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Schopenhauer as Novelist:
The Curiously Obscure Works of Machado de Assis

[1]5,641 words

Machado de Assis, Joaquim Maria
The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas
Penguin Classics, 2020

“How do you have the nerve to write some of the things you do?” I asked him. “Oh, it’s easy. I just pretend that I’m already dead.” — Michel Houellebecq[1] [2]

Some years ago, in that white-collar internment camp known as graduate school, a classmate pointed out to me a book with a title that, being nominally philosophy students, amused us: Philosopher or Dog? by one Machado de Assis. I was amused enough — and at a point where I had determined to read anything other than the assigned texts whenever possible — to actually buy it, one of those long-gone Avon paperbacks [3] in their series that introduced the world, or just moody teenage girls, to Gabriel García Márquez.

Thus was I introduced to “the Brazilian Borges,” or “the Sterne of the Southern Cone,” or “the Joyce of the jungles,” or whatever the point of comparison was at a particular time; the issue being that whatever you thought was the most advanced kind of literature, this guy you never heard of did it first and better.


You can buy James J. O’Meara’s Passing the Buck: Coleman Francis and Other Cinematic Metaphysicians here [5].

Actually, the book was Quincas Borba [6], titled after its protagonist, and perhaps the publishers were correct to think Philosopher or Dog? was a catchier title[2] [7] — it certainly caught me. Indeed, it has been Machado’s fate to often appear in English under titles someone else thought better; the work under review here, Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas [8] (The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas), was published as Epitaph of a Small Winner; even Dom Casmurro [9], with another titular protagonist, though first appearing as such, later turned up with the weirder yet more literal title of Lord Taciturn.[3] [10]

The book’s website at Penguin provides a convenient cento [11] of the kind of praise Machado has received from, apparently, just about everyone:[4] [12]

“The greatest writer ever produced in Latin America.” — Susan Sontag

“Another Kafka.” — Allen Ginsberg

“A great ironist, a tragic comedian . . . In his books, in their most comic moments, he underlines the suffering by making us laugh.” — Philip Roth

“A writer a hundred years ahead of his time . . . If Borges is the writer who made García Márquez possible, then it is no exaggeration to say that Machado de Assis is the writer who made Borges possible.” — Salman Rushdie

“A master.” — John Updike

“Machado is a miracle. . . . The most brilliant star in the sky of nineteenth-century Iberian-American novels.” — Carlos Fuentes

“One of the few writers who not only received a state funeral, but actually deserved it.” — Louis de Bernières

“A great writer who chose to use deadly humor where it would be least expected to convey his acute powers of observation and his penetrating insights into psychology. In superbly funny books he described the abnormalities of alienation, perversion, domination, cruelty and madness. He deconstructed empire with a thoroughness and an esthetic equilibrium that place him in a class by himself.” — The New York Times

“One of the world’s great writers.” — The New York Review of Books

“Machado de Assis wrote some of the most deliriously adventurous fiction of the last century.” — Lingua Franca

“No satirist, not even Swift, is less merciful in his exposure of the pretentiousness and the hypocrisy that lurk in the average good man and woman. Machado, in his deceptively amiable way, is terrifying.” —The New Republic

“Machado de Assis . . . is held by many to be not only Brazil’s greatest writer but on a par with Henry James, Flaubert and Hardy [with] his enchantingly digressive style, sly humour and merciless exposure of hypocrisy and pretentiousness.” — The Guardian

So, does Machado “live up to the hype,” as the kids say? Well, as you know, your Faithful Reviewer will never lie to you — if I say I read a book, I read it; none of this writing reviews based on the dust jacket text while down at the pub, like some Fleet Street hack — and until recently, although I’m sure I read the Big Three novels, I couldn’t recall a thing other than the above-mentioned anecdote about the funny title. However, Penguin has now released, to yet more acclaim, a new translation, this time with extensive notes, and after finding the Kindle to be on sale for a pittance, I eagerly snapped it up. Here I report on the binary experience of becoming reacquainted with a text I supposedly read before, but also now rejuvenated and, as we’ll see, extensively explained.[5] [13]

Penguin’s website gives a rather diffident summary [11]:

The ghost of a decadent and disagreeable aristocrat decides to write his memoir. He dedicates it to the worms gnawing at his corpse and tells of his failed romances and halfhearted political ambitions, serves up harebrained philosophies, and complains with gusto from the depths of his grave.

Of course, you could also say Moby Dick is a thrilling tale of nautical adventure. In fact, Melville is a good analogy, since he had started his career with a series of commercially successful tales of nautical adventure; the press and public were quite dumbfounded when The Whale — as the book was titled in England — sailed into view, marking what could be the first appearance of the postmodern in American literature.

Similarly, Machado had previously published four or so conventional romantic novels to much success. Then, it was as if he was too bored to continue and decided to pour all the narrative elements of a romantic novel into a modernist, or even postmodernist, mold; or, more in keeping with the fragmentary nature of the results, to plant some charges and blast the whole thing to kingdom come.[6] [14]

The result, unlike Melville’s, is a moderately-sized book, but with over 100 chapters, some of which advance the plot (such as it is), but many of which embark on digressions and tangents, indulge in authorial caprices, and — especially — comment on each other, sometimes with instructions to insert them at a certain point in a previous chapter. Two chapters communicate information entirely though ellipses, while chapters on deaths or political reversals may simply state that the topic is too sad to write about.

Another difference is that while Moby Dick killed Melville’s career stone cold dead — he eventually became a customs inspector in New York City — Machado scored a resounding and, as we’ve seen, permanent success. Was the Brazilian reading public more sophisticated than America’s, or should Melville have taken my advice about what James called “the dear, the blessed nouvelle” as a format?[7] [15]

Another, though even more idiosyncratic, is that just as Melville’s whale resulted in the extensively-footnoted Penguin edition I’ve discussed before as an influence on my own work,[8] [16] so this Penguin is graced by extensive notes from the translator.

And she certainly gets off on my good side with this single footnote:

Mine are endnotes, however, not footnotes like this one, because the Posthumous Memoirs — as befits the creation of an ex-typographer — is exquisitely aware of its existence as a book, commenting on bindings, capitalization, and so on, and nowhere does Brás indicate that his grave-composed masterpiece has anything marring its lower margins.[9] [17]

Endnotes, not footnotes! If only my own admirable and long-suffering publishers were so accommodating.[10] [18]

Unlike Prof. Harold “Harry” Beaver’s relentless and self-parodying Freudian take on Melville, our translator, Dr. Thomson-DeVeaux (PhD in Portuguese and Brazilian studies from Lovecraft’s Brown University) confines herself to clarifying the Brazilian situation for English-speaking readers. I found it immensely helpful and compulsively readable, since like most Americans I know nothing about Brazil, other than some memes suggesting it represents the future of the US, and congratulate myself on carefully recalling it’s Portuguese and not Spanish. As she says, it can be “downright otherworldly for the English-speaking reader with little knowledge of Brazil.”

At the risk of sounding like notorious Broadway director Roger de Bris,[11] [19] I confess I was gobsmacked by this:

Unlike much of Latin America, Brazil went from being a colony to an empire in its own right. In 1808, the Portuguese court had been driven out of Lisbon by Napoleon and set up shop in Rio de Janeiro, shifting the center of power of the Portuguese crown westward across the ocean. When the monarchs were pressed to return in the following decade, King João VI went back to Portugal, but his son Pedro stayed and declared Brazil’s independence on September 7, 1822, becoming Pedro I of Brazil.[12] [20]

Who knew? From colony to friggin’ empire and back to plain old country. This is much cooler than our own boring history, although it does recall the popular aphorism [21] that “Americans are the only race which passed directly from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilization.”

Speaking of barbarism to decadence, Dr. Thomson-DeVeaux also clarifies an even more important theme. While Harold Bloom [22] included Machado de Assis in his list of 100 geniuses of literature, he also rated him the greatest black writer in Western literature, although in Brazil, Machado is perceived as a mulatto [23].[13] [24]

Now, you might think this would be Machado’s ticket to fame in the English-speaking world, but I think it may rather account for his continued neglect. No, not because of “white supremacy,” but rather that acknowledging his racial background would bring up the whole slavery thing, which has been conceptualized as White America’s unique crime against humanity, and certainly nothing practiced by, um, Hispanics.

In fact, as our translator notes:

By the time of the scene in the novel, [Rio was] the Americas’ largest slaving port, which alone may have received as many as a million enslaved Africans (more than double the total number brought to the United States).

This time in Brás’s life marked the high-water mark in terms of the sheer number of slaves in the city of Rio — nearly 80,000 were recorded in the 1849 census (out of a population of just over 200,000).

So basically, those evil crackers [25] were amateurs compare to the real Southerners.

Machado himself doesn’t seem too terribly interested in “foregrounding” his race, unlike today’s beneficiaries of Wokeness, who seem to be blackety-black-black all day long. Partly that may be due to his overall pessimism, as we’ll see; also, she observes that “Machado’s contemporaries and immediate predecessors could mostly be found writing . . .  origin stories that dwelled on the fusion of the nation’s ‘three races’ — the Portuguese, Native peoples, and African slaves,” making it too commonplace a subject for his elite tastes.

Anyway, it makes for a number of rather piquant moments, quite impossible to imagine occurring in an American novel, at least since The Clansman [26]. Some are just throwaway lines, though this very fact shows how much slavery was an accepted part of life: as Child Bras begins to walk: “’That’s it, young master, on your own now,’ my mother’s slave would say to me”; or “One day I broke the head of a slave because she had refused to give me a spoonful of the coconut sweet she was making . . . and this at the age of six.”

Sometimes there’s a whole episode, like this bit, reminiscent of South Park’s Cartman:

Prudêncio, one of our slave boys, was the horse I rode around on; with his hands on the ground and a length of string between his teeth by way of a bit, I would climb astride his back with a little switch in hand, whipping him, riding up and down and around, and he would obey, moaning at times, but obeying without a word, or at most an “Ow, little master!” to which I would retort, “Shut your mouth, beast!”


You can buy James J. O’Meara’s Mysticism after Modernism here [28].

There’s local color:

The slave women, their dresses tucked into the tanga-cloths[14] [29] round their waists, some wading in the laundry tank, others outside it. . . . “Lord help us! Massa João here is the devil himself!”

A fellow next to me was telling another the latest about the new blacks that were coming in, according to letters he’d received from Luanda, one letter in which his nephew reported he’d already acquired around forty.

Slave boy Prudêncio becomes a recurring character, sometimes as chattel:

On the seventh day, after the Mass, I gathered up a gun, a few books, clothes, cigars, a slave boy — Prudêncio, from Chapter XI — and sought refuge in an old house we owned.

“For example, Cotrim won’t take the slaves, he only wants Papa’s coachman and Paulo . . .”

“Not the coachman,” I objected. “The coach is going to me, and I won’t go out and buy another coachman.”

“All right; I’ll take Paulo and Prudêncio.” “Prudêncio is free.” “Free?” “It’s been two years now.” “Free? How your father dealt with these things around here, without telling anyone! Very well. As for the silver . . . he didn’t free that, did he?”

But we’re not done with Prudêncio, as he’ll finally reappear in this scene, which perhaps has too much contemporary relevance for comfort: “My reflections were interrupted by a throng; a negro was whipping another in the square.” It’s the freeman Prudêncio, so Bras decides to assert some white, or at least mulatto, privilege and intervene:

I asked if the negro was his slave.

“Yes, master.”

“Has he done anything to you?”

“He’s an idler and a drunkard. Today I left him at the stall while I went into town, and he went off to go drink.”

“Well, forgive him, go on,” I said. “Of course, master. Master’s word is an order. Get on home, you drunk!”

Which prompts this typically cynical reflection:

On the outside, the Valongo incident was dreadful; but only on the outside. As soon as I slid the knife of reasoning farther in, I found a marrow that was mischievous, refined, even profound. This was Prudêncio’s way of freeing himself from the blows he had received — by passing them on to another.[15] [30] I, as a child, had ridden on him, put a bit in his mouth, and thrashed him mercilessly as he groaned and suffered. Now that he was free, however, the master of his own arms and legs, able to work, rest and sleep, unshackled from his former condition, now he had surpassed himself: he had bought a slave and was paying back, with steep interest, the sums he had received from me. See how clever the rascal was!

If I’m reading them correctly, it seems that author and narrator are neither enthusiastic slavers nor fanatical abolitionists, but regard it as simply a fact of life, which humans, being on the whole a poor sort of material, are as likely to abuse as they will anything else:

They went so far as to accuse him of savagery. The only thing they alleged on this score was that he often sent slaves to the Dungeon,[16] [31] from which they would descend streaming with blood; but, apart from the fact that he only sent runaways and incorrigibles, it so happens that, having dealt for so long in the smuggling of slaves, he had become somewhat used to the slightly harsher treatment required by that sort of business, and one cannot honestly attribute to a man’s original nature that which is the pure effect of social relations.

A related issue, also clarified by the translator, is how filthy rich these people, at least in Bras’ circle, are. Bras himself, as death approaches him at 64, is a bachelor with “around three hundred thousand milréis to my name,” amounting, we learn, to “a few million today, when adjusted for inflation.” This is someone with a law degree who never practiced, and who spent his life doing nothing but angling for government positions — mostly unsuccessfully — when not chasing married women;[17] [32] a veritable south-of-the-border Clinton.[18] [33]

An adolescent love affair with, admittedly, a mercenary wench costs “a few hundred thousand dollars.” He even finds a parcel on the beach containing “nothing less than five thousand milréis,” which our ever-helpful annotator quickly converts to “tens of thousands of dollars today.” This find leads to an amusing meditation on how greed can, with “the knife of reason,” be converted into a reasonable simulacrum of virtue, while the scene with the aforementioned muleteer shows our narrator gradually convincing himself to reward the man who saved his life with less and less, finally settling on “the least clean” of his five-milréis notes. As our translator notes, “the fortunes of imperial Brazil’s 1 percent were indeed obscene.”

But what, you ask, about the book itself; is it worth taking a look? Indeed yes. There’s no empty experimentalism here, or trivially fashionable postmodernism. The pretense of a dead man’s memoirs allows the narrator to adopt a bracingly cynical perspective on life and especially human relations, with a dash of stoicism thrown in, reminiscent of the Schopenhauer of such neo-Stoic works as The Wisdom of Life or Counsels and Maxims,[19] [34] and with the same curiously bracing effect.[20] [35]

The aforementioned muleteer is a good example: Bras frequently recalls times when he or an acquaintance used the power of Reason not to override the Will but to convince themselves that whatever they did was The Right Thing to Do:

Once time has worn on and the rapture has ceased, then, perhaps only then, may one truly take pleasure in what has passed; when given a choice between two illusions, the better is that which may be enjoyed without pain.

Two great lovers, two unbridled passions, and nothing was left twenty years later; only two withered hearts, devastated by life and sated of it, whether in equal measure I can’t say, but sated all the same.

I, on the verge of leaving the world, felt a devilish pleasure in jeering at it, persuading myself that I left nothing behind.

Pain gave way here and there, but only to indifference, which was a dreamless sleep, or to pleasure, which was a bastard pain.

Following romanticism in practice and liberalism in theory, living with a pure faith in dark eyes and written constitutions.

This is precisely what makes us lords of the earth, the power to restore the past, so that we might reveal how fleeting our impressions are, and how vain our affections. Let Pascal say that man is a thinking reed. No; he is a thinking erratum, that’s what he is. Each season of life is an edition that corrects the last and that will be corrected in turn until the definitive edition, which the editor delivers to the worms, free of charge.

Sometimes the effect is almost a close paraphrase of the German philosopher:

Then I pondered that tight boots are one of the greatest blessings on earth, for by causing one’s feet to hurt, they make way for the pleasure of taking them off. Mortify your feet, wretch, then unmortify them, and there you have cheap happiness, befitting both shoemakers and Epicurus.

As this idea worked away on my famous trapeze,[21] [36] I cast my eyes to Tijuca, saw the little crippled girl [22] [37] vanish away on the horizon of the past tense, and felt that my heart would not be long in taking off its own boots. And take them off it did, the wanton thing.

From this I inferred that life is the most ingenious of all phenomena, as it sharpens hunger only for the purpose of providing occasion to eat, and it invented corns only because they work to perfect earthly happiness. Verily I say unto you that the sum total of human wisdom isn’t worth a pair of tight boots.

Bras imagines an abandoned, illegitimate child asking:

“Here I am. Why have you called me?” And the [parents] would naturally reply: “We called you to burn your fingers on pots and your eyes at sewing, to eat poorly or not at all, to plod up and down in endless drudgery, ailing and mending, only to ail and mend once again, now sorrowful, soon desperate, tomorrow resigned, but always with your hands at the pot and your eyes on your sewing, until you end your days in the gutter or in the hospital; this is why we called you, in a moment of good feeling.”

Not much of a romantic:

On no other occasion had I found her so beautiful, perhaps because I had never felt more flattered.

A charmingly curving figure, a sweet word, and even physical fragility lend women’s flattery a dash of local color, an air of legitimacy.

The note is sounded early, as the narrator lies on his deathbed in Chapter VII and is carried off by a hallucinatory hippopotamus to a confrontation with Life Herself, reminiscent of the passage in Against Nature where the narrator confronts Syphilis.[23] [38] Life, too, seems to be a disciple of Schopenhauer:

“Do not be frightened,” said she, “my enmity does not kill; it affirms itself through life. You are alive: I desire no other torment.”

Its sole expression, general and all-pervasive, was that of a selfish impassivity, an everlasting deafness, an immovable will.

“I am not only life, I am also death, and you are about to return what I have lent you. For you, great hedonist, there await all the sensual pleasures of nothingness.”

I faced her with a pleading glance and asked for a few more years.

“Wretched minute!” she exclaimed. “Why would you want a few more moments of life? To devour and then be devoured? Have you not tired of the spectacle, of the struggle? You have had your fill of all of the least vile and least grievous things I have to offer: the breaking of day, the melancholy of dusk, the quiet of night, the face of the earth, and, last of all, sleep, the greatest benefit my hands can bestow. What more can you want, sublime idiot?”

“And if I love life, why must you do yourself injury by killing me?”

“Because I have no more need of you. Time cares only for the passing minute, only for that which is to come. The minute ahead is strong, merry, believes it is the bearer of eternity, and it, too, bears death and perishes like the one before it — but time remains.”


You can buy James O’Meara’s End of an Era here [40].

We even meet again, for the first time, Quincas Borba, later to be the protagonist of the aforementioned novel Philosopher or Dog?, whose homemade philosophy, “Humanitism,” a kind of ultra-complacent optimism — “Humanitas” is a universal principle or substance, divided among mankind, so that everything is working together for its own ultimate enjoyment — will serve as a humorous foil:

Pain, according to Humanitism, is an utter illusion . . . Once man is quite persuaded that he is Humanitas itself, he has only to turn his thoughts back to the original substance to ward off any painful sensation.

Even here, however, the shadow intrudes:

But I need no more demonstration of the sublimity of my system than this very chicken. It fed on corn, which was planted by an African — imported from Angola, let’s say. That African was born, grew up, and was sold; a ship brought him here, a ship built from wood cut down in the forest by some ten or twelve men, borne on sails sewn by some eight or ten men, to say nothing of the rigging and other elements of the nautical apparatus. Thus, this chicken, which I have just had for lunch, is the result of a multitude of efforts and struggles, executed with the sole aim of checkmating my hunger.”[24] [41]

And finally, let us end with the ending of the posthumous memoirs, thus:

What with one thing or another, anyone might imagine that there was neither want nor surplus, and consequently that I came out even with life. And he would imagine wrongly; because, upon arriving at the other side of the veil, I found myself with a small sum, which is the final negative in this chapter of negatives: I had no children; I did not bequeath to any creature the legacy of our misery.

Hence, the alternate title of the previous American translation, Epitaph of a Small Winner. How appropriate, that this nineteenth-century Brazilian novel, so au courant with twenty-first-century America, should end will an appeal to antinatalism [42]![25] [43]

I plan to move on to the next installment, and you yourself should make a start, if you haven’t already, lest you find yourself embarrassed and at a loss when confronting the author in the next world.

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[1] [45] Paris Review, The Art of Fiction no. 206 [46].

[2] [47] The blogger at Books and Dogs notes that [48] “the uncertainty arises because a philosopher called Quincas Borba has a dog called Quincas Borba. This predictably leads to some heavy ontological speculation — culminating in this one, at book’s end, when both philosopher and dog are dead, the dog dying after the philosopher: ‘. . . seeing that the dog’s death is recounted in a special chapter, you will probably ask me whether it is he or his late namesake who gives this book its title, and why one rather than another — a question pregnant with questions that would take us far.’”

[3] [49] The Times relates, [50] on the occasion of the launch of Oxford’s Machado translation series, the sad tale: “Machado’s two great novels have a checkered past in English translation. William Grossman’s 1951 translation was originally printed in Sao Paulo under the title Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas — the title restored by Gregory Rabassa in this new version — but was released the following year in New York under the title ”Epitaph of a Small Winner,” and was last reprinted in 1990. What is often called its ‘companion’ novel, Quincas Borba, translated in 1954 by Clotilde Wilson as Philosopher or Dog?, has been long out of print but is scheduled in Oxford’s Library of Latin America. The first English translation of Dom Casmurro was published in London in 1953 by Helen Caldwell, the great scholar and translator of Machado, but did not appear in America until 1966. An infamous 1992 British translation, Dom Casmurro, Lord Taciturn, butchers the novel, omitting nine chapters and misnumbering the rest.”

[4] [51] Poking around the internets, I find that an important study of Machado is Machado de Assis‚ son œuvre (Paris‚ Garnier‚ 1917) by one Victor Orban. I seem to be the only one to have noticed this; even Wikipedia, which include the Orban book in its Machado de Assis entry, does not provide any “disambiguation” link. Make of it what you will.

[5] [52] This is the main of several reasons for preferring Penguin books: They were famous for extensive introductions and annotations that basically eliminated the need to read the text itself. I agree whole-heartedly with the character in Whit Stilman’s Metropolitan: “I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking.”

[6] [53][6] “I won’t say that she was first in beauty among the young ladies of the age, as this is not a novel, in which the author may gild reality and close his eyes to freckles and spots. . . .”

[7] [54] Speaking of posthumous works, note that his last and perhaps greatest work was the novella Billy Budd, [55] found in his desk after his death in 1894 and not published until 1924, sparking the Melville revival.

[8] [56] “For in this medley the worlds of high art and ‘pop’ art . . . all meet.” — Harold Beaver, “Introduction” to Moby Dickor The Whale by Herman Melville, edited with an introduction and commentary by Harold Beaver. Published in the Penguin English Library in 1972, reprinted in Penguin Classics in 1986; now sadly retired. This chap [57] found his copy in France, appropriately enough: “The book is a log, with about half as many pages of ancillary material as there are of the novel itself, but the weight and space it took in my pannier wasn’t any concern. I pedaled with it for three months; read it in bars and parks, in hostels and campgrounds; even visited the Heidelberg Tun described in Chapter LXXVII. I still consider it an excellent edition. The editor, Harold Beaver, is described as ‘Reader in American Literature at the University of Warwick.’ It appears that he wanted to put everything needed to appreciate M-D in a single paperback package, with a dream-like Turner painting on the cover. For that first ‘committed’ reading, Beaver’s ‘Commentary’ section was my private tutor, greatly increasing my understanding and appreciation of Melville’s labors. There is about one page of notes for every two pages of source text.”

[9] [58] “At times I forget myself as I write, and the pen sets to devouring paper, at great cost to me, the author. Long chapters are better suited for ponderous readers; and we are not much for folios, but rather duodecimos, with little text, broad margins, an elegant type, gilt edges, and illustrations . . . especially illustrations . . . No, let’s not prolong the chapter.” And later, as a young man about town: “At that time I was in my fourth edition, revised and amended, but still infested with lapses and barbarisms, a defect that found some compensation in the type, which was elegant, and the binding, which was luxurious.”

[10] [59] Thanks to Machado, I also find I share a preference with Woody Allen; in an interview in The Guardian, listing the work as one of his top five favorites [60], he reveals that “I just got this in the mail one day. Some stranger in Brazil sent it and wrote, ‘You’ll like this.’ Because it’s a thin book, I read it. If it had been a thick book, I would have discarded it.”

[11] [61] Bialy: Now, listen. I know I already asked you this over the phone this morning, but did you get a chance yet to read Springtime for Hitler?

Roger: Read it? I devoured it. And I found it remarkable. Remarkable! It’s just drenched with historical goodies. I had no idea that the Third Reich meant Germany. — The Producers (Mel Brooks, 1967)

[12] [62] Apparently, it gets better; according to Wikipedia [63], years later he abdicated and sailed back to Europe, reclaiming Portugal as Pedro IV.

[13] [64] Wikipedia [65]: “Some sources suggest that it may derive from the Portuguese word mula (from the Latin mūlus), meaning mule, the hybrid offspring of a horse and a donkey.” Our annotator never uses the word; she refers to Machado as “the mixed race son of a humble family” — although an entire chapter is devoted to Cubas’ cynical reflections on charity in Chapter XXI, “The Muleteer.”

[14] [66] Our annotator takes the wind out of a bit of modern Braziliana: “Tanga, which today designates a skimpy bathing-suit bottom in Brazil, is variously used in the period of the novel to refer to loincloths and a sort of cloth wrapped around the waist. One 1836 dictionary defines it specifically as ‘a piece of cloth with which slaves cover their private parts.’”

[15] [67] Passing the buck? See my collection of essays on the concept in Passing the Buck: Coleman Francis and Other Cinematic Metaphysicians [68] (Melbourne: Manticore Press, 2021).

[16] [69] The thoughtful government provided this institution, to which owners could send recalcitrant or otherwise naughty slaves for especially severe punishment. Thanks, annotator!

[17] [70] Some time is devoted to finding, setting up, and making use of a small, out-of-the-way house for their assignations, which verified comments I heard from a young PhD back in the Philosopher or Dog days, regarding her affair with an older, married professor: Latinos (as we called them then) knew how to manage such things, “everyone expects to know about a man’s ‘little house.’” I suppose this is the equivalent of the French pied-à-terre; it’s a Latin thing.

[18] [71] “It is true that, alongside these lacks, I was granted the good fortune of not having to earn my bread with the sweat of my brow.”

[19] [72] In a late chapter entitled “Parenthesis,” Bras offers “a half-dozen maxims” of his own, such as “One can bear another man’s bellyache patiently.”

[20] [73] “The reader may be taken aback by the frankness with which I expose and emphasize my own mediocrity; he should recall that frankness is the primary virtue of a late man.” He calls his work, dictated from his moldering coffin, “a supinely philosophical work,” reminding me of a grad school acquaintance who referred to Sri Aurobindo’s chief opus as The Life Supine.

[21] [74] A motif from the start, Bras compares his thought processes to ideas frolicking on a trapeze.

[22] [75] Retreating to Tijuca, at the time a rural area outside Rio, after the shock of his mother’s death, he amused himself by flirting with the lame daughter of a family friend, then abandoned her to return to the city to start his political career with a proper marriage.

[23] [76] “He was searching his past for a clue, when a strange figure suddenly appeared on horse-back before them, trotting about for a moment and then turning around in its saddle. Des Esseintes’ heart almost stopped beating and he stood riveted to the spot with horror. He nearly fainted. This enigmatic, sexless figure was green; through her violet eyelids the eyes were terrible in their cold blue; pimples surrounded her mouth; horribly emaciated, skeleton arms bared to the elbows issued from ragged tattered sleeves and trembled feverishly; and the skinny legs shivered in shoes that were several sizes too large.

“The ghastly eyes were fixed on Des Esseintes, penetrating him, freezing his very marrow; wilder than ever, the bulldog woman threw herself at him and commenced to howl like a dog at the killing, her head hanging on her rigid neck.

“Suddenly he understood the meaning of the frightful vision. Before him was the image of Syphilis.”

Machado’s contemporary, J. K. Huysmans, was another civil servant, proto-modernist (or at least surrealist) and devotee of Schopenhauer.

[24] [77] One, or at least myself, can’t help but recall the New Thought trope where my desire, visualized with sufficient force, will cause any number of people to spontaneously work together to bring it into existence; Neville calls this the “Bridge of Incidents,” which I’ve discussed here [78] several times.

[25] [79] Indeed, near the end, as Bras Cubas is recuperating from the dashing of his political hopes, he reflects that “[a]ll [his luxurious surroundings] bore the appearance of a conspiracy of things against man [80].” And no sooner had I typed this note, than a discussion appeared on The Unz Review of antinatalism and Schopenhauer, with one commenter quoting this very passage [81], in the previous translation: “I had no children. I haven’t transmitted the legacy of our misery to any creature.”