Drinking Deep

Perhaps it is all a matter of the opportune moment. The first moment was not opportune because, even if neither of us was unripe for love, we were both unripe for our love: a fundamental distinction (97). 
—Machado de Assis, Epitaph of a Small Winner

Originally published in  1880 in Brazil, under the title of Memórias pótumas de Brás Cubas, Epitaph of a Small Winner  is a clever, wry (bordering on outright cynicism), but ultimately, a poignant look at a man whose seemingly intentional shallowness affords him the dubious satisfaction of a winner who doesn’t quite realize that there was no game. Maybe that is too harsh, after all the narrator, Brás Cubas, is dead and that does change, I imagine,  one’s involvement  in life, even when the tale consists of the story of said person’s life.

The story is composed of chapter headings and brief vignettes of Cubas’ childhood, unremarkable career and romantic adventures. Chapter 139 for instance simple entitled: How I Did Not Become a Minister of State:

And this is how the chapter reads, verbatim:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I can’t help loving him—that mocking mirth that I find so endearing. But I crave tenderness too. No doubt, he would scorn my attachment to the romantic aspects of his tale. Machado began his writing career with two novels, both of which I read: Helena and The Hand and the Glove, that are of deep romantic sentiment. I loved the former but grew ever so slightly irritable (the tiniest bit) with the later which seemed a mere rehashing of the first. Machado must have irritated himself because by the time he gets to Brás Cubas, he is unimpressed with the heart’s tireless ability to fall in love. Or so he pretends. His unromantic examination of the illicit loves and lovers in this story is countered by moments of small acts of kindness (accidental or not) and true love, which exposes the all-too-common human fear of exposing sentiment. Reeling from his first broken heart, determined to throw himself overboard a ship, Cubas encounters the captain of the ship who is a secret poet of sorts, composing odes to the moon and dirges for his dying wife. Inspired by this contradiction of a tough ‘manly’ exterior and poet-boy interior, Cubas goes on to love another day.

“A storm coming up?” I said.
“No,” he replied; “no; I am drinking deep of the splendor of the night. Look: is it not heavenly!”
His style of speech belied the apparent nature of the man, rough and wholly alien to flowery phrases. I stared at him; he appeared to relish my surprise. After a few seconds, he took me by the hand and and pointed to the moon, asking me why I did not compose an ode to the night. I replied that I was not a poet (46).

The problem with love is that it resembles madness, and Cubas has a fear (and fascination) of insanity. He falls in love with Virgilia, the woman of the “opportune moment”  above, and although their love may  have come to its moment, the moment, unfortunately, has gone to her marriage to another man. But, in the very spirit of Machado’s earlier romantic stories, the heart loves whom the heart loves. The difference here is that Cubas is somewhat stingy with his love, which in the end means he is stingy with his very life. To be a poet of one’s life is to let the madness touch the soul, let the heart swell with the moon. Otherwise one’s story ends on the negative. Not in the sense of an antonym of the positive, but in the sense of a void, a nullification…a worm eaten meaninglessness.

I have half a mind to delete this chapter. Some may find it offensive. Yet, after all, these are my memoirs, prudish reader, not yours (151).


6 responses to “Drinking Deep

  1. Such a great book. The next three, at least, are worth reading, too, although only Dom Casmurro is up to (and arguably superior to) this one. Machado was a terrific short story writer, too.

    For what it is worth, “Machado de Assis” is the writer’s last name. The convention is to shorten it to Machado, not de Assis. Similarly his contemporary Eça de Queirós becomes Eça.

    • Oh thank you! That is useful information.

      He is a great story teller, and I am glad I read the earlier works because he although he becomes much more subtle and seasoned with his subject matter, that wonderful tone and manner of his writing—his voice, remains.

  2. That opening salvo quote is way in line with expressing one’s ideas brilliantly.

  3. Sighted yes, but only at a glancing blow did it register sight unseen.

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