The Exhausted and the Exuberant

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

Since I skipped Susan Sontag‘s introduction to Epitaph of a Small Winner  I did not learn ahead of reading this 1881 novel that the Brazilian author was mulatto and from a humble background, and I would never have guessed it.

The apres-mortem voice of Machado de Assis’ novel (originally titled The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas), kept reminding me of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, which was published in 1869.

Indolent, sated, and privileged youth in a culture encrusted with tradition and hierarchy, both Flaubert’s and de Assis’s protagonists bat themselves against a sense of deep futility while sating their thirst for real experience, especially in the arms of prostitutes–fancy ones so you don’t call them that.

The best thing about Small Winner is that it is highly ironic and very funny.  This goes a long way toward mitigating the annoyance provoked by the silly ditherings of superfluous men, who really ought to get a job.  The fact that de Assis was not in fact of this ilk gives this book an important added pulse.  And it’s always fun to hear from dead guys.

Harold Bloom put de Assis on his great-100 list and says he’s the greatest black writer of Western literature – but that sort of assertion deserves a long deconstruction not only of “greatest” and “Western literature” but especially of “black.”  Bloom’s an old-fashioned guy with an encyclopedic ground of referencing so you could practically trace the literary establishment’s attitude towards race through his thoughtful meanderings.  The parallel path to track the influence of de Assis on subsequent Brazilian writers, alluded to in Granta’s best-of-Brazil issue.

Oh the irony, the ennui, the debts to dad because you spent his money on trinkets for your trollops.  This sort of thing has long blood lines in literature.  It’s always fun to make categories so here’s one for today:  the exhausted, and the exuberant.  The exhausted side of literature portrays characters striving to fine purpose in a drained world; the exuberant narratives follow scrappy fighters stepping over the wreckage to forge a new path.  Flaubert, de Assis, Mann, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, James, Parker, Lowry (and many more, but I bet you get my drift):  Exhausted.  Dickens, Dostoevsky, Dreiser, Cather, Joyce, Austen, Whitman (etc.):  Exuberant.  Hmn…who is on which side of the ledger is clearly debatable.  The best writers, perhaps, straddle both, as in Dickinson:  I’m nobody, Who are you?

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