The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas

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The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas
Memorias Posthumas de Braz Cubas.jpg
The author himself dedicated this copy to the Bibliotheca Nacional, the National Library of Brazil.
AuthorJoaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Original titleMemórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas
TranslatorGregory Rabassa
CountryBrazil
LanguagePortuguese
GenreNovel
PublisherOxford University Press (Eng. Trans. hardback edition)
Publication date
1881 (1 October 1997 Eng. translation)
Media typePrint (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages238 p. (Eng. Trans. hardback edition)
ISBN0-19-510169-3 (Eng. Trans. hardback edition)
OCLC35586796
869.3 20
LC ClassPQ9697.M18 M513 1997

The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (Portuguese: Memorias Posthumas de Braz Cubas, modern spelling Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas), often subtitled as the Epitaph of a Small Winner, is a novel by the Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis.

Published in 1881, the novel has a unique style of short, erratic chapters shifting in tone and style. Instead of the clear and logical construction of a normal nineteenth-century realist novel, the novel makes use of surreal devices of metaphor and playful narrative construction. It is considered the first romance of the realist movement in Brazil.

Plot introduction[edit]

The novel is narrated by the dead protagonist Brás Cubas, who tells his own life story from beyond the grave, noting his mistakes and failed romances.

The fact of being already deceased allows Brás Cubas to sharply criticize the Brazilian society and reflect on his own disillusionment, with no sign of remorse or fear of retaliation. Brás Cubas dedicates his book: "To the worm who first gnawed on the cold flesh of my corpse, I dedicate with fond remembrance these Posthumous Memoirs" (Portuguese: Ao verme que primeiro roeu as frias carnes do meu cadáver dedico com saudosa lembrança estas Memórias Póstumas), which indicates that not a single person he met through his life deserved the book. Cubas decides to tell his story starting from the end (the passage of his death, caused by pneumonia), then taking "the greatest leap in this story", proceeding to tell the story of his life since his childhood.

The novel is also connected to another Machado de Assis work, Quincas Borba, which features a character from the Memoirs (as a secondary character, despite the novel's name), but other works of the author are hinted in chapter titles. It is a novel recalled as a major influence by many post-modern writers, such as John Barth or Donald Barthelme, as well as Brazilian writers in the 20th century.[citation needed]

Philosophy of Bras Cubas[edit]

Bras Cubas' pessimism is shown most obviously in the sub-title of the novel, Epitaph of a Small Winner. Cubas considers his life in the manner of an accounting, finding neither any positives or negatives; but he then realises that since he has not fathered any children he has not passed on the "misery" of life any further. For this reason he considers his life a success. Assis published his work in 1881 and it is influenced by the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher whose philosophical magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation was first published in 1818. Schopenhauer's influence on the novel's philosophy is without doubt when one compares Cubas' description of insects and his attitude towards animals, which is a feature of Schopenhauer's philosophical outlook; and in Schopenhauer's writing he similarly uses examples from the animal kingdom to illustrate a philosophical truth (most famously that of the Australian bull-ant). Assis' allusion to Schopenhauer's philosophy is also 'formal': the chapter structure of The Posthumous Memoirs mimics that of Schopenhauer's World as Will and Representation; Bras Cubas' "method" in the novel, specifically the practice of referring to incidents in previous chapters by the chapter number, is imitative. Schopenhauer is often referred to as the 'King' of pessimists, or the 'Philosopher of despair'; his outlook is heavily linked to that of Buddhism.

It is important to note that Assis created a philosophical theory to criticize Scientism, which was common in Brazil's literature back then. The theory in question was Humanitism, created in the books by Quincas Borba, a friend of Brás Cubas who had gone mad before dying. By doing this, Assis sharply criticizes the current philosophical theories, implying that only someone crazy would believe in them. Humanitism is to believe in Humanitas, which, according to Borba, is "the principle of the things, the same man equally distributed in all men". Therefore, if all men are equally Humanitas, an executioner killing a convict of murder is just "Humanitas correcting Humanitas because of an infraction of the laws of Humanitas". Envy is just "an admiration that fights for Humanitas against Humanitas", and thus, "being the war the grand function of the human genus, all the pugnacious feeling are the most adequate to happiness. From this, I came to the conclusion: envy is a virtue". If envy is a virtue, then cynicism, vanity and egoism are legitimated. Assis, through an ingenious fallacy, implied that envy is positive, in the same way many theories could "prove" true something clearly absurd looking through today's eyes.

Reception[edit]

In an article in The Guardian, Woody Allen listed the work as one of his favorites. He said in an interview with the newspaper:

I just got this in the mail one day. Some stranger in Brazil sent it and wrote, "You'll like this". Because it's a thin book, I read it. If it had been a thick book, I would have discarded it. I was shocked by how charming and amusing it was. I couldn't believe he lived as long ago as he did. You would've thought he wrote it yesterday. It's so modern and so amusing. It's a very, very original piece of work. It rang a bell in me, in the same way that The Catcher in the Rye did. It was about subject matter that I liked and it was treated with great wit, great originality and no sentimentality.[1]

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