Javier Marías, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me

Javier Marías, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me. Penguin Modern Classics, 2012. Translated (brilliantly) from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa. First published in Spanish, 1994; in English, 1996

Javier Marías is the novelist I’ve written about more than any other at this blog. I’ve argued in previous posts that he’s one of the most exciting and rewarding writers alive today. This novel is another I’d recommend highly.

Marías Tomorrow in the  Battle Think coverAs in every other novel of his that I’ve read, the plot is simple, and it’s impossible to say much about it without spoilers. Despite the labyrinthine, digressive style, with sentences that spool out over pages, loosely linked by subordinate ‘or else’ clauses, speculations and modalities (‘perhaps…’), there’s a powerful central mystery in the plot that keeps the reader turning the pages, but finding the satisfaction of (dis)closure increasingly deferred, elided or sleighted away into yet another fictive possibility.

It’s this cerebral, philosophical narrative discursiveness that’s what gives Tomorrow in the Battle the distinctive Marías tone. Also present are many of his usual tropes and motifs: old movies and actors; the plot involving a dead spouse, whose demise may or may not be ‘silently longed for’ (from Thus Bad Begins); this in turn leads to plot developments and doublings, involving trust and deception, betrayal and secrecy, surveillance and spying; a female figure named Luisa for the narrator to be infatuated by; the impossibility of truly ‘knowing’ anything; stories and storytelling.

Here’s the protagonist-narrator, Víctor (his name isn’t revealed until late on – a typical act of playful withholding by Marías), anticipating the telling of his extraordinary story of the unexpected death of a woman he was sexually involved with (the plot I withheld earlier) to his friend Ruibérriz – another of those louche and lewd, disreputable sidekick characters he’s so fond of; this indiscreet friend would have ‘proclaimed it [this story] to the four winds’, embroidering and distorting it to suit his whim and ego –

the world depends on its storytellers as it does on those who hear the story and occasionally influence it…

Just as our narrator lulls us into feeling how superior to his crass friend’s is Víctor’s sensibility, we’re told that he does tell that story to Ruibérriz at a racecourse, between races, in tones alternately ‘sinister and jocular’, interrupting his narrative now and then ‘to watch the final straights through our binoculars’, to go to the paddock, to the bar or to the place where they place their bets. This is classic Marías: meditating on abstract concepts, narratology and metaphysics then splicing the moral high seriousness with low humour and self-referential, bawdy wit. Shakespearean, perhaps.

As usual this moment leads to another riff developing on the initial theme:

Nothing is ever told twice in exactly the same way or using exactly the same words, not even if the storyteller is the same each time, even if it’s the same person.

This could be an account of the novelist’s technique in all his fiction. Plots, motifs and characters recur, are reworked. A ladder in a young woman’s tights leads to lascivious thoughts and sexual tension, as in Your Face Tomorrow (YFT); the Old English term ‘ge-bryd-guma’ is contemplated by a man who’s slept with a woman who has other sexual partners (YFT again), and so on. [Btw: the phrase ‘your face tomorrow’ is used several times, even though this novel was published several years before the first volume of that trilogy.]

As with music, a Marías novel’s slowly accreting development and iterations, cadences, echoes, resonances and recurring motifs are what’s consequential (this can be across books, too). People endlessly tell stories, and sooner or later, ‘everything is told’ (YFT again).

Incidents and observations of the moment in the plot lead to larger abstractions and universal considerations (‘we all do this’ is the type of reflection on one such moment). We are thus invited to comply with the attempts of the protagonist to make sense of or interpret the moments experienced, to find some epistemic ‘reality’ or certainty among the endlessly forestalled cues and clues life throws in his way.

The other key theme in Tomorrow in the Battle is another favourite of Marías’: memory and forgetting. He’s been criticised in the past for not castigating the Franco era of Spain’s recent history. I find that criticism strange, for the ‘pact of forgetting’ that Spain indulged as a means of erasing its memory of that shameful period is central to much of what he’s written. It is here, too, especially in the superb final pages, where the truth of what the bereaved spouse was up to while his wife was dying is finally, unbearably revealed (‘everything is forgotten or invalidated’, no matter how compelling the storyteller).

A final thought on the ‘male gaze’ in a Marías narrator’s repertoire. Almost any young woman Víctor encounters is seen and appraised with varying degrees of lechery – like the way he notices the ladder in that young woman’s tights; his imagination leads him higher – and I don’t mean metaphysics this time. That racecourse scene becomes highly farcical as Víctor and his friend flirt half-heartedly with two young women they assume to be on the prowl. They can’t be bothered in the end to consummate their plans: the betting takes precedence. But not before some brazen scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in an early Bond movie.

I quoted Margaret Drabble on this tendency in Marías in an early post on YFT; she’s alarmed by the ‘sexual tension’ that ‘verges on pornography’ in his fiction. I found Víctor’s casual lechery disturbing throughout. There’s a particularly sordid section where he picks up a sex worker in the street, thinking she’s his estranged wife, Celia (another recurring character type). He seems throughout this graphically detailed sexual sequence simultaneously to believe she is and isn’t Celia; either possibility excites him; neither does him much credit.

When he later breaks into her apartment and finds her naked and asleep in bed with her new partner, the creepiness is even more disturbing.

No doubt this is all part of the author’s intention: even his narrators are culpable, flawed and unreliable, in a universe that’s haunted by the ghosts or revenants of our own past history and that of our countrymen (the dead are ‘quite wrong to come back’, he wrote in The Infatuations, another novel of spousal hauntings).

A Marías protagonist’s occupation is always significant; here, Víctor is a ghostwriter, a man of shadows, (linguistic) deceptions and pretence, whose identity is evanescent. The recurring Shakespearean theme (there’s always one of those in a Marías novel: he’s a great admirer – and translator – of English lit) is the nightmares endured by guilty Richard III on the eve of his fateful battle at Bosworth Field, when the ghosts of those he’d murdered return to haunt and threaten him with the words of this novel’s title: ‘think on me’ tomorrow and despair.

 

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’.