Skip to content

Memoirs from Beyond the Grave

Two new translations of a Brazilian classic

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas: A Novel by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson. Liverlight, 256 pages.

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux. Penguin Classics, 368 pages.

The greatest and most undefinable of Brazilian writers was born in poverty in 1839, the son of domestic workers tied to an estate. He barely attended school, suffered from epilepsy and poor eyesight all his life, and was visibly a mulatto in a stratified, racially paranoid society which would only abolish slavery in 1888. Yet Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis confounded every law of determinism to acquire staggering erudition, several foreign languages, and an entrée to Brazil’s white elite. In a career spanning almost fifty years—he is said to have published his first sonnet at the age of fifteen—he produced a vast trove of novels, stories, chronicles, essays, and poetry.

Such is the originality of his mature work, however, that full appreciation by critics and readers was slow in coming, at home and abroad. His contemporaries, then heatedly debating the criteria for a national literature, felt he was lacking in local color or brasilidade; despite the panegyrics of latter-day tastemakers like Harold Bloom and Susan Sontag, and—lest these names suggest otherwise—the entertaining readability of his work, he is even today not a household name. Machado is generally regarded as a mystery to be solved, both because of his vertiginous ascent—partly explained by a series of lucky breaks, apprenticeships, and patronages during adolescence—and the gulf between the relatively tame early fiction and the burst of formally revolutionary, socially unforgiving works that followed a breakdown he suffered in 1878. The subsequent outpouring of brilliance lasted until his death three decades later. 

The interesting stuff for modern readers is what interrupts the tinny plot and ruthlessly undermined emotions.

The first of these new works was Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, published in 1881 after a nine-month serialization in Revista Brazileira. It purports to be the unvarnished reminiscences of a rich idler in Rio de Janeiro, sardonically narrated from beyond the grave. This dizzying novel, so layered and duplicitous as to be a translator’s dream, did not appear in English until 1952, courtesy of William Grossman, under the title Epitaph of a Small Winner. Two further versions followed (in 1955 and 1997), and now we are spoiled with two more, both published this June. One is the development of a PhD dissertation picked up by Penguin Classics from new talent Flora Thomson-DeVeaux. The other is a collaboration between the veteran Spanish and Portuguese translator Margaret Jull Costa and her mentee Robin Patterson, following on from their 2018 Collected Stories of Machado de Assis. Rumor has it that neither was aware of the other until it was too late—fortunately for those of us who believe the latent resources of a text are set free in other languages and epochs, there can never be too many.

Machado’s prose is not in itself difficult, but luminous and direct. His literary innovation lies more in ambiguities of meaning and the breezy narrative caprice—inspired in the first instance by Tristram Shandy, but far more versatile—that affects both the tones and the structure of the novel.  Addressing the radical break between Machado’s early work and Brás Cubas, Michael Wood described what must have been a shock for the writer’s (largely female) fans as:

The move from graceful, third-person storytelling to extravagant modernist antics, including tangled time lines, reflexive commentary, digressions, deeply unreliable first-person narrators, proliferating allusions, canceled or incomplete stories, pages filled with dots, idiosyncratic chapter titles, constant references to the bookishness of the books, and teasing addresses to a variety of imaginary readers.

To which I’d add: nonsensical paradoxes, farcical bathos, startling metaphors, and such compulsive self-revision and contradiction that the exposed artifice of storytelling prevents all suspension of disbelief. Take, for example, Chapter CXXXVI, titled “Pointlessness” (Jull Costa and Patterson), which consists of one sentence: “But, unless I am much mistaken, I have just written an utterly pointless chapter.” One envies the reader of the serialized version, tantalized and stymied by such installments. But most no doubt preferred to lose themselves in a proper yarn with serious characters, and the work was tepidly received.

The story begins with the eponymous narrator’s ignominious death. After a stunning “Delirium” chapter, in which he contemplates the world’s miserable history from the back of a hippopotamus, Brás Cubas returns to tell the story of his life from childhood onwards. Remarkable only for the curse of extreme ineffectuality, he meanders down the standard path of a bourgeois son and heir, fecklessly studying in Europe, having affairs with courtesans and married women, and dabbling in politics and charity work. The interesting stuff for modern readers is what interrupts the tinny plot and ruthlessly undermined emotions. I can’t therefore agree with Dave Eggers’s assertion, in his foreword to the Thomson-DeVeaux translation, that “the romance between Brás Cubas and Virgilia is convincing and wildly lyrical.” It is, rather, the mechanically heartfelt parody of both a literary genre and a social trope.

Augustus Earle, “Punishing Negroes at Cathabouco,” (1822).| National Library of Australia

The two consciousnesses carrying the novel’s narrative in alternate or enmeshed voices—Dead Brás from his bored beyond and Living Brás in successive flashbacks—are underlaid by a third, the author’s, which can be sensed like a dissonant hum. We hear him, for instance, pointing us to the sophistry of the arguments whereby Living Brás convinces himself of the virtue of some selfish or cruel action: operations taken at face value by Dead Brás, however hard he sometimes is on his inadequate self in its successive “editions.” At one point, reflecting on cheating a muleteer who has just saved his life, he reaches the view that the sin was not meanness but profligacy, for which he is “filled with remorse.” A more honest account of his charity work late in life admits that its main reward was to “give me a really excellent opinion of myself.” (Jull Costa and Patterson)

We also detect Machado in the dozens of mostly decorative allusions, from Greek and Roman Antiquity to English and French classics. Since Brás, by his own admission a terrible student, would lack such scholarship, the discordance of these references slyly suggests the inconsequentiality of the European culture prized by the carioca elite, whose neocolonial values Machado attacked in essays and letters. Responding to such signals hidden in the texts, the Brazilian critic Roberto Schwarz has proposed that the novel formally enacts the disjunctions of an officially liberal society still mired in pre-bourgeois relations of slavery and clientelism. Against the brasilidade reproach that Machado was nationally disengaged, Schwarz and other twentieth century critics have argued that “the composition, rhythm and texture of Machado’s novels” reflect “the artistic formalization of specific aspects of the ex-colony’s reality.” Be that as it may, it should not distract us from the work’s psychological and ethical elements. The performances of self-deception and vanity filling the novel, set in the years of Brazil’s imperial bureaucracy, echo older court moralists like La Rochefoucauld but also possess the universal scope Machado aspired to, writing in Diário do Rio in 1866 that “Art . . . must be immortal and relevant to future societies.”

Machado inhabited a fragile space that made him both of and not of the society he observed to such subtle and devastating effect.

In the same essay, he advised artists: “Do not involve yourself in polemics.” How much did Black lives matter to Machado? The debate over abolition was at its height in the 1870s and ‘80s, but he refused to wade in, to the disappointment of other white and mulatto intellectuals. He was living—like so many of his characters—somewhat in disguise for the sake of social acceptance, never speaking or writing of his class and racial background, achieving “white status” and wealth through his literary output, a successful career in the administration, and marriage—happy as well as helpful—to a well-born Portuguese woman. A newspaper obituary classed him as white. At the same time, much in the stories and novels dramatizes the tension he must have felt between inner reality and outside pressures, conscience and ambition: the two souls he called alma interior and alma exterior in “The Mirror” (1882). He dropped clues to his thinking on racial injustice, too, in his fiction, hinting, for example, that manumission, particularly prior to 1888, was an act of self-interest, leaving the freed suddenly and almost vengefully abandoned without support. His attitudes on the subject are conveyed in the Memoirs, like everything else, indirectly and with complex irony. Take the jaunty scene in which Brás’s freed slave, whom he tormented as a child, whips his own slave in an emulation that Brás, initially dismayed, comes to approve—using a twisted logic that recalls Baudelaire’s in “Let’s Beat Up the Poor.”

As a mulatto (and an epileptic), Machado inhabited a fragile space that made him both of and not of the society he observed to such subtle and devastating effect. This is surely the key to his many-layered voice; yet few major critics have seriously addressed the matter of race in his work, as if colorblindness were a matter of respect. G. Reginald Daniel is an exception here. In his 2012 study Multiracial Identity and the Brazilian Novelist, Daniel unveils the play of racial metaphor across Machado’s work to find a writer who embodies a “both/neither” position that allowed him to transcend race. His personal experience, Daniel suggests, ultimately enabled him to recognize the “metaphorically mulatto” nature of humanity itself, torn between its interior and exterior souls. In essays and fiction, Machado similarly questioned the limitations of both Romanticism and Realism as exclusive aesthetics. (Brás Cubas, in one of his author-mouthpiece moments, mocks the prancing steed which the Romantics sought in medieval castles and then overworked until the poor beast was ditched, “leprous and worm-eaten” [Thomson-DeVeaux], by the roadside, for the realists to appropriate). Machado’s answer to these extremes was to mingle spiritual and earthy qualities, making him—though any label is reductive—a Romantic Realist akin to Conrad and Dostoevsky.

Machado de Assis. | Wikimedia Commons

As to which of these new translations best honors the masterwork, I am inclined to think you need both. Jull Costa and Patterson offer the superior read; Thomson-DeVeaux is more faithful to the original, at the risk of sometimes being too literal. For the already-quoted Chapter CXXXVI, “Inutilidade,” she opts for the title “Uselessness”: not wrong, but not as right as “Pointlessness.” Overall, though, she makes fewer outright errors than do Jull Costa and Patterson. The strangest of these is where the pair have an Englishman “here in Rio” (as the original doesn’t say) exclaim that “it’s a rum business not knowing anyone who remembers my parents.” Thomson-DeVeaux correctly identifies this cheery expat as the metaphysician Thomas Browne (who never left Europe), and she provides a more sober quote from his Christian Morals of 1716. There are many other points where her deep research (including in the Machado archive at Brown) has made all the difference to accuracy, while enriching the paratextual material.

Out on the periphery of his periphery, he was a samizdat writer of color, a discreet infiltrator of imperial and republican Brazil.

Indeed, hers is the better packaged edition by far. Jull Costa and Patterson offer a broad-brush introduction, a biographical note (good on the uncertainty of Machado’s early life), and a few, somewhat arbitrary footnotes. By contrast, the intensity of Thomson-DeVeaux’s personal engagement lifts her searching introduction and prolific endnotes. She also provides an essential bibliography, listing all Machado’s works in their various English translations as well as selected critical studies. Sharing her working process in “A Note on the Translation,” she recalls examining her predecessors’ efforts only after completing a first draft of her own, all renditions being so many “interpretations of a slippery text caught in amber.”

I wonder what adjustments might have been made had the present translations similarly been introduced to each other. Slips and errors aside, they weave quite different linguistic fabrics. Thomson-DeVeaux tends toward fancy, at times archaic, vocabulary and phrasing. Jull Costa and Patterson are looser, more colloquial and relaxed, closer to Machado’s register in his day. For mortificava, they choose the everyday word “nagged”; Thomson-DeVeaux goes for “bedeviled.” Or take the following example:

Andava de um lado para outro, abanando a cabeça, suspirando com estrépito, espiando pela rótula.

She was pacing back and forth, wagging her head, sighing clamorously, glancing out the window from time to time. (Thomson-DeVeaux)

She paced the room, shaking her head and sighing loudly, then peering out through the shutters. (Jull Costa and Patterson)

Or, just in terms of verbal rhythm and visual evocation, compare the versions of the cheeky faux-apology in Chapter LXXI, after Brás has accused none other than the reader of being the book’s great defect, for wanting something more consistent than he can give:

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 . . . 


This book and my style are like drunkards, they veer right and left, stop and go, grumble, bellow, cackle, threaten the skies, slip, and fall . . .

I know which version I prefer, but shall leave them unattributed, because it’s finally a matter of taste.

The hope is that many more readers may come across this sui generis master, perched on his almost disconnected branch of the literary tree: a formal innovator, fantastical ironist, and moral-social skeptic who apparently knew nothing of contemporary kindred spirits like Chekhov, Kafka, or Twain, and of whom heirs like Borges or Nabokov seem not to have heard either. Out on the periphery of his periphery, he was a samizdat writer of color, a discreet infiltrator of imperial and republican Brazil, an outsider steeped in the classics and prefiguring the moderns. A manifold man, constantly being rediscovered but, one could almost think, willfully unknown.