The prologue to the the new Penguin translation of a book I’ve long meant to read, Machado de Assis’ The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas.
That Stendhal should have confessed to writing one of his books for only a hundred readers is a source of surprise and consternation. What comes as no surprise, nor will likely provoke any consternation, is if this book fails to garner even Stendhal’s hundred readers, nor fifty, nor twenty, nor even ten, if that. Ten? Perhaps five. This is, it’s true, a diffuse work, in which I, Brás Cubas, if I have adopted the free form of a Sterne or a Xavier de Maistre, may have added a few grumbles of pessimism. That may well be. The work of a deceased man. I wrote it with the pen of mirth and the ink of melancholy, and it is not difficult to predict what may come of such a union. Add to which the fact that serious people will find in the book some likeness to an out-and-out novel, while frivolous people will not find their usual novel here; it will thus be deprived of the esteem of the serious and the love of the frivolous, which are the two chief pillars of public opinion.
But I still harbor hopes of winning the sympathies of that opinion, and the first remedy is to avoid a drawn-out, exhaustive prologue. The best prologues have the fewest things, or say them in an abrupt, obscure manner. Accordingly, I will refrain from relaying the extraordinary process that I employed in composing these Memoirs, crafted here in the otherworld. It would be of interest, but tediously lengthy, and superfluous to one’s understanding of the work. The work in itself is all: if it should please you, my fine reader, I am paid for my labors; if it should not please you, I will pay you with a flick of a finger, and farewell.
The Stendhal reference is to the second preface of De l’Amour (On Love). Sterne is of course Tristram Shandy. De Maistre is the still-underappreciated author of Voyage autour de ma chambre (A Journey Around My Room). Apparently one of the earlier editions of the novel included Charles Lamb in this list of major influences but he was later cut here (as he has been everywhere, sadly).