Brás Cubas, first published in serial form in a Rio de Janeiro newspaper in 1880, is above all “a comedy of class and manners and ego, and it’s a reflection on a nation and a time.” So in hopes of enriching our understanding and enjoyment of the book, here are some observations about three aspects of its setting and circumstances that seem especially pertinent.

First and foremost, the Brazil into which Machado was born and lived most of his life was not a republic but the only monarchy in the Western Hemisphere—an Empire in fact, with Pedro II, crowned in 1841, two years after Machado’s birth, at its head until 1889. There was a formal court, based in Rio, the capital, and a national aristocracy, composed largely of plantation owners and merchants, which coveted the many titles of nobility available. Congress and the cabinet, both of which had limited powers, were filled with dukes, marquises, counts, viscounts, and barons who had received their titles either for services to the Emperor or through purchase. That same elite also dominated the court and social life, which often overlapped.

All of this provided rich fodder for Machado. Since titles were not hereditary, social climbers and the nouveau riche spent much of their time scrambling to rise and gain official favor through ostentatious displays of wealth or obsequiousness. “In our country, vulgarity is a title, mediocrity a coat of arms,” Machado wrote in 1861. The novel’s title character comes from this striving class, and the novel contains several set pieces in which the pretensions of his family are on display: a dinner to celebrate the fall of Portugal’s archrival Napoleon, a conversation in which the callow main character receives career orientation from his father about serving in congress.

Machado himself had a very ambiguous relationship with this privileged ruling caste. He circulated in their world, but was not of it. Born in a poor neighborhood of the capital, he dropped out of school at fourteen and was very much a self-taught and self-made man. After some years as a typesetter and proofreader, he became a journalist and then a translator and writer. Eventually, he was offered, and gratefully accepted, a job as a government bureaucrat, first in the Ministry of Public Works and then as assistant director of the Official Gazette. Machado was also a fervent monarchist, and would remain so even after the Emperor was overthrown on November 15, 1889: Pedro II had knighted Machado in 1867, and his daughter and heir to the throne, Princess Isabel, also took a personal interest in his career and welfare.

This brings us to a second fundamental fact about Machado and his time—one that in our current intellectual and political climate many might consider more important even than his nationality or class—and that is the importance of race. Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, in 1888, when Machado was nearly fifty years old, and he was himself a man of color trying to make his way through a milieu that was almost entirely white. Machado grappled with this fact throughout his life, and its significance permeates his work, including The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (though, with one notable exception, mostly in understated and modulated ways). “I know Your Excellence would prefer a subtle lie,” a character in one of his short stories proclaims, “but I know of nothing more subtle than the truth.”

By birth, Machado was biracial, what Brazilians of his time called a mulatto; current parlance would classify him as a mestiço, or mixed-race person. His father, Francisco José de Assis, a house painter, was the child of slaves who had been manumitted, while his mother, Maria Leopoldina da Câmara Machado, was a white washerwoman who had emigrated to Brazil from the impoverished Azores islands off the coast of Portugal; she died of tuberculosis when he was ten. What distinguished the family (Machado also had a sister, who died young) from the multitude of others mired in poverty was the patronage of an influential political clan: Machado’s godmother, who provided lodging to his family, was the widow of a prominent senator; and his godfather a decorated military officer. Machado’s two forenames were chosen so as to honor them.

At the age of thirty, Machado married a white woman five years older than he, Carolina Augusta Xavier de Novais. Her family, immigrants from Portugal, objected to the match because of his race, but the couple remained together until her death thirty-five years later. Though the target of prejudice in this and other instances, Machado generally tried to steer a moderate course on anything having to do with race or politics—which at the time of the publication of Brás Cubas revolved mainly around the abolition of slavery. His novels are filled with jabs at that institution—sometimes explicit, more often implicit or indirect—but Machado was reluctant to directly or publicly attack slavery. That led to criticism by other prominent black or mulatto intellectuals and abolitionists, who viewed him as something of what today might be called a “race traitor.”

In Brazil, slavery was an even more central and deleterious a feature of national life than in the antebellum United States. During the period the transatlantic slave trade was legal, about 500,000 Africans were kidnapped and subjected to the horrendous Middle Passage to southern ports; for Brazil, the comparable figure exceeds four million. Slavery in Brazil was not a primarily regional phenomenon, as in the United States, but present in every corner of a country larger than the continental US, from the Amazon in the north to the Pampas in the far south. It was especially prevalent, though, in the capital and the area around it. When Brazil conducted its first census in 1872—by which time Machado had already published his first novel, a short story collection, two volumes of poetry, and six plays—of the nearly 500,000 people living in the province of Rio de Janeiro, 37.39 percent, or three of every eight, were enslaved. Hence the almost-constant presence of slaves hovering in the background of many of the episodes making up Brás Cubas.

In his 2002 book Genius, the American critic Harold Bloom described Machado as “the supreme black literary artist to date,” an assessment that, aside from pigeonholing the writer’s achievements, Machado himself would in all likelihood have rejected. During his lifetime, Brazil’s principal cultural influences came not from Portugal, its mother country, but from France, and Machado shared that passion. Brás Cubas begins his memoirs with a reference to Stendhal, the text that follows is chockablock with mentions of other French writers and cultural figures (major and minor), and Machado himself translated works of Victor Hugo, Molière, Dumas, and Racine. (He translated Shakespeare, Dickens, and Poe too, but that is a tale for another day). In 1897, Machado also was a founder and first president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, modeled on the Académie Française, with membership limited at any one time to forty “immortals.”

One of the most important French intellectual currents present in Brazil during the second half of the nineteenth century, indeed until Machado’s death in 1908, was the philosophy known as positivism. First enunciated by Auguste Comte in reaction to the excesses of the French Revolution, positivism evolved into both a religion and a political movement, which, grosso modo, were based on the notion that the embrace of pure rationality in the form of science would lead mankind to the highest state of development. The theory was especially popular among the Brazilian professional classes, including lawyers, engineers, scientists, and military officers: Positivists led the military coup that overthrew the emperor in 1889, and the national flag they adopted, still in use today, displayed Comte’s motto, “Order and Progress.”

The eternally skeptical Machado, however, was buying none of this, and Brás Cubas is in part a satire of positivism. The book’s dead narrator has a friend named Quincas Borba, a philosopher cum conman who concocts an odd doctrine called humanitism and eventually goes mad. Through exaggeration, Machado has great sport skewering some of the more outlandish precepts of positivism: Humanitism is a delirious melange of parts that don’t fit, with elements drawn from Nietzsche, Darwin, and Buddha, thrown together to create a panglossian vision of the world. Machado enjoyed himself so much, in fact, that his next novel, published in 1891, was called Quincas Borba (first translated into English as Philosopher or Dog?). A third novel, Dom Casmurro, from 1899, completes what has come to be known as Machado’s “realist trilogy”—so designated because of the pessimistic, ironic tone they have in common.

Any great writer is obviously more than the sum of his or her parts, and so it is with Machado. The forces, events, and influences I’ve enumerated here were by no means determinative, any more so than the stutter or the epilepsy that afflicted him. They are not insignificant, either, but several million of Machado’s contemporaries lived through the same period, spoke the same language, and had similar experiences. Yet only he was capable of producing The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas and the magnificent body of work of which it is part. As Harold Bloom said of him, this time correctly, Machado is indeed “a kind of miracle.”

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