Lingering and Loitering

Benjamin Kunkel

  • Your Face Tomorrow 3: Poison, Shadow and Farewell by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa
    Chatto, 545 pp, £18.99, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 7011 8342 4

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.

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[*] Anyone who hasn’t read him should trust that his prose fares better in the hands of his superb regular translator, Margaret Jull Costa, than in my own (no English version of ‘What Does and Doesn’t Happen’ seems to exist).