I’m beginning to regret this book. Not that it bores me, I have nothing to do and, really, putting together a few meager chapters for that other world is always a task that distracts me a little from eternity a little. But the book is tedious, it has the smell of the grave about it; it has a certain cadaveric contraction about it, a serious fault, insignificant to boot because the main defect of this book is you, reader. You’re in a hurry to grow old and the book moves slowly. You love direct and continuous narration, a regular and fluid style, and this book and my style are like drunkards, they stagger left and right, they walk and stop, mumble, yell, cackle, shake their fists at the sky, stumble, and fall …
And do they fall! Miserable leaves of my cypress of death, you shall fall like any others, beautiful and brilliant as you are. And, if I had eyes, I would shed a nostalgic tear for you. This is the great disadvantage of death, which if it leaves no mouth which with to laugh, neither does it leave eyes with which to weep…You shall fall.
-- Chapter 71 “The Defect of this Book”
The quote raises as many questions as it answers, but I’m glad we got the problem identified. Not content with that, the following chapter satirizes bibliomaniacs who avoid the world outside and turn their love into an all-consuming obsession. This section of the book is mostly about Brás’ affair with Virgília—his proposal that they run away, the house they set up for secret meetings, her miscarriage, the public knowledge of their affair, and (belatedly) her husband's suspicions.
One important theme making an appearance in this section is Brás’ jealousy. He remarks on it constantly and at times it seems central to his being. Virgília thrives on Brás’ jealousy, which is almost farcical in nature since the envy is aimed at her husband. The involvement of Dona Plácida in the amorous couples’ meetings and how Brás’ tries to win her over provides additional humor. Even when Brás’ plots for them to run away together, the reader doesn’t get the feeling he is sincere. He has coasted his entire life and while claiming that they were in love, the passion doesn’t come across as sufficient—the “little house” solution seems better suited for Brás. It is clear that Virgília’s husband knows what is going on by the end of this section, but as Brás comments later in the book, “(P)ublic opinion is a good glue for domestic institutions.” Because of his desires regarding a place in society and in government, Lobo Neves is not going to call attention to being cuckolded. Brás's desires and concerns about public opinion are markedly less.
Brás mentions public opinion and its role in society, initially coming down on the side that it provides a useful framework for people to get along. He begins to operate outside that framework more and more as he ages, however. Brás confirms his self-judgment of a mediocre life as he narrates his life, his hypocrisy just part of the overall pretenses and insincerity surrounding him . One major turning point, where he changes from an appearance of possibly achieving something to simply going through the motions of what is expected, happens when Virgília has her miscarriage. However you have to wonder how he would describe the melancholy comedy of having to view his child from a distance. With all the abrupt changes in events, this seems to impact him the most despite having a minimal change in his public life. As always with the narrator, however, you have to wonder if it is yet another excuse for him to underperform in a role that demands little of him.
Many of the previous themes continue in this section. Slavery and class are usually underneath the surface throughout the novel but occasionally they are explicitly drawn in disagreeable portraits, judging against the status quo. The theater continues to play a major role in at least three manners: a central part of the social scene in Rio, allusions and references to plays and operas throughout Brás' life, and the roles that the characters must play in order to maintain the allusion of social harmony. The references to other literature continues non-stop as well. In the preface, the author (whether viewed as Machado de Assis or Brás Cubas) admitted his debts and antecedents and he continues to name more throughout the novel, detailing the literary prism through which he views life.
The author sometimes skews quotes or references so that they aren’t quite accurate, providing a twist on that literary prism. I hope to make a separate post on this point, relying some on the work of others, since I think it an important clue on how Machado de Assis wants us to view his creation.
Brás’ melancholy ink may shape his outlook on life and society, put it continues to provide humorous and quirky situations or quotes. The best of them seem to effortlessly blend flippant comments with insightful views. Here are only a few of the many I enjoyed:
- “(T)he only reason for Virgilia’s existence” was to be a pillow, a place for Bras to forget his trouble—yet another Panglossian outlook
- In chapter 66, he immortalizes his legs
- “I like happy chapters, they’re my weakness.”
- “And God knows the strength of an adjective, above all in young, hot countries.”