Javier Marías: a postscript to the critique

1569792w300I’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.‘

SIMON LAVERY

Tredynas Days, June 14, 2013

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Crítica de ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ (3)

YFT 3Your 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 YFTPoison, 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.

SIMON LAVERY

Tredynas Days, June 10, 2013


[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!