Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow: Part 2 of the critique

Last Thursday (May 30) I posted the first instalment of my critique of the brilliant trilogy of novels by Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow (YFT).  I’m delighted and honoured to say that the eminent author re-posted my piece on his own blog the very next day.  The link can be found on my homepage.  Today there’s Part 2; here we go…

Marías  says that what is now regarded as his own distinctive style, the long, digressive, almost musical sentences that loop around sensual perceptions, cerebral reflections and speculation, took years to evolve, and was perhaps first fully realised in  A Man of Feeling (1986).  This extraordinary voice and style are challenging: paragraphs can go on for pages; sentences are loosely tacked together with commas in ways that many English teachers would underline in their students’ work in red ink as representations of ‘comma splice’ or loose syntax.  This is a practice that can pull the reader into a lyrical zone of heightened sensibility, but I personally find it occasionally intrusive and a little affected.  I would warn any newcomer to his novels that his narrative pace is slow to the point of being glacial (though he’s positively buzzy compared to Proust in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, László Krasznahorkai or Thomas Bernhard – creator of what George Steiner called the anguished landscapes, ‘the sodden, malignant hamlets of Carinthia’); there are often long sections of many pages in which nothing much happens in a narrative, dramatic sense, and we are frequently given minutely, punctiliously detailed insights into Deza’s thoughts and musings.  New readers should persevere, for the rewards definitely outweigh the drawbacks; however, there are times when I’ve wanted him just to get on with his story and not provide, for example, detailed accounts of every statue his character passes as he walks through Madrid, or relate in detail what he eats and drinks for lunch.  There can at times be too much detail.  A characteristically convoluted passage (with minimal full-stops) in YFT vol. 3, Poison, Shadow and Farewell, makes this point for me (and here he is surely having an elaborately eloquent, endearing joke at his own expense?):

The truth is we never know from whom we originally get the ideas and beliefs that shape us…Yes, it’s incredible how much people say, how much they discuss and recount and write down, this is a wearisome world of ceaseless transmission and thus we are born with the work already far advanced but condemned to the knowledge that nothing is ever entirely finished…[but] people have never stopped endlessly telling stories and, sooner or later, everything is told, the interesting and the trivial, the private and the public, the intimate and the superfluous…[this list goes on for eight more lines!]

But in the interview with Richard Lea on the Guardian website Marías insists that his novels should be read quickly, not with slow reverence.  The implication seems to be that that’s how he wrote them, with all their tortuous, bolted-on clauses and iterated riffs.  And in defence of all those Madrid statues: they do add to the growing atmosphere of tension in vol. 3 as Deza stalks his rival, creating a socio-historical, cultural and political context, and in a nuanced way that is thematically consistent: the descriptions of statues, posters, books, paintings, photographs, etc., connect and cohere, ultimately – they are to do with the central themes of the trilogy: surveillance and watching (and being watched), tensions and secrets in relationships, conflict, desire, betrayal (and trust), love and death.

This kind of writing makes him difficult to render into English, says Margaret Jull Costa, his brilliant translator (quoted in the Guardian profile cited in Part 1 of this critique).  “I don’t think that’s the problem [ie this loose-linked syntax].  I think it’s more the thought process that’s difficult.  He’s like Picasso, who said he used to take a line for a walk. Javier takes a thought for a walk.  In a way they’re very philosophical novels, and that’s quite alien to the English reader.  We don’t like to be made to think.”

Jull Costa said she was daunted by the epic abstractions and the digressive, meandering and anecdotal structure of YFT vol. 1: Fever and Spear: “Are they [such sentences] a weakness in Proust? It’s just a way of getting deeper into things, of not accepting face-value judgments.”  His style enacts his subject, which “is really the individual consciousness – how we think, how we justify, how we perceive, and how we flail around for some certainty, some absolute feeling or judgment and find it a lie and an impossibility.”  Having said that, his “sense of humour is essential”.   Some of the set pieces in YFT are almost farcically hilarious (but also tinged with darkness): the donnish party in Wheeler’s house in vol. 1, where various lushes and buffoons are shown up in ways that remind me of Waugh and Wodehouse; one of them, De La Garza, who fancies himself as a dangerous ladies’ man, is portrayed as a ludicrously repulsive ‘dickhead’, and he features in later comic scenes in vol. 2: Dance and Dream, that rapidly turn to brutal violence, notably in the ‘disco’ where he adopts an ill-judged hip-hop/rapper/matador look, topped off by a lethal hairnet.

That’s the end of Part 2 of this critique; Part 3 will follow soon, in which I shall turn to his stylistic use of ‘echoes’ or repetitions.  I shall then post three separate mini-reviews, one for each volume of the trilogy.  The first of these can be found on the Guardian ‘Reader Reviews’ section under the title ‘Any nature is possible in all of us’…

Meanwhile, in case you become sated by the subject of YFT and Javier Marías, I shall post some different kinds of material; you might have seen my flash fiction piece, ‘Football’, posted here most recently.  I’ve also had two stories published in Flash Fiction Wolrd on 2 June: ‘Safe on Most Surfaces’ and ‘Green Ink’.

 

Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow trilogy

Javier  Marías , Your Face Tomorrow (YFT)

This is the first instalment of a blog post that will extend in several parts over the next few days or weeks; I’ll continue with the second instalment over the weekend.   I hope it will encourage you to take up this exciting trilogy and read it, if you haven’t already.  (Click on the coloured links, if you wish, for background detail/information.)  I was given a copy many years ago of Marias’s novel  A Heart So White by an old friend of impeccable literary tastes, founder of the small publishing house Polar Books; I found it hard going.  Recently, having read positive reviews of YFT, one of which referred to it as a ‘metaphysical epic’, I thought it time, as my summer break was imminent, to give him another go.  Having finished vol. 1 I had to order the next two, and devoured them in two hectic, fevered, often painful but always exhilarating weeks of reading.  A long train journey to London and back gave me the opportunity to struggle through some of the slower, more labyrinthine sections of vol. 3.

Javier Marías was born in Madrid in 1951.  Parts of his childhood were spent in the United States, where his father taught philosophy at various universities.  His mother died when he was 26. [I am indebted to articles in the Guardian by Nicholas Wroe and Aida Edemariam for the comments Marías made to them in their interviews, and for some of the information they provide.]

His books have sold in their millions and have been translated into more than forty languages.   It was A Heart So White in 1992 that propelled him to the bestseller lists.  The novel later won the Impac prize.  His twelfth novel, The Infatuations, was published in English in March this year.  He has the unlikely title of King of Redonda, which is a real but tiny uninhabited Caribbean island, the monarchy of which has been passed down through a line of writers.  He founded a publishing company named after it.

Marías lives in Madrid.   He has been criticised for not dealing directly in his writing with the troubled political history of Spain, but the civil war and Franco’s fascist regime are dominant themes in YFT and many of his other novels.  For nearly two decades he has written a regular column in a Spanish newspaper– he has published a whole book consisting of just his football articles.  In a recent Guardian profile he said:  “If a book or film takes a good subject from the everyday press – say domestic murders in Spain, which are a historic disgrace – everyone will applaud, but it is easy applause.  Who will say it is bad?  People say the novel is a way of imparting knowledge… But for me it is more a way of imparting recognition of things that you didn’t know you knew.  You say ‘yes’.  It feels true even though it might be uncomfortable.  You find this in Proust, who is one of the cruellest authors in the history of literature.  He says terrible things, but in such a way that you know that you have experienced those thoughts too.”

Early in his writing career he turned to translating works of English literature; his 1979 version of Tristram Shandy won a national prize.   Between 1983 and 1985 he lectured in Spanish literature and translation at the University of Oxford.  He describes a translator as both a “privileged reader and a privileged writer. If you’re capable of rewriting in a different language something by Conrad or Sterne then you learn a lot.  I’ve not got involved with the creative writing industry, but if I ever had my own creative writing school I would only admit people who could translate, and I would make them do it over and over again …There is a pace and a rhythm of prose that, if the translator catches it, you can surf the wave of cadence.  I certainly felt it with Conrad and in a way with Sir Thomas Browne.  But it is not essential to good writing.  It was not there with Yeats’s prose, or Isak Dinesen’s or Thomas Hardy’s.  I like to think that my prose has some cadence that can contaminate, in the good sense, and help a translator.”

Other writers whose work he has translated into Spanish include Nabokov, Faulkner, Updike, Salinger and there are many others.  The influence of these writers on Marías as a novelist is notable, and the themes and tones of Shakespeare and Sterne, as well as Cervantes and Proust, are unmistakeable in his work.

Perhaps YFT is most influenced in its labyrinthine structure and arcane, echoed details by Sterne;  Marías admires his digressive, anecdotal playfulness, archaisms (in Vol. 3, for example, Deza becomes obsessed with the Anglo-Saxon word ge-bryd-guma, which signifies a person with whom one has shared, knowingly or not, a sexual partner) and refusal to be restricted by conventional linear narrative.

As in many previous novels, YFT has a protagonist/narrator who is an interpreter – an interpreter of people and of their faces, their lives, but there are numerous points where the narrator ponders the nature of the language speakers are using, and how their words resonate when translated; one example, to which he returns frequently, is the Spanish word ‘patria’, for which there is, he says, no direct English equivalent.  In YFT vol. 3 Deza is intrigued by young Perez Nuix’s ‘decidedly bookish’ Spanish (they usually talk in that language: she is half Spanish herself, but English is her primary language; we are also given a lesson on how to pronounce her Catalan surname), and his thoughts become a miniature lesson in translation:

She didn’t manage ‘vigas’, but she did use ‘escarmentar’ – to teach someone a lesson – ‘entablar negocios’ – to strike a deal – and ‘enjundia’ – substance.

Such meditations become part of the philosophical, epistemological fabric of the text: how far is a human being capable of expressing in words what he or she really means?  Even the slipperiness of the narrator’s name is indicative of this semantic problem: his English friends tend to call him Jack; elsewhere he’s addressed as Jacques, Jacopo or Iago (which gives rise to numerous Shakespearean allusions).

That’s the end of the first instalment of this piece on YFT; I hope you enjoyed it, and will visit again soon for the next instalment, which should be up over the next few days.  Meanwhile I’ll post something completely different tomorrow, probably something of my own creative work.  See you again soon!

btw, I think there might be a problem with the hyperlink function in this piece; hope the hot links work.  I’ll post this now anyway and check it out.  Hope it doesn’t spoil your reading if they’re not working.