January 5, 2011
In a world accustomed to in-depth author interviews in the Paris Review, lengthy New Yorker-style profiles, and obsessive Wikipedia biographies, Javier Marias’s Written Lives, a book of brief writings about dead authors (the pieces average about 7 pages in length) is a real throwback to earlier, simpler times when sources were irrelevant and footnotes an annoyance. As Marias says in his short Prologue, he wanted to go against the grain in “the age of exhaustive and frequently futile erudition” in which any “curious reader can find out absolutely everything down to the last detail.”
The idea, then, was to treat these well-known literary figures as if they were fictional characters, which may well be how all writers, whether famous or obscure, would secretly like to be treated.
The writings collected here, it should be noted, are neither profiles nor biographies. Instead, as this sampling of chapter titles suggests, Marias focuses on a single attribute or quirk and constructs a tight and usually amusing narrative that resembles something not unlike a jazz improvisational solo: William Faulkner on Horseback, James Joyce in his Poses, Arthur Conan Doyle and Women, Robert Louis Stevenson Among Criminals, Thomas Mann in his Suffering, Djuna Barnes in Silence. But although the book is about writers, don’t expect anything about their books. Marias rarely mentions or discusses their writings. And in place of erudition, Marias writes as if rumor and whisper were the chief sources of fact. Take the piece Oscar Wilde After Prison, which is full of statements introduced by “According to all who met him…”, “Others have said…”, “Many people…found him…but all agree…”, “…according to legend…”, “…they say…”, “”Legend has it…”, and so on.
Marias pretends to be remain a neutral and bemused observer, except in a handful of cases, most notably with Yukio Mishima, where a fair amount of vitriol finds its way into Yukio Mishima in Death.
The death of Yukio Mishima was so spectacular that it has almost succeeded in obliterating the many other stupid things he did in his life, as if his previous non-stop exhibitionism had been merely a way of getting people’s attention for the culminating moment, doubtless the only one that really interested him.
Something about Mishima, in particular, offends Marias. “Although to those who knew him, Mishima was an extremely likable man with a lively sense of humor.” Nevertheless, Marias cuts Mishima no slack whatsoever and finds him pompous, narcissistic, cunning, immodest, and guilty of obsessing on eroticism, death, cannibalism, and other unpleasant matters. Marias, who often strikes me as trying to be more English than a true Englishman, responds to Mishima by demonstrating no attempt whatsoever to comprehend Japanese culture. But that said, Marias’ writing really comes alive when he’s out to destroy someone’s character.
August 30, 2010
We will never know the answers to these questions – I, at the very least, have been unable to reach any real sort of conclusion. But then sometimes I just tell myself that it isn’t so important after all and that in the end, no matter what really happened, it is not a story that is really worth repeating.
For the bulk of Javier Marias’ early novel Voyage Along the Horizon, a man sits in his extensive library and reads aloud from a manuscript called Voyage Along the Horizon, the product of an obscure author. When he finishes, he declares the novel “mediocre” and he swears to his audience of one (the narrator of the book we are holding) that he will never let the work be published. What is the poor reader of Javier Marias’ book to think, having been told that nearly all of the novel he is reading is mediocre and unworthy of being published?
Voyage Along the Horizon is a brilliant parody and for the most part an interesting read. Marias was just 21 when it was published in 1972 and he says he was thinking of authors such as Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at the time. What Marias does so well in Voyage is adopt their language, their novelistic conventions of plots within plots and voluble, omniscient narrators, their strong awareness of class – well, in short, he adopts just about everything except their inherent moralizing, their gravity of purpose. Without this grounding, Voyage quickly turns to farce. The characters are as thin as paper dolls and the plot is simultaneously convoluted and meaningless. I don’t mean it to be derogatory to say that what remains are little more than the social exercises of polite conversation and after-dinner story telling, because Marias can turn tired material like this into a feast for the reader that is partly comedic and partly pure linguistic pleasure.
As the title implies, perspective is everything. No voyage can proceed along the horizon except to a distant viewer – and here (as with all of his books) Marias’ multiple narrators maintain layers of distance between themselves and the actual story they are telling. On board the Antarctic-bound Tallahassee, whose voyage is the subject of the manuscript called Voyage Along the Horizon, are assorted scientists, a novelist, a short story writer, a pianist, and a hold full of Manchurian ponies that are slowly dying off. Ill-fated from the outset, the voyage gets no further than Tangier after an extended and meaningless detour through the Mediterranean, several murders and attempted murders, and a very deadly duel. In the midst of this hopeless voyage, the novelist tells of an earlier, utterly nefarious voyage led by their ship’s captain through portions of the South China Sea and the western Pacific – another voyage that fails to reach its destination. Like every book by Marias that I have read so far, this one is far more concerned with beginnings than with endings. Marias likes to ask the question “When does a story really start?” Hence, his narratives tend to recede into the past in search of their roots rather than making much forward progress.
One must learn to cultivate the art of ambiguity.
It does seem fair, after having read a half dozen or so of his books, to ask if all the sound and fury (so to speak) of a Marias novel actually signifies anything. While I always find is a pleasure to entrust myself to the unending flow of his writing, I’m not yet sure I have much sense of the kind of universe Marias is building – if any. So far, I am tempted to say that all I see when I look back is an unfinished monument to Babel. But then I have a few more of his books in my stack to read soon.
Voyage Along the Horizon was published in 2006 by Believer Books. The delicious cover design by Alvaro Villanueva, using artwork by Jonathon Rosen that refers back to the work of Hergé’s Tintin books, is a stroke of genius.
April 22, 2010
I normally don’t get too near book discussion groups or any other organized literary activities, but I’ve found myself lurking over at Conversational Reading where Scott is coordinating the conversation as everyone reads the three volumes of Javier Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow. For reasons that escape me, I’ve avoided Marias until now, despite the urging of friends and readers of Vertigo who kept reminding me that not only were Javier Marias and W.G. Sebald acquainted, but Marias uses photographs in some of his novels. I’m afraid I’m behind in my reading of the first volume Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear, but my enjoyment of the book is being abetted by the intelligent comments from other readers. A few days ago, Scott pulled in Marias’ translator Margaret Jull Costa for a fascinating question and answer session about translating Marias’ books, Marias as a translator, his reputation in Spain, and other topics.
The seventeen week reading of all three volumes runs through July 17.