No Name or Too Many? On Javier Marías
Deza's retreat into reflection here is comprehensible. He's terrified by what his boss appears about to do, and his mind spins in upon itself to spare himself the sight of it. The whole scene, which takes only a few minutes of narrative time, distends to more than forty pages, partitioned into tiny Cubist quanta of action by yards of intervening commentary. But almost all of the novel is like this, and mostly without psychological excuse. The impulse to hold life at arm's length belongs both to Deza and his author, is both the novel's theme and its temperament. When Deza's neighbor, late in the story, beckons him to join the dance—an offer seconded by his two attractive partners, one of whom happens to be half-naked at the moment—the protagonist declines. The novel's philosophical asides do not finally interrupt the plot, which, for a work of this length, is exceedingly thin; they are the reason it exists.
There is something here at once bookish, English and European. Deza's mind revolves incessantly among a certain set of literary touchstones, which also are Marías's: not just Cervantes and Eliot and Othello but also Richard III (the source of Tomorrow in the Battle's title) and Henry IV, Part II (the source of Your Face Tomorrow's). Life is glimpsed in its passage through books, a text to be pondered, expounded, annotated, interpreted. As for Marías's Englishness—which may represent a deliberate rejection of Spanish passion or passionolatry—it makes itself felt in a kind of stiff-upper-lipism, a stoical reticence of emotional effusion or personal disclosure. The tone is set by Wheeler, with whom Deza has a series of long, courtly conversations that frame the entire book. Feelings move beneath the surface of the older man's discourse, as they do of Deza's meditations (chiefly feelings, in the latter case, about the family he thinks he's lost), but they are kept in check by a punctilious parsimony of expression.
Marías's Europeanness is of the autumnal variety, much in evidence in recent decades, the product of a ripened civilization that feels itself equipped for nothing but the harvest. Life has happened already, history has happened, and now there's nothing left except to talk about it. Marías resembles Sebald, his rough contemporary, in many respects: their use of documentary materials to blur the line between fact and fiction; their engagement with themes of exile and translocation; their own relocation, imaginative and otherwise, from the continent to England; but most of all, their sense of belatedness. Deza, with his books and his memories and his otherwise empty life, seems willfully absented from the present. The threat of Custardoy, not only to his wife but to his hopes of reuniting with his wife, does fling him back, albeit briefly, to the world. But though Marías has long been obsessed by the love triangle—aside from being a presence here, Othello is the major point of reference for The Man of Feeling, an earlier novel—Deza's most important relationships are not with sexual rivals. They are with father figures: in other words, with the past.
Wheeler is one; Deza's own father, modeled on his author's, is another. Deza's conversations with the former are echoed by his interchanges, mostly recollected, with the latter. The topic, in both, is precisely the past: World War II, when Wheeler holds forth; the Spanish Civil War, when the elder Deza tells his stories. Uniquely, in these passages, the protagonist's internal chatter quiets down. Like a child listening to a bedtime story, he is, for once, fully engrossed. The narrative achieves fluidity and drive. The past, incomparably richer than the present, arises as the sole arena of significant action. Wheeler, with his dark but necessary deeds, the elder Deza, with his noble suffering and principled refusal to seek a later revenge—these men have lived; these men have lives that are fit to be made into stories.
Nor is it just any past. As with Sebald—and this is the postwar European mood that Marías both diagnoses and symptomatizes—the imagination is shadowed by the black middle of the last century. The two wars, the Spanish one and the one that followed, continue to determine the shape of the present. Deza's group was started as a way of fighting Hitler; later, in Madrid, when the protagonist is looking for a gun with which to threaten Custardoy, he remembers that the weapons of the civil war (it's virtually the only thing we learn about contemporary Spanish life) are still circulating in private hands.
If the past is Wheeler and the elder Deza, the present is Tupra, the father figure in degenerated form. Not only is his relationship with Deza purely instrumental; he lacks the moral stature of the older men. They ponder at length the ethical implications of the things they've seen and done. Tupra says rhetorically, "Why can't one go around beating up people and killing them?" The group, a vestige of the struggle against fascism, has become the tool of purposes that, whether public or private (Tupra has been marketing its services to paying clients), are equally unspeakable. The present is Tupra; and De la Garza, the crude buffoon he terrorizes (a cultural attaché, of all things, at the Spanish Embassy); and "Dick Dearlove," the vain, louche, murderous celebrity. (The pseudonym, bestowed by Deza, is a jab at the man who was head of MI6 during the start of the "war on terror.") The present is faithless, spineless, cynical, superficial. By the end of the novel—both Wheeler and his father have died—it is also all that Deza has.
Now all this is interesting to think about and talk about: fact and fiction, action and contemplation, the past and the present, and so on and so forth. There is one problem, however, and like the novel itself, it is not a small one. For all its intellect and erudition, and despite its occasional flashes of feeling, Your Face Tomorrow is an incredibly boring book. A crushingly, demoralizingly boring book. My overwhelming emotion, as I read it, was one of an immense, hopeless, enraged sadness, at what the author was putting me through. The first two volumes were largely a heavy slog from one oasis of incident or interest to the next, through deserts of Deza's interminable reflection. The final one was a death march to the finish. Marías's meditative, melancholy, digressive style may work in his earlier books, none of which are a great deal longer than 300 pages, but Your Face Tomorrow is more than 1,250, for God's sake. Imagine War and Peace if those philosophical excursions, where Tolstoy drones on about historical process, were expanded to fill the bulk of the book.
There's nothing wrong, of course, with a reflective, analytic style. James and Proust produced exquisite versions, and Marías is frequently and predictably compared to both. What's wrong with his style is that it doesn't go anywhere, neither forward on its own terms nor deeper into the story. Like an old woman telling her beads, Deza simply riffles through the same ideas and images and allusions over and over and over again, often in exactly the same language. Lovers betray us, people are blind, words are dangerous, time is the only truth, etc., etc., etc. Most of his perceptions are fresh and compelling the first time we hear them. But the second? The fifth? The fifteenth? Whatever one can say about these repetitions in thematic terms—that they embody Deza's inability to escape from his obsessions, or history's to break free of the past—on the page they are utterly numbing.
Nor do Deza's meditations enhance the narrative to any real extent. Reflection in James and Proust—Strether's in The Ambassadors, say, or Marcel's in In Search of Lost Time—isn't a commentary on the story; it is essential to the story. It hugs the plot like the lining of a coat. It exposes character, develops relationships, shapes action. It gives utterance to feeling and direction to choice. It evolves, as the protagonists themselves evolve. But reflection in Your Face Tomorrow rarely does any of those things; it simply sits alone in its study, watching the plot go by.
That is why, despite the much-remarked length of his sentences, Marías's prose is incomparably poorer than that of James or Proust. Their sentences are complicated because of the immense complexity of the life that they are asked to bear. In James it is a social complexity, the elaboration of conduct within a highly ordered set of codes. In Proust it is a complexity of memory, the involutions of sensual and emotional association. James's sentences are as dense with thought as a mathematical proof. Proust's ramify as lushly as a garden. But while Marías's sentences are long, they are hardly complex at all. Their length is built on parataxis, units simply gummed together one after the other, like cars in a freight train, not hypotaxis, units arranged in complex relationships of balance, subordination and support, like the parts of a suspension bridge. His prose is thin because the life it represents is thin—events, emotions, relationships and memories without much texture to speak of.
The heaping up of language, far from enriching Marías's prose, often drains it of meaning altogether:
...sooner or later, everything is told, the interesting and the trivial, the private and the public, the intimate and the superfluous, what should remain hidden and what will one day inevitably be broadcast, sorrows and joys and resentments, certainties and conjectures, the imagined and the factual, persuasions and suspicions, grievances and flattery and plans for revenge, great feats and humiliations, what fills us with pride and what shames us utterly, what appeared to be a secret and what begged to remain so, the normal and the unconfessable and the horrific and the obvious, the substantial—falling in love—and the insignificant—falling in love.
With every creak of this seesaw rhetoric, all the way up to that faux-profound conclusion, the specific words matter less and less. This is a kind of frictionless eloquence that does indeed recall Don Quixote, his inexhaustible orations on chivalric lore. And once again, that Marías is aware of what he's doing, as signaled by any number of self-referential passages ("Get to the point," Tupra tells Deza, "I get lost in your digressions"), is absolutely no excuse.
The ambition of Your Face Tomorrow, like its size, is unmistakably large. The novel consists of three volumes but seven parts, inciting comparison with Proust. This is Marías's epic, and it is the nature of epic that it will sometimes bore us. The Iliad, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, The Prelude, Moby-Dick, Ulysses, not to mention the Bible—all of these contain some rather formidable longueurs. Epic aims at plenitude; it wants to incorporate the whole of existence, make the work a mirror of the world. And if you want to be boring, Voltaire said, then say everything. But Marías, whatever he thinks he might be doing, is not trying to say everything; he's only saying a few things, over and over and over again. The novel finally seems a kind of stunt. How much reflection can be balanced on how little action? How little matter can be stretched across how many pages? That Your Face Tomorrow is the work of a gifted writer is abundantly clear; that it is an epic failure is equally certain.