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.

 

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’.

 

Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow trilogy

Javier  Marías , Your Face Tomorrow (YFT)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gatsby, Boswell & Johnson, Hemingway

We’re going to see the new Baz Luhrman film ‘The Great Gatsby’ tonight (there’s a Guardian review of its opening screening at Cannes here, so finding myself in Waterstone’s this morning (I believe they’ve dropped the apostrophe, but never mind) I thought I’d buy another copy of the Fitzgerald novel, having lost, lent or mislaid my own some years ago; must be fifteen years or more since I read it, so it’s time for a revisit.  On display was a range of editions: the Penguin Modern Classics edition looked good, with fairly useful notes and a pleasant cover; then I noticed a bright paperback by Alma Classics (who have the uplifting motto on their website ‘clari in tenebris’; they announced on Tues. I think that they’d won the Booksellers Independent Publishers of the year award); they publish some out-of-the-way and non-mainstream literary work and I thought deserved preference, especially as the store had put one of those ‘buy one get one half-price’ stickers on the front – which also has an attractive design and nice old-fashioned folded-in covers (there must be a technical trade name for this: sort of like the dust jacket tuck of a hardback).  This posed a new selection problem: what to buy as a second book?  The contenders narrowed down to three: Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife (a fictional account of Hemingway’s life in 20s Paris with his then wife, Hadley Richardson, and of their crumbling marriage) – there’s an interview with her by Random House here; David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which we saw a couple of weeks ago at the cinema, and quite enjoyed (but too ambitiously long, perhaps); and Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident – review of the hardback edition in the Guardian last year here.  I ruled out the last one because I’m just finishing Javier Marias’s Dance and Dream, vol. 2 of his ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ trilogy, which although compelling and beautifully written is quite a challenge stylistically, structurally and in terms of content, and it moves at a glacial pace; will post more on him another time.  I thought one novel-film hookup was enough, so opted for the McClain, also on the basis that it looks to be a fairly light, not too demanding read – ideal for the long train journey I undertake next week to travel up-country to visit friends and go to see Colm Toibin talk about opera at a King’s College, London symposium on 22 May in their The Joy of Influence symposium (curated by Andrew O’Hagan), one of three such events on the theme of writers discussing other media of artistic inspiration – they all look intriguing: Sarah Hall on painting and Alan Warner on pop; apart from the Johnson-Boswell event noted below, there are others on Marx and one on ‘Literary Identities’.  Pity I shan’t be able to make it to them all.

Finally for today, I’m going to crave your indulgence as I experiment with something new: I’m attempting to embed a tweet about the 250th anniversary of the first meeting (in London) of Dr Johnson and the young Scotsman who became his close friend and biographer, James Boswell.  The TLS article from which it derives (ie the tweet; sorry about the tortuous syntax here – been reading too much Marias) points out, with an illustrative photo of John Sessions in period dress, that those literary heroes at King’s College, London are also behind an event today in their ‘Telling Lives’ series about this literary pair.  So here goes: let’s try to embed this tweet.  Apologies if goes pear-shaped…

http://t.co/renqCTY8rA

Hmm.  Don’t think that’s worked out as I anticipated.  Must try again, perhaps; fail better…But maybe it’ll be ok