Adam Thirlwell’s Miss Herbert last year came in for a good deal of stick from critics, largely for its sprawling self-indulgence. I won’t deny those charges, but I remain indebted to Thirlwell for introducing me to authors I didn’t know, including Robert Walser. Still more prominently featured in his book was Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908), so when I saw that Bloomsbury had reissued his most famous novel to tie in with a newly collected volume of stories, I had to have it. (Four links in one paragraph really is excessive; I promise to stop now.) The cover bears praise from Salman Rushdie – “the kind of humour that makes skulls smile” (aren’t skulls always smiling?) – to which Bloomsbury have given a literal interpretation for the cover design.
Epitaph of a Small Winner is also (and perhaps better) known as The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, which is a literal translation of the Portuguese title. This title is perhaps mainly of topical interest on a day when all eyes are on a very big winner, and the epitaph of his rival. In fact, the book inside feels brand new too. On reading it, I had to keep looking under the covers for ruptures in the space-time continuum, so hard was it to believe it was published in 1881. Its modernity, however, is only extraordinary in the context of famous English literature of the time – go a little further back, and the inspiration is clear. Braz Cubas is a Brazilian Tristram Shandy, digressing and fooling and getting all reflexive on the reader in the most entertaining way. He struggles to find a comparison when describing something, and so:
Let the reader make whatever analogy pleases him most, let him make it and be content; there is no need for him to curl his lip at me merely because we have not yet come to the narrative part of these memoirs. We shall get to it. The reader, like his fellows, doubtless prefers action to reflection, and doubtless he is wholly in the right. So we shall get to it.
Before that, we must be informed of Cubas’s present position. “I am a deceased writer not in the sense of one who has written and is now deceased, but in the sense of one who has died and is now writing.” The freewheeling style and content has something in common not just with Sterne (there are chapters with all dialogue replaced by asterisks), but also Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, with comic-eccentric ideas like finding a coin in the street and sending it to the police for it to be returned to its rightful owner. There is an emotional centre to the book amid this clowning, however.
I pressed my silent grief to my breast and experienced a curious feeling, something that might be called the voluptuousness of misery. Voluptuousness of misery. Memorize that phrase, reader; store it away, take it out and study it from time to time and, if you do not succeed in understanding it, you may conclude that you have missed one of the most subtle emotions of which man is capable.
Cubas’s misery is all-consuming. He is set up with unwanted lovers, while pining for his great love Marcella. He has a vision where his death seems imminent and he is about to be taken up (or down) by a spirit called Pandora. He pleads for a few more years.
“A few more years would seem like a minute!” she exclaimed. “Why do you want to live longer? To continue to devour and be devoured? Are you not sated with the show and the struggle? You have experienced again and again the least vile and the least painful of my gifts: the brightness of morning, the gentle melancholy of dusk, the quietness of night, the face of the earth, and, last of all, sleep, my greatest gift to man. Poor idiot, what more do you want?”
This pessimism runs through the book, as Cubas sees “ambition, hunger, vanity, melancholy, affluence, love … all of them shaking man like a baby’s rattle until they transformed him into something not unlike an old rag.” The small win of the title, too, comes from the gloriously Larkinesque conclusion that by not handing on misery by having kids himself, Cubas has come out of life just about on top.
Nonetheless, this is a joyous book because the content seems less important than the way he tells it. Machado, via Cubas, never lifts his thumb off the scales, showing off (“Observe now with what skill, with what art, I make the biggest transition in this book”) and accurately gauging this reader’s attention span: “Long chapters are better suited to ponderous readers … but we [prefer] little text, large margins, elegant type, gilt-edged pages, and illustrations…” He is true to his word, squeezing 160 chapters into 210 pages.
At one point Cubas imagines the reader asking, as he recalls his early life and love, “But how can you reconstruct the truth as of that time and express it after so many years?” How indeed? But Cubas died and then did it, and Machado did it and then died, and a fresh edition of this remarkable, dazzling book after 127 years says he’s doing it still.
Through what Salman Rushdie called a P2C2E, I have ended up with two copies of this shiny new edition of Epitaph of a Small Winner published by Bloomsbury. The other copy is free to a good home (worldwide), so please say in the comment box below if you’d like to be included in a draw for it. The only condition is that you return to share your thoughts on the book in due course. Entries close on 8 November. Draw now closed. Thanks to everyone who entered.