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Trust Me On This : Dead, and Yet Melancholy : This deceased writer did not write, then die; he's writing from the beyond

October 30, 1994|LEE GOERNER | Lee Goerner is the former publisher of Atheneum

"I am astonished that a writer of such greatness does not yet occupy the place he deserves."

--Susan Sontag

It is now autumn, and the images of Brazil's World Cup team have almost faded. Before they evaporate completely, I would like to propose a modest celebration for another of Brazil's glories, the novel "Epitaph of a Small Winner" by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis.

Actually, I have pressed this disarming novel on friends for years, ever since I found a copy at a used-book sale in San Francisco two decades ago. The books were already pre-packed in four-pound lots (25 a pound). For $2 I received a copy of "Epitaph" as well as another of Machado's masterpieces, "Dom Casmurro," along with several books I thought I wanted at the time but cannot remember at all now. So much for literary "discoveries."

Since then the readers I have known who are passionate about Machado are Brazilian friends (well, of course), academics, various publishers (yes, some of them actually do read), and a few writers, such as Susan Sontag (whose statement quoted above first appeared in an article in "The New Yorker" and then, in a slightly different form, in a new edition of the book issued in 1992). But the general reader, if there is such a thing any more, seems to need a little encouragement, not to say indoctrination, to pick up a book first published in 1880 that has been compared to Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy," to the works of Flaubert, Hardy and Henry James, of Italo Svevo, Beckett and Swift. All of this is very fine, but it leaves too heavy an impression of the lecture hall or Cliff Notes, whereas it is essential to emphasize how original, how engaging this 209-page novel, divided into 160 chapters, really is.

So, finally, what is all the excitement about? Well, not a performance by Romario, Barbeto, Dunga & Co., you understand. But something equally fleet-footed, dazzling. First there is the unexpected, darkly funny premise. As the narrator, one Braz Cubas, explains in Chapter 1, this is a book written by a dead man, "a writer for whom the grave was really a new cradle." A "Tristram Shandy" in reverse. And who is this Braz Cubas and why should he concern us? First, he was born in colonial Brazil early in the 19th Century into a prominent family and an environment characterized by "vulgarity of character, love of loudness and ostentation, weakness of will, domination by whim and caprice and the like." He grew, he tells us, into a handsome, wealthy, stylish, harebrained playboy, whose life did not, despite early promise, opportunities and one great love, come to anything.

Easy to call this irony. Even pessimism. (This is probably why his translator, William Grossman, suggested that Machado is "perhaps the most completely disenchanted writer in occidental literature.") Certainly Braz speaks of the yellow flower of melancholy and the voluptuousness of misery. And his friend Quincas Borba conceives of a crackpot Philosophy of Misery.

But this is pessimism with a smile, the aura of gloom dispelled by Braz's story and the manner in which he tells it. Looking backward from the grave, proceeding from his birth by digression, by incessant, self-deprecating asides to the reader, by finding connections and general principles where no one else might, Braz charms, captivates, pulls us along by the persistence of his various obsessions. What will the fellow think of next? one wonders.

If, for example, Tristram Shandy has his hobbyhorse, which he eagerly rides, Braz has a "trapeze that I used to carry about in my head." There ideas take hold, after "flexing their arms and legs," and perform "the most daring acrobatic feats one can possibly imagine." One of these ideas concerns the invention of "a great cure, an anti-melancholy plaster, designed to relieve the despondency of mankind."

Braz will eagerly point out, in Chapter 71, the great defect of this book he is writing: the reader. "You want to live fast, to get to the end, and the book ambles along slowly; you like straight, solid narrative and a smooth style, but this book and my style are like a pair of drunks: They stagger to the right and to the left, they start and they stop, they mutter, they roar, they guffaw, they threaten the sky, they slip and fall." At one point he discovers he's just written an unnecessary chapter. At another, he is so impressed with one of his own pseudo-profound thoughts that he exclaims "Blessed be the Lord, what an impressive closing for a chapter!"

So, a self-absorbed eccentric, a quirky, fallible narrator, who does, in his final chapter, get the last laugh, thus revealing the meaning of the title of his posthumous memoirs and providing us with an elixir of a very special kind. After all is said and done, the hindsight of the grave is good for something.

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