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Whose Horizon?

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.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. DK #

    Another great post. Thank you. And I think you’re right on the money about Marias here. I failed to invest myself in Voyage (and A Heart So White, too) for the very groundlessness you point out…

    I’ve been wondering about two (tangentially Sebald-related) authors who have yet to come up in the discussion here. Paul Auster, whose work, for me anyway, expresses the same sense of unconscious mourning we find in Sebald. And, secondly, the lesser-known and underappreciated novels of Ciaran Carson. Are you familiar with them at all? I’ve yet to read his more recent work (as it’s relatively hard to find), but Fishing for Amber and Shamrock Tea are both vaguely magic-realist excursions into rather Sebaldian territories. I’d be interested to know how you felt about either of them…

    Always a delight stopping by here. Thanks.

    August 31, 2010
    • I don’t know Carson’s work at all (but thanks for the tip!). I am not a fan of Paul Auster, I am afraid.

      September 5, 2010
  2. DK #

    Good luck with Carson, as he’s a real joy in my estimation.

    As for Auster, I’d say (if you haven’t done so already) to at the very least give his Invention of Solitude a chance. Based on what I’ve read here, I believe it would really appeal to your taste. It’s a memoir of mourning following his father’s death, the first part of which revolves around two enigmatic family photographs. The second half (which in my mind, makes it a masterpiece) shifts into the third-person and becomes an reflection on solitude, loss, and redemption. It swells with references to Mallarme, Tsvetaeva, Holderlin, Pascal, The Bible, while at the same time tracing the Auster-character’s relationship with his son, the recent dissolution of his marriage, and the loneliness of his life as a writer.

    Having read this memoir, and all of Auster’s subsequent work, I can never understand why so much emphasis is given to The New York Trilogy in discussions of his work…

    He’s a great admirer of Sebald, apparently, and it’s interesting to see just how often their work resonates with one another.

    September 6, 2010

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