Rediscovering one of the wittiest books ever written
June 2, 2020 6:44 PM   Subscribe

If you're looking to decolonize your canon, this is a hell of a place to start: Funny, wholly original and unlike anything other than the many books that came after it and seem to have knowingly or not borrowed from it. There’s also a long hallucination involving a hippopotamus. The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas is a 19th century novel by Machado de Assis, the greatest writer of Brazilian literature and “the supreme black literary artist to date” according to some. There's a new English translation by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux just out! (Machado previously)
posted by Tom-B (17 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
Brás Cubas is such a great book.

A line I underlined in my own (old) edition of the book, translated by Gregory Rabassa, which sums up Machado de Assis' whole dryly ironic attitude: Every season of life is an edition that corrects the one before and which will also be corrected itself until the definitive edition, which the publisher gives to the worms gratis.

(Concerning which, I wondered what the original line was like, so I just went to look up in the Portuguese text for the first time: Cada estação da vida é uma edição, que corrige a anterior, e que será corrigida também, até a edição definitiva, que o editor dá de graça aos vermes. So Rabassa was being quite direct in his translation! It has been forever and a day since I studied Portuguese, but this makes me wonder if I could still read a 19th-century novel in the language.)
posted by toast the knowing at 7:58 PM on June 2, 2020 [5 favorites]

Flora Thomson-DeVeaux is apparently the sister of 538’s Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, for those keeping track of such things.

Well, I am.
posted by Going To Maine at 8:38 PM on June 2, 2020 [3 favorites]

So Rabassa was being quite direct in his translation!

I'd say he should have been even more direct, since there seems to be a strongly ironic effect to leaving "the worms" for last in the original sentence (as if preceded by a suspenseful pause); "...which the publisher gives gratis to the worms" would be stronger.

Sounds like a very intriguing book, in any case!
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 9:52 PM on June 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

Oh, this has been on my to-read. It is a short book too. The original is public domain so here it is on Gutenberg.
My Portuguese spouse assures me that Machado de Assis is the best Portuguese writer ever, even though he is Brazilian.

Thomson-Deveaux discusses her translation choices openly on twitter. And while I'm not sure I agree entirely with for example "Não sabendo o que era", it is an interesting choice and great to see another voice in there.
posted by vacapinta at 1:20 AM on June 3, 2020 [4 favorites]

"the supreme black literary artist to date," according to some.

According to Harold Bloom, no less, who may not always have been the best judge of such things. Did he think Alexanders Dumas and Pushkin were white men?

seriously tho, looks good, thx for posting.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 4:23 AM on June 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Had never read his work before, but in the past two weeks I picked up a copy of The Alienist which I quite enjoyed. Will have to add this to the reading list as well!
posted by caution live frogs at 5:24 AM on June 3, 2020

The structure of wring a book posthumously reminds me of Tristram Shandy, one of my favorites. This looks awesome!

I took a college class in colonial literature and I wish this name had come up: mostly what we read was from India & Africa, nothing from South America that I can remember (25 years later....). Thanks for pointing this out to me -- I am off to find a copy now!
posted by wenestvedt at 5:58 AM on June 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

MetaFilter: a long hallucination involving a hippopotamus
posted by hippybear at 6:25 AM on June 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

I went to Amazon to buy this book, and there's apparently another new translation by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson coming out in another week! And sadly the Tomson-Deveaux translation is out of stock!
posted by hippybear at 6:30 AM on June 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

I haven't met any hippopotamus. Seems to me we're a long hallucinations involving a hippybear.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:52 AM on June 3, 2020

I also recommend "Quincas Borba" and "Esau and Jacob".
posted by grimjeer at 7:37 AM on June 3, 2020

Just ordered this, thanks for the post!
posted by LooseFilter at 8:45 AM on June 3, 2020

I enjoyed this very much when I read it 8 or 10 years ago (thanks to a MeFite who sent it to me), and this is a nice reminder to reread it now.
posted by JanetLand at 9:04 AM on June 3, 2020

I ordered the T-D translation because the Amazon page said it had cultural context notes that provided more depth to the reading. And I'm hip to that. But I have to wait for it.
posted by hippybear at 7:50 PM on June 3, 2020

Flora Thomson-DeVeaux is excited too.
posted by adamvasco at 7:20 AM on June 4, 2020

And here is her introduction published today on ElectricLiterature
Machado was directly involved with the enforcement of the “Free Womb Law,” an 1871 measure that decreed that the children of slaves would be born free. As a non-white man working within a structure of power, Machado systematically used his perch to defend the freedom that was being begrudgingly and belatedly conceded. And as a non-white man in an overwhelmingly white literary establishment, he constructed a white narrator who can be casually amused by brutal injustice, holding up a grotesque mirror to a nation where slavery was then still legal.
posted by adamvasco at 7:43 AM on June 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

Good tip, thanks Tom-B.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:55 PM on June 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

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