Machado’s Catalogue of Failures


Arts & Culture

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis had already published four novels when he wrote The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, which was serialized in 1880 and appeared in book form in 1881. It 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 direct, sustained narrative, a regular, fluid style.”

… whereas this book and my style are like a pair of drunkards: they stagger left and right, start and stop, mumble, yell, roar with laughter, shake their fists at the heavens, then stumble 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. And it was only some years later, primarily in the sixties and seventies, that critics inside and outside Brazil began to recognize the novel as a work of extraordinary originality.

Critics often say of Posthumous Memoirs that it came out of the blue and was nothing like Machado’s previous work. True, his earlier novels were fairly conventional in tone and style and subject matter, but many of his short stories are wildly eccentric, and show a particular liking for the fantastic and the grotesque, e.g., “The Alienist,” “A Visit from Alcibiades,” “The Canon, or the Metaphysics of Style,” or “Canary Thoughts”; and Brás Cubas’s familiar way of addressing the reader is already there in “Miss Dollar,” which dates from before 1870. The stories also share a fascination with madness, of which there is a great deal in these Posthumous Memoirs, for instance: Brás Cubas’s delirium when ill; his hallucinatory vision of Virgília following his encounter with the ruined Marcela; the madman on the ship carrying Brás Cubas to Portugal; and, of course, Quincas Borba’s slide into insanity. To anyone who knows Machado’s short stories, the world of Brás Cubas seems quite familiar.

The literary models 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 Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre-tombe (Memoirs from Beyond the Grave), published posthumously in 1849 and 1850. Those memoirs filled two volumes; their author was a diplomat, politician, writer, historian, and supposed founder of French Romanticism. Brás Cubas’s posthumous memoirs (which are written from beyond the grave) fill a scant two hundred pages and the narrator is, by his own blithe admission, a complete mediocrity whose life can be summed up by 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 the half-baked philosophy, and yet in many ways the book is also a straightforward nineteenth-century realist novel, with its jabs at the hypocrisy of middle-class society, and the standard themes of adultery, money, marriage, miserliness, and profligacy. Machado manages, seamlessly, to combine realism and the fantastic, and the novel’s fragmentary, allusive style and its frequent inclusion of us, the readers, strikes us now as very modern, as does Brás Cubas’s insistence, more than once, that this is not a novel at all.

As in Machado’s stories and other novels, there are frequent references to classic texts, especially the Bible and Shakespeare. The biblical references—the road to Damascus, the beatitudes, the parable of the wedding feast, Adam and Eve, Moses—are all used to bathetic effect. For example, Brás Cubas’s great revelatory “road to Damascus” discovery is that he cannot possibly marry a girl who is lame, even if he loves her. With his many Shakespearean quotations and allusions, we are frequently reminded that the author is far cleverer than we are, or is he perhaps leaving clues for the more alert among us? One example: when Brás Cubas, in a melancholy mood, alights on and embraces a line spoken by Jacques in As You Like It—“ ’Tis good to be sad and say nothing”—he does, it seems, entirely fail to notice Rosalind’s riposte: “Why then ’tis good to be a post.” That is left for us to pick up on—or not. When Brás Cubas starts doodling the opening lines of Virgil’s Aeneid, “I sing of arms and the man,” he is at his least heroic, ready to do exactly as his father wants and agree to an arranged marriage and an arranged career, too.

Another regular feature in Machado’s work is the use of not-quite-accurate quotations. Quincas Borba is particularly fond of tinkering with the texts of other philosophers—Pascal and Erasmus are two examples—to suit his own purposes and perhaps to give himself the appearance of being superior to other scholars. Or is this a further example of Brás Cubas’s theory of man as a thinking erratum? Or another way to trip up the unwary reader?

As for the historical and social context of the novel, the first point to note is that in 1805, the year of Brás Cubas’s birth, Rio de Janeiro (founded in 1565 and given its name “January River” because the Portuguese had first landed there on January 1, 1502) was a colonial city, and since 1763 it had been the seat of the viceroy who ruled the whole of Brazil on behalf of the Portuguese monarch in Lisbon. In 1808, as the infant Brás Cubas begins his domestic tyranny, the city underwent a remarkable transformation with the unexpected arrival of the entire Portuguese royal family and government, forced to flee Napoleon’s invasion of Portugal. Rio de Janeiro thus became for a brief time the capital of the entire Portuguese Empire, and rapidly acquired most of the trappings of a fully fledged capital city—a government, a royal court, lavish public buildings, even a central bank. This process seemed destined to be reversed following the downfall of Napoleon in 1814, but the Portuguese king, Dom João VI, refused to leave Rio, despite the increasingly desperate pleas of his own government. The standoff was eventually resolved in 1822 when 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 one feels inclined to wonder if they are, in fact, significant. For example:

In 1805, Brás Cubas is born; this is also the year that soldiers of African descent wore medallion portraits of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who had led the Haitian Revolution that inspired black slaves throughout the world to fight for their rights. And the very day after Brás Cubas’s birth (we are given the precise date), Napoleon loses the battle of Trafalgar and thereby supremacy of the seas, a major factor in his eventual downfall. In 1806, Brás Cubas is baptized and a very elegant party is held; this also marks the start of the British military attacks on the River Plate region, initiating a long period of British interference in Brazilian affairs that is echoed throughout the novel. In 1814, Brás Cubas’s father holds 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, various liberal rebellions are swiftly quashed by the government. In 1869, Brás Cubas dies; the same year, a pro-Brazilian government is installed in the capital of Paraguay during the closing stages of the long and bloody war between Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina.

One might argue that Machado’s mention of these historically significant dates is to show how little the events impinge on the lives of the novel’s totally self-centered characters, all of whom are comfortably well off. Those who are not well off, like Eugênia or Dona Plácida—both tainted by the stain of illegitimacy—are rejected or used and, ultimately, relegated to lives of abject poverty.

The subject of slavery is present throughout the novel, but Machado’s message is carefully hidden behind cool understatement or apparently blasé indifference—after all, Brazil did not abolish slavery until 1888, some eight years after the novel was first published, and Machado was himself the grandson of a freed slave. At times the slaves seem almost invisible: they are part of an inheritance, the preferred mount of a spoiled child, not to be trusted but berated, spoken of as if they were mere chattels or livestock. Here’s Quincas Borba pondering the chicken wing he is eating for his supper:

I need no further documentary proof of the sublime nature of my system than this chicken right here. It was fed on corn, which was planted by, let’s suppose, an African imported from Angola. This African was born, raised, and sold; a ship brought him here, a ship built of wood cut from the forest by ten or twelve men, and propelled by sails sewn by a further eight or ten men, not to mention the rigging and other bits and pieces of nautical apparatus. Thus, this chicken, which I have just eaten for my lunch, is the result of a multitude of efforts and struggles undertaken with the sole aim of sating my appetite.

And when Brás Cubas encounters his former slave Prudêncio, now a free man, beating the slave that he, in turn, has bought, Brás Cubas is shocked, but then reaches a strangely celebratory conclusion:

It was Prudêncio’s way of ridding himself of all the beatings he had received, by passing them on to someone else. As a child, I had ridden on his back, put a bridle between his teeth, and thrashed him mercilessly; he could do nothing but groan and suffer. Now that he was a free man, in full possession of himself, his arms, and his legs, he could work, rest, or sleep unfettered by his former condition, and now he was turning the tables; he had bought a slave and was paying him, with hefty interest, for all that he had received from me. See what a clever rascal he was!

The harsh treatment meted out to slaves by Bras Cubas’s insufferable brother-in-law, Cotrim, is excused by the fact that he is in the business of smuggling slaves, and besides, “one cannot honestly attribute to a man’s original nature those aspects that are purely the effect of his position in society.” The message seems to be that violence and abuse breed more violence and abuse, a trenchant message that resonates to this day.

No one escapes Machado’s scathing view of humanity, which is ruled by greed and ambition and egotism. From his position beyond the grave, Brás Cubas is free at last to be totally honest about himself and about others, to write, as he himself says, “with the pen of mirthful mockery and the ink of melancholy.” Perhaps the only moment of unmediated emotion comes with the death of Brás Cubas’s mother and Brás Cubas’s apparently genuine grief, from which, however, he recovers very quickly indeed, as if grief were just another obstacle to him having fun.

The book is a catalogue of failures: Brás Cubas fails to marry, fails to produce his antimelancholia poultice, fails to become a government minister or a newspaper publisher; Lobo Neves fails to become a minister, let alone a marquis; Eugênia fails to marry anyone; Eulália fails to rise in the world, fails even to live past seventeen; and Quincas Borba fails to publish his book of philosophy and doesn’t even manage to be totally insane. Machado presents us with an almost entirely nihilistic view of life and humanity. And yet, narrator and novel draw us in because the narrative voice is so beguiling, so funny, often outrageous, and always utterly frank. And do we perhaps recognize our own flawed selves in the narrator and the other characters? And is that perhaps the question the novel is asking the reader?


The award-winning translator Margaret Jull Costa lives in England. Read her Art of Translation interview, which appears in the Summer 2020 issue.

The award-winning translator Robin Patterson lives in England.

Excerpted from Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas: A Novel. © 2020 by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.