I enjoyed a new translation of Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, a standard work of Brazilian literature (published 1881 by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis). The protagonist becomes enamored of a cash-oriented local gal, who demands continuous infusions of costly gifts in exchange for continued romantic and sexual favors. The father decides to preserve the family fortune by sending the protagonist back to the Old Country:
And so it was that I disembarked in Lisbon and traveled on to Coimbra. The university awaited me with its many demanding subjects; I studied them in a very mediocre fashion, and yet I still graduated with a bachelor’s degree; they bestowed this upon me with due solemnity after the required number of years had passed; it was a beautiful ceremony that filled me with pride and nostalgia—mainly nostalgia. In Coimbra I had become famous as a reveler; a profligate, superficial, riotous, insolent student, much given to love affairs, a romantic in practice and a liberal in theory, living according to a pure faith in a pair of dark eyes and a written constitution. On the day when the university credited me, on parchment, with a knowledge that had certainly not put down any deep roots in my brain, I admit that I felt in a way cheated, although proud too. Let me explain: the diploma was a letter of manumission; it gave me freedom, but it also gave me responsibility. I put it to one side, left the banks of the Mondego, and came away feeling distinctly sad, but already filled with an impulse, a curiosity, a desire to elbow others aside, to influence people, to enjoy myself, to live—in short, to prolong university life for the foreseeable future . . .
Some other items from the book…
The author might not have supported the idea of depriving young people of a year of education/work/exercise/social life in order to preserve 82-year-olds from coronavirus:
A bachelor who breathes his last at the age of sixty-four is hardly the stuff of tragedy,
Death from disease was as arbitrary then as now:
My weeping father embraced me. “Your mother isn’t long for this world,” he said. For it wasn’t her rheumatism that was killing her now, but a cancer of the stomach. The poor woman was suffering horribly, because cancer is indifferent to the virtues of the person thus afflicted; when it gnaws, it gnaws; its job is to gnaw.
How could such a sweet, gentle, saintly creature, who had never caused anyone to shed a sad tear, how could this loving mother, immaculate wife, die like this, tortured and gnawed at by the tenacious teeth of a pitiless illness?
A viral epidemic (yellow fever) deprived the protagonist of a fiancée:
I never could understand the need for that epidemic, still less that particular death. Indeed, it struck me as even more absurd than all the other deaths. Quincas Borba, however, explained to me that epidemics were useful to the species, albeit disastrous for certain individuals. He pointed out that no matter how horrific the spectacle may be, there was one advantage of great importance: the survival of the greater number.
The author wouldn’t be surprised at our politicians who come to believe their own fables:
When I was born, Napoleon was in the full pomp of his glory and power; as emperor, he was the object of universal wonderment. My father—who, in persuading others of our noble origins, had ended up persuading himself of them—harbored a purely mental loathing for him.
Would Machado have selected an innumerate 78-year-old to lead a “scientific” assault on coronavirus?
Fifty is the age of wisdom and of government.
People fought over inheritance back then, as now:
We did finally divide up the inheritance, but we parted on very bad terms. And it pained me greatly to fall out with Sabina. We had always been such good friends, had shared childish games and childish squabbles, the laughter and tears of adult life, had often fraternally shared the bread of joy and sadness, like the good brother and sister we were. But now we had fallen out. Just as Marcela’s beauty had vanished with the smallpox.
Being born into poverty wasn’t good:
She was the illegitimate daughter of a cathedral sacristan and a woman who sold homemade cakes and pastries. She lost her father when she was ten years old. By then she was already grating coconut for culinary purposes and performing whatever other tasks were compatible with her age. At fifteen or sixteen she married a tailor, who died of consumption soon after, leaving her with a daughter. Widowed and little more than a girl herself, she was left to care for her two-year-old daughter and her mother, who, by then, was worn out with hard work. Three mouths to feed.
“So one day, the cathedral sacristan, while serving at mass, saw entering the church the lady who was to be his collaborator in the life of Dona Plácida. He saw her on subsequent days, for weeks on end; he liked her, complimented her, trod on her foot while lighting the candles on the altars on holy days. She liked him too, they became close, and fell in love. From such a conjuncture of idle passions sprang Dona Plácida. One assumes that Dona Plácida could not yet speak when she was born, but if she could, she might well have said to the authors of her days: ‘Here I am. Why did you call me?’ And the sacristan and his good lady would naturally have answered: ‘We called you so that you could burn your fingers on the stove, ruin your eyes with sewing by candlelight, eat badly or not at all, trudge back and forth, cooking and cleaning, getting sick and then better, only to get sick again and better again, sometimes sad, sometimes desperate, at others resigned, but always with a cooking pot in your hand and your eyes on your needlework, until one day you end up in the gutter or in hospital. That’s why we called you, in a moment of kindness.’”
On financial prudence:
He was often reproached for being stingy, and not without reason; but stinginess is simply the exaggeration of a virtue, and virtues should be like budgets: better to have a surplus than a deficit.
Will Machado be canceled for not including any LGBTQIA+ characters in his 19th century work? The biography at the end suggests that he might be safe. His paternal grandparents were “mulattos and freed slaves.”
My favorite part of Brazil, Iguazu Falls (2003, taken from the Argentina side):
- Michel Houellebecq’s character: “As far as he knew, Brazil was a shithole full of morons obsessed with soccer and Formula One.”
- “Brazil’s New COVID Strain Raises Big — and Scary — Questions” (New York, January 29)