By Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa
New Directions, 2010
By Javier Marías, translated by Esther Allen
New Directions, 2010
William Hazlitt’s remark about Coleridge is true also of Javier Marías: he prefers the unknown to the known. That is, his fiction obsesses over the limits of human knowledge and perception. “What takes place is identical to what doesn’t take place,” the narrator of Marías’s acclaimed 1992 novel A Heart So White tells us, “what we dismiss or allow to slip by us is identical to what we accept and seize, what we experience identical to what we never try, and yet we spend our lives in a process of choosing and rejecting and selecting, in drawing a line to separate these identical things and make of our story a unique story that we can remember or that can be told.”
A narrative, in other words, is defined in equal measure by what it includes and what it omits. Telling a story – that fundamental human impulse – consists of selecting and discarding, embellishing and forgetting. In Marías’s fiction, it is defined by what we know as much as by what we don’t know, or what we don’t know yet. In Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me, one of Marías’s finest novels, a cheating and cheated-on husband, Déan, is obsessed by what he might have done differently when he learns that he spent twenty hours unaware of his wife’s sudden death. (He was away in London on a business trip with his lover.) “I want you to know what happened during that period when I did not know that Marta had died,” the husband tells the narrator toward the end of the novel,
what I did and didn’t do and what I was about to do and what happened anyway. It wasn’t your fault, it didn’t happen because of you, I’m not blaming anyone for the way things turned out. Things just happen, that’s all, I know that, perhaps it’s a question of good or bad luck, sometimes no one intends anything or seeks anything. But those things always happen to someone and there is always someone else, their paths cross, often without their realizing it, usually without their even getting the chance to know.
In this case, the limits of individual knowledge are aggravated obsessively, and the tormented Déan must somehow accept the extent to which his ignorance has shaped his life. As the narrator reflects while listening to Déan: “such and such happened and we have to learn to live with it once we know that it did happen, we have to find a place for it in our consciousness and in our memory where the fact that it happened and that we know about it will not prevent us from going on living.” When this fails it is usually due to what Marías calls “narrative horror.” Valerie Wheeler, a sort of omnipresent character in Marías’ three-volume Your Face Tomorrow receives a letter in which she learns that her activities as a “black propaganda” agent during the Second World War led to the death of a woman, Ilse, and her two children in concentration camps. (Valerie’s “crime” consisted of suggesting to her superior that they make use of the fact that Rendl, Ilse’s ardent Nazi husband, was in fact partly Jewish.) Unable to live with the knowledge that she may have contributed to bringing about their deaths, Valerie shoots herself with a rifle.
For Marías, fiction is ideally suited to investigate the invisible parts of our lives. In his short fiction he does so quite literally by employing ghosts as characters – as is the case in a number of the stories collected in While the Women Were Sleeping, the latest addition to New Directions’s catalogue of the Spanish author’s works in English. In the novels, however, the story often takes its cue from a given narrator’s reflections and meditations; reflections that, as the novels progress, are investigated and turned over persistently. This is a process Marías in his Paris Review interview terms “literary thinking”:
In my books there is not only the action, the characters, the story and so forth; there is reflection as well, and often the action stops. The narrator then makes a series of considerations and meditations. There is a tradition within the novel form, almost forgotten now, which embodies what I call literary thinking or literary thought. It’s a way of thinking which takes place only in literature—the things you never think of or hit upon unless you are writing fiction. Unlike philosophical thinking, which demands an argument without logical flaws and contradictions, literary thinking allows you to contradict yourself.
The narrators, like Marías himself, prefer the ebb and flow of thought to the irretrievable one-way traffic of speech. The novel Your Face Tomorrow, the third and final volume of which New Directions published in 2009, begins: “One should never tell anyone anything or give information or pass on stories,” reminding us of the poison that even the most generous and well-meaning speech injects into its audience. Marías plays on this idea in almost all his work. In the novella Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico (translated by Esther Allen who manages, to her own credit, to sound exactly like Margaret Jull Costa, Marías’ regular translator) the narrator, Ruibérriz, a Spaniard in Acapulco working as an interpreter on the set of an Elvis Presley movie, reflects early on:
…there is never a way of erasing what’s been said, true or false, once it’s been said: accusations and inventions, slanders and stories and fabrications, disavowal is not enough, it doesn’t erase but add: once an event has been recounted there will be a thousand contradictory and impossible versions long, long before the event is annihilated: denials and discrepancies coexist with what they refute or deny, they accumulate, add up, they never cancel anything out but only end up sanctioning it for as long as people go on talking, the only way to erase is to say nothing, and go on saying nothing for a very long time.
In a strange turn of events, Ruibérriz finds himself in a seedy bar in Mexico City with Elvis Presley and two other crew members and a woman. One of the crew members, an obnoxious small-town tycoon named George McGraw who always insists on trying to “out-Elvis Elvis,” gets into a scuffle with a couple of locals with bad natures, and within minutes Ruibérriz finds himself translating insults on behalf of Elvis. The brawl is defused, but the locals refuse to let Ruibérriz go. Abandoned by Elvis and the crew, Ruibérriz is shocked to learn that the locals hold him responsible for the insults Elvis told him to translate since they themselves don’t understand English: “how could they hold me guilty for something that didn’t proceed from my head or my will or my spirit. But it had come from my tongue, my tongue had made it possible…”
Ruibérriz winds up committing an act that will incite a lust for vengeance in his captors, and the story (which comes to just fifty-seven pages) circles back, in true Marías-fashion, to the reflections on the nature of vengeance with which it began, fleshing them out and giving them an added depth.
Bad Nature aside, Marías’s short stories differ significantly from his longer fiction. Within the constraints of the stories in While the Women Are Sleeping the author seems unwittingly trapped by brevity of the form. Few of the stories make it past the ten page mark which, in a Marías novel, amounts to a sentence or two. Instead of the customary “literary thinking” of the novels, the stories collected here gesture toward the more literal representation of the invisible, paying due homage to the masters of the ghost story: Robert Luis Stevenson, Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle. In “A Kind of Nostalgia,” Elena, a young maid who reads aloud to an older woman while the ghost of Emiliano Zapata eavesdrops, even invokes Conan Doyle: “she put more faith in Conan Doyle’s narrative skills than any other scientific or literary bait.”
Marías’s sentences have rightly been praised as both Jamesian (i.e. complex) and Proustian (i.e. long.) In the novels, a typical Marías sentence accumulates its clauses the same way a legal document does; with each additional clause, the overall meaning is altered, refined, complicated. Unfortunately, the short story form prevents Marías from sufficiently flexing his syntactical muscles. There simply isn’t room for the long, reflective Marías sentence. When it does come it seems merely tangential, as in this observation of a young boy on the beach in “While the Women Are Sleeping”:
One day, we were enjoying ourselves following the exploits of a small Italian sailor, that is, an insubordinate one-year-old wearing nothing but a sailor’s hat, who, as we kept reporting to each other, was going around destroying not only the fortifications built in the sand by his siblings and older cousins but doubtless some of his progenitors’ long-term friendships, and doing so with the same aplomb with which he drank the salt water (he seemed to swallow gallons) to the complete unconcern of the families accompanying him.
This is very amusing; the slightly archaic tone of a typical Marías narrator analyzing the activities of a one-year-old on the beach. It almost reads like a caricature of a Marías narrator, as if the author was lightly mocking himself. But gone is the circumvention and accumulation of the novels, the sense of closing in on something like the core of human nature. Too many of the stories rely on plot twists and come off as being merely clever. In “Gualta,” for instance, the narrator, living with his wife in Madrid, discovers that he has a doppelgänger, Xavier de Gualta, working in the Barcelona offices of the same company he works for. But Gualta is not merely an exact lookalike; he is a do-alike. “Gualta and I were physically identical,” the narrator explains, “like twins in the cinema, but it wasn’t just that: we even made the same gestures at the same time and used the same words.” The story churns its absurdity, stroking the furthest limits of plausibility as the narrator goes to extreme lengths trying to act, as Marías puts it, in discordance with his biography, only to discover that Gualta always does the exact same thing. At the end of the story, having virtually abandoned himself, the narrator winds up wondering if this time it is possible that he has succeeding in outmaneuvering Gualta. And if so, “why, of the two of us, had I been the one to abandon and renounce my biography?”
A chilling conclusion to a perfectly-constructed and quite sinister story. Still, one pines for the novels, those books that make up one of the most original and genre-rattling bodies of work of our time. It is, fortunately, a body of work that continues to expand: this month, Alfaguera will publish Los enamoramientos, Marías’ first novel since Your Face Tomorrow. (Of particular interest is the fact that the novel will be narrated from the point of view of a female character, something of a departure from the very male-centric fictions of Marías.) New Directions has already secured the brilliant Margaret Jull Costa as its English translator, but in the meantime why not translate some more of Marías’ non-fiction? Surely a writer so wedded to the “dynamism of ideas” (the phrase is Rebecca West’s) would be a welcome addition to the critical playing field of English-language literature, to say nothing of the fact that the distinction between fact and fiction is already blurred in Marías: “A very thin line separates facts from imaginings,” he writes in Your Face Tomorrow, “even desires from their fulfillment, and the fictitious from what actually happened, because imaginings are already facts, and desires are their own fulfillment, and the fictitious does happen…”
The fictitious does happen. No other contemporary writer has so strengthened my conviction of fiction’s fundamental truth; Marías teaches us to be weary of the distinction between the factual and the fictitious – between what does and doesn’t happen. And in doing so he has reminded us of the endless possibilities of fiction. We construct narratives and tell stories for as long as we live – selecting, discarding, embellishing, forgetting. Our stories never end; they simply accumulate. In that sense we are poor storytellers; telling stories, as Marías like to quote Faulkner as saying, is like striking a match in the middle of the night in the middle of a field: it doesn’t permit you to see anything more clearly, but to see more clearly the darkness that surrounds you.
Morten Høi Jensen is a Danish writer. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Quarterly Conversation and Words Without Borders Magazine. He writes a literary blog for the Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten.