(Pic source: commons.wikimedia.org)
One of these days a friend of mine posted something interesting on Facebook: a Woody Allen’s article where he picks his top five books and, among them, a renowned Brazilian writer. The novel Allen picked as one of his favorites was “Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas”, by Machado de Assis. The title literally translates as: The Posthumous Memories of Brás Cubas, and it is also known in English as Epitaph for a Small Winner (1881)
I was very proud to see Machado de Assis recognized by Allen as the amazing writer we Brazilians know he was, so more people can have the pleasure of reading his books!
Machado de Assis was a novelist, poet, playwright, and short story writer. In Brazil, he is considered one of the greatest writers of Brazilian literature, having influenced Brazilian literary schools of the late 19th century and early 20th century. Machado de Assis was multilingual, having learned French, English, German, and Greek. He founded the Brazilian Academy of Letters.
Although Machado de Assis’ work didn’t gain popularity abroad during his lifetime, he eventually became known outside of Brazil. His work hsa been admired by people like José Saramago, Carlos Fuentes, Susan Sontag, and American critic Harold Bloom, who even honored Machado by including the novelist among the greatest 100 geniuses of literature, putting him in the company of people like Dante, Shakespeare, and Cervantes.
By reading my friend’s post, I was immediately transported back to my elementary school years, when we had school assignments to read all the greatest Brazilian writers. I am sure it happens similarly in US. Often, however, the way in which schools introduce students to literature is neither exciting nor challenging. I am so happy that was not the way it happened to me because I had a wonderful Portuguese teacher. ‘Tio’ Marcelo* was the best Portuguese teacher I’ve ever had in my whole life (none of my college teachers got even close to him!). He made me and all my classmates love literature. We studied the literature phases and schools with the same enthusiasm children play the latest video-game nowadays. And of course, it was tio Marcelo who introduced me to Machado de Assis.
The first 3 books I read were “Dom Casmurro” (Sir Dour), “Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas”, and “O Alienista” (The Alienist or The Psychiatrist): my favorites! Then I read “Helena”, “A Mão e a Luva” (The Hand and the Glove) , and “Quincas Borba”, just to name the novels.
His works have been adapted to television, theater, and cinema all over Brazil. You can check some of them here:
1) ‘Capitu’ – Brazilian television series produced as homage to the centennial anniversary of the death of Machado de Assis. The miniseries was based on the novel Dom Casmurro, written by Machado de Assis in 1899. Capitu is the name of the main female character, and object of Bentinho’s (Dom Casmurro) obsession. The novel challenges the reader to make a choice: Did Capitu cheat or not on Bentinho? The protagonist, Bentinho, is intensely taken by jealousy, and his interpretation of the facts is very dubious, which puts the reader in a constant dilemma.
I remember vividly our passionate book discussions in class. Tio Marcelo divided our class in 2 groups: the ones who believed she had betrayed him, and the ones who didn’t. The assignment was to ‘battle’ like in a court of law to defend her or to prove her guilt using only arguments strictly related to book passages, and analysis of its metaphors.
Capitu – Episode 1 (with English subtitles: click on cc to see translation)
Capitu – Episode 3 (with English subtitles: click on cc to see translation)
2) “Memorias Póstumas de Brás Cubas” (The Posthumous Memories of Brás Cubas, or Epitaph for a Small Winner):
Published in 1881, this novel is very unique. The chapters are short and shift in tone and writing style. Machado writes in an ironic and sarcastic way, completely different from what was common at that time (19th century). The book surprised the readers so much that it was even questioned if the book was supposed to be classified as a novel.
Brás Cubas is the main character who is dead, and narrates his life story from the grave. The writer sharply criticizes the Brazilian society, using ‘surreal’ metaphors instead of ‘realistic’, logical, and clear constructions. The character starts telling his story from the end, and dedicates his book to the first worm that gnawed his cold body: “To the worm who first gnawed on the cold flesh of my corpse, I dedicate with fond remembrance these Posthumous Memoirs.”
I will never forget the moment I first started the book, and read that dedicatory! My reaction was like: “What?” It’s amazing how Machado de Assis, back in 1881, wrote in such a modern way. And I mean a 21st century kind of way! The book had 3 versions adapted for cinema. The first two (1967 and 1985) were more experimental and loosely connected to the book. In 2001, a third production followed the book more closely.
Memórias Póstumas – the movie (Spanish subtitles)
3) What was said about Machado de Assis – quotes & sayings (Portuguese w/English translation )
Machado de Assis works:
- 1864 – Crisálidas (Chrysalids; poetry)
- 1870 – Falenas (Phalaenae; poetry)
- 1870 – Contos Fluminenses (Tales from Rio; collection of short stories)
- 1872 – Ressurreição (Resurrection; novel)
- 1873 – Histórias da Meia Noite (Stories of Midnight; collection of short stories)
- 1874 – A Mão e a Luva (The Hand and the Glove; novel)
- 1875 – Americanas (poetry)
- 1876 – Helena (novel)
- 1878 – Iaiá Garcia (Mistress Garcia; novel)
- 1881 – Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memories of Brás Cubas, also known in English as Epitaph for a Small Winner; novel)
- 1882 – Papéis Avulsos (Single Papers; collection of short stories)
- 1882 – O alienista (also known in English as The alienist or The psychiatrist; novel)
- 1884 – Histórias sem data (Undated Stories; collection of short stories)
- 1891 – Quincas Borba (also known in English as Philosopher or Dog?; novel)
- 1896 – Várias histórias (Several Stories; collection of short stories)
- 1899 – Páginas recolhidas (Retained Pages; collection of short stories including The Case of the Stick)
- 1899 – Dom Casmurro (Sir Dour; novel)
- 1901 – Poesias completas (Complete poetry)
- 1904 – Esaú e Jacó (Esau and Jacob; novel)
- 1906 – Relíquias da Casa Velha (Relics of the Old House; collection of short stories)
- 1908 – Memorial de Aires (Counselor Aires’s Memoirs; novel)
I hope you enjoyed this post. I will be very happy if it has made you more curious and interested in Brazilian literature. If you take the journey into it, I am sure you will have a blast reading Machado de Assis. He is for sure one of my own top favorite writers!
*Tio Marcelo: In Brazil (or at least in Recife), we call teachers by their first name, and we very often affectionately call them tio/tia = uncle/aunt.
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