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’.