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Living the Backward Life

July 12, 1987

There are some remarkable similarities between Fay Weldon's "The Rules of Life" (The Book Review, June 28) and the 1880 masterpiece by Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis, "Epitaph of a Small Winner" (so titled in the 1952 English translation by William L. Grossman).

According to reviewer Ross Thomas, Weldon's Gabriella Sumpter declares that she may choose to "start with her death and end with her birth." (Her story comes to us from beyond the grave "through some sort of electronic wizardry.")

Machado's narrator, Braz Cubas, decides to begin with his death. Braz does not depend on technical gadgetry but upon witty paradox and the reader's suspension of disbelief when he explains, "I am a deceased writer not in the sense of one who has written and is now deceased, but in the sense of one who has died and is now writing."

Summing up her life at its end, Sumpter finds it "successful," on the whole: "I did not marry; I did not have children. That was my great achievement. . . . There is more than enough life about . . . and most of it is painful, and the briefer the experience the better."

In Machado's final chapter, Braz Cubas adds up his accounts: "I did not achieve celebrity. I did not become a minister of state. . . . I did not marry." But he also avoided poverty, hard labor and ill health. Yet no one, Braz insists, should conclude that he "died quits with life," accounts in perfect balance.

" . . . upon arriving on this other side of the mystery, I found that I had a small surplus, which provides the final negative in this chapter of negatives: I had no progeny, I transmitted to no one the legacy of our misery."

Ms. Weldon, meet Sr. Machado.


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