Monday, October 27, 2008

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas discussion: engaging the reader, and compare & contrast

That Stendhal should have confessed to have written one of his books for a hundred readers is something that brings on wonder and concern. Something that will not cause wonder and probably no concern is whether this other book will have Stendhal’s hundred readers, or fifty, or twenty, or even ten. Ten? Five perhaps. The truth is that it’s a question of a scattered work where I, Brás Cubas, have adopted the free-form of a Sterne or a Xavier de Maistre. I’m not sure, but I may have put a few fretful touches of pessimism into it. It’s possible. The work of a dead man. I wrote it with a playful pen and melancholy ink and it isn’t hard to forsee what can come out of that marriage. I might add that serious people will find some semblance of a normal novel, while frivolous people won’t find their usual one here. There it stands, deprived of the esteem of the serious and the love of the frivolous, the two main pillars of opinion. -- from the Preface
So I end my discussion quoting Brás’ Preface, only fitting for a work that begins at the end of his life. My problem (although I guess it’s not different from my normal posts) is trying to make a coherent point. I’m sure this point has been discussed in academic circles many times already, and judging by the remarks in my copy’s preface (by Enylton de Sá Rego) and afterword (by Gilberto Pinheiro Passo, translated by Barbara Jamison) it’s a common topic for those familiar with Machado de Assis’ work. But for those readers just discovering him, I thought spending time on one of his tactics would be helpful. The tactic is one of active engagement with the reader, giving the reader some hints as to what he was thinking when he wrote the novel. Can you enjoy the book without rising to meet his engagement? Absolutely, and it will still be a wonderful read. But for those who want to dig a little bit, the payoff is rewarding.

Brás addresses the reader directly, much like Sterne, but that only goes so far in engaging the reader. Inconsistencies engage the reader so much more, as questions arise to the believability of the narrator. Some are superficial, like typology or letting the reader fill in the blank. Other things, like saying Humanitas has three stages and then lists four, are minimal by themselves (and also recall Sterne’s usual miscounting when Tristram would “say three words about” something) but they add to the growing inconsistencies. However, the ultimate engagement for Brás comes from his use of literary references. I’ve tried to highlight Brás as a reader who defines the world from his reading. But what happens when there is a difference in the reference? Is his viewing lens wrong or does he have something else in mind? The repeated use of Hamlet’s “undiscovered country” and other metaphors, upon reflection, don’t seem quite right. With Hamlet, Brás has returned (to some extent) which is in conflict with the metaphor’s central premise. The flag was raised for me at the beginning, as I don’t recall Stendhal ever mentioning the exact number of readers he was aiming for, instead using a much more general “happy few” as the target. When Brás quotes Erasmus and the willful distortion that is The Praise of Folly, things gelled on misquotes—I wasn’t just imagining things, this was a designed approach. Machado de Assis wrote about creatively using quotes, changing the original content or ‘spice’ in order to make a unique ‘sauce’ (I’m relying on the Preface for his statements).

There are other inconsistent references within the work itself. Brás often refers to something he said in an earlier chapter, naming the chapter where to find the reference. Most of the time the references are correct, but what happens when they aren’t? In Chapter CLIV, Brás refers to his thoughts in Chapter LXXV regarding why Dona Plácida was called into the world. Yet if you bother to look back at the earlier chapter, he uses “affection” instead of “sympathy”…something radically different. Again, it’s a minor point. But these minor points accumulate to some effect. The title of an early chapter provides one of the biggest revelations how and why the author is engaging the reader:

Chapter VI
Chimène, Qui L’eût Dit?
Rodrigue, Qui L’eût Cru?

This is an inversion of lines from The Cid by Pierre Corneille, which can be found at Project Gutenberg, and these lines:
Chimène: Rodrigo, who would have believed——?
Don Rodrigo: Chimène, who would have said——?

As the reader continues through the book, the inversion begins to make sense: Brás and Virgilia are not only opposites of Chimène and Rodrigo, their story is as well. The Afterword goes into detail regarding the contradictory circumstances between the two couples’ stories, but the short version is that almost everything about them is different (which radically changes the focus). The reason and meaning of the inversion is only revealed upon reading the entire book. The author invites comparisons and contrasts throughout the novel, not with just The Cid but with all of literature (including his own book), thereby actively engaging the reader. Many novels have other works as their basis, but Brás' self-consciousness in his references is unique. He is asking you to examine his references and come to a conclusion as to why they are used. By creatively using literature's existing frameworks to hang his story, the author has added depth to his own memoirs, transforming Brás’ mediocre life into a wonderfully entertaining story.


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Michael Cohen said...

I think the misquotation are a little joke that starts with the first word: Stendhal made up the epigraphs for the chapters in The Red and the Black and then assigned them authors --Goethe, Pascal, et al.

Dwight said...

I had forgotten about Stendhal's epigraphs. I need to revisit this book because I'm sure I only caught a small fraction of the jokes.