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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



The Posthumous Memoirs
of Brás Cubas


by
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas



Title: The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas
Author: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Genre: Novel
Written: 1881 (Eng. 1997)
Length: 230 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas - US
Epitaph of a Small Winner - US
Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas - US
The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas - UK
The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas - Canada
Mémoires posthumes de Brás Cubas - France
Die nachträglichen Memoiren des Bras Cubas - Deutschland
  • Portuguese title: Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas
  • Translated by Gregory Rabassa
  • With a Foreword by Enylton de Sá Rego
  • With an Afterword by Gilberto Pinheiro Passos
  • Previously translated as Epitaph of a Small Winner by William L. Grossman (1952), now published with a Foreword by Susan Sontag, and as Posthumous Reminiscences of Braz Cubas by E.Percy Ellis (1955)

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Our Assessment:

A- : spirited, and cleverly done

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ* . 12/7/2003 Hans-Martin Gauger
Neue Zürcher Zeitung* . 5/7/2003 Kersten Knipp
New Statesman . 15/8/1997 Amanda Hopkinson
The NY Rev.of Books . 18/7/2002 Michael Wood
The NY Times Book Rev.* . 13/7/1952 Dudley Fitts
Time* . 21/7/1952 .
TLS* . 3/1/1986 John Gledson

*: Refers to a different translation than the one under review here.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Exotisches ist in dem Roman auch nicht. Er ist ein restlos europäisches Buch, auch wenn es in Rio "spielt". Da ist nicht die "Alterität", die Europäer so gerne in Lateinamerika finden wollen. (...) (H)ier ist ein sprachliches Kunstwerk -- und in der Tat Weltliteratur." - Hans-Martin Gauger, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Braz rambles a good bit. He often seems more interested in chewing his philosophical cud than in telling his story. He will drop everything else for an epigram." - Time

  • "This novel, written, it seems, in a very short time, episodic, in a pseudo-Sternean manner, but also tightly constructed with a sharply ironic, if overtly ironic style, contains the essence of his genius. It is also, of all his works, the most accessible to non-Brazilians" - John Gledson, Times Literary Supplement

  Quotes:
  • "A novel can be much shorter than people had previously thought. That is the basis of Machado de Assis's new style. He took the form of Sterne's musical novel, and then concentrated the effects." - Adam Thirlwell, Miss Herbert (2007)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       As the narrator of The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas acknowledges in a note 'To the Reader' at the beginning of the text, "I, Brás Cubas, have adopted the free-form of a Sterne or Xavier de Maistre" (see, for example, de Maistre's Voyage around my Room). In 160 chapters -- spread here over barely two hundred pages -- Machado de Assis' playful approach is clearly based on that of Sterne in Tristram Shandy, but also offers new and different twists, along with a distinctly late-nineteenth-century Latin American flavor.
       A clever start to things is making these posthumous memoirs. And Brás Cubas takes full advantage of that situation by beginning his account with a chapter on 'The Author's Demise', explaining there why he decided to begin his story not with the beginning -- his birth -- but the end.
       Among his reasons:

the writing would be more distinctive and novel in that way. Moses, who also wrote about his death, didn't place it at the opening but at the close: a radical difference between this book and the Pentateuch.
       As if they resembled each other otherwise .....
       So readers are first introduced to the deceased, dead (in 1869) at age sixty-four, still a bachelor, with a decent amount of cash, and eleven friends at the cemetery to see him off.
       Brás Cubas then does return to the beginning and proceeds in chronological order, but though he describes some of the usual stations of growing up, the focus of the book is on his one great love -- as already suggested by the description of one of the mourners, whom he describes but does not name in that first chapter, telling readers:
Let it go. We'll get there later on. We'll go there when I get my early years back. Now I want to die peacefully, methodically, listening to the ladies sobbing, the men talking softly, the rain drumming on the caladium leaves of my suburban home, and the strident sound of a knife a grinder is sharpening outside by a harness-maker's door.
       Brás Cubas likes to indulge in a bit of reverie every so often; by being so up-front about his authorial tricks -- of keeping readers in suspense about the identity of the anonymous mourner, for example -- he slyly pokes fun at traditional fiction, that operates with the same tricks but doesn't admit to the artificiality of their use.
       The story at the center of the memoir -- the story of his life, as it were -- is of his love for Virgília. They were almost married, but she made what seemed like a better match, with Lobo Neves -- but their passion could not be quenched, and an on-again, off-again affair (with quite a few complications) continues for many years.
       The story, with its ups and downs, is similar to that found in countless other late nineteenth-century novels (or, for that matter, from most any period) -- but Machado de Assis is far more creative in his presentation, and also allows Brás Cubas to present his story in a more realistic vein. So, for example, there is a scene after which Brás Cubas acknowledges:
I know quite well that in order to titillate the nerves of fantasy I should have suffered great despair, shed a few tears, and not eaten lunch. It would have been like a novel, but it wouldn't have been biography. The naked truth is that I did eat lunch, as on every other day, succoring my heart with the memories of my adventure and my stomach with the delicacies of M. Prudhon ...
       Yet again, the reader is reminded of the tricks novel-writers employ -- with Machado de Assis using newer ones to get his point across. (So then also in a chapter inserted 'As an Interlude', to spare the reader the too-sudden shock of being confronted with a dramatic and sad occurrence -- a shock: "quite harmful to the effect of the book", he thinks -- well aware that 'effect' can be carefully manipulated by the author.)
       The presentation is clever and makes for a fast-paced book. One chapter is a dialogue consisting solely of ellipses and question and exclamation marks, another reads, in its entirety:
     But, I'm either mistaken or I've just written a useless chapter.
       One chapter is addressed 'To a critic' -- a brief letter that concludes: "Do I have to explain everything ?" -- while in another he toys with the thought: "Maybe I'll leave out the previous chapter."
       Midway through he admits:
     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 ...
       Machado de Assis plays these games well, and though much found in The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas is now overly-familiar, it has held up surprisingly well, qualifying easily as a timeless work. It is obviously of literary-historical interest, and a 'classic' in every sense of the word, but The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas is also simply good, good fun.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 November 2009

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Links:

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas: Reviews: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Brazilian author Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis lived 1839 to 1908.

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© 2009 the complete review

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