Machado de Assis: Epitaph of a Small Winner

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.


  1. There are countless reasons to discount Thirlwell’s decadent door-stopper, but as an introduction to a number of left-field writers it is much to be welcomed.

    As you read Miss Herbert it feels something like being cornered in a pub by a very clever, attention-seeking undergraduate desperate to impress you with all the things they know (and presume you don’t) — death by nomenclature!

    But, ignoring the book’s tricksy stylings, and its largely banal thesis (translations are often messily inexact but, hey, that doens’t matter too much really in the grand scheme of things), it is a book I somehow feel I want to recommend. Indeed, I want to recommend it to just that undergraduate it feels like it is embodying. “Here you go, son, if you think you are well-read, read this, and use it as a reading list to supply you with good things to read for the next few years ahead. Hopefully, on reading them all, you won’t feel the need to brag about it in quite the off-putting way that Thirlwell sometimes manages.”

  2. I read this a month ago and did not want to write about it for various reasons. So I won’t write about it here, either. I’ll just strongly second your recommendation. Just as you say, a miserable book in some ways, a really funny book in others, and full of surprises.

  3. John, I’m not sure if it’s entirely appropriate for a fellow blogger to enter a drawing, but I’d love a copy of the book should I be chosen and should you feel it’s appropriate. I spent time in Brazil and heard a lot about this very famous Brazilian author. Due to my own neglect, I have never read anything by him, but your review tells me it’s high time I fix that.

  4. I think it’s entirely appropriate, Trevor, and as you’re the only entrant so far, I think you stand a very good chance!

    Thanks for the comments too, everyone else – I’m delighted to see Machado has support already from others.

  5. I found myself a little less enthusiastic – although it didn’t stop me buying another 3 books by him I suppose. (I read one wonderful short story in an anthology). – Since you mentioned the work’s modernity and Sterne-influence, it may be worth tracking down, if you never have, the book that influenced it the most (though entirely negatively), Eca de Queiroz’s Cousin Bazilio (or Basilio). Before reading it, de Assis wrote various tiresome books which do not, as it were, survive; after, his writing became transformed. He had no truck with de Queiroz’s supposed realism (now where have I heard that before?). – On the whole, though, I find I prefer Cousin Bazilio.

  6. A whole bunch of great de Assis novels are available from the US in Oxford’s Library of Latin America. I especially loved ‘Quincas Borba’ (Blurb: “When the mad philosopher Quincas Borba dies, he leaves to his friend Rubiao the entirety of his wealth and property, with a single stipulation: Rubiao must take care of Quincas Borba’s dog, who is also named Quincas Borba, and who may indeed have assumed the soul of the dead philosopher. Flush with his newfound wealth, Rubião heads for Rio de Janeiro and plunges headlong into a world where fantasy and reality become increasingly difficult to keep separate.”) and ‘Dom Casmurro’. His short stories are ace, too.

  7. John, My husband read this book in Portugese as a schoolboy in Brazil and has always told me how funny but untranslatable it is.
    I would like the book as a belated wedding present for him. California decided briefly to allow us equal rights and we tied the knot Sept 21. It would help to remind us that life is short and can be appallingly funny in this rather grim time when a “Christian” majority strips the legal rights of a minority and finds this representative of the seperation of Church and State.
    Still married, still reading
    Christopher ENZI

  8. At the risk of diverting from bookish topics, Christopher, Proposition 8 was a cloud on an otherwise sunny day. The co-manager of the campaign for the ban said, “People believe in the institution of marriage,” which seems a good reason to allow same sex couples to enter it too. The State Attorney General however has said that existing marriages will be allowed to stand, and presumably civil partnerships – marriage in all but name – remain a possibility, as we have here in the UK.

    Thanks for the other recommendations, obooki and JRSM. In this edition, Louis de Bernieres writes an introduction where he draws a connection between Machado and Eca de Queiroz (as well as another English writer whose name escapes me as I don’t have the book to hand).

  9. Is this draw for only UK readers of your blog, or silent ones from India too? 🙂 This is also my chance to say thank you for many interesting leads, and several minutes of pleasurable reading almost every day. Cheers, K

  10. John, it is great to hear a South American writer reviewed on Asylum! Maybe this will get you interested in the magnificent Clarice Lispector, my favorite writer!

  11. Hi,

    As a brazilian myself, I can tell that Machado de Assis was a great social critic. Bras Cubas is the prototype of the average elite man in Brazil of the 1800´s, a man who would study in Europe and then return to Brazil in order to get a job in the government. By the way, that´s how everything works here – the rich people are worried only in keeping the power within then. This is not only a novel, is a deep analyzis of the Brazilian governmental class. We didn´t had any great revolution, as the english and theirs glorious revolution, because our typical “Bras Cubas” man created a whole aparatus of power maintenance.

  12. Yes, those are great (and short). There’s an edition of ‘The stream of life’ with an intro by Helene Cixous that’s really useful because Lispector is such an original and bizarre writer. The short stories are also wonderful. My favorite, though, is ‘The apple in the dark’. Your ‘Puttermesser papers’ review made me go back to the novel and re-read it. It was like a ‘mise en abime’ because there’s a part where Puttermesser talks about the mature pleasure of re-reading in contrast to the risks of discovering new readings. Later then!

  13. Machado de Assis is a genius. However, anyone trying to read The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas without a basic knowledge of Pascal, Humanism, Voltaire, Nietzsche, Hegel, Darwin and Epicurus will be left wondering what half of the book is all about … and a very basic knowledge of 1800s Brazilian culture and political situation would be a plus.

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