Iván Repila, The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse

Iván Repila, The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse. Pushkin Press, 2015. Translated by Sophie Hughes. First published in Spanish 2013.

Iván Repila, cover of The Boy who Stole Attila's HorseTwo young boys, brothers known only as Big and Small, are trapped (or were they thrown?) in a pyramid-shaped well in the heart of a forest. They cling desperately to life, become feral, crazed. This short novella – just over 100 pages on small-format, high quality paper (with French flaps to the cover, which I find inordinately pleasing) – is a surreal…what? Allegory (but for what? The instinct to survive? Political injustice? In ch. 11 we hear ‘the land seems to be governed by a mechanism of suffering that works against every one of nature’s decreees’.) Kafkaesque fable? (about human inhumanity? – in Ch. 23 Big gives Small a lecture on how to kill. Maybe the boys’ mother put them, like the pussy in the rhyme, in the well). Dark fairytale with more monsters than fairies – a Freudian lesson in the unheimlich? A descent into the circles of the human mind and its capacity for insanity and hallucination, a counterpart to Dante’s circles of hell? A variation on Aesop’s fable of the fox in the well and the unsympathetic wolf looking down on him?

I turned to some reviews to seek clarity or confirmation.

Veronica Scott Esposito recommended it at Conversational Readings: cf Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes – I posted on it here – another fantasy/allegory about a person trapped down a hole or pit, exploited, frightened, reverting to an animalistic state.

John Self, Asylum – ‘unpleasant’; allegory of some sort, many possible interpretations, from environmental fable to perils and exigencies of growing up; most probably socio-political (see the epigraphs by Thatcher on free market forces and the rich/poor divide, and Brecht on uprising and revolt) – inequality in social hierarchy. Packs a punch way above its weight.

I also found it unpleasant, though I admired the visceral punch it packs, and the language (brilliantly rendered by Sophie Hughes) is often breathtakingly good. Its depiction of human corporeality, of human corruption (as in bodily putrefaction as well as morally), of the narrow divide between civilised behaviour and bestiality, is very hard to take in anything but short doses.

The boys love and support each other, most of the time. They also harbour unspoken thoughts about cannibalism. Big rations their meagre food in such a way that he gets a much higher proportion, which he justifies by insisting that he’s the one whose superior physique will ultimately lead to their escape. Survival of the fittest. Though he also shows capacity for self-sacrifice.

John Self points out a feature I hadn’t registered: the chapters aren’t numbered sequentially, but as increasing prime numbers (none of them even, of course). He suggests, plausibly, that they correspond to the number of days the brothers spend in the well (the final chapter is 97). Not surprisingly their bodies have wasted almost to nothing in that time.

Descriptions of this process are unstinting, often grimly humorous in their verbal ingenuity, like this one of Small in ch. 59. First, he has named himself Inventor and devised ‘cultural activities’ for his brother, ‘although really he does it because he cannot stop imagining.’ He’s also ‘perfected’ a bizarre ‘osteo-vegetal music’ created by ‘hitting certain bones with dry roots’. He’s frustrated with the childish percussive potential of ‘knees, hips, torso and collarbone’, and would really love to somehow ‘rotate his head and arms and rock out on his spine…’

His extreme boniness makes him look like a misshapen neighbourhood made up entirely of street corners, and this affords him an inordinate range of obscure, high-pitched sounds which come together as a tune when he strums his tendons and thumps his stomach and chest.

The title? In Ch. 31 Small announces his fantasy that he’d stolen Attila’s horse to make shoes out of its hooves; ‘they smelled like the shell of a dragon’s egg or like the skull of an idol’, he explains with unsettlingly calm clarity. When he wore them he killed whatever grew underfoot – he graduated from grass to a camp of sleeping people, where he played a grim game of ‘bouncy hopscotch’. The sleepers woke up screaming and died in agony:

Their bodies turned brown and red. It looked like a poor man’s rainbow: lustreless, born out of a candle and a puddle of urine. I felt important, like a painter.

John Self suggests that last image, narrated with such deadpan lack of affect, can be interpreted as a fable of the artist’s cruelty. Maybe. Or perhaps it’s part of this disturbing, twisted tale’s dark, surreal logic: creativity arising from suffering, like honey-sweetness from  a corpse, the lion and bees image and slogan on Lyle’s syrup tins (at one point the boys wait for a dead bird’s body to decompose so they can feast on the maggots in its corpse).

I don’t know, writing this has made me feel better disposed towards this powerful, highly original, weird little novella.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fairly disastrous individuals: Javier Marías, Written Lives

Javier Marías, Written Lives. Penguin Modern Classics, 2016. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. First published in Spain as Vidas escritas, 2000; US, New Directions, 2006

‘Writers are monsters’, said Hilary Mantel in her introduction to Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel (the VMC edition) – which I made the title of my post about that novel. Many of the 26 writers that Javier Marías includes in this idiosyncratic collection would readily fall into that category.

Mostly it’s best to read Written Lives as a collection of short stories – as the author hints we should in his characteristically witty Prologue to this PMC edition (and his regular translator, Margaret Jull Costa, deserves immense credit for her deft, elegant translation):

The idea, then, was to treat these well-known literary figures as if they were fictional characters, singling out interesting ‘snippets’ from their lives; this may well be how all writers, whether famous or obscure, would secretly like to be treated.

All of his subjects, he points out, were ‘fairly disastrous individuals’. His brief portraits – most are about five pages long – are a willed rejection, that is, of the usual solemn ‘hagiography’ usually found in full-length biographies, he suggests. He approaches his subjects with ‘a mixture of affection and humour.’

Marías Written Lives

Isak Dinesen subsisted on oysters and champagne, as this cover photo shows 

And that’s the key to reading this collection. Marías warns us of the ‘lack of seriousness’ in his texts. This is not intended to be an objective work of scholarship.

For example, that Henry James never forgave Flaubert for receiving the Master and Turgenev in his dressing gown – an outrage for which James never forgave him – is probably taken from Ford Madox Ford’s unreliable testimony, as Philip Hensher pointed out in his review of the 2006 edition of this book (see the end of this post).

Nothing in these sketches has been ‘invented’, Marías disingenuously claims in the Prologue, but it’s in ‘what is included and what omitted that the possible accuracy or inaccuracy of these pieces partly lies.’ And although nothing is ‘fictitious’, some ‘episodes and anecdotes’ have been ‘embellished’.

In case we miss the sly wink behind these words, he goes on to advise the ‘suspicous reader who wants to check some fact’ that he appends an impressively lengthy bibliography as a (surely ironic) attempt to provide an aura of academic authenticity to the portraits – that are transparently cobbled together from a range of such sources, but with more of an eye for entertaining anecdotes than for factual veracity. It’s really a work of fiction – and as such, hugely entertaining.

Largely because of the sly humour. To Malcolm Lowry Marías awards the dubious accolade of

the most calamitous writer in the whole history of literature, which is no mean feat, given the intense competition in the field.

Animals don’t fare too well. The paranoid drunk Lowry, we’re told, once took exception to a horse pulling a cart as he passed by because it gave what he took to be a ‘derisive snort’ – even the beasts were conspiring against him. His response was ‘to punch the horse so hard below the ear that the horse quivered and sank to its knees’ – the horse recovered, but Lowry suffered acute remorse for weeks afterwards.

As he did when, like Lennie in Of Mice and Men (is that where he got the story?), he inadvertently broke the neck of a pet rabbit that he was stroking on his lap, watched by the owner and owner’s mother. Like all the best comic writers, Marías is able to risk an outrageous step further after such a moment; he adds

For two days, he wandered the streets of London carrying the corpse, not knowing what to do with it and consumed by self-loathing, until…the waiter in a bar agreed to provide what promised to be a funeral as ordained by the God of all animals.

There are countless such moments of deliciously nasty insights into these…well, semi-fictitious portraits. Like Conrad, who ‘lived in a permanent state of extreme tension’; such was his uncontrollable ‘irritability’ that whenever he dropped his pen, instead of simply picking it up and carrying on writing,

he would spend several minutes exasperatedly drumming his fingers on the desk as if bemoaning what had occurred.

Conan Doyle, when he was about to become a practising doctor, once thrashed a bully who’d kicked a woman – he was an accomplished boxer, and prone to getting into brawls. The next day the man showed up at his surgery, his first patient. Fortunately he didn’t recognise his doctor.

This is what Marías says about Rilke:

It is not known what he liked, as regards food or other things, apart from the letter “y” – which he wrote whenever he could – as well, of course, as travelling and women.

This post is already becoming too long, but I must mention a trait of Marías’ inimitable style and approach that I’ve discussed in previous posts about his novels, and is also present to comic effect in Written Lives: his habit of judiciously, wryly moving from a detailed particular into a generalising aphorism of spurious portentousness: of Isak Dinesen he says that her philandering husband was the twin brother of the man she had loved from girlhood,

and bonds formed through a third party are perhaps the most difficult to break.

RL Stevenson was

undoubtedly chivalrous, but not excessively so, or rather, he was simply chivalrous enough, for every true gentleman has behaved like a scoundrel at least once in his life.

This volume includes a section of even briefer accounts of notable women (not all of them writers). Like Lowry, the quick-tempered Emily Bronte is said to have punched an animal that had caused her disgruntlement, with similarly dolorous effect (for the dog).

A final section gives Marías’ interpration of photo portraits of writers. These again are surely not intended to be read as serious, but are prompts for some good jokes – for example, he says that in his picture, Nietzsche wears an overcoat ‘that looks as if it had been lent to him by some much burlier relative.’

Philip Hensher’s review of the 2006 edition finds the book inaccurate, rather pointless and embarrassing; he’s also po-facedly critical of the wayward observations Marías offers in that final section, and offers this one of his own about the dustjacket photo of Marías in that edition; it’s just as good as those by the King of Redonda:

Given all of this, it is almost more than you could ask of a reviewer not to comment on the portrait of Marías himself on the dustjacket. Well, he has narrowed his eyes in a way which conventionally indicates sceptical intelligence; his hair could do with some attention (impossible genius); he is holding a burnt-down cigarette like a prop or a trophy, like a non-smoking actress in a revival of Hay Fever. He looks, slightly appallingly, like an author having his photograph taken.

 

A picaresque Basque: Pío Baroja, The Restlessness of Shanti Andía

Back from my summer break in Portugal – that’s why there have been no posts for a few weeks.

The books I took with me turned out not to be a judicious choice. I’ll post about them anyway; although they weren’t to my taste, they have merits worth sharing.

Last spring when I visited Portugal for the first time – a short break in beautiful, shabby Lisbon – I read fiction with a Lusitanian connection: Pereira Maintains , by Antonio Tabucchi, and the pseudonymous Fernando Pessoa’s (the word in Portuguese just means ‘person’), The Book of Disquiet (I posted about both HERE; again, my response wasn’t entirely positive).

 

The Restlessness of Shanti Andía cover

The cover of my 1962 Signet Classics paperback, bought years ago

First: The Restlessness of Shanti Andía by Pío Baroja. I struggled through the first hundred pages, skimmed some more, then, I’m sorry to say, gave up on it.

Baroja had first interested me because he was born in San Sebastián (aka Donostia) in the Basque province of Guipuzkoa – I taught English there for a year some decades ago, and was interested to see what one of its most famous literary figures had written (one of the others is the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, 1864-1936, born in Bilbao, just along the coast from Donostia).

Between 1900 and his death aged 83 in 1956 Baroja published nearly 100 novels, and numerous volumes of autobiography, essays and other writings. This prolific output perhaps accounts for the looseness in structure and general aimlessness of Shanti Andía. Balzac was also sometimes prolix (but also capable of great characterisation, a quality I found missing in this novel).

First published in 1911, it’s a sort of picaresque fictional memoir of a dashing Basque seafarer – it formed part of a loose trilogy called ‘El Mar’, the Sea. Its title in Spanish, Las inquietudes de SA is difficult to translate; ‘restlessness’ suggests a sort of pique; ‘inquietud’ connotes unease, worry; restless as in desire to be on the move, a rejection of tranquillity. That’s Shanti: he can’t bear mundane life ashore, and longs for action, to see the world.

There’s no plot to speak of, then, just a sequence of episodes reflecting those ‘inquietudes’. The first section of the novel recounts the developmental experiences Shanti had as a boy and young man growing up in the Basque fishing village of Lúzaro, such as ‘borrowing’ a boat to explore caves said to be haunted, or trying to board a wrecked ship (an exploit that ends in near disaster). In this sense the novel reminded me of Stevenson’s yarns like Treasure Island (published 1883; indeed, RLS died in 1894, when Baroja was only 23, so he could have read him, though I have no idea if he did; RLS is a much more accomplished writer).

There’s a unifying principle, however, to the narrative: Shanti hero-worships his uncle Juan de Aquirre, who, like his father, was a sailor. The family is told the uncle has died, but Shanti in adult life discovers this is untrue; gradually the old mariner’s exploits are revealed (partly via a ‘found MS’ device beloved of gothic romance) – many of them unedifying, such as his stint serving on a slave ship. I admit I’d stopped reading attentively by then, so can’t say for sure if Baroja shows any sense of immorality in such activities.

Porto tram

My picture from inside the tram to Foz from Porto

Maybe reading this salty yarn in the urban environment of Porto was a mistake. The Atlantic is only a short ride away by charming antique tram from the picturesque city centre, but the riparian environment of the city didn’t harmonise with this book.

Porto, of course, is noted for its port wine, and I loved visiting producers’ vaults and seeing the replica rabelos – the flat-bottomed boats (with curved prows like an Arabian slipper) that plied the dangerous waters of the Douro, bringing the produce of the vineyards far upstream down to the city to be vatted and bottled by the likes of Taylor, Sandeman and Cálem.

Regua

Old photo of rabelos displayed on the wall of a port producer in the upstream Douro town of Regua

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But — back to Baroja.

During Shanti’s apprenticeship to a Cádiz sea captain and his first voyages on the Philippines run, he becomes romantically (and disastrously) involved with their employer’s imperious daughter. Even more clichéd adventures and entanglements follow, with similarly implausible coincidences and complications that could have come straight out of medieval romance.

Shanti Andia title page

Title page of the Signet edition

I don’t think it was the fault of the translators, whose prose reads fairly lucidly, for the most part. It’s the boy’s-own content that I couldn’t get on with.

Maybe I should go back to Bernardo Atxaga.

 

 

 

Taylor's port caves

Inside the Taylor’s port wine caves

 

 

No cure for marriage: Javier Marías, Thus Bad Begins

Javier Marías, Thus Bad Begins (Hamish Hamilton hardback, 2016) 503pp

When I started this blog back in 2013, Javier Marías was one of the first novelists I posted about. He’s surely one of the most important and gifted writers of fiction alive today.

Two years ago I wrote about his 2013 novel The Infatuations (link HERE, with further links there to my several posts on his superb ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ trilogy).

If you’ve ever read Marías you’ll be aware that he tends to work over the same themes, tropes and motifs in most of his work: love and death, fidelity, memory and treachery – in the domestic sphere, especially in a marriage, and the public – justice, truth and lies. Sex features prominently, and Shakespeare. Perhaps most important of all: what we do when we tell stories about these things, or listen to such stories – is it possible to represent reality? Do stories represent reality, like novels?

Marías, Thus Bad Begins Once read, novels are ‘soon forgotten’, Marías wrote in The Infatuations. In his 2016 novel Thus Bad Begins it’s people’s lives that are said to be transitory and forgettable. Most of all of these themes are rehearsed in the opening three pages of the novel. It begins:

This story didn’t happen so very long ago – less time than the average life, and how brief a life is once it’s over and can be summed up in a few sentences, leaving only ashes in the memory…

Except of course Marías is going to devote 500 more pages to this story, not ‘a few sentences’. One of his better jokes; oddly, for such a dark, disturbing novel, there’s a lot of humour.

He introduces his two central characters, Eduardo Muriel, a director of B-movies, and his wife, several years his junior, Beatriz Noguera. The events our narrator, Juan de Vere or Vera (ie ‘truth’) relates took place in 1980 when he was just 23, and the Muriels some 20 years older than that. Spain was still reinventing itself after that long, estranging dictatorship of Franco, and divorce was still illegal.

Marriage was, then, ‘for life’ in those days, and ‘an escape route’ hard to find: hence the need for deceit, secrets; harder for women, who, if they’d had an extramarital ‘escapade’,  would have to live the life of an ‘impostor’, ‘disguise a new being before it even had a face to show the world’ (one of many resonances from Marías’ previous novels; the Oxford Hispanist Peter Wheeler, a central character in ‘Your Face Tomorrow’, pops up in a bit part). But these bitter thoughts are those of de Vere, who finds it hard to understand why anyone would ‘contract’ a marriage; only disease and death share that verb, as if all ‘augured ill or presaged doom or were, at the very least, painful’:

…but, unlike them, there was definitely no cure, no remedy for marriage, no resolution. Or only through the death of one of the spouses, a death sometimes silently longed for, and, less often, sought or induced or prompted, usually even more silently or in deepest secrecy.

All that would then remain of them would be ‘a brief memory. Or, on occasions, a story. A tenuous, rarely told story, since people tend not to tell stories about their personal life’…

The style is instantly recognisable as that of Marías: that convoluted syntax with its accumulating parallel or subordinate clauses (he habitually deploys ‘or perhaps’, ‘and yet’, ‘I suppose’, ‘or so it seems’ – all of these appear on the first page), which delay resolution and pile on alternative possibilities and modalities. The truth is as elusive or evasive as syntactic closure in a Marías novel.

Therein lies his appeal. He teasingly, with endless circumlocution, spins his thrilling plot from such multiple, beautiful threads – for his plots are comparable to those of great thriller-noir film auteurs like Hitchcock, who’s namechecked prominently in the narrative (there’s a trace of ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Rear Window’ in this one, with its unsettling sense of voyeurism and obsessive, secretive observation of characters, men and women, unaware of the male gaze upon them), or novelists like Hardy, Conrad and Stevenson, all of whom he translated into Spanish (sexual deception and coercion in Tess, perhaps, and a prominent plot device involving a crucial letter; spies, secret agents and skulduggery from the other two authors).

But he does it with a highly original, knowing, postmodern flourish, relishing the telling (and withholding) of his story and his manipulative, entrancing magician’s craft as much as Faulkner, Nabokov and that arch spinner of shaggy dog stories, Laurence Sterne (and yes, he translated all of them, too.)

So this is a gripping, heartbreaking novel of love and betrayal in a marriage, and the shame and remorse of traitors, and desire for vengeance and retribution in the betrayed. Forgiveness is withheld too long; love festers. A tragic marital secret revealed lies at its heart, and its disclosure to the reader, long delayed, is devastating.

The plot of Hamlet provides a kind of template (although Rumour’s Prologue to Henry IV.2 is also a running thread). De Vere is recruited by the wronged husband to act as his spy. Not on the treacherous wife, but on the husband’s lecherous old friend, who he suspects committed ‘vile acts’ against women.

De Vere portrays himself from the outset as a modern Polonius – ‘there’s nothing original about me’ he says, twice (although on the second occasion he adds, ‘nor, I suppose, about any of the others’). He gains the confidence of a man ‘in order to betray him’, a deception that causes him frequent spasms of guilt. Instead of an arras, de Vere spies on his target, engaged in a sordid tryst inside a Catholic sanctuary, from the top of a tree. When he’s challenged by a nun when he descends, the scene is like a comic take on Hamlet’s ‘get thee to a nunnery’ speech.

There are the usual lengthy monologues on all of these key themes. Their presence in this domestic tragedy is linked overtly to their counterparts in the bloodstained, labyrinthine Spanish political past: the stories, crimes, denunciations, blackmail, revenge and brutal atrocities perpetrated during the Civil War, and then worse that followed during the aftermath, then again after Franco’s death.

There was a ‘pact of forgetting’ after Franco, when Spaniards collectively showed ‘open distaste for and aversion to revenge and betrayal’, and ‘fallacious tales’ and brazen, ‘barefaced lies’, ‘secrecy and concealment’ proliferated. They erased or embellished memories, all traces of these earlier crimes and cruelties — a central factor in this novel, echoed in the domestic tragedy enacted in the Muriel household. Private talk mirrors the public discourse; ‘concealment and disguise’ became the order of the day.

De Vere comes to learn the expediency of ‘giving up trying to know what we cannot know, of removing ourselves from the hubbub of what others tell us throughout our life, so much so that even what we experience and witness seems more like a story told to us…’ And:

Households are full of rejections and slights and mortifications and insults, especially behind closed doors (and sometimes one gets shut inside with them by accident).

Once we learn the ‘facts’ of what happened,

Perhaps it’s best to shrug one’s shoulders and nod and ignore them, to accept that this is the way of the world.

Only then does ‘worse remain behind, because at least it is over. And thus bad only begins, the bad that has not yet happened.’

I’m not sure I get that. It seems to be a philosophy of stoical resignation – Hamlet’s lesson. Readiness is all (an axiom quoted in the narrative).

I didn’t find this ‘public/private’ structure is robust enough to sustain such a lengthy narrative. For the first time in my reading of Marías I found myself wanting to skip yet another meandering, portentous discourse on a philosophical topic that teetered on the edge of banality (so death is final, is it?).

In this post-truth world, however, there’s a sad contemporary relevance to a novel that, despite these longueurs, is still a stirring read.

Apologies that this post has become so long. It’s a long, richly complex novel, and I found it difficult to be brief.

 

The demonic villain again in Galdós, Miau: post 3

That demonic villain Victor is an insidious operator. He seduces the two Villaamil sisters, Luisa and Abelarda, driving both to madness.

I’ll take just one passage in Ch. 20 where his cruel amorality is shown in technically interesting ways. Victor has managed to displace from Abelarda’s heart her insipid fiancé, Ponce, through a mixture of his dashing good looks and manners (he knows exactly how to attract an inexperienced, lonely, plain young woman), flattery and subtle alternations between fake passion and jealousy of the fiancé – all with honeyed clichés he’s picked up from trashy romantic fiction. Poor Abelarda is too innocent to recognise his falsehoods and duplicitous cunning.

She never much cared for Ponce anyway; she’s acquiescing to family pressure to marry him for the wealth he’ll inherit. She lacks the agency to resist either party.

After days, weeks of this callous campaign, in which Victor claims she’s breaking his heart by refusing him, he tells her he’s leaving the Villaamil house, so desperate is his love for her, and so hopeless his chances of winning her. He knows exactly how simultaneously to torture and lure the infatuated girl. It’s touch and go which gives him greater pleasure. The torture, in my view. He’s an emotional sadist (distant relative of Heathcliff, perhaps, who liked to see the worms writhe), an egotist, and emotionally void.

Abelarda is too smitten and naïve to ‘hide her distress’. This is Victor’s MO: he knows she’s incapable of hiding her true feelings. Her natural modesty has no chance against the passion he knows he has kindled in her love-starved soul. She has no ‘arms’ with which to ‘fight this monster of infinite resources and inexhaustible invention, who was used to trifling with deep and serious feelings.’

He’s like Milton’s Satan in his mastery of language to deceive and influence others, or at least, sufficiently so to impress ingenuous Abelarda. Readers are invited to see straight through his florid, clichéd declarations. He delights in evil for its own sake, hating innocence and goodness and trashing it simply because he can. Balzac’s Vautrin also comes to mind.

Abelarda is painfully vulnerable to his ‘brutal sarcasm’, which he deploys pitilessly, luring her deeper into his power.

So far we’re being guided by the omniscient narrator’s voice. When Abelarda can take no more and leaves the room, Victor is left alone, and the narrator takes us into his consciousness with chilling clarity. The prose style changes completely as the romantic mask drops, revealing the ‘monster’ beneath the smile (and smile, and be a villain: I’ve referred before to the Shakespearean notes).

And the minute after the disappearance of his victim, who…banged the door as if fleeing from a murderer, the wretch [Abelarda] went to bed. There, with a diabolical little smile on his lips, he indulged in the following bitter and cruel monologue. [my emphasis]

I’ve mentioned in previous posts the theatrical technique in the novel, and here again the passage works dramatically. It continues with Victor musing that his helpless victim will ‘unashamedly’ declare her love for him if he isn’t careful: he hasn’t the least flicker of sexual interest in her, as his contemptuous thoughts reveal, in terms that ironically and deliberately reflect Abelarda’s own words in the tortured and self-lacerating soliloquy that I wrote about last time – this is the verbal and structural patterning that Galdós does so well:

But what an unattractive girl she is! Utterly brainless and ordinary to the last degree. I could forgive her everything if she were pretty. Oh, Ponce, what a windfall you’ve got! A rotten apple, only fit to be thrown on the refuse heap.

Some of these interior (or spoken) monologues go on ‘endlessly’, as we saw with Abelarda’s, but here the brevity is brutal and devastating.

An afterthought:

I notice that later in the novel, when Villaamil is engaged in one of his frantic, increasingly obsessive visits to the Finance Ministry where he once worked, vainly trying to get himself employed again, one of the civil servants observes, in response to the ‘disturbed’ old man’s self-pitying diatribe about nepotism and corruption in the service:

‘You’ve got to be pretty shameless to serve this devil of a state.’ [my emphasis]

Miau shows up the capacity for devilish wickedness in individuals like Victor, as the language in my extracts above shows. He is also a kind of metonym of the state in which he flourishes while ‘honourable’ old Villaamil fails repeatedly and is destroyed in the process. The language and structure of the novel once again is carefully deployed and patterned to point up the thematic, symbolic parallels between Victor and the decadent state of Spain.

miau-cover

 

The Penguin Classics edition I’m reading was translated by J.M. Cohen. It’s a rescue book from a library that closed and jettisoned most of its books – I saved it from the skip. It seems to be a first edition from 1966, though the date of acquisition by the library is shown as 1972. It’s pretty battered, but intact.

 

 

 

 

A demonic villain: Pérez Galdós, Miau pt 2

In my previous piece on Pérez Galdós’ 1888 novel Miau I said the narrative consists largely of theatrical-style dialogue, complete with parenthetical ‘stage directions’ and asides by the narrator. I’d now like to look at some of the many interior monologues. OK, as I said before, some of these become excessively long, but at their best, they’re very good.

Villaamil’s daughter Abelarda is the younger sister of Luisa, little Luís’s mother who died when he was tiny. Neither was pretty, vivacious, accomplished or educated, but Luisa caught the eye of Victor Cadalso, a lowly, ambitious ‘aspirant’ clerk in the office of Villaamil when he was chief treasury official ‘in the capital of a third-class province…with a small but not very sparkling population…[a] sleepy little town.’ Cadalso turned up in this backwater ‘without a bean’. Handsome and endowed with ‘an attractive personality’ and ‘a lively and witty conversationalist’, he became a ‘shining star’ in his chief’s drawing-room. He rapidly excelled at ‘amusing the ladies and fascinating the girls.’

Unworldly, unimaginative Luisa fell passionately in love with this dangerous dandy. She was so infatuated she was ‘blind’ to the ‘grave defects in his character’. Despite family opposition – they’ve seen through his attractive veneer – they married. Soon after, Villaamil lost his post (he does so frequently) when there was a change of administration, and Victor was promoted to a post in Madrid. The family followed him there, now dependant on his income, and he had them in his power – where he wanted them.

Luisa was just a stepping-stone for ‘ungrateful’ Victor in his career: he used her, and when he’d got what he wanted, was serially unfaithful. Luisa’s infatuation and Victor’s cruel treatment of her caused her to go mad, and shortly before she died she attacked her baby son, Luís, with a knife. From that point her father dies inside, has ‘an inward collapse’ and becomes ‘like a mummy’. Victor has his revenge.

miau-coverAll of that happened nearly ten years before the main action of the novel. Tom in his Wuthering Expectations blog posts on Galdós’ novel Fortunata and Jacinta has drawn attention to its intricate structures and tightly woven, carefully planned patterns.

There’s some of that pleasing symmetry in Miau.

Victor returns to the Villaamil house after the patriarch has lost his post once again when political power changes hands, just two months short of qualifying for his pension. He rapidly ingratiates himself into the family that loathes him for the vicious, treacherous cad that he is, simply by buying his way into their favour. They’re broke, and need his money, as he knows.

He realises that Abelarda is easy pickings, as her sister was. Inexperienced as she too is, he’s able to use her for his own ends just as he did with Luisa. What ends, though? His civil service post  is under threat while his fraudulent, corrupt ways are investigated. He needs to find something else, and sees his opportunity in the Madrid Finance Ministry that his father-in-law haunts in the vain hope of being reinstated. By vilifying the old man behind his back, he’s able to secure the patronage of the very men whom Villaamil importunes for money and a position, at his host’s expense.

Sorry about the long preamble, but I wanted to provide context for the passages I want to discuss. Here’s Abelarda’s ‘disorderly and endless monologue’, as Galdós calls it, ironically acknowledging his prolixity, in Ch. 18. It’s prompted by her falling for the heartless, fiendish Victor; history is about to repeat itself.

‘How plain I am! Goodness me, I look like nothing at all. But I’m worse than plain. I’m stupid, a nobody. I haven’t a spark of intelligence…How can he possibly love me when there are so many beautiful women in the world, and he a man of special merits, a man with a future, handsome, smart, and with a great deal of intelligence…(Pause)’

The parallel with Luisa is exact. Both girls disparage their own charmlessness, yet secretly, romantically cherish the hope that Victor has seen through their bland exterior and responds to the passionate longing underneath. But the melodramatic, adolescent ambivalence with which Abelarda soliloquises here reveals to us, though not to herself, how fatally she’s deluding herself. Like her pessimistic father, who constantly insists he’ll never be reinstated as a civil servant while secretly hoping for the opposite, she’s reverse wishful thinking.

Her meandering thoughts continue, until she reaches the point of saying she has ‘no pride left:’

‘How stupid and unattractive I am! My sister Luisa was better, although, really and truly, there was nothing very special about her. My eyes have got no expression. The most they do is to show that I’m sad, but not what I’m sad about. No one would ever believe that behind these pupils there is…what there is. No one would ever believe that this narrow forehead and this frown conceal what they do conceal.’

Even as she tries to verbally scourge herself she disloyally denigrates her sister’s sexual allure, then veers into the hope that her mouth, ‘which isn’t too bad, especially when I’m smiling’ would perhaps look better if she painted her lips.

‘No, no! Victor would laugh at me. He might despise me. But he doesn’t find me absurd and repulsive. Heavens, can I be repulsive?…Once I believed I was repulsive, I should kill myself…I would be capable of committing a crime to make him love me. What crime? Any crime. All crimes. But he’ll never love me, and I shall stay with my crime unplanned, unhappy for ever.’

These madly polarised, ingenuous hopes and fears, with the frantic see-sawing rhythms, contradictions and wild antitheses, show that she’s headed the same way as her sister. They share the same fatal flaw: their infatuation with demonic, Byronic Victor leads them into his snare and they are lost, and lose all rational capacity. Like Luisa, when Abelarda is emotionally torn apart by his callous, calculating flirtation, she goes mad and tries to kill her nephew, Luís. The patterning of plot is precise, showing through the symmetry how the action has to move – with inevitable, tragic repetitions.

Victor’s cruel luring of the sisters into his sexual trap once more serves another purpose, apart from advancing his career, for at this point he’s more secure in his employment than Villaamil. When it comes to the crunch he doesn’t even seem to have much genuine sexual drive, and recoils from any sign of passion in either sister. Women are just useful tools to him. He cares nothing for anyone, male or female.

His real intention is to destroy the old man. He takes pleasure in destroying for its own sake. He wants to ruin Villaamil, who scorned him when he was his inferior, and tried to prevent his wooing the first daughter. Now he’s able to use a similar method to bring the father-in-law to his doom, while also ruining the second daughter’s chances of fulfilment, love or happiness.

This isn’t really an anti-bureacracy novel, despite its Kafkaesque depiction of the Spanish civil service. It’s a family (anti-)romance that approaches Shakespearean grandeur in its tragic symmetries and psychological rawness.

He’s one of the great villains of fiction. Like flies to wanton boys are these characters to Victor, who’s not godlike, but Satanic. I’ll explore his character further next time.

 

Honesty is another word for foolishness: Pérez Galdós, Miau

 

After a not entirely satisfactory encounter with 19C Spanish fiction as represented by La Regenta (I wrote about it here and here) I turned with some trepidation to an old Penguin Classics edition of Benito Pérez Galdós’s 1888 novel Miau. The experience was mixed once again.

miau-coverIt’s a sobering, depressing plot: Don Ramón Villaamil has become a ‘cesante’ – a functionary in the immense bureaucracy of the Finance Ministry of the Spanish Restoration period who has lost his post with the fall of the political administration which appointed him. After nearly 35 years of service he’s been made redundant, just two months short of the pension which would have sufficed to provide for himself and his family.

And what a family. His waspish wife, the ironically named Doña Pura, is a spendthrift, whose mania for showing off her fading finery in the Madrid opera houses eclipses any inclination to be a housewife. Her sister Milagros (ironic name!) abets her in her tyrannical control of this household. Their unattractive daughter Abelarda (another aptly ironical name) is too timid and retiring to exert any control over anyone or anything.

Only Villaamil’s grandson, ten-year-old Luís, brings him any consolation. But the little boy is a chip of this old block. The grandfather is described early on as ‘an old consumptive tiger’, now with none of its former beauty ‘except its bright skin’ – he’s still capable of grumpy growling and self-pitying sulking, but he’s toothless.

The rest of the novel relates his increasingly humiliating attempts to beg money from former colleagues by writing letters to them, or by going the rounds of his former Treasury offices, seeking to gain favour and a new position by flattering, importuning or just being seen by his former subordinates and superiors – most of whom despise and patronize him. Those who don’t, find him a pitiable, abject figure.

It’s no spoiler to say this all ends badly for him. Too passive and introspective to play the aggressive role needed to persuade the new administration to employ him, he retreats ever further into himself, slowly turning from reluctant but persistent in his efforts to re-establish himself in the bureaucracy, to obsessive and manic – in the end conceding that he has become what these corrupt, self-serving pen-pushers see him as: a figure of fun, a deluded madman.

The narrative is often painfully slow moving, and the scenes in which this plot are enacted are often far too long and drawn-out. Spoken exchanges and Interior monologues tend to ramble on for pages.

This weakness is balanced by some genuine strengths – the qualities which have brought Galdós to be compared to Balzac and Dickens. I’d suggest he foreshadows Kafka in his bleak depiction of a gargantuan, labyrinthine bureaucracy whose main desire is to perpetuate its own lethargy and corruption, and which crushes anyone who fails to serve it in the manner it needs.

I’ll show some extracts, then, maybe more in another post, which represent him at his most compelling – but these moments are not frequent, there are many more longueurs.

In Ch. 3 Pura castigates her husband for not emulating his former subordinates, who by behaving like ‘scoundrels’ have gained promotions in the Ministry, while he has been ignominiously dropped.

She seizes upon the example of Cucúrbitas, a blundering incompetent:

He may be stupid, but he knows better than you how to push himself.

She despises the man, but admires his immorality: he takes bribes for settling accounts of the state’s clients. When the husband tries to quiet her, Pura continues, getting into her melodramatic stride:

‘How innocent you are! That’s why you are where you are, that’s why you’re poor and they pass you over. Because you haven’t a grain of foresight, and because you’ve been so careful about your blessed scruples. That isn’t honesty, let me tell you, it’s just obtuseness and stupidity.

She bitterly compares ‘honourable’ but unemployed Villaamil with this ‘dunderhead’ Cucúrbitas, concluding with the taunt that this fool will end up a director or minister – ‘And you’ll never be anything.’

She’s ‘warming to it’, our wry narrator informs us in a parenthesis like a stage direction (these dialogues are often punctuated like this, with long sequences of speeches given verbatim; Galdós was also a playwright, though more successful as a novelist). Why doesn’t Villaamil blackmail this administration by ‘coughing up’ scandal he knows about them and their ‘dirty work’, she says. She’d do it, and not care who got hurt. ‘Unmask all those scamps’, she exhorts, then he’d be found a post. But she knows he won’t, and castigates him for it.

Then she returns to more scornful abuse: he’s too full of ‘finicking and politeness’, politely deferring to these people. She moves in for the kill:

‘They just reckon you’re a nobody. But’ (raising her voice) ‘as sure as this light shines you ought to be a director by now. And why aren’t you? Because you’ve got no drive and no spirit, because you don’t count for anything, because you don’t know the way to go about things. Sighing and complaining won’t make them give you what you want.’

This tirade is relentless, her wrath like that of the ferocious sisters in King Lear, or Lady Macbeth’s when she tears into her husband when he shows reluctance to take decisive (ie murderous) action to fulfill their ambitions. Her final insults are vicious:

‘You’re harmless, you don’t bite, you don’t even bark, and they all laugh at you…It’s this honesty of yours that’s your undoing. Honesty is sometimes taken as just another word for foolishness….A man can preserve all the integrity in the world and still take care of himself and his family.’

Pura is blithely unaware of the illogical movement of her argument here, and it’s this showing of her pernicious nature that’s so effectively done: the narrator doesn’t have to explain or moralise – the author trusts us to see her as she truly is. Her hypocrisy and amorality are matched only by those of the bureaucrats she expects her husband to emulate – and yet she despises him for his refusal – or inability – to stoop to their kind of self-promotion.

There’s a grim humour in her preposterous, blistering assault on the submissive, ineffective ‘cesante’. He lacks the assertiveness and spirit that she is full of – he’s a worm that can’t turn.

That early description of the ‘old consumptive tiger’ is invoked in Pura’s diatribe. The message is clear: to get on in this corrupt world a man has to be ruthless. She fails to realise that she’s urging him to become the kind of bully who terrorises their little grandson in the opening chapter and elsewhere. Like Luís, Villaamil is too introspective and passive to fight back or stand up for himself against those who wrong him – yet he spends his time complaining about his fate.

This ambiguous dilemma and the way it’s dramatised in the novel are what redeems it somewhat from the tedious narrative sprawl. The modern world is complicated, and to swim with the sharks it’s necessary to become sharklike. Yet Villaamil isn’t portrayed as some Dostoevskian saintly innocent or idiot: he really is too passive for his own or his family’s good. There’s no redemption for the likes of him, and his loathsome, unfeeling son-in-law is his mirror image, a man who knows how to succeed, and has the morality of a snake. His name is, again, highly appropriate. He’s called Victor.

 

 

 

Javier Marías, ‘The Infatuations’

Javier Marías, The Infatuations. Hamish Hamilton, London, 2013.

…the dead are quite wrong to come back, and yet almost all of them do, they won’t give up, and they strive to become a burden to the living until the living shake them off in order to move on.

The first dilemma facing Margaret Jull Costa, the brilliant translator of The Infatuations, by Javier Marías, was how to render the Spanish title of the original, Los Enamoramientos. There is no direct English equivalent. María, the first-person narrator of the novel, discusses the problem in the text, where she points out that most languages other than Spanish and Italian have the same deficiency; she defines the word thus –

..the state of falling or being in love, or perhaps infatuation, I’m referring to the noun, the concept; the adjective, the condition, are admittedly more familiar, at least in French, though not in English, but there are words that approximate that meaning…Some people think that being in love or infatuated is a modern invention that appears only in novels.

Several of Marías’ central concerns appear here: the nature and etiology of love (and, by implication, of the precarious human condition); the modes of narrating this in fiction – which exists in a state of uneasy symbiosis with reality.

The style is typical, too: it has the intricate, baroque complexity, with mixed registers and loping, cadenced rhythms captured unerringly by the translator, but in all of Marías’ novels this is taken to a higher level – slowly accreting clauses, loosely linked by the punctuation – the paratactic, endless commas in lengthy sentences and paragraphs often pages long, take some getting used to, but they drive the narrative relentlessly and hypnotically. There are verbal repetitions at the level of the sentence and the paragraph but also in the longer view.

Marías, Infatuations One of these crucial refrains that punctuate the narrative like a repeated musical phrase is the concept of ‘envidia’; María admires but also envies the connubial bliss of the Perfect Couple she observes, in her solitude, in the café. When the Perfect Husband, Miguel Desvern or Deverne, is murdered, the grieving widow admits she can feel hate for the ‘instigators’ of the killing, someone perhaps who resented his success, possibly a close colleague. She’d seen this definition in an early Spanish dictionary and wondered how it compared with the English word ‘envy’ (Marías is always erudite, fascinated by words and their significance, how they translate):

‘Unfortunately, this poison is often engendered in the breasts of those who are and who we believe to be our closest friends, in whom we trust; they are far more dangerous than our declared enemies.’ [Covarrubias, Dictionary of 1611]

Marías delights in slowly uncovering (never fully revealing) this murder mystery’s secrets to demonstrate the ironic accuracy of the widow’s cryptic remark, which recurs several times in the narrative: he explores how passion, love, fidelity and treachery can drive our actions and cloud our judgement. When the brutal murder of Miguel takes place, María becomes involved in the consequences in a way that compromises her integrity, her sense of justice, and her loyalty to the man she is enamoured/infatuated/in love with.

Despite these philosophical investigations and narrative digressions, Marías is still a consummate story-teller, the translator of Stevenson and Conrad (as well as the more playful, metafictional Sterne and Faulkner, and of the sonorous, meandering prose of Sir Thomas Browne).

Another refrain is from Macbeth: ‘she should have died hereafter’. Macbeth is reacting to the news of his wife’s death. What does he mean? This riddle permeates The Infatuations: when is it timely for an event to take place? And what if we aren’t ready or able to process its significance? What part does memory play as we listen to the stories our thoughts narrate internally? – ‘sometimes a memory can be a devouring thing’.

This intertextuality is also found in all of Marías’ (not María’s) novels – but it’s not a postmodern game or ostentatious trick, it’s a fundamental feature of the writer’s serious purpose. Two other characters from texts that illuminate this novel are Balzac’s eponymous Colonel Chabert, a soldier pronounced dead on the Napoleonic battlefield, but who miraculously survives and comes back to confront his less-than-thrilled ‘widow’, and Dumas’ Milady de Winter, who in an earlier guise had survived being hanged by the musketeer Athos and had come back to haunt him in another incarnation. The Infatuations is a similarly haunted and haunting novel: another refrain is ‘the dead should not return’.

A related theme is what we do when telling or listening to stories – which also pervades other novels by Marías – as María thinks what the stories she hears and is implicated in might signify (most of the novel represents her thoughts, free-indirectly or directly narrated). This is her lover’s commentary on these fictitious revenants (Chabert and de Winter), and her reflection on his pronouncement:

“What happened is the least of it. It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with…” That isn’t true, or, rather, it’s sometimes true, one doesn’t always forget what happened…

This musing on the fictive representation of reality (‘It’s quite shameful the way reality imposes no limits on itself’) recurs throughout the novel. This leads María to speculate on the events that take place in the story narrated here in terms that often become highly conditional, with intricate modalities:

I find it hard to believe that what should never have happened while you were alive wouldn’t happen once you were dead. Would you want to die knowing that? More than that, you would be encouraging it, procuring it, propelling us into it.

Desvern would have remained silent for a few seconds, thinking, as if he had not considered that scenario before formulating his request. Then he would have given a rather paternalistic laugh…

Her dilemma, like the translator’s over the noun ‘inamoramiento’,  is the subject of this novel: how can she determine the truth-status of the tangled story she’s involved in? Especially, as we’ve seen, as all novels’ plots are ‘imaginary’ and soon forgotten; here is her response to the story her untrustworthy lover is about to tell her to account for his role in it:

Perhaps he is going to deceive me with the truth…Perhaps he’s telling me the truth now so that it will seem like a lie. An apparent or genuine lie.

Marías is probably the most rewarding and original novelist writing today, and here we see him probing and assessing the nature of narrative and the practice of writing and reading narratives at a high level of philosophical and aesthetic cognition, while at the same time conveying a story – a novel of his own – that is gripping, wittily intelligent and exciting. I wrote several pieces about his ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ trilogy a while back; some can be found here, here, here and here.

Marías’ style can be hard work, but if you’ve never read him before I’d recommend you start with The Infatuations, which is perhaps his most accessible novel to date, and then move on to the rest of his back catalogue. There’s so much more to be said about this novel: its wicked humour at the expense of vain, vacuous writers in general, for example (‘Like so many writers, he was a mean, spineless little scrounger’, María thinks of one particularly irritating client), and of Luddites like Marías himself who still tap out their novels on a typewriter, not a computer, much to the annoyance of María, who works in publishing, and would have to scan their typescripts.

 

 

 

Javier Marías: a postscript to the critique

I’m going to the States next week, so may not get much time to blog for a while.   I thought you might like a little more material to peruse on the superb Javier Marías, subject of my recent 3-part critique here at Tredynas Days.   There follow links to three fascinating podcasts in which Marías is interviewed.

Live From the New York Public Library (this link takes you to the whole list of podcasts; scroll down to  the date of broadcast – 3 Dec. 2009, three days after vol. 3 of ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ [YFT] was published in the USA  –  then click on the MP3 icon).

This interview hosted by Paul Holdengräber is just over 90 minutes long, and allows him to afford the guest the opportunity to expand upon his literary themes, writing style, notions of translation, and so on.  Javier Marías’ humour is evident, as he playfully suggests he doesn’t know when he starts a novel  exactly where it will go; he uses a compass for direction, he says, not a map!  He talks about translating Sterne, whose cock and bull shaggy-dog story Tristram Shandy is obviously a key influence on YFT, and he reveals that the huge portion of the novel sequence devoted to the scene where Tupra pulls out an antique sword and brandishes it over De La Garza’s cringing head (it runs to dozens of pages, but lasts just a few seconds in real time) was inspired by the moment in Don Quijote where the hero confronts a foe (the Vizcaino or Basque) and a sword fight seems imminent; an equally lengthy digression ensues, but the combatants are left poised, swords aloft, and the scene is never resumed!  At least, Javier Marías jokes, he finished his scene!

(It’s worth noting that there’s a great deal of complex narrative play in the Quixote: Sancho Panza is unsure about the source of  the soubriquet he gives to his dolefully countenanced master; Cervantes twines his narrative around related lexical sets involving the truthful  representation of the ‘triste figura’ of Quixote on his shield, thus ambiguously  mediating between Quixote’s true ‘rostro’ (face), the ‘imagen’ on his shield representing that sad, gaunt face and the impact this has on those who look at it, and the name given to Quixote (which, like Deza’s in YFT, varies according to whom he’s with).  Similarly the MS illustration of the battle with the Basque alluded to in ch. 9 of Part 1 of the novel differs from the earlier description of the battle itself; it tells a different story.   This failure to weave together the ‘signs’ with the ‘face’ anticipates the moment in the inn when ‘sign’ and ‘face’ are slowly brought together, because Sancho ‘no era buen lector’ (wasn’t a good reader) – see the chapter:  ‘The matter of naming in Don Quixote’ in Unspeakable Subjects: the genealogy of the event in early modern Europe, by Jacques Lezra  [not ‘Deza’!](Stanford UP, 1997).   Here in Cervantes’ playful, slippery narrative ambiguities  we can see where much of Marías’ inspiration came from.)

Another major literary influence on him, of course, is Proust, whose writings are ‘systems of parenthesis’ – a great phrase for describing Javier Marías’ own work – who also likes to give time its ‘real duration’, for this is where real action and feeling lie.  Although this slowness of narrative pace, with its long, apparently irrelevant digressions can be irritating for the reader, he concedes, if we show patience we will be rewarded.  So in this scene with Tupra and the sword our natural inclination is to want to know what happens next; the lengthy delay is a homage to Cervantes, and brings its own aesthetic pleasure, above and beyond the simplistic gratification of turning the page to achieve narrative closure.  As Marías says, he loves watching films and reading page-turner novels, but rarely remembers soon afterwards what the plot consisted of.  Action and plot aren’t particularly interesting to him.   Marías prefers to see plot as ‘bait’; there are other things to savour  in literature (and in his own novels): he requires us to stop, pause, reflect, think.

A final revelation is made near the end of this interview: he writes, he says, ‘suicidally’ – as I noted earlier, he doesn’t map out his plots in detail as most writers do.  In a 1200-word novel sequence like YFT this caused him some headaches; because he doesn’t use a computer for writing with he couldn’t readily find detailed references to, for example, colours of characters’ eyes, so maintaining consistency and continuity was tricky.  He didn’t even know, he says, until very late in the writing, what the cause or source of the bloodstain on Wheeler’s stair – a motif which recurs constantly throughout the three volumes –  actually was – or even if he’d reveal it at all.

It’s a delightful interview, full of wit and intelligence: well worth listening to.

Back in 2010 the inimitable Michael Silverblatt interviewed Javier Marías  on his KCRW podcast show, Bookworm.  With his deceptively soft, slow way of speaking Silverblatt has the ability to ask probing, intelligent questions that evidently inspire the respect and affection of his guests – he’s always worth listening to, and I’d recommend you subscribe to the series.  Each broadcast lasts around 25 minutes.

Bookworm interview pt 1: THU FEB 18, 2010

‘What if Henry James — the patron saint of convolution — could be resurrected?   What if he wrote a novel of espionage so complex it became a trilogy?’   (from the KCRW Bookworm podcast website)

Bookworm interview pt 2: THU FEB 25, 2010

‘What if ten minutes of espionage took a hundred pages to fully describe? Here we explore time and consciousness in what will possibly be the greatest trilogy of our new century.‘

Not sure when my next post will be: depends on Wi-Fi connections and my laptop as I travel.

Javier Marías ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ critique part 3

This is the third part of my critique of Javier Marías’s trilogy of novels, ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ (YFT).  In the first two parts I looked at his theme of interpretation, the elaborate syntactical structure of his sentences, and the meandering, anecdotal nature of the novels.  I’m delighted and honoured to say that the first two parts of this account were pinged back on Sr Marías’s own blog.  Here now is part 3 of my account of YFT.

All of you and all of us are just like snow on somebody’s shoulders, slippery and docile, and the snow always stops. Neither you nor we are like a drop of blood or a bloodstain, with its resistant rim that sticks so obstinately to the porcelain or to the floor. [vol. 2]

Another distinctive stylistic feature of the narrative approach in YFT is Marías’s use of repetition. Phrases and motifs recur; in YFT these include, as quoted just now, the ephemeral snow on shoulders and the rim of the ineradicable bloodstain – this becomes, in a way, the central metaphor of the trilogy – the mystery of blood spilt and subsequent,  imperfect attempts to erase its signs.   When his Oxford mentor Wheeler tells Deza at the end of vol. 3 of YFT – Poison, Shadow and Farewell –  the tragic story of his wife Valerie Wheeler’s role in wartime ‘black propaganda’ which culminated in her suicide, and another bloodstain on the stair, Deza is reminded of the stain he tried to wipe away in Wheeler’s house in vol. 1, and realises that Wheeler has entrusted him with this story in order that it not be forgotten, erased, but left ‘an echo of an echo’, and that Deza is ‘the rim’ of that story’s ‘stain’, the vestigial evidence that the protagonist in it once existed, ‘trod the earth’, as Deza’s stories in this trilogy attest to his own echoing existence.  The metaphor is the story.

Although an explanation of sorts for this bloodstain on Wheeler’s stairs in vol. 1 is given in the final pages of vol. 3 (Wheeler’s lung cancer causes him to cough up blood), we feel throughout the preceding volumes that this is also a symbol of the betrayals and violence that permeate the narrative.  Another spot of blood on the white shoe of an alluring, half-naked woman in a toilet stall at the disco (described in vol. 2) also fascinates Deza, leading him to ask his ex-wife some uncomfortably intimate questions about women’s physiology (Deza often lacks discretion or sympathy; one can see why his marriage faltered).

Other motifs: ‘the dancer in the flat opposite [Deza’s] and his team of partners’[1]; the ‘tis tis’ sound of a young colleague’s dog’s paws and claws as it walks on a pavement in the rain; the incipient ladder running up her thighs in her (lovingly, lasciviously described) stockings.  Marías likens this technique to music: “That reappearance – I wouldn’t say repetition, because it’s not exactly that – that reappearance of a motif is very often extremely moving. The fact that you recognise something …What Sterne said always struck me as true: ‘I progress as I digress.’  And you realise that what seemed anecdotal is actually part of the story.  I like to use a system of echoes and resonances and characters that reappear not only within the same book, but from one book to another.”

These looped repetitions include characters, relationships, tropes: there is often a bereaved parent (or child), a disreputable male friend (the ridiculously vulgar diplomat De La Garza, already mentioned here, is a brilliantly realised comic figure, but whose role, typically, darkens and becomes vulnerable and pathetic).  A recurring figure is a woman in his work is called “Luisa” – not the same figure, but always the wife-to-be, or wife, or ex-wife of the narrator. In All Souls the narrator escapes the stultifying life of Oxford academia by returning to Madrid, marrying a Luisa, and having a baby; in A Heart So White he marries a Luisa; in YFT he fears his marriage to Luisa is over – they are separated.  Marías claims he simply doesn’t like other names, but “Luisa” seems to signify purity, the ideal – although in YFT she becomes dangerously close to entering a relationship with a violent thug, requiring Deza to contemplate taking drastic action to protect her, his Dulcinea.  I find this aspect of the trilogy rather disturbing: Deza is hardly faithful to Luisa, and spends much of the time gazing appreciatively at women; his bizarre sexual encounter with ‘young’ Perez Nuix takes hundreds of pages of preliminary flirting and signalling before it’s uneasily consummated – and this whole episode, which eventually spans all three volumes, portrays Deza as a kind of Quixotic lothario, both timid and sensitive (Eliot’s ‘do I dare’ recurs increasingly in the latter parts of YFT) yet also sexually voracious, erotically predatory and promiscuous.

He has been taken to task for this apparently ambivalent attitude to women; his main male characters are often depicted as impressive, witty, credible, intelligent, but his women are more problematic.  In YFT most of the men, especially Deza, look intently and appreciatively at women’s bodies: the progress up her thigh of the ladder in Perez Nuix’s tights is traced with mathematical precision and lewd anticipation by Deza;  he dances with a mature lady at the disco – the wife of a shady client of Tupra’s – whose remodelled breasts are described with cruel disgust and reification reminiscent of Swift.  (Luisa, on the other hand, is always seen by Deza as pretty, youthful-looking, perfect.  It’s characteristic of  Marías’s technique that his narrator is often unpleasantly unreliable.)

“The atmosphere of all these novels is one of high sexual tension, which verges on the pornographic,” Margaret Drabble, a member of the IMPAC jury, has written: “As a woman, I find them more disturbing than offensive. They seem to reach back into a darker past where women and men were more sharply differentiated than they now allow themselves to be, than they now think they ought to be. They strike one as politically incorrect, but not in a simple macho manner. They cause alarm but not, on the whole, offence … Something more complicated than old-fashioned sexism is going on here, and I can’t work out what it is.”

Marías suggests he simply describes the world as it is: “In our society, women still get the worst part, in many senses.  In Spain we also have this terrible problem, of women being killed by ex-husbands, or ex-boyfriends, or boyfriends.  Over 100 women die that way every year.  You have the feeling, sometimes, when you read the papers, that it’s an epidemic.”  Deza’s uxorious misgivings about Luisa’s new madrileño boyfriend who beats her up is no doubt a product of this concern.  But he also says: “I don’t feel so sure of my capacity to state anything about female characters. There are things which seem to me quite impenetrable.  So my female characters are portrayed with a certain slight distance, or with a lot of guessing.  And also because in my life there’s a lot of guessing.”

Marías plans his novels minimally: the 1,200-page YFT was outlined initially on just four sheets of A5 paper – not all of them were used; he doesn’t redraft much.  It’s possible to sum up its plot in a couple of sentences.  It’s not for its plot that I’d urge you to read it: it’s for the challenging, sometimes infuriating (the Times reviewer of vol. 3 described YFT as ‘a remarkable achievement’, sometimes ‘banal and risible’), but ultimately spellbinding narrative, its macabre drama, the intellectual daring and moral probing and sifting.  As some reviewers said, this ‘deeply strange’ trilogy demands some patience of its readers, but its ultimate rewards are worth the effort expended[2].

In 2013 Marías was awarded the prestigious Prix Formentor.

And that’s it: the conclusion of my critique of YFT.  If you liked it you might like to consult my reviews of each individual volume of the trilogy posted in the Guardian newspaper’s ‘Reader Reviews’ section:

Vol. 1 is here, vol. 2 is here, and vol. 3 here.

 


[1]  A contributor to the Guardian Books Blog called AggieH responded perceptively to a post of mine there about this motif; she wrote: ‘it was such an apparently simple thread running through the story, and yet so effective.  In one passage, Deza startled me by appearing, uncharacteristically, to think about the dancing in an uncomplicated and almost sentimental way. But his thought abruptly darkened and my faith in Marías’ ability to unsettle me was restored: “Whether dancing alone or in company, my neighbour always seemed so happy that I sometimes felt tempted to imitate him, after all, that’s something we can all do, dance alone at home when we think no one is looking. But you can never be sure that no one is looking or listening, we’re not always aware of being watched or followed.”’

[2] There’s an interesting short film here on the Guardian website in which the author reveals in an interview with Richard Lea some intriguing insights into YFT – for example that he prefers to read it in English translation!