In one of literary history’s great instances of the pot calling the kettle black, Henry James complained of ‘the absence of spontaneity, the excess of reflection’ in George Eliot’s work. To other readers, of course, the proportion that Eliot – or even late James – sets up between narrative spontaneity (or action and event), on the one hand, and reflection or disquisition, on the other, seems harmonious and attractive, and it’s certainly easy enough to think of novels suffering from the opposite problem of lots of action and little thought. This second, more hardboiled category is one into which no one would think of putting the work of the Spanish novelist Javier Marías, despite the bodies that pile up in his pages; his ratio of mind to matter approaches a ghostly extreme. Characteristically, the gigantic and recently completed trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, delivers three essays on the inadvisability of imparting or receiving confidences before the narrator has confided the first thing about where he has been living or what he has been doing there. Not that this robs Marías’s novels of suspense: How shall I put this? is probably a more reliably involving gambit than Here’s what happened.
Some of Marías’s self-consciousness as a writer can probably be set down to his patrimony. The son of a well-known philosopher father (who also wrote a book on Cervantes), he made an early start as a novelist in what he understood to be an old tradition: in 1971, at the age of 19, he published his first novel in his native Madrid, where, as he notes in a lecture, ‘the first part of the Quixote appeared in 1605.’ The young and intellectually sophisticated novelist will necessarily have done much more reading than living, and even in Marías’s mature work, the reader senses a certain paucity of experience on the part of the proudly bookish author, as if a few germs of life had been cultured into an entire fictional ecology. There is no reason to disapprove of this: the elusiveness or scarcity of experience has been the beast in too many modern jungles for that. And in ‘What Does and Doesn’t Happen’ (1995), the same lecture that dates ‘the hybrid and flexible’ form of the novel to the first instalment of Don Quixote, Marías audaciously insists that what does not take place accounts for half of life anyway, and defines the special purview of the novel:
We all have at bottom the same tendency … to go on seeing the different stages of our life as the result and compendium of what has happened to us and what we have achieved and what we’ve realised, as if it were only this that made up our existence. And we almost always forget that … every path also consists of our losses and farewells, of our omissions and unachieved desires, of what we one day set aside or didn’t choose or didn’t finish, of numerous possibilities most of which – all but one in the end – weren’t realised, of our vacillations and our daydreams, of our frustrated projects and false or lukewarm longings, of the fears that paralysed us, of what we left behind or what we were left behind by. We perhaps consist, in sum, as much of what we have not been as of what we are, as much of the uncertain, indecisive or diffuse as of the shareable and quantifiable and memorable; perhaps we are made in equal measure of what could have been and what is.
Anyone who has read Marías will immediately recognise this highly rhetorical style, at once well-rehearsed and slightly distraught, from his novels, which also abound with catalogues of synonyms.
‘What Does and Doesn’t Happen’ must be one of the great contemporary vindications of the novel form. According to Marías, no other type of narrative can do as much justice to the unrealised or unknown and therefore invisible part of life. ‘The genre of the novel’, he argues, is uniquely able to show ‘that what was is also of a piece with what was not’. It goes without saying that what never happened is available only to reflection, not to observation.
One kind of novel makes use of the novel’s hypothetical vocation to grant us access to the silent reflections and thwarted impulses of all its characters, but omniscient narration is not Marías’s mode; he prefers scepticism. The chapters of El Siglo (1983) alternated between first and third person: we hear both about and from a retired judge who became an informer in the Spanish Civil War, but this was Marías’s last use of the third person as a novelist. In his five novels since, he has stuck fast to ‘I’, a choice which among other things means accepting the biological or metaphysical limits placed on individual knowledge: one can only be in one place at a time, and only follow one train of unvoiced thought. And Marías aggravates these restrictions into a special suspiciousness: how little can we know of anyone else’s activities and abstentions! His great subject might be said to be this natural ignorance, although in ‘What Does and Doesn’t Happen’ he tellingly favours the word engaño or ‘deception’, as if the universe, by concealing the truth about other minds, were a cheating spouse or back-stabbing friend.
Marías’s own history (after the end of the Civil War, his father was denounced to the authorities by his best friend) may lie behind this mistrustful disposition. But it is also tempting to see in his aggrieved scepticism something of the straitened epistemological circumstances of contemporary fiction, many of whose practitioners feel as little able to believe in omniscient narration as in an all-knowing God. Who but a postmodern novelist or a disbarred psychic could complain about the limits of first-hand knowledge as Marías does in his short story ‘When I Was Mortal’ (1993)?
The people closest to us seem like actors suddenly stepping out in front of a theatre curtain, and we have no idea what they were doing only a second earlier, when they were not there before us. Perhaps they appear disguised as Othello or as Hamlet and yet the previous moment they were smoking an impossible, anachronistic cigarette in the wings and glancing impatiently at the watch which they have now removed in order to seem to be someone else. Likewise, we know nothing about the events at which we were not present and the conversations we did not hear, those that took place behind our back and mentioned us or criticised us or judged us and condemned us.
If the sceptic is preoccupied by what he doesn’t know, and the paranoid by what he may yet find out, Marías figures as one of the great sceptics and great paranoids of the contemporary novel. These are two sides to the same coin, of course: a terrain shrouded by ignorance might turn out to have been infiltrated by enemies. And so the mood of his fiction has shifted between a sceptic’s lament – what can be known of any of us? – and the bitter apprehension of a paranoid: what betrayals lie in store?
The most sustained and unsettling expression of Marías’s scepticism is probably his great novel Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (1994). It arrestingly begins: ‘No one ever expects that they might someday find themselves with a dead woman in their arms, a woman whose face they will never see again, but whose name they will recall.’ The woman dead in the narrator’s arms is one Marta Téllez; and the scandal that inflames him is not so much that, in dying (for reasons never medically specified) next to him, Marta Téllez dies in her marriage bed while in a lover’s arms – the many adulteries in Marías often come across as perfunctory – as it is that she dies in some fundamental sense unknown, ‘una desconocida’. That is, the narrator hardly knows (and, sexually speaking, hasn’t yet succeeded in knowing) Marta before she dies, and in the morning Marta’s family will not know what happened to her, or whom she was with when it happened. Marta herself, we come to understand, was meanwhile in the dark – and as a dead woman will naturally remain so – about her husband’s own treacherous activities on her last night. Mutual ignorance among intimates is the rule. And in the most outrageously choreographed of several set-pieces of reciprocal uncertainty, the narrator will pick up on a dark Madrid street a prostitute whom he suspects of being his ex-wife and conclude his transaction with her without establishing her identity one way or the other. The scene – it is a feat – grazes but somehow does not trespass the boundary of plausibility.
Marías’s novels invite description in musical terms. His essayistic overtures launch a set of themes; a given theme then receives a minor-key treatment in one chapter (the death of Marta) and gets a more farcical or opera bouffe treatment in another (the encounter with the mysterious prostitute), while the narrator continually reverts to and slightly varies small snatches of verbal music. One such phrase, in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, gives the book its title; two other bits of threnody are ‘everything is forgotten or invalidated’ and ‘everything is as slippery as compacted snow.’ Both recur in the book’s coda, which summons the figure of Marta’s young and now half-orphaned son to dilate on the theme of comprehensive oblivion:
That boy will never know what happened, his father and his aunt will hide it from him, I will too, and it doesn’t really matter because so many things happen without anyone realising or remembering, everything is forgotten or invalidated. And how little remains of each individual in time, useless as slippery snow, how little trace remains of anything, and how much of that little is never talked about, and, afterwards, one remembers only a tiny fraction of what was said, and then only briefly: while we travel slowly towards our dissolution merely in order to traverse the back or reverse side of time.
‘Tomorrow in the battle think on me’ is plucked from Richard III, and the evocation of Shakespeare (whose lines supply the titles of several of Marías’s books) is not the pretension it may seem. In Spanish, where one can multiply negatives without contradiction, Marías’s long sentences snowball with erasure, piling up the words nunca, nadie, ningún, no, ni and nada – never, no one, not one, not, nor, nothing – and this effect, palpable enough in translation too, can put one in mind of Harold Bloom’s observation that the ‘authentic Shakespearean litany chants variations on the word “nothing”.’ Goaded by their more nihilistic terrors into rhetorical excess, Shakespeare’s tragic heroes do not just say ‘to die, and go we know not where’ and leave it at that, but add: ‘to lie in cold obstruction and to rot/ … to reside in thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;/to be imprisoned in the viewless winds/ And blown with restless violence round about/The pendant world’, and so on. This feeling of metaphysical scandal harassed into tumbling appositions is precisely what characterises Marías’s language in the most thrilling regions of his best novels, Tomorrow in the Battle and A Heart So White (1992).
‘Dark back of time’ – Shakespeare’s ‘dark backward and abysm of time’ – is Marías’s name for the void of ignorance and forgetting, as well as the title of his one book-length work of non-fiction, Negra espalada del tiempo (1998), a crumbling maze of an essay that seeks to establish how little we could say about anything if we adopted a rigorous definition of ‘non-fiction’: ‘“To tell what happened” is inconceivable and futile, or possible only as invention.’ But if Shakespeare had in mind the back of a mirror, Marías is equally possessed by the opposite idea of the mirror’s face, as it were, where the events of life are spied on endlessly by an unblinking eye. And his fear is that such an all-seeing perspective would reveal scene after scene of betrayal.
Until Your Face Tomorrow, ‘When I Was Mortal’ was perhaps the most potent example of this paranoia. The story is a mémoire d’outre-tombe with a simple premise: ‘You forget almost everything in life and remember everything in death.’ Moreover, Marías’s narrating ghost can also ‘remember’ deeds that he did not witness but which did concern him. So death reveals to him a rancid pact between his Republican father and the Francoist Dr Arranz, who agrees to withhold compromising information about the father’s wartime political activities so long as he, the doctor, is permitted nightly access to the narrator’s mother. The narrator learns, too, of the similarly lurid circumstances of his own death. His wife, Luisa (also the name of the narrator’s wife in A Heart So White and in Your Face Tomorrow, not to mention Marta Téllez’s sister), having found out about his affair with another woman, hired someone – ‘the word is assassin, in the war a lot of militiamen were used for such purposes’ – to dispatch him with what at the time was merely ‘a black thing’ looming overhead, and which he now and eternally understands to have been a hammer.
I had misremembered the murder weapon as a sword or spear, no doubt because when Marías’s characters contemplate violence or act it out they tend to show anachronistic preferences along these lines. The story ‘Spear Blood’ (1995) opens with the narrator’s best friend ‘lying on his bed with a spear through his chest and with a strange woman by his side’, and in Your Face Tomorrow, despite its contemporary setting, swords and even a spear are wielded with slightly more frequency than ‘those snooping devices’ known as mobile phones – in keeping, perhaps, with Marías’s intimate and slightly antique prose style. More hardboiled writers favour guns, and write sentences like bullets.
In much of Marías’s fiction, we learn of a mysterious death on the first page – a thrillerish dose of violence ensuring our patience through the winding passages of reflection. And the silent corpse performs a philosophical service as well. Here is incontrovertible proof of the final inaccessibility of other people; and here, at the same time, is the rare fact whose reality can’t be undermined by later discoveries. (Murder rates are notoriously the most reliable crime statistics.) And yet the insistent recourse to the bloody trappings of genre fiction – most often the thriller, but in Your Face Tomorrow also the spy novel – can have the effect of making Marías’s novels seem, especially at their most dramatic, still more devoid of event than they first appeared. Many though not all of the numerous deaths and betrayals, along with the even more common adulteries, seem merely conventional or customary – a kind of macabre shorthand for events and relationships in general. In such cases, a dead or wounded body, presumably the least notional thing in the world, evaporates into illustration.
The bodies are one more sign of the narrowness of Marías’s fictional world, with its several rearrangements of a small set of elements, including the voyeuristic and eavesdropping narrator with a career in ghost-writing or translation; the intellectually distinguished father with a Republican past; the wife named Luisa; the glinting weaponry; and often a louche and cynical friend whose name begins with a C. A solid and imposing structure can be erected on a slender base. It only threatens to tumble down when we begin to doubt whether the base was anything but agitated air in the first place.
The title of the trilogy alludes to just the kind of unhappy future knowledge outlined in ‘When I Was Mortal’: ‘How can I not know today your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged beneath the face you show me or beneath the mask you are wearing?’ The narrator asking himself this question is the same as in Marías’s Oxford novel, All Souls (1989), a much lighter and more charmingly sinister book; here he has acquired a name, Jacques Deza, and a wife, Luisa. (Marías himself taught at Oxford for a few years in the 1980s.) One of Deza’s obsessive ideas could be summed up by Yeats’s lines on the Last Judgment: ‘All could be known/ Or shown/If time were but away.’ The believer’s notion ‘of a Final Judgment’, as Deza calls it, crops up in the first volume in the context of Cervantes’s ‘written farewell’, which Deza’s father likes to cite. He expands on it in the second volume, imagining ‘the Judge who remembers everything in his all-embracing record or infinite archive of the history of time’. As a modern sceptic Deza naturally doesn’t believe in any such archivist God. But after a period at a loose end in London, working in some ill-defined capacity for the BBC and separated, also rather vaguely, from Luisa, he is recruited into an organisation devoted to pressing limited human knowledge as close to omniscience as it can go.
‘The group’, as the former member and retired Oxford don who recruits Deza calls it, ‘in order not to call it anything’, operates out of an equally nameless building in London. A department of the British intelligence services, it is composed of a few rare individuals gifted with undeceived sight. For it turns out that Marías’s previous doubts about our ability to enter other minds were mistaken. Ordinary people, ‘distracted by the mere passing of a fly’, may not possess ‘the prolonged gaze’ that reveals the black deeds of which a given person is capable. But a small elite can cultivate ‘the courage to see’, in the words of Bertram Tupra, the curiously named leader of the nameless group, about whose family background Deza speculates without result. (In Your Face Tomorrow, adepts of the prolonged gaze tend to be very discreet about themselves.)
So Deza’s job is to observe, sometimes from behind one-way glass and sometimes face to face, people in whom the nameless group’s clients, chiefly the British government but also certain undisclosed private parties, take a never defined interest. ‘What I interpreted,’ Deza says, ‘were – in just three words – stories, people, lives. Often stories that had not yet happened. People who did not know themselves and who could not have said about themselves even a tenth of what I saw in them, or was urged to see in them and to put into words.’ The obvious analogy with Marías’s own line of work later becomes explicit: ‘It was almost like writing novels.’ Of course part of the fascination of Marías’s previous novels was that he seemed to lack or to have disowned the novelist’s clairvoyance: not only did he deny himself access to anyone’s mind other than the narrator’s, but in the most literal way he often didn’t know what would happen next. As he explained in the essay ‘Wandering without a Compass’ (1993), his chosen method was improvisation; he wrote as his sentences carried him, without an outline. Marías has said in recent interviews that in spite of its scale Your Face Tomorrow is another improvisation.
In only one instance do we learn of any consequence following from Deza’s hazards of a stranger’s future behaviour, an episode that caps the main moral drama of the novel. The subject of one of his reports is an initially Rod Stewart-esque entertainer whom Deza calls ‘Dickie Dearlove’ to protect his identity (even, and illogically, after Dearlove’s plunge into crime has been well publicised by the Sun and the Times and even El País) and also, presumably, to burlesque the real-life Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6. What interest the fictional Dearlove might hold for the admittedly surveillance-happy British authorities isn’t clear, but in scrutinising him Deza has seen an acute case of what he nicely terms ‘narrative horror’ – the fear that by some future action we will disfigure the story of our lives. This fear, clearly the narrator’s too, amounts to a secular anticipation of the Last Judgment when, if all were known or shown, we might witness ourselves and others committing absurd and disgraceful acts that to date are mere ‘probabilities in our veins’.
For Dearlove, this means that if ‘a very young man’ he has taken home appears to have succumbed to his advances in order to capture video proof of Dearlove’s hidden sexual proclivities – something that could change the public narrative of the star’s life – he might react violently. ‘Two nights ago,’ Deza discovers near the end of the third volume, ‘the singer had stuck a spear, one of several he had hanging in a room next to the dining-room, into the chest and throat of that very young young man.’
Deza’s unprovable suspicion is that his boss Tupra has set Dearlove up in order to test the accuracy of Deza’s forecasts. ‘Without my prognostications,’ as Deza remorsefully confesses to his original recruiter, ‘nothing would have happened, I’m sure, and Dearlove would not be a murderer.’ Everything we know about Tupra’s character suggests that he would be capable of entrapping Dearlove just to test a hypothesis, but it’s also true that Tupra, after the narrator the main character of Your Face Tomorrow, is a compound of clichés. This sword-wielding smoothie (‘It’s probably the weapon that instils the most fear in people’) has the diabolical eloquence and suavity with which Bond villains and Nazi captains are often endowed in movies, while his elitism and amorality (‘There’s no light, no breathing space, no ventilation in unanimity, nor in shared commonplaces’) evoke an undergraduate seminar on Nietzsche. As Deza hesitates over whether to think of Tupra as Sir Cruelty or Sir Punishment or Sir Death or Sir Thrashing, the alternative title Sir Silliness suggests itself.
Or Sir Superiority. Tupra scorns the wilfully blind ‘rabble’, an epithet Deza enjoys in spite of its being ‘so frowned upon now’. This comes as little surprise given Deza’s disdain for contemporary grooming habits (underarm hair, goatees, ponytails), fashion sense (hairnets, clogs), usage (incorrect plurals), music (hip-hop, or ‘worthless drivel’), and travel (‘rude tourists’ is ‘almost a tautology’). You can agree with one or two of these complaints while agreeing more heartily with Gertrude Stein when she told Hemingway (‘patron saint of tourists’, Deza calls him) that opinions are not literature. And as the supercilious irrelevancies add up, as they do nowhere else in Marías’s fiction, they prompt the depressing thought that the author’s extraordinary style, with its vast unfurling periods, tremendous flexibility, and great trove of little-used words, may be intended to express not so much scepticism or philosophical paranoia as the more comfortable attitude of superiority. Marías once beautifully described his ‘Cervantine’ Spanish as something he had been able to attain only by the circuitous route of reading Henry James. The lustre of the achievement begins to tarnish if the style displays itself like a trophy picked up by the rare Spaniard who taught at Oxford.
‘One should never tell anyone anything’ are the first words of Your Face Tomorrow, but the book does not illustrate the perils of garrulousness in the way it might mean to. The upshot of Deza’s telling Tupra what he thinks about Dickie Dearlove is definitely grim, but why does Marías rely on such an inefficient narrative contraption to point up the dangers of indiscretion, when it’s so much more common and plausible, not to say painful and interesting, for careless talk to wound friends, lovers and regular citizens who are neither celebrities nor spies? Hardly anything of that more ordinary kind happens across the entire length of the trilogy, and you begin to have the unsettling feeling, often provoked by verbose people, that the novelist is doing all he can to avoid the subject he pretends to discuss. ‘We know, but hate knowing,’ Deza tells himself early on. ‘We cannot bear to see; we hate knowledge and certainty and conviction.’ This is meant to cover the general public, not ‘the group’. But who is it, really, who can’t stand to look into other people’s hearts?
In the overture to the trilogy, Marías cites with respect to private life the American Miranda warning, recited (‘at least in films’) to criminal suspects: ‘You have the right to remain silent; anything you say can and will be used against you.’ Here is half of one swelling parenthesis on the minatory theme:
(Keeping silent, erasing, suppressing, cancelling and having, in the past, remained silent too: that is the world’s great, unachievable ambition, which is why anything else, any substitute, falls short, and why it is pure childishness to withdraw what has been said and why retraction is so futile; and that is also why – because, unlikely though it may seem, it is sometimes the only thing that can effectively inject a little doubt – out-and-out denial is so irritating, denying that one said what was said and heard and denying that one did what was done and endured …)
Marías has elsewhere shown how surprisingly effective it can be for the novelist to announce the general rule (‘No one ever expects that they might someday find themselves with a dead woman in their arms …’) before giving the vivid instance. In Your Face Tomorrow, rule and instance strain for one another without often meeting. Nobody ever flatly denies what he has undeniably just said, though one can easily think of circumstances in which a character might do so. And the same disconnect between the general and the particular holds in the other direction too. Deza’s separation from Luisa doesn’t yield any of the sour generalities that might reasonably be wrung from married life.
In Marías’s earlier A Heart So White, the narrator tells us on the first page of learning that his mother’s sister, who was also his father’s previous wife, killed herself after returning from her honeymoon; and by the last pages, after his father has confessed something to the narrator’s own Luisa, we have an idea of why. Like Your Face Tomorrow, A Heart So White treats Marías’s familiar themes of ignorance and knowledge as subjects for moral philosophy, not just epistemology. The success of the earlier novel lay in Marías’s searching analysis of marriage as ‘a narrative institution’ defined by what husbands and wives do and don’t recount to each another. A book largely concerned with the misfortune of finding things out, it wasn’t afraid to brandish the relevant discoveries. Meanwhile the situation of the narrator, aghast at what he was learning, explained and redeemed the eloquent hysteria of his language.
Your Face Tomorrow, by contrast, dwells, lingers and loiters (to put it as Marías might) on the far less credible and consequential narrative institution of his cell of hired seers, while mostly avoiding the moral consequences of reticence and disclosure between intimates or between citizens and governments. (The concept of the nameless group is as apolitical as it is fuzzy.) No distinct private or public occasion unsluices so many words; Deza’s life and thoughts seem almost not to know of one another. In these spectral circumstances, the agile Cervantine prose turns into heavy Góngorism, the ancient vice of Spanish writing, and the initially intriguing paradox of thirteen hundred pages on the virtues of silence and the fatal error of confession becomes an example of the everyday phenomenon of someone talking a lot without saying much. The best of Marías’s books were taken up sometimes with the impossibility of knowing others and of being known, and sometimes with the dread of the same knowledge. His intended masterpiece presents the different but surely related case of a novelist and (in the figure of Deza) a man appearing to avert his eyes from just the sights his special gift should permit him to see.