A Brazilian novel written by Machado de Assis in the 19th century is among filmmaker and comic-writer Woody Allen’s top five favorite books. The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (as translated by Oxford University Press in 1998) or Epitaph of a Small Winner (the title chosen by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2008 for translation), may be one of those books that teenagers wince at when they are forced to read it at school — but once they get to a certain age, they end up loving it.
Allen told The Guardian, that he was “shocked by how charming and amusing [the book] was.” He received a copy of the book from a stranger in Brazil, who wrote to him and said simply, “You’ll like this.” Had the book been thicker, Woody Allen might have ignored it, but he read the book and really enjoyed it. “I couldn’t believe he lived as long ago as he did,” enthused Allen. “You would’ve thought he wrote it yesterday. It’s so modern and so amusing. It’s a very, very original piece of work. It rang a bell in me, in the same way that The Catcher in the Rye did. It was about subject matter that I liked and it was treated with great wit, great originality and no sentimentality.”
Machado de Assis’s 1881 novel is written as a posthumously composed memoir and is composed in short, erratic chapters. The book tells the story of Brás Cubas, a wealthy son of the Brazilian elite of the 19th century. It begins with his death, and progresses backwards, describing the scene of his funeral, the delirium before dying and, eventually, the character’s childhood. Because he is “speaking” from the grave, he is beyond judgement, allowing him to be openly critical Brazilian society of the time. The tone is often ironic and the “deceased” author dedicates the book to a warm: “To the worm that gnawed the cold flesh of my corpse, I dedicate these posthumous memoirs as a nostalgic remembrance.” (Read the first chapter here.)
In addition to Epitaph of a Small Winner, Allen included The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, Really the Blues by Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe, The World of SJ Perelman by SJ Perelman, and Elia Kazan: A Biography by Richard Schickel among his favorites.