Hmmm. How to begin telling you about this satirical, pessimistic, funny, extremely peculiar novel (?) Will it help if I tell you that it has 160 chapters in 200 pages, and that some of those chapters have no words at all? Will you get some sense of it if I tell you that it’s an autobiography that begins with its author’s death? No? Not enough? Let’s see. This is a seriocomic send-up of the popular genre in which we learn about life through literature (and literature through life), but the author, dead of pneumonia at the age of 64, decided to write his no-holds-barred memoir from beyond the grave. Brás Cubas, a character who is two parts engaging, lazy rogue and one part unpleasant jackass, recounts his love affairs and failed political ambitions as if he is some combination of Bertie Wooster and Eeyore.
Not sure that helped, either, but trust me, folks, this is a slippery book. Published in 1881, this is not your typical 19th-century narration, fluid, full of furniture, the narrator omnisciently disappearing up his own sleeve. It is self-mocking, witty, full of panache, and never, ever self-effacing. So what do we make of it?
In Chapter XXVII, Brás Cubas says,
Let Pascal say that man is a thinking reed. No. He’s a thinking erratum, that’s what he is. Every season of life is an edition that corrects the one before and which will also be corrected itself until the definitive edition, which the publisher gives to the worms gratis.
So man is a book. Brás Cubas is, himself, the book he is writing; he is his own memoir. (The epigraph at the beginning of the book is another riff on the same thought: “To the Worm Who Gnawed the Cold Flesh of My Corpse I Dedicate These Posthumous Memoirs as a Nostalgic Remembrance.” Are these the same worms who gnaw on Dom Casmurro’s books? Probably.)
Throughout the book, Brás Cubas invites the reader to engage with him. Sometimes he speaks directly to the reader, making observations, even questioning her fitness to read the book:
I’m beginning to regret this book. Not that it bores me, I have nothing to do and, really, putting together a few meager chapters for that other world is always a task that distracts me from eternity a little. But the book is tedious, it has the smell of the grave about it; it has a certain cadaveric contraction about it, a serious fault, insignificant to boot because the main defect of this book is you, reader. You’re in a hurry to grow old and the book moves slowly. You love direct and continuous narration, a regular and fluid style, and 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…
In other places, he forces the reader to create meaning. In the chapter entitled “The Dialogue of Adam and Eve,” there are no words, only ellipses and punctuation. The reader must imagine what the two interlocutors are saying, and supply the dialogue. (I have to say that my own imagination is not nearly as witty as whatever Brás Cubas would have given us — or is that a paradox? The book is exactly what it is.) In still other places, he steps back and pretends to show the man behind the curtain, the cogs and wheels that make his narration work: “And now watch the skill, the art with which I make the greatest transition in this book. Watch…. See? Seamlessly, nothing to divert the reader’s calm attention, nothing.” But all this is mere showmanship. Since the book itself is Brás Cubas, he can never disappear from its surface. He is its surface, gnawed by worms. Dwight has done a far more subtle thing than I’m doing here, showing the way the book uses literary references to engage the reader and create an active relationship. You’re not reading a book, you’re having a conversation with a person.
So is it a novel? That depends on you. In the Prologue to the Third Edition, Machado de Assis quotes the “late Brás Cubas” as saying yes and no; it is for some and it isn’t for others. If you have engaged with the text deeply enough, this might not be a novel, this might be a man: Brás Cubas himself, with all his flaws. For me, it felt a little odd to close the book and cut off the conversation.
Translated by Gregory Rabassa, OUP.