Javier Marías, Berta Isla

Javier Marías, Berta Isla. Hamish Hamilton, 2018. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Spanish novelist Javier Marías deals in what grammarians (and philosophers, probably) call epistemic modality: the degree of certainty in a belief or knowledge upon which a proposition is based. Things are left unresolved, indefinite, vague (as Berta tells herself, resignedly, towards the end of this intriguing, sporadically brilliant novel). From the opening words of Berta Isla this is apparent:

For a while, she wasn’t sure her husband was her husband…[next sentence] Sometimes she thought he was, sometimes not, and at other times, she decided to believe nothing and simply continue living her life with him, or with that man so similar to him, albeit older.

On the next page:

She had discovered how boring it was to live with absolute certainty, and how it condemned you to just a single existence, or to experiencing the real and the imaginary as one and the same, but then none of us ever quite escapes that.

This gives an indication of that unmistakeable Marías style, brilliantly translated (another act of interpretation, a central Marías theme) by Margaret Jull Costa. Long, looping sentences, multiple clauses, often loosely (paratactically) linked, as here with ‘or…’ Often the parallel possibilities proposed culminate with a generalisation seeming to come from the omniscient narrator, who invites the reader into complicity with the propositions stated, with a teasing air of certainty that’s at odds with the ambiguities and equivocations within those propositions.

Javier Marías, Berta Isla coverAmong the first posts I wrote on this blog was a series on Marías’ superb trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow. This tendency to cloud certainties, the (un)knowability of a person or situation, was a central feature there, and in subsequent novels I’ve posted on (list of links at the end). Hence his interest in espionage, surveillance and secrecy, fluidity of identity, interpretation (and interpreters – of other languages, and of other people’s natures), predictability of possible outcomes.

Several characters depicted in earlier novels in this context feature in Berta Isla. Most notable is Peter Wheeler, Professor of Hispanic Studies at Oxford University when this novel is set – from 1979. He’s also a recruiter of spies for MI6, dipping into the talent available in the student body.

Here his target is Tomás Nevinson, aka Tom (Marías habitually gives his central characters several names to match their multilingual skills.) Tom is half Spanish, half English, has an extraordinary capacity to acquire and speak foreign languages, and is a prodigy in mimicry: talents that make him ideally suited to the espionage work into which Wheeler recruits him (with typically nasty duplicity and subterfuge – the first of many treacheries).

The other main character also seen in earlier works is Bertram Tupra. He’s an elegantly louche, sinister, and as Berta finds when she meets him, seductive field operative who handles Tom and keeps him (and Berta) in line.

This is the trade of ‘dirty tricks’, made up stories. Because what Marías is usually about in his novels is telling stories about…well, storytelling. Marías’ novels thus become reflexive artefacts, halls of mirrors in which it becomes impossible to tell what is ‘real’ and what is reflected – or simply told. Here’s Tupra, a little patronisingly explaining to Tom soon after he’s lured into their world, what they’re about:

We both exist and don’t exist. We both act and don’t act, Nevinson; or rather [even the characters ‘speak’ like Marías’ own narrative voice – there’s that “or” clause again], we don’t carry out the actions we carry out, or the things we do are done by nobody.

Yes, it’s meant to sound like a riddle, a paradox. Like prose fiction, where what is usually intended to recreate truth and a real world – verisimilitude – is all lies, made up, fabrication and fabulation. Berta reflects (p. 369) on Tupra’s words (he’d told her much the same as he had Tom): ‘only what we’re told, what succeeds in being told, exists.’ That inserted qualification is telling.

This is Tupra a little later in that early speech to Tom, getting into his stride (it takes time; nothing is rushed in a Marías narrative; the reader has to yield to its leisurely, accretive flow):

‘We’re a bit like the third-person narrator in a novel, and I’m sure you’ve read a few novels, Nevinson,’ Tupra went on didactically. ‘He’s the one who decides what will happen and the one who does the telling, but he can’t be challenged or interrogated. Unlike a first-person narrator, he has no name and he’s not a character, therefore we believe and trust him; we don’t know why he knows what he knows and why he omits what he omits and keeps silent about what he keeps silent about and why it is that he can determine the fate of all his creatures, without once being called into question. It’s clear that he exists and doesn’t exist, or that he exists but, at the same time, cannot be found. He’s even undetectable. I’m speaking about the narrator, mind, not the author, who is stuck at home and is not responsible for anything his narrator says; even he can’t explain why the narrator knows as much as he does…’[and so on for another half page!]

That’s classic Marías: playful, witty, cerebral, didactic and knowing, teasing his characters, narrator(s) and readers with what’s apparently going on – or not. What exists and does not exist: this novel’s mantra – along with key enigmatic lines from TS Eliot. And there’s crucial reference to Balzac’s story ‘Colonel Chabert’ (also featured in The Infatuations), of a husband (or is it really him?) returned to his wife after a long disappearance. Ulysses and Martin Guerre are also invoked: revenant spooks, or real?

Omissions and known (un)knowns. For example, we learn that Berta studies for a doctorate, but the narrator withholds its topic or subject. We deduce, from her later career in academia, that’s in English literature. Another self-relexive feature in a novel of reflections. As I noted in my previous post, about a painting by Caillebotte in which a character looks out at the viewer, his back to a mirror in which we see reflected the other occupants of the café who both exist yet don’t exist. This is that ‘mise-en-abime’, epistemic self-referentiality, in which a person is both the knowing subject (as Foucault puts it) and the object of his own study. This stuff may not be to every reader’s taste, but I find it works a treat. Though I did find this novel flagged a little halfway through, then picked itself up again with a flourish for the final part.

As I’ve said in earlier posts about Marías, his work is clearly influenced by some of the authors he translated (interpreted) himself: Laurence Sterne, Nabokov, Faulkner, Stevenson and Conrad, all great fabulists and innovative manipulators of fiction; Sir Thomas Browne, with his labyrinthine style and eclectic, arcane subjects. Borges is in there, too, with his labyrinths.

Links in addition to Your Face Tomorrow: 

The Infatuations

 Thus Bad Begins

Jan Morris, Venice

Cover of the Faber third rev. ed. of 'Venice', publ. 1993

Cover of the Faber third rev. ed. of ‘Venice’, publ. 1993

Jan Morris, Venice was first published in 1960 when she was James, but so timeless and largely unchanging is the fabric and spirit of Venice that the account isn’t particularly dated. On our visit there a week or so back, however, Mrs TD and I saw little of the animal and bird life she describes – apart from the ubiquitous pigeons and seagulls (noisy in the mornings, like sobbing babies). I did catch a glimpse of early swifts darting and screeching overhead. And a community of surprisingly well-nourished feral cats. An old lady was feeding them from a packet of biscuits. They lived in a peaceful central courtyard of the Ospedale San Giovanni e Paolo (San Zanipolo to the locals) – a magnificent Renaissance cloistered complex, including an art gallery, that still functions as a hospital, with its ER access a canalside quay for water ambulances!

Plaque outside Brodsky's house

Plaque outside a house where Joseph Brodsky stayed, near the Zattere. Meant to include it in yesterday’s post. He was buried in San Michele. Because he was a Jew, he wasn’t buried too close to Ezra Pound’s grave.

Morris describes the strutting equestrian statue of condottiere Colleoni in the square outside as ‘incomparable’. This Venetian notable died in 1484, leaving his entire fortune of ‘nearly half a million ducats to the state (which badly needed it) on condition that a statue was erected to him’ on that site. It’s that kind of well-researched detail, engagingly communicated, that makes this account of Venice so readable.

The Marías and Brodsky books I discussed yesterday were impressionistic sketches; this is a full-length biography and socio-cultural history of a city, of the kind Peter Ackroyd has produced more recently – almost a psychogeography. And there are charming personal touches braiding the narrative: Morris standing on her balcony gazing at the breathtaking views, but also pointing out, when the tide is low, that ‘the underpinnings of the Venetian houses are revealed in all their green and slimy secrecy.’ This is so typical of Venice: beautiful exteriors covering a sleaziness under the surface. But even the squalor is only superficial; there’s always something gorgeous if you look beyond.

View along the Grand Canal from Accademia bridge towards San Giorgio

View along the Grand Canal from Accademia bridge towards San Giorgio

She provides almost every detail and history you could desire of the city (its 450+ bridges, 107 churches) and in the archipelago of over 100 islands. As you see flying over the lagoon into Marco Polo airport, there are countless mudbanks and islets that come and go with the tides and currents. It was an uninviting swamp, and the city suffered decimations of population for centuries from the diseases harboured there, from plague (a hazard of the Levantine trade) and mosquito-transmitted malaria to cholera caused by poor water hygiene (that did for gloomy von Aschenbach in Death in Venice). Hence the prominence of San Rocco in the city’s five church dedications to him; they stole his relics, too, from France, for his protection against ‘bacterial demons’. I remember the Visconti neorealist film ‘Rocco and his Brothers’ – rather better as I recall than the more famous and morbid Bogarde vehicle with its picture-postcard superficiality.

A random sample of the Morris narrative tone in an extract from the opening page:

Here is a glowering octagonal fort, here a gaunt abandoned lighthouse. A mesh of nets patterns the walls of a fisherman’s islet, and a restless covey of boats nuzzles its water-gate. From the ramparts of an island barracks a listless soldier with his cap over his eyes waves half-heartedly out of his sentry-box. Two savage dogs bark and rage from a broken villa.

Not just hard facts dug out of histories and archives, then; human observations like the above make this book a pleasure to read.

Those cats in Zanipolo

Those cats in Zanipolo

She also gives a detailed account of the major islands, including Torcello, where the original settlers established a foothold in the 5C to escape the depredations of the invading Goths, Huns and other warlike tribes. This island prospered, then declined disastrously from the 12C, and is now returning to nature, its former glories weed-covered and plundered for materials to build its replacement, Venice itself.

Some highlights from a book densely packed with interesting details. How in 829 Venetian merchants, with typical audacity and cunning, stole the relics of St Mark from Alexandria. To keep the loot safe from prying Muslim eyes they hid them in a barrel of pickled pork. It was a city of policy, trade, chicanery and sharp practice (hence the plot of The Merchant of Venice). It’s a ‘shamelessly self-centred place’, redolent of ‘elderly narcissism’. It can adopt ‘a morose but calculating look’ full of ‘sly contempt’, with ‘a note of amorality’, ‘hard-boiled, sceptical and sophisticated’. But also courteous, ceremonious – ‘a very bourgeois city.’ Full of nosiness, gossip, sex, melancholy and intrigue.

It was also the city of Tintoretto, Titian and Goldoni – and Casanova. They even claim Othello as one of their own.

There’s a fascinating section on the Ghetto (and the cruel treatment of the Jews), and on the visitors from all over the world – not just the usuals like Shelley and Byron and his suicidal jilted girlfriend throwing herself into the Grand Canal from the Palazzo Mocenigro, the Brownings, George Eliot and her canal-bound suicidal husband, swaggering Hemingway and punctilious Ruskin. She shows how the city is cosmopolitan, enriched over the centuries by incomers from the orient, the Middle East (those Armenians and the Riva degli Schiavoni, named for the Slavs who brought cargo to the place that is still a thriving trading and ferry quay.) Oriental influences are seen everywhere, like the arabesque swirls in the windows.

I recall the Venetian style of the harbour at Chania in Crete. Forts in Cyprus. For Venice absorbed features from every culture it dealt with, but also disseminated its own.

There are some good jokes. Like Robert Benchley, who cabled home when he first arrived there: ‘Streets full of water. Please advise.’

In the section on the city’s influence elsewhere in the world, she says she saw a sign in London’s Little Venice: ‘Beware of the Doge.’

Some omissions: she mentions the church of the Madonna dell’Orto, but unlike Brodsky and Marías, says nothing about the Bellini portrait noted yesterday. There’s some reference to Ezra Pound, but not of his grave in the San Michele cemetery, or Olga Rudge.

The six-pronged prow of gondolas, with the curve above maybe representing the sweep of the arterial Grand Canal

The graceful six-pronged prow of gondolas, with the curve above maybe representing the sweep of the arterial Grand Canal. Sunlight, not lamplight

Finally, those gondolas again: even the etymology of the word is controversial. There’s the now discarded felze, or canopy, which concealed all kinds of illicity liasions (see previous posts). Is it true, as the gondoliers assert, that the six prongs on the prow – the ferro – represent the six sestieri, the curved beak at the top is the Doge’s hat/the Rialto bridge/several other theories? Whatever their origins (Roman, Egyptian or Turkish?), they are a magnificent sight,

curved, rampant and gleaming, riding side by side through the lamplight of the Grand Canal.

I’ll not forget the atmosphere of this extraordinary, beautiful, vibrant city. It probably sounds inane, but I hadn’t realised what an effect is gained by having no road traffic. No wonder Venice’s appellation is La Serenissima. It’s a serene city – the only sounds the lapping of the water, the cries of the gondoliers (and those seagulls) and the chugging engines of the innumerable boats supplying the produce for the wonderful markets – but also cleaning the canals, ferrying travellers and transporting the sick to the Ospedale.

There was a water fire-engine moored at the canalside, attending a blaze on Murano, with a chic uniformed fireman posing for the tourists’ cameras while his colleagues buzzed in and out of the burnt shell of the building a hundred metres away. He looked like a young Robert de Niro.

Brodsky and Marías on Venice

Joseph Brodsky, Watermark: An Essay on Venice. Penguin Classics, 2013. First published 1992.

Javier Marías, Venice: An Interior. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Penguin Books, 2016 [and part of the essay collection Between Eternities, 2017]. First published in Spanish, 1988.

Jan Morris, Venice. 3rd rev. ed. 1993; first published 1960 – next post

Brodsky, Marías and Morris book covers on VeniceMy previous two posts on Venice have touched on recommended Venice-based or –set reading; the Brodsky I read after my return from the recent visit with Mrs TD to celebrate her birthday – our first time in the city – and was inspired by this post by Karen at Kaggsysbookish Ramblings. She provides an excellent introduction and background to the Russian poet, and a perceptive review – so there’s not much more for me to add about his book here.

As she says, it’s a prose poem/meditation. I too found the strange visit to Ezra Pound’s former mistress, Olga Rudge (with Susan Sontag, of all people) a stand-out scene. There’s a beautiful anecdote about her first meeting with Stravinsky, at a violin recital she was giving (she was an outstanding concert violinist, which is how Pound first encountered her. She survived him by several decades and was buried beside him at San Michele).

He’s interesting on – and a little dismissive of — Pound as deluded politically; detention at St Elizabeth’s was ‘nothing to rave about’ in Russian eyes. The Cantos left him cold:

…the main error was an old one: questing after beauty. For someone with such a long record of residence in Italy, it was odd that he hadn’t realized that beauty can’t be targeted, that it is always a by-product of other, often very ordinary pursuits.

He listens to Sontag trying unsuccessfully to deflect Rudge from her lengthy whitewash job on her fascist-sympathising, anti-Semitic lover; having dealt with countless ‘old CP members’ it was a tune that rang a bell. They left the house and found themselves, significantly, on the Fondamenata degli Incurabili.

Brodsky’s love for the city and its ‘serene beauty’ is rapturously told – ‘this city is the eye’s beloved’ – though he’s not blind to its occasional decaying squalor, its decadence and artificiality and superficiality. I wasn’t so keen on the objectification of women, including his unreconstructed lusting over the beautiful (married) Veneziana who met him at the station on his first visit and introduced him to her city.

Among several enigmatic images (others include his repeated, interwoven references to chordates and fish-eye perception; tears, surfaces, reflections/water, beauty and time – and a woman with mustard-and-honey coloured eyes) is a strange description of the ‘wonderful’ Bellini tempera portrait of the Virgin and Child that was in the Madonna dell’Orto church in Cannaregio sestiere near the Ghetto (he couldn’t have mentioned its theft in 1993, after he was writing this essay).

Bellini, Madonna and Child

Bellini, Madonna and Child (Wikimedia Commons)

He was unable to enter the church one night to steal a look at it, and at

the inch-wide interval that separates [Mary’s] left palm from the Child’s sole. That inch –ah, much less! – is what separates love from eroticism.

This is Javier Marías: he refers to

…the beautiful Bellini Virgin depicting a lunatic Christ Child who looks as if he’s either going to choke to death at any moment or pounce on his extraordinary mother…

When I look at the image I think it’s this description that makes more sense.

In fact the Marías essay is in some ways the most interesting of the three texts discussed here and elsewhere (though it’s probably apparent from some of my earliest posts at TDays that he’s one of my favourite authors: list at the end). Morris is more of a comprehensive guidebook, but his is the most vivid.

He can be as poetic as Brodsky in his palpable love for the city – he visited it fourteen times between 1984-89 – but without the sometimes mannered obscurity. His description of night-time, when the inky darkness accentuates the city’s ‘stage-set’ dramatic quality, is beautifully evocative. He also identifies in a few succinct, vivid images the essence and soul of this compact city (in theory one could walk from end to end in just over an hour; in practice this is impossible because of the dead ends and distractions).

There’s what he identifies as its harmony and homogeneity, its seediness and ostentatious glamour, and, paradoxically, its fragmentation and articulation.

He’s particularly good (as his title suggests) on the interiority of Venetians’ lives (‘they don’t go out very much’). And he’s characteristically funny, too: his account of the glamorous women (and men), who seem to be ‘always on their way to some elegant party’ when they do venture out accords with what I saw. Nearly everyone is chic and on display:

Singers at the theatre sometimes complain that their voices cannot be heard above the rattle of jewellery and that their eyes are dazzled by the glint of gold in the darkness, because some ladies do rather over-adorn hands, ears and neck in their eagerness to outshine, well, themselves, principally.

At the beach on the Lido they’re dripping in jewels (even when they go for a swim) and dressed to the nines.

He gives an entertaining account of the love-hate relationship between the Venetians and the hordes of tourists. Each sestiere or district (there are six, as the name suggests) has its own distinct atmosphere and ‘idea’. Locals from one area are unlikely to venture beyond the end of their nearest canal, rarely straying into the tourist honeypots – and they’re snootily dismissive of any place else. The same thing or person seen in one sestiere appears different in another (he gives the example of a beggar who moves about the city, shifting shapes mysteriously). I find these perceptions more human than Brodsky’s rather cerebral musings.

Marías identifies the strange ways that distances between places on the island can’t be measured by space alone. That account of the Bellini was to demonstrate that even though it’s found just a stone’s throw from the Grand Canal, it seems ‘a thousand leagues away’.

Both he and Brodsky are dismissive of Visconti’s film Death in Venice. Both are good on the best perspective from which to admire the architecture: from the water. But they agree that only the tourists can afford the gondola. When my wife and I were there it was 80 euros for a half-hour ride. We adopted the practice of the locals: take a gondola traghetto across the Grand Canal for two euros. It only takes minutes but is a much better deal. Otherwise the vaporetto (with a tourist pass) is good value, but often crowded.

I could go on, but had better stop, but I must quote the closing lines of the Marías, in which he poetically relates the timeless beauty of Venice, as it impacted on him on revisiting the city twenty years after the first Spanish edition of this text in 1988, when its people and places might have been expected to be lost:

We probably only really lose what we forget or reject, what we prefer to erase and no longer wish to carry with us, what is no longer part of the life we tell ourselves.

Readers of his fiction will recognise that haunting allusiveness to the elasticity of time and experience, universalised.

Javier Marías texts posted about here include the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy

The Infatuations

Thus Bad Begins

and the essay collection Written Lives

Next time, as I’ve gone on too long here, I’ll return to the Jan Morris.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Mayhem, maiming, ravens and rapine: some etymology

When I began this blog nearly two years ago it was with a notion of writing about the world of words and literature in general. Subsequently my early posts were on a range of topics, from reviews of Javier Marías’ ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ trilogy to unusual vocabulary in Eliot and Byron (orioles, becaficas) to strange engravings in obscure nineteenth-century Portuguese travel books about west Africa. In the last year, though, most of my posts have been book reviews.

I never intended this blog to become just another book-review site – though such matter will always dominate what I write, in keeping with what I’m reading at the time – but I’d like to maintain an element of novelty and surprise.

Today then I came across an entry in an old notebook – which is where several of my early posts originated – about Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. I felt inspired, and looked out a couple of reviews I’d saved. From there I returned to Burton’s book-length Preface, and an hour later had still not written a word. A little ironic, really: it’s a book that arises from what its author ruefully describes as ‘an unconstant unsettled mind’, liable to ‘rove abroad’, ‘taste of every dish and sip of every cup’ —  it’s a ramble, in other words, through everything to be found in an early seventeenth-century library – and I find myself no nearer to a line of critical approach than I was when I set out.

So I’m going to plunder another entry in the same notebook. I hope to return to Burton some time soon. This enables me to do something I’ve not done on this blog for a long time: look at some words and anatomise them.

Before I start, a word about other forthcoming projects. I’m reading Alfred Döblin’s Alexanderplatz, and making pretty slow progress in an intriguing novel that’s clearly influenced by Joyce’s Ulysses, and therefore can’t be read quickly. I also received in the post the other day my copy of Denis Johnson’s new novel, Laughing Monsters. So those two should keep me occupied here for a while.

The first word that I want to examine is MAYHEM. The OED’s first entry for it as a noun is:

  1. ‘Criminal Law. The infliction of physical injury on a person, so as to impair or destroy that person’s capacity for self-defence; an instance of this. Also fig. Now hist.‘ Its first citation is from the Rolls of Parliament in 1447. I was surprised to see that its more familiar use

‘Orig. U.S. Violent behaviour, esp. physical assault’, is first cited here:

  1. ‘1870   ‘M. Twain’ in Territorial Enterprise 20 Jan. 1/1   This same man..pantingly threatened me with permanent disfiguring mayhem, if ever again I should introduce his name into print.’ Its next citation is from a report in the Times from 1930 of ‘brigandage…mayhem and murder’ in New York ‘and its vicinity’. Plus ça change…Next is
  2. ‘Rowdy confusion, chaos, disorder. Freq. in to cause (also make) mayhem . Also fig.’ First cited:

1976   Daily Mirror 15 Mar. 24/4 (caption)    Without wishin’ to cast nasturtiums on your worm—I feel he’s not goin’ to make much mayhem today.

 

It derives from Middle English maheym ‘maim’, from French legal usage maihem, itself derived from Anglo-French mahain or mahaim, originally signifying a ‘lasting wound or bodily injury’; and ‘Subsequently: an injury to the body which causes the loss of a limb, or of the use of it; a… mutilating wound’. Its ultimate etymology is ‘uncertain’:  ‘Compare post-classical Latin mahemium, maamium… mayhem, maiming (from late 12th cent. in British sources), Italian magagna defect, infirmity (late 13th cent.).’ Other sources claim it’s akin to Germanic meidem, gelding, ON meitha, to injure.

 

Corvus corax: the raven (Wikimedia Commons)

Next is RAVENOUS. This apparently derives from OF ravineus, equivalent to ‘raviner’ – to RAVEN, ie take by force; this derives from vulgar Latin rapinare, from earlier Latin rapina, plunder. OED has this: ‘Compare Old French ravineux, ravinos, rabinos rapid, impetuous (late 12th cent.)….’ This produced English ravin, an act of rapine or robbery, plunder, pillaging (first cited c. 1325).

 

How did it come to mean what it does now? Here’s the OED again:

 

  1. ‘a) Originally: (of an animal) given to seizing other animals as prey; predatory; ferocious. Later: (of an animal or person; also of the appetite, hunger, etc.) voracious, gluttonous.’ (First cited ?1387). Here are the first two citations of its now customary primary meaning:
  2. ‘Exceedingly hungry; famished.’ Citations:

‘1648   T. Stephens tr. Statius  Thebais v. 131   Hircanian tygers so the herds inclose, In Scythian plaines, whom morning hunger does Rouse up, and th’ ravenous whelps roare for their paps.

1719   D. Defoe Farther Adventures Robinson Crusoe 201,   I got up ravenous.’

 

The name of the large corvine bird ‘raven’ appears to come via a different, Scandinavian-Germanic route; in its various forms it was spelt hrafn (OI), hraben (OHG), etc., maybe reflecting an imitation of its guttural call.

And that’s it for today. Probably more than enough etymology for one post.

 Picture credit: “Corvus corax ad berlin 090516” by Accipiter (R. Altenkamp, Berlin) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Corvus_corax_ad_berlin_090516.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Corvus_corax_ad_berlin_090516.jpg

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!

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’.