No Name or Too Many? On Javier Marías

No Name or Too Many? On Javier Marías

No Name or Too Many? On Javier Marías

In Javier Marías’s trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, the self is composed of borrowed languages and an uncertain voice.


"One life, one writing," Robert Lowell said. The writer’s experience is all of a piece, and so too, however disparate it may seem, is the work to which it gives rise. The personal emphasis here is typically poetic, but novelists have long shared the desire to give a higher unity to their careers, transform a succession of works into something larger and more coherent. The method selected is apt to reflect its time. In the nineteenth century—a period whose greatest inventions, it’s been said, were society and history—Balzac and Zola produced vast sociographic supernovels, many volumes long, that sought to transcribe the whole of contemporary society. Hardy, defending his provincial world from metropolitan encroachment, gathered his work within an autonomous imaginative principality—a method emulated by Faulkner and García Márquez. High Modernism’s self-mythologizing artist-heroes took a different tack, Proust placing his own figure at the center of a single never-ending, all-encompassing epic—the self expanding to fill the work, the work expanding to fill the career—with Joyce and Musil doing roughly likewise.

Different unifying strategies appear today. The autobiographical persona that runs like a spine through Philip Roth’s corpus represents a multiplication and refraction of the authorial image that is perfectly in tune with our culture of mediated self-exposure. David Mitchell, one of British fiction’s brightest stars, forges his links surreptitiously, characters from one novel showing up, as if by chance, in the margins of others—a strategy that mimics the fortuitous, far-flung connections of a globalizing age.

And then there is Javier Marías, the acclaimed Spanish novelist: annual Nobel speculation, 5 million books in print, high praise from Pamuk, Sebald and Coetzee. As his oeuvre has lengthened—and in particular, with the gradual publication of his magnum opus, the three-volume Your Face Tomorrow—its coherence has gathered only slowly and in retrospect. He seems to be unearthing it himself, as he goes along, and to be holding it open for constant revision. It is a unity, like Proust’s, that rests on the presence of an authorial self, but a self that, unlike Proust’s (or Joyce’s, or Roth’s), is also only retrospective and provisional. Proust begins his work from a single point and expands it ever outward; Marías has started from different places and seems gradually to have found them leading toward a common intersection. Proust builds his work around that stable, single self; Marías starts with the work and seems to stumble upon the fact that a self has been in there all along. It is a self that speaks to our present condition of centerless mobility in ways that can more easily be sensed than understood: a self of borrowed language and uncertain voice, of rumors and dreams, of no name or too many names, a self dislocated and lost in translation, distilled from the air and deliquescing in our hands.

For Marías, born in 1951, dislocation came early and translation followed as a consequence. His father, a prominent philosopher long banned from teaching in Spanish universities because of his opposition to Franco, took a temporary position at Wellesley for what turned out to be the earliest years of his son’s life. English, encountered by chance, became for Marías a vocation and later a fate. A prolific translator as well as novelist, he has rendered an entire bookshelf into Spanish—works by Shakespeare, Sterne, Hardy, Kipling, Faulkner, Updike, Auden, Heaney and on and on, many of whose voices reverberate through his fiction. But in his early 30s, he also did a two-year stint at Oxford, and that’s where things get really interesting.

Oxford inspired a novel, All Souls, about a visiting Spaniard (unnamed); his affair with Clare Bayes, a don’s wife; his friendship with Cromer-Blake, secretly gay and secretly dying; and his admiration for the venerable Toby Rylands. But the main narrative is interleaved with the story of a real writer, John Gawsworth, and as if to insist on the man’s existence, the book provides a couple of photos. Fact and fiction intermingling, but that was only the start. All Souls was promptly taken (perhaps because of the strenuous disclaimer to the contrary that prefaces the book) as a roman à clef, with various figures stepping forward to nominate themselves as originals. Knowing a good thing when he saw one, Marías chronicled the turnabout, nine years later and with even more copious visual documentation, in Dark Back of Time, a "false novel" that opens by declaring that "language can’t reproduce events and shouldn’t attempt to," for the act of telling necessarily distorts. The book also recounts the story of its author’s coronation as King of Redonda, a notional realm with a real address (Redonda is an uninhabitable island in the Lesser Antilles) that, with dignitaries like John Ashbery (Duke of Convexo) and A.S. Byatt (Duchess of Morpho Eugenia)—Marías himself initiated the practice of ennoblement—is meant to constitute something like a Republic of Letters. Apparently the reigning king abdicated in Marías’s favor out of admiration for the latter’s portrait, in All Souls, of the previous incumbent—who was, in fact, John Gawsworth.

Between All Souls and its funhouse reflection, Marías continued to publish novels and stories in the vein, more or less, of his earlier ones, works like A Heart So White, his most popular and celebrated book, in which a man tracks down the secrets of his father’s first marriage, or tries to, and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, which begins with the death of the woman, literally in his arms, with whom the narrator is about to commit adultery. But however various the plots, a larger coherence was taking shape, for among his many works the author drew connections in an even more uncanny way than David Mitchell. Characters themselves did not recur, but their names did: wives called Luisa (Marías is unmarried), shady figures called Ruibérriz de Torres and Custardoy (two of the latter, in A Heart So White, father and son art forgers). There was surely a large element of play in these gestures, yet at the same time, it seemed, a private symbolic language was being spoken or elaborated—a kind of dream or drama or trauma, the motions of a hidden self, being played out beyond our sight.

In the meantime, the Oxford material continued to make its claims on Marías’s imagination. Dark Back of Time, that book itself declared, would only be the beginning:

So much has sprung from [All Souls] into my life that I no longer know how many volumes I’ll need to tell it all, this book won’t be enough and its planned sequel may not be either, because eight years have passed since I published the novel and all of it continues to invade my days, stealing into them, and my nights, too, now more than ever.

Twelve years later, we can begin to say how many volumes Marías would need to tell it all: at least three. From Dark Back of Time he launched directly into Your Face Tomorrow. The narrator of All Souls is back, and this time he’s found a name, Jacques Deza. The millennium has turned, and as the story opens—he’s in England once again, an older and more burdened man—his years at Oxford are much on his mind. He recalls Clare Bayes with disgust, Cromer-Blake with pity and Toby Rylands with awe. The last two are dead, and Rylands has bequeathed his place as Deza’s mentor to Sir Peter Wheeler, an emeritus scholar of Spanish history.

Deza knows the two men were colleagues; what he doesn’t discover until most of the way through the first volume is that they were actually brothers. Both were born Rylands, but Wheeler took their mother’s maiden name in the wake of their parents’ divorce. Marías is playing a particularly complex game here, both intertextual and metafictional. The figure of Rylands, Dark Back of Time had told us, was based on a real person, Sir Peter Russell. But Russell’s original name was Wheeler, for the exact same reason that Wheeler’s was Rylands. Sir Peter Wheeler is also based on Russell—much more closely so than Rylands, in fact. A thousand pages later, at the end of the entire book, we’re shown a photograph of Wheeler after he has died (as Russell did in 2006)—a picture, presumably, of Russell himself. So Rylands hands Deza off to his real-life counterpart, presented here as his fictional brother, a figure who seems to exist in both realms at once.

That’s the Oxford part. But in the years between All Souls and the start of the new novel’s action, Deza has returned to Spain, gotten married (to a woman named Luisa, of course), fathered two children and—this is why he’s back in England—separated from his wife. While All Souls had adumbrated some of this material (the wife, the first child), large areas of shadow continue to lie on Deza’s story. We never learn very much about what he did for all these years, or how he managed to estrange his wife. But when he returns to Madrid, late in the novel, to see what’s become of the home he has left, he finds that she has taken up with none other than Custardoy the Younger, the art forger, from A Heart So White.

In other words, the novel bridges the two halves of Marías’s imagination, the English half and the Spanish half, writes Oxford and Luisa/Custardoy into a single narrative. Indeed, the movement from one side to the other—call it translation or translocation—becomes a governing principle. Deza’s name is Jacques—except when it is not. Sometimes it is Jacobo, or Jaime, or Jack. It depends where he is, and who’s talking to him, and in what language. The novel shuttles not only between England and Spain, Spanish Oxonians and English Hispanists, but also between English and Spanish; it seems at times to be written in both languages at once and certainly makes the traffic between the two a constant point of reflection. To take one charged and recurrent example:

He was lucky—in a way—that there is no one-word English equivalent for the unequivocal ‘patria‘ of my own language (or only highly recondite, theoretical ones): the word he had used, ‘country,’ means different things depending on the context, but is less emotive and less pompous and should almost always be translated as ‘país.’

That we in this país are likely to read the novel in English only adds another layer of complexity. What marvels the great translator Margaret Jull Costa must have had to perform to replot these transpositions in an inconspicuous way I do not know, but with the story’s abundance of (implicitly) English dialogue, the novel’s bilingualism places us in the curious position of being often more privileged, in a sense, than its original audience.

As the narrative opens, Wheeler recruits Deza for a strange and secretive intelligence group that, the protagonist eventually learns, has been in operation since the War. Headed at present by a man named Tupra, the group is simply asked to observe people—in interviews or on videotape—and analyze their character. What kind of people? Anyone the government (or at least Tupra, who seems to have motives of his own) is interested in: foreign operatives, organized criminals, politicians and pop stars, even members of the royal family. But "analysis" is not the word that Deza puts on their activities. Instead, he tells us, his job is to "interpret" people, to "translate" them—a literary rather than a scientific task. Tupra wants to know not only who these people are but what they might be capable of: what their face might be tomorrow. Deza and his colleagues—all of whom have been selected for their special powers of insight, their rare ability, as Wheeler puts it, to resist the temptation to deny what’s right in front of our eyes—are asked, in effect, to produce scenarios. Could this man ever kill? Under what circumstances? How? Uncertainty is not tolerated; "perhaps" earns Tupra’s contempt. And so, at first quite guiltily but quickly forgetting his guilt, Deza learns to spin his stories with an air of perfect confidence, claiming to understand complete strangers better than they know themselves.

This is all, needless to say, an inventive if ostentatiously contrived extended metaphor for the novelistic act. The writer as reader of character, yes, but also as fabulator, bluffer, fraud. "Translate" is apt, for translation, too, is a kind of fraudulence or forgery, a copy that claims to stand for the original—just like the work that Custardoy produces. Deza himself is obsessed with authenticity, specifically, like any true Anglophile, with the question of who is authentically English. Wheeler and Rylands are "bogus Englishmen" because they were born in New Zealand. As for Tupra—who goes under any number of aliases, a name-shifter like Wheeler or Deza himself—who knows, with a moniker like that, where he came from?

It’s a matter, at bottom, of character. What does it mean to be authentically yourself? Who are the people in our lives—who are they really—and who are we ourselves? Unbeknown to Marías at the time he wrote All Souls—and this may have been the revelation that hurt him into the new novel—the gentle and benevolent Sir Peter Russell turned out to have led a very different life before his career at Oxford, working overseas for MI6, and doing who knows what bloody deeds, during the War. Tupra likes to tease Deza by calling him Iago, the classical form of his name, but after learning more about his own capacity for violence than he ever wanted to know, the protagonist adopts that famous villain’s famous line: "I am not what I am."

The novelist as forger, but also as outsider. (Two related ideas, for the foreigner, the expatriate, is always, with respect to his adopted culture, an imposter.) Deza is frequently asked to observe the group’s interviews from behind a two-way mirror in a little booth whose benches run, awkwardly enough, perpendicular to the opening, "with the inevitable feeling that one was looking out of a train window." The effect is standard Marías: his narrators are almost always watchers, observing life rather than participating in it. Deza himself is an outsider, a watcher, at least four times over: at work, in England, in the family from which he has been exiled (and which he thinks about constantly) and even in his neighborhood. He lives alone, sees almost no one and passes his time staring out the window at a neighbor across the square, a man who spends his evenings dancing around his apartment in joyful absorption—a recurrent figure for everything that Deza (and implicitly the novelist) is not.

While the protagonist quotes Iago, he also quotes Prufrock: "’Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’" Will the man of words remain a watcher, or will he take the moral risk of entering the arena of action? If T.S. Eliot is here, so is Cervantes, quoted with equal frequency, creator of a bookish hero who sallies forth in boots and spurs. Arms versus arts: that was the Renaissance talking point, action versus contemplation. Violence is rare in Your Face Tomorrow, but it is sudden and brutal, and the phallic weaponry invariably employed gestures back at Don Quixote and his lance: the sword that Tupra brandishes, in the novel’s central episode, to terrify a harmless fool; the spear with which a dissolute celebrity disposes of an inconvenient lover; the iron poker Deza takes to Custardoy at the climax of the story, doing bitter business at last; even Wheeler’s walking stick, a geriatric memory of the weapons, metaphoric or otherwise, he once wielded.

This tension between action and reflection, this Prufrockian withdrawal, is enacted in the very texture of the novel’s prose. Deza’s style—or Marías’s, really, since it appears throughout his work—is one of almost endless rumination: assertions and expansions, examples and exceptions, detours, digressions, associations and allusions, a verbal accretion that hangs from every increment of event in long syntactic tendrils:

Then I heard Tupra’s commanding voice:
 ’Stand clear, Jack.’ And at the same time, he grabbed my shoulder, firmly but not roughly, and drew me aside, removed me, I mean, from the doorway of that cubicle which was more like a small room, perhaps the same size as those minuscule mausoleums in the cemetery of Os Prazeres, summarily decorated and intended to be welcoming, at once inhabited and uninhabited. ‘Stand clear, Jack’ were his words, or perhaps ‘Clear off’ or ‘Step aside’ or ‘Out of my way, Jack,’ it’s hard to remember exactly something which, subsequently, disappears into nothing because of everything else that comes after, at any rate, I understood what he meant, whatever the phrase he used, that was the sense and it was, moreover, accompanied by that gesture, his firm hand on my shoulder, which allowed itself to be pushed out of the way; viewed positively, the phrase could have been understood as ‘Step aside,’ more negatively as ‘Out of my way, Jack, clear off, don’t get involved and don’t even think about trying to stop me,’ but his tone of voice sounded more like the former, a very gentle voice given that it was issuing an order that brooked no disobedience or delay, no hesitation in its performance, no resistance or questioning or protest or even any show of horror, because it is impossible to object to or to oppose someone who has a sword in his hand and who has already raised it up in order to bring it down hard, to deal a blow, to slice through something, when that is the first time you have seen the sword and have no idea where it came from, a primitive blade, a medieval grip, a Homeric hilt, an archaic tip, the most unnecessary of weapons or the most out of keeping with the times we live in, more even than an arrow and more than a spear…

and so the sentence continues on for another page.

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.

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