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Epitaph of a Small Winner - Machado de Assis, William L. Grossman, Susan Sontag

“Do not mourn the dead. They know what they are doing.”
― Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star

With those lines, Lispector might have introduced this novel by her countryman. Told from the other side of the grave, we learn of the narrator’s small successes and small failures, ultimately balanced in the totality of things. Braz Cubas, the narrator, provides his autobiography, and his philosophy, with a gentle humor in a novel which anticipates the best of meta-fiction, breaking with a Romantic literary tradition in South America and leaping into a Realism that feels contemporary.

”Come, my great lecher, the voluptuousness of extinction awaits you.”

Braz Cubas describes his romances and political aspirations with a detachment:

The sharp and judicial eye of public opinion loses its power as soon as we enter the territory of death. I do not deny that it sometimes glances this way and examines and judges us, but we dead folk are not concerned about its judgment. You who still live, believe me, there is nothing in the world so monstrously vast as our indifference
He constantly cajoles and engages the reader:
’Tis good to be sad and say nothing.’ When I read these words of Shakespeare, I felt within me an echo, a delicious echo. I remember sitting under a tamarind tree, with the poet’s book open in my hands and my spirit as crestfallen as a sick chicken. I pressed my silent grief to my breast and experienced a curious feeling, something that might be called the voluptuousness of misery. Voluptuousness of misery. Memorize this phrase, reader; store it away, take it out and study it from time to time, and, if you do not succeed in understanding it, you may conclude you have missed one of the most subtle emotions of which man is capable.
He likens life to the constant revision of a book:
Let Pascal say man is a thinking reed. He is wrong; man is a thinking erratum. Each period in life is a new edition that corrects the preceding one and that in turn will be corrected by the next, until publication of the definitive edition, which the publisher donates to the worms.
He encourages the slow-reading, the consideration of his text by direct challenge:
I am beginning to be sorry that I ever undertook to write this book. Not that it bores me; I have nothing else to do; indeed, it is a welcome distraction to eternity. But the book is tedious, it smells of the tomb, it has a rigor mortis about it; a serious fault, a yet a relatively small one, for the great defect of this book is you, reader.
And the slow-reading, the thoughtful consideration pays off. Language. Camaraderie with the narrator (unreliable, and frequently unlikeable, as he is) wins us over. A constant source for highlighting and reflection. The best way to not be ‘the great defect’ is to read this one as the narrator reads himself. Savory.


Imagine, if you will, this title said aloud, with an accent of one type or another: do you hear, “Epitaph for a Small Weiner?” I feel a certain amount of shame mentioning this, however the narrator does , on several occasions, express concern over his ‘small sword’ while Napoleon had a ‘large sword.’ Just something to think about, but not for all that long.