The Spanish Mien

The Spanish Mien


V.S. Pritchett, whose essays are an invaluable companion, a sort of Dante’s Virgil in the navigation of modern literature, once described Don Quixote as “the novel that killed a country by knocking the heart out of it and extinguishing its belief in itself forever.” This is no doubt an incisive statement, and perhaps truthful too. If so, it should be expanded to say that Don Quixote also artfully extirpated Spain from Europe’s intellectual conscience. For beyond Cervantes, where are its influential figures to be found in the international sphere? This is not to say that Spain has given up on literature. On the contrary, many thousands of books–nonfiction, poetry and as much fiction as there are mushrooms that spring up in a forest after a rainstorm–are published annually at home. The number of Spanish literary awards has multiplied dramatically in the last couple of decades: Every major publisher has its prize and parades its winners with unrestrained flair. But does anybody abroad really pay attention?

If this diagnosis–that the Spanish novel is in a centuries-old hiatus–sounds improbable, even a bit offensive, I suggest an exercise in improvised criticism. Stop for a moment at your local bookstore and look for, say, a dozen Iberian novels–classics and commercial–on the shelf. I bet the task defeats you. You might stumble upon a title by Camilo José Cela, whose Nobel Prize, like that of his fellow Spaniard, Jacinto Benavente, only accentuated his obscurity; and you will surely come across the “brainy” thrillers of Arturo Pérez-Reverte, probably the most popular español of our time. But beyond these, what? It would be easy to blame the publishing industry for this void, yet most editors, especially at university presses, are far from parochial, and censorship is not a principle they endorse. Furthermore, even in such an atmosphere as ours, fastidiously allergic to foreign cultures, far more literature from France and Germany, even from Italy–not to mention the quick westbound trip of scores of Britons–is released in the United States. Spain simply isn’t trendy; its intellectual life is of no global consequence.

The problem, in part, is internal. It is symptomatic that whenever an Iberian’s letters are discussed at home, critics recur to similes: “Benito Pérez Galdós was our Dickens,” it is said, “and Juan Benet our Faulkner.” In all fairness, these comparisons are often to an author’s advantage. A handful of essayists, and chiefly poets, fare better: Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset, still not fully translated into English, are the owners of pungent, incisive voices unstilted by time that are delightful to read; and Federico García Lorca, along with poets of the Civil War (Machado, Cernuda et al.), are true giants. But a quick survey of the landscape in fiction evidences a kind of wasteland: Miguel Delibes, Carmen Martín Gaite, Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, Alvaro Pombo and younger figures like Almudena Grandes, Juan Luis Cebrián, Antonio Muñóz Molina. Are these recognizable names? Even if he isn’t taken at face value, Pritchett, I think, is on to something of significance: The country’s literary flame might not have been extinguished altogether with Don Quixote, but it surely burns at a low intensity. Spain appears in a permanent state of eclipse.

Beyond national borders, one of the very few heralded talents of the last decade is Javier Marías. His work has been timidly appearing in US bookstores, praised in literary supplements and review pages. But it remains, not surprisingly, largely ignored by readers. Still, Marías has much to offer; even if his work isn’t consistently breathtaking, a push should be made to bring him to the attention of a wider audience. From his 1971 debut novel Los dominios del lobo to collections of essays like Literatura y fantasma, his books have sold in excess of 3.2 million copies, mainly in Europe and Hispanic America. (Sales and quality don’t always match, but they do in his case.) He has been translated into some twenty languages. It is time Americans also wake up to this skillful littérateur.

Marías (born in 1951) is a grounded madrileño, the son of a prominent cultural critic. Figuratively, he is one of Borges’s grandchildren, although Proust should also be considered a prominent source of inspiration: Marías’s themes are circular and metaliterary, his style meditative to the point of cantankerousness. Infatuated by British fiction since an early age, Marías has been, aside from a practitioner of fiction, a translator of high caliber who has made Hardy, Conrad and Yeats sit comfortably in Cervantes’s tongue. His rendition of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is especially noteworthy: It brings the original to life without ever mimicking it. This talent, it ought to be said, is no meager achievement in a culture with a miserable history of translation, one made of uninhibited displays of ineptitude and misinformation.

HarperCollins and Harcourt both tried to publish Marías in the United States in the nineties, with little success. New Directions, the small, estimable New York publisher founded by James Laughlin, has now taken over the effort. It is serving a few of Marías’s previously published titles and a novel formerly available only in England as an hors d’oeuvre, along with a main dish comprised of a fresh collection of stories, When I Was Mortal, and Dark Back of Time, a bizarre experiment in fiction–described by the author as a “false novel.” The project is laudable: Although I’m sure it won’t change the global status of Iberian fiction, it should at least make the exercise of browsing through a shelf for invigorating stories from Spain a bit less frustrating. And it should place the ball in the reader’s court: From now on anybody who doesn’t read Marías is doomed (as, loosely, Neruda once put it of Cortázar).

I used the word bizarre in reference to Marías. It fits him to the dot, for he enjoys exploring the eerie, mysterious and supernatural–what Cortázar once described as lo neofantástico, a term limited to Hispanic letters, close to the neogothic in English, it indulges in the supernatural without ever inspiring fear–in a way that is reminiscent of Stevenson, Wells and W.W. Jacobs (author of the legendary tale “The Monkey’s Paw”). But, to extend the comparison, the figure to whom he can be equated without hesitation is Henry James: Marías’s writing has the same syncopated prose and introspective inquisitiveness, and he often uses equally long, tortuous sentences. But, unlike James, he isn’t quite a novelist, even though, for lack of a better term, he is invariably portrayed as one. Under close scrutiny, it is clear that Marías’s narratives are made of disconnected segments–fragments that are abrupt and constantly interrupted by side effects that seldom add up to a whole–and his train of thought functions as a spiral: One scene leads to another, and then another–ad infinitum. Still, the result is rewarding because he is a literary magician who understands literature as a game of mirrors.

This is not to say, of course, that everything he writes is spun of gold. I’ve just reread him in the lucid translations by Margaret Jull Costa and Esther Allen: The pedantry and sense of superiority to his readers that I came across the first time around, when I discovered Marías in the original half a decade ago, strike me as more pronounced in re-encounters. He loves the donnish pose, a little as Wilde did. He invites you to his universe, but once you’re in it, he shrieks: Look at how divine, how gifted I am! The effect might be off-putting, but the reader should put it aside and persevere in order to enjoy the material in full.

The sermonic tone is explicit in All Souls, based on his two-and-a-half-year experience at Oxford (the institution that has turned “donnishness” into a profession, after all). The novel fits snugly into a tradition of so-called campus fiction that includes recent entries by such figures as David Lodge, Jane Smiley, Francine Prose, A.S. Byatt and Philip Roth.

The narrator of All Souls is a Spanish lecturer who observes the ridiculous pomposity of academics devoted to obscure themes, painfully aware of their overall insignificance–people for whom, as Marías puts it, “simply being is far more important than doing or even acting.” The adventures Marías comes up with are sheer fantasy, although his characters, among them faculty and bookstore owners, are not; some of the author’s acquaintances have recognized themselves easily in his portrayals. The narrative suffers some from homogeneity: Marías’s erudite monologues too frequently sound alike. Perhaps that doesn’t matter here, though, for the author doesn’t seem to be looking for full-fledged characterizations; instead, his is a tangential disquisition, one about Spain from without, a study of an Iberian intellectual abroad in the spirit of James’s Daisy Miller, an American’s rendezvous on the Continent. Marías zooms in on the dislocation of one lonesome, perplexed Spanish observer in the land that Dr. Johnson once invoked with the chant: “Ye patriot crowds, who burn for England’s fame.” He never ponders issues of national identity. And yet, this is a book about a self-imposed “highbrow” traveler, a stranger in a strange place.

My personal favorite among Marías’s books is Tomorrow in the Battle Think of Me, originally released in 1994 and the recipient of Venezuela’s prestigious Rómulo Gallegos Prize. It is a complex, centripetal whodunit about the reverberations of a sudden death. The protagonist is a scriptwriter in Madrid who has an affair with a married woman while her husband is in London. As her child goes to bed and she begins to undress, she is taken ill and collapses grimly. The narrator’s consciousness is vividly mapped out. The leitmotif is the quest for morality in a dissolute universe. Marías ponders large philosophical themes, like the role of memory and morality in human affairs, by intertwining the individual in a larger picture. A quote:

No one knows anything for sure, not even what they do or decided or see or suffer, each moment sooner or later dissolves, its degree of unreality constantly on the increase, everything travelling towards its own dissolution with the passing of the days and even the seconds that appear to sustain things but, in fact, suppress them: a nurse’s dream will vanish along with the student’s vain wakefulness, the tentatively inviting footsteps of the whore, who is possibly a sick young man in disguise, will be scorned or go unnoticed, the lover’s kisses will be renounced…. And, as if it was just another insignificant, superfluous tie or link, the murder or homicide is simply lumped in with all the crimes–there are so many others–that have been forgotten and of which no record remains and with those currently being planned and of which there will be a record, even though that too will eventually disappear.

This is the book Marías was destined to write by the Emersonian High Spirit and is the introduction to him that readers should have. Its exposition is hypnotizing, and its plot plays tricks on us: It falsifies its routes by pushing to its denouement.

Also of notice is A Heart So White, portions of which take place in Havana and New York, about a 34-year-old husband haunted by the demons of suicides by women close to him (his father’s first wife, his mother’s sister, his aunt Teresa). It has brought Marías the applause of many, including Francis Ford Coppola and Salman Rushdie, and is considered his best work. It might well be: It is an anti-detective story about genealogy and sin. (The title pays homage to Macbeth: “My hands are of your colour; but I shame/To wear a heart so white.”)

In contrast, Marías’s collection of stories, When I Was Mortal, is in a minor key. It appeared in 1996 and is made of material published in anthologies, as well as in periodicals like El País and El Correo Español. The short tale constrains him as a form and pushes him to summarize in a way that does him a disservice. His is an elastic vision that fits the longer narrative better. These are all pieces drafted on commission, which Marías states in his foreword didn’t “compromise them.” He then goes on to craft an ars poetica that again recalls Henry James:

You can write an article or a story on commission (though not, in my case, a whole book); sometimes even the subject matter may be given and I see nothing wrong in that as long as you manage to make the final product yours and you enjoy writing it…. It is perhaps worth reminding those sentimental purists who believe that, in order to sit down in front of the typewriter, you have to experience grandiose feelings such as a creative “need” or “impulse,” which are always “spontaneous” or terribly intense, that the majority of the sublime works of art produced over the centuries–especially in painting and music–were the result of commissions or of even more prosaic and servile stimuli.

The best tales in the volume are peopled by victims of mistaken identities, unexpected friends and professional liars. Through “In Uncertain Time,” Marías explores the fanaticism surrounding soccer in Spain in particular and Europe in general. In another, “Everything Bad Comes Back,” clearly autobiographical in tone, a melancholic translator of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy ponders his place in the world. And yet another, “On the Honeymoon,” reproduces the same subplot of A Heart So White and also several of its paragraphs, thus acknowledging Pierre Menard’s lesson: The same page used twice is a different page.

By far the brainiest, most emblematic and abstruse book by Marías, as well as the most demanding, is Dark Back of Time, about, well, everything and nothing. This is what Italo Calvino described as hyperfiction, a kind of narrative that twists and turns of its own volition, that is ever reflecting on its rhythm and style, ultimately giving the reader the sense that it is literature itself, not reality, that the author attempts to capture. I’m inclined to describe the book as a meditative essay. But to pigeonhole it seems preposterous anyway, for its strength lies precisely in its amphibious, if not anarchistic, structure. This, after all, is a nonlinear opera aperta that functions as a circuitous rendezvous through the realms of knowledge and imagination. It mixes autobiography with fiction, truth with lies, so as to show the extent to which an author–Javier Marías himself–is enriched and also cursed by his oeuvre.

Marías’s overall journey, with stops in Tristram Shandy and All Souls and explorations of such figures as John Gawsworth and Wilfrid Ewart, accompanied by a long list of cameo appearances by the famous and not-so-famous, as well as maps, news clips, photographs and insignias, parades before our eyes. G.K. Chesterton, in a mini-biography of Stevenson, offered some poignant thoughts on the role of the critic, helpful as advice on how to think of Marías. Chesterton argued (in 1928) that reviewers had been in the business of “depreciating” Stevenson, of “minimizing and finding fault” with his work. He suggested that the matter that mainly interested him, and the one critics should always be on the lookout for, “is not merely [a writer’s] pose, but the large landscape or background against which he was posing; which [the writer] himself only partly realised, but which goes to make up a rather important historical picture.” That, I think, is the way Marías ought to be perceived: The merit of his books is unquestionable, but the niche he has made for himself in Spain must be understood. He isn’t really “a writer’s writer,” as I’ve seen him described, but a reader’s writer: His corpus invites us to engage a rereading of the Spanish tradition beyond the nation’s borders, in an unconstrained, cosmopolitan fashion. Marías’s worth is to be found in his disinterest in lo español. Indeed, he might be among the last to try to rescue his country by refurbishing its belief in itself. Of course, that attribute might be precisely the one that makes him such an enthralling Spaniard today.

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