Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

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...

And they do fall!  Miserable leaves of my cypress of death, you shall fall like any others, beautiful and brilliant as you are.  And, if I had eyes, I would shed a nostalgic tear for you.  This is the great advantage of death, which if it leaves no mouth which which to laugh, neither does it leave eyes with which to weep... You shall fall.

My 11th grade students have to read a book of their own choosing and write a term paper on it.  Most of them picked from a list I gave them, but a few chose books of their own.  Most of those were things I'd heard of, but one student chose The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, apparently a classic of 19th century Brazilian fiction.

Bras Cubas is a fictional memoir, with the strange distinction that its narrator has died before the beginning of the narrative.  Bras Cubas looks back over his life, which was not particularly notable, marked by a series of love affairs and failed attempts at obtaining political office, and a brief flirtation with an absurd philosophical system and its charismatic leader.  But it has the diffidence of a narrator who is no longer invested in what he's talking about; he's dead, after all, and nothing here quite matters as much as it once did.

The dead memoirist is just one of several proto-modernist aspects of Bras Cubas.  The novel is made up of 160 very short chapters, some only a few lines long.  One chapter, entitled "How I Didn't Get to Be a Minister of State," is composed of three lines of ellipses and nothing else.  In the following chapter--helpfully titled "Which Explains the Previous One"--Cubas writes:

There are things that are better said in silence.  Such is the material of the previous chapter.  Unsuccessful ambitious people will understand it.

And we do; the ellipses invite the reader to substitute the uneasy failures they've experienced into the blank space Cubas leaves.  Bras Cubas' manner makes it frequently funny, and often simultaneously profound.  Cubas vacillates between episodes of Tristram Shandy-like satirical absurdism and wistful poetry:

Take a look now at the neutrality of this globe that carries us through space like a lifeboat heading for the shore: today a virtuous couple sleeps on the same plot of ground that once held a sinning couple.  Tomorrow a churchman may sleep there, then a murderer, then a blacksmith, then a poet, and they will all bless that corner of the earth that gave them a few illusions.

Dead now, Bras Cubas sees the "few illusions" he had, dismisses some, cherishes others.  His chief achievement, which is only alluded to, is the invention of a new and popular kind of poultice.  Measuring things, he decides that he made it out of life with "a small balance" because he never had children and therefore never "transmitted the legacy of our misery to any creature."  But that final bit of cynicism seems hard to square with the frequent lightheartedness of the narrative, which milks both laughter and sympathy out of a very ordinary life.


Brittany said...

I'd love to know what your kids made of a book that is so structurally weird.

Last year my 11th graders had an outside reading list that included some structurally atypical books like A Visit From the Goon Squad, Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Tonto and the Lone Ranger Fistfight in Heaven, and while they liked the ideas of these novels, they really struggled with HOW to read and interpret such a thing. I think their brains were stretched maybe a little too far.

Also, what was on your list?

Christopher said...

It's just one kid. And honestly, the structure isn't that strange--it's a pretty linear narrative. I don't think it's anything this particular kid's going to be shocked by; after all, he's the one that chose it.

The list was basically everything I could remember reading. I just went to my 50B tallies and copied them down.