Wit leaps centuries and hemispheres. It does not collect dust, and, when done right, it does not age. “The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas,” by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, is a case in point. Long forgotten by most, it’s one of the wittiest, most playful, and therefore most alive and ageless books ever written. It is a love story—many love stories, really—and it’s a comedy of class and manners and ego, and it’s a reflection on a nation and a time, and an unflinching look at mortality, and all the while it’s an intimate and ecstatic exploration of storytelling itself. It is a glittering masterwork and an unmitigated joy to read, but, for no good reason at all, almost no English speakers in the twenty-first century have read it (and I first read it only recently, in 2019).
But it survives, and must be read, for the music of its prose and, more than anything else, for its formal playfulness. A new translation, by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux, is a glorious gift to the world, because it sparkles, because it sings, because it’s very funny and manages to capture Machado’s inimitable tone, at once mordant and wistful, self-lacerating and romantic. Its narrator, Brás Cubas, is dead. He tells the story of his life from the grave, and maybe because he has nothing left to lose—being dead and all—he tells the story precisely as he wants to, convention be damned. The novel unfolds in brief, bright chapters, brightened further with endless self-referentiality and self-doubt. “I am beginning to regret that I ever took to writing this book,” Brás Cubas writes in a chapter called “The Flaw in the Book.” “Not that it tires me,” he continues. “I have nothing else to do, and dispatching a few meager chapters into the other world is invariably a bit of a distraction from eternity.”