Saturday 4 August 2018

Machado de Assis, Epitaph of a Small Winner

Epitaph of a small winner, or, literally translated, 'posthumous memoirs of Braz Cubas', came out of Brazil in 1880, written by Machado de Assis, whose own ill-health encouraged him to look at life from beyond the grave as a modest, playful sequence of not-quite-events; he brushes by everything long enough to recognise and toss aside what he will not achieve. So be it.

Here is a brush with paternity, for example.
One afternoon the castle of my paternal fantasies crumbled to dust. The embryo went away, at that stage at which a Laplace and a turtle look very much alike... I leaned against the window and looked out at the grounds behind the house, where the orange trees were turning green.
All we might count as major in life is brought to size in 200 pages of epitaph; frankness, as he says, is most appropriate to a defunct. 19th century Brazil could be Portugal, could be Spain or Italy or Argentina. Clarice Lispector's Brazil half a century later included a larger swathe of society. She had the blow-in's curiosity about the entire society she had entered at the age of one. Machado de Assis was born of a washerwoman and a wall painter. He emerges from his past without looking back. His books are what he created for himself, his modest ascent represented by Braz Cubas, narrator of this epitaph.

Here he is in chapter 24, Short but Happy.
I was prostrate with grief. And yet my character in those days was a faithful compendium of triviality and presumption. The problem of life and death had never troubled my mind; until the day of mother's death. I had never looked down into the abyss of the inexplicable, for I had lacked the essential stimulus, the confusion of mind resulting from a personal catastrophe.
He views life on a clean sheet each time; every abyss is enviably new. His life may be modest but it is examined, with relief.
How glorious to throw away your cloak, to strip off all your spangles in a ditch, to unfold yourself, to strip off all your paint and ornaments, to confess plainly what you were and what you failed to be!
Machado dictated this novel to his wife. It reads quick and light, apologetic and explanatory, leaping over loves lives ambition and death like a gazelle in a theme park. In later life he suffered from epilepsy and eye problems, and thus, some think, found this dreamy talking style, talking to yourself via your most trusted listener, saving any trace of misery for the last sentence of the last chapter: 'I had no progeny, I transmitted to no one the legacy of our misery.'

There are several ways of belonging. One is you're born to it. Another is you fabricate it in such words as you can call up from your own particular abyss before you fall into it.

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