Can one trust a sonata? Charles Newman, In Partial Disgrace, pt 2

[Of the Professor v. Felix:] The difference between them, after all, was that the Professor truly believed he was the first mortal to set foot in the mind, and like every true colonial assumed that mere priority allowed him to name it and submit it to his laws.

 Like Sterne’s protagonist, Newman’s (Iulus) talks endlessly about his father, Felix (Protestant ‘Marxisant’ and advocate of ‘hands-on mysticism’, who ‘liked it out there on the edge…where one could write in order to stop thinking, and lose the shame of being an author’); here’s some of his advice to the boy:

1. Neither marry nor wander, you are not strong enough for either. 2. Never believe any confession, voluntary or otherwise. And most importantly, 3. [In Latin first, then in English:] Everyone has a cleverer dog than their neighbor; that is the only undisputed fact.

Psalmanazar's Formosa

An illustration from Psalmanazar’s phoney account of the people of Formosa – as fantastic a fake memoir as those of Felix and Iulus. Picture via Wikimedia Commons

Then there are the Pynchonian names of the central characters: Felix Aufidius Pzalmanazar, the ‘Hauptzuchtwart [dog-breeder] Supreme’ and ‘historian of the Astingi’ – a fictitious tribe of the central European plains, in the country of Cannonia (where at dusk ‘everything is the colour of a runaway dog’!), loosely equivalent to Hungary – alludes to the French impostor or con-man, Georges Psalmanazar (1679-1763), who became a brief sensation in Augustan England with his exotic traveller’s tales of ‘Formosa’ and his fake memoirs – a prototype Felix (or Newman).

Much of the novel consists of long, Socratic ‘savage debates’, a ‘battle of the polymaths’, a ‘rhetorical onslaught’, between the sceptic-stoic Felix (who claims, in a typical paradox, that ‘Dialectics do not interest me, though like ballsports, I am good at them’) and his soulmate-antagonist, the Professor, ‘the master speculator’ as Felix provocatively calls him, a thinly disguised Sigmund Freud, who brings a series of disturbed dogs to be analysed and trained by the renowned dog-trainer/breeder – a clear dig at the failings of psychoanalysis, for the Professor can’t cure (or even understand) his own neurotic dogs (see the quotation at the head of this post, which sums up the philosophical difference between them):

“You’re no Jew, Berganza,” he often giggled, “just a Calvinist with a sense of irony.”

Another of those literary allusions with multiple levels of significance is Felix and the Professor being likened for these endless Socratic disputes by Felix’s wife, Ainoha (possibly a name derived from a Basque place-name known for its image of the Virgin Mary, and girl’s name, Ainhoa; or is it just a pun on ‘I know her’?) to Scipio and Berganza: these are the two dogs whose satiric colloquy, with its rhetorical-polemical format based on Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, forms one of the Novelas ejemplares of Cervantes (1613).

I could say so much more about this novel, with its multiple layers and highly charged prose, and wide-ranging, esoteric-comic material, such as the Astingi people’s culture and religion – ‘savage and disconcerted’, Felix calls them), or aphorisms like ‘You can get away with murder in America, but only in Europe can you be really bad’. But it’s more than just a clever puzzle or palindrome of wordplay (though there’s nothing wrong with that) – there’s some interesting insight into Newman’s views on the writing (and reading) process, with which I’ll end (having touched on it briefly in my previous post).

Newman In P Disgrace coverIn a chapter called ‘Ex Libris’ Newman gives Felix’s son Iulus’ account of Felix’s huge literary project: to write a history of the Astingi disguised as a Traveler’s Guide ‘in order to make a market for it’ – which sounds like a dig at American publishers. His description could serve as a heartfelt insight into Newman’s own obsessive, meticulous, never-ending collector’s writing methods and technique:

Working at top speed, he usually produced about one hundred and twenty sentences of impossible terseness per night.

He goes on with what looks like a self-portrait, and a grim discussion of what In Partial Disgrace cost to write:

Writers are people who have exhausted themselves; only the dregs of them still exist. Writing is so real it makes the writer unreal; a nothing. And if one resists being a nothing, one will have the greatest difficulty in finishing anything.

Nor did I know that in his hyperfastidious, shamelessly private mind, he was envisioning a nonexistent genre. For no one ever writes the book he imagines; the book becomes the death mask of creation, it has its own future and survives like a chicken dancing with its head cut off. And the spy knows this better than anyone; to write anything down is to take colossal risk. In life you can mask your actions, but once on paper, nothing can hide your mediocrity.


Later, when shadowy CIA spook Rufus is reflecting on his (triple) agent Iulus’ reports, this is his conclusion:

Of course, there will be those who will ask how far can we trust such a narrator? This is rather like asking the question: can one trust a sonata?

Perhaps Rufus has come to see, after his time in the ‘inchoate’, counterintuitive province of Cannonia, that the usual modes of perception, representation and philosophy don’t apply. And that goes for the ways we interpret written texts: genre and verisimilitude are irrelevant, delusions. Here he considers how the Cannonians and ‘their Astingi comrades’ love ‘puzzles and the darkest riddling’:

…for thinking in their view is not real thinking unless it simultaneously arouses and misleads one’s expectations of symmetry. But their love of riddles has a moral dimension which is easily missed; games for them are also always ethical tests.

When Iulus hears the final colloquy of the Professor and Felix, in which his father, whose life’s literary work has blown away on the wind, fiercely denounces conventional historians (and warrior-thinkers like Marcus Aurelius), he (Iulus) is deeply impressed:

Thus ended my aristocratic education. I had learned everything I needed to know for my career. For life with friends and lovers is essentially this: that we assist each other in recovering and rewriting the book which is always blowing away, when the words don’t mean what you say.

An equally apt summary of the novel and novelist is given with Rufus’ verdict on Iulus and his writings, who he knows to be more than just ‘turncoat, nor a cipher, cryptographer…dissembler, or counterfeit’; he’s reflecting, as most of this novel does, on the nature of narrative:

How I would miss his profound but smiling pessimism, his nacreous intelligence, this fideist to the school of gliding. He was one of those strange people who, having rectitude, didn’t need freedom. Even now, rereading his scattered cantos, it is as if he is sitting in the room talking personally with me, the secret of all great writing.

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.