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Posts from the ‘Javier Marias’ Category

The Trouble with Secrets


That’s the trouble with secrets, one can never ask for forgiveness.

In the highly refined world of Javier Marías, where any emotion, action, or statement can be surgically probed for pages in order to reveal every nuance and possible interpretation, the bar for what counts as an affront to the system is set frightfully low.  At the outset of Thus Bad Begins, Marías’s narrator, twenty-three year old Juan De Vere, is told by his new boss, the filmmaker Eduardo Muriel, that a friend of Muriel’s, a certain Dr. Van Vechten, has possibly committed some sort of heinous act in the past. It’s Madrid, 1980, five years after the death of Franco. Spaniards are tasting new freedoms, illicit drugs flow freely, the discos are packed until dawn, and unhappy couples await the legalization of divorce. “Is it something to do with the Civil War,” De Vere breathlessly asks? “Did he participate in a massacre? Did he carry out summary executions?” No, Muriel answers. His friend is believed to have “behaved in an indecent manner towards a woman or possibly more than one.” And with that bizarrely unexciting revelation, Marías sets in motion this fascinating, but overlong novel of lies and secrets. Read more

Recently Read – January 25, 2013


Three recent books from my Kindle.

1. Javier Marias. The Infatuations. Knopf, 2013. For the moment at least, The Infatuations is my favorite book by Javier Marias. While it doesn’t have the scope of the three-volume series Your Face Tomorrow, it benefits from an unwavering intensity of focus that is both exhilarating and harrowing at times. With five main characters and a noirish murder mystery plot, The Infatuations focuses in on the psychology of the characters and minutely examines the social and interpersonal dance of their interactions. Read more

Javier Marias on Using Photographs


In case you have not already read Oli Hazzard’s substantial and excellent interview with Javier Marías over at The White Review, I highly recommend it.  Among other topics, Marías addresses the use of photographs in his novels, starting with Todas las Almas (All Souls) in 1989, a year before W.G. Sebald inserted photographs into his first volume of prose fiction Schwindel. Gefühle. “I remember the surprise of my publisher then – photographs in a novel? Yeah, why not. It was a really strange thing to do then, now it’s not strange any more of course.” Read more

Written Silhouettes

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 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.

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.

The Muffled Tones of the Past: Javier Marias’ All Souls

There are many wonderful moments and observations in All Souls, Javier Marias’ book about lost souls of all types, but I’ll start with this one.  The narrator, a Spanish scholar teaching at Oxford, has been shopping the used bookstores and has just picked up a book signed and annotated by a long-dead author whose works he collects.

It was precisely that feeling of temporal vertigo or of time annihilated that is provoked by holding in one’s hands objects that still speak in muffled tones of their past that first aroused my curiosity…

Yes, it’s probably true that I tend to fall for references to vertigo, but my point here is the recurring fascination with the past in Marias’ books.  The lonely and homesick narrator, having a mostly desultory affair with a colleague’s wife, and generally disenchanted with the professorial routine in Oxford, has far more fruitful relationships with the dead – and with their books – than with the living.  He comes to life only during the book collecting and research that serve as acts of resuscitation for eccentrics of the past with whom he has become fascinated.  The remainder of the time he observes the dead souls and the living dead that surround him, worried that he, too, will become one of them before long.

All Souls is haunted by the uneasy relationship between Time and the Self.

The person recounting here and how what he saw and what happened to him then is not the same person who saw those things and to whom those things happened; neither is he a prolongation of that person, his shadow, his heir, or his usurper.

So who is “he,” then?  I’m not sure the narrator ever settles this.

Here is another example.  Will, the elderly porter at the building where the narrator lodges, exists in a kind of Alzheimer’s time machine.  Unknowingly, he lives every day as if it were a different year from the past.

Will literally did not know what day it was and spent each morning in a different year, traveling backwards and forwards in time according to his desires or, more likely, quite independently of any conscious desire on his part.  No one could predict which date he would choose, far less why he chose it.  It was not just that on certain days he believed it was 1947, for him it really was 1947 or 1914 or 1935 or 1960 or 1926 or any other year of his extremely long life.

…That particular morning it was 1962 and so he addressed me as Mr. Trevor.  Had Will found himself in the 1930s that morning, I would have been Dr. Nott… Each day I was a different faculty member from the past, although always the same faculty member from any one particular period… And he never got it wrong.

Which brings me the to the pair of photographs that show up in All Souls.  On successive pages a little more than halfway through the novel, we are presented with a photograph of the author John Gawsworth (whose signed book provoked the moment of collector’s vertigo quoted above), followed by a photograph of Gawsworth’s death mask.  Even though they are right there on the pages in front of us, Marias spends a page and a half carefully describing the two photographs.

Curiously, as I wrote in May, Marias uses photography in a similar vein in Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear.  There, the narrator discusses two photographs of his uncle, who was murdered at the time of the Spanish Civil War, before the narrator was even born.  The photograph that is reproduced shows the young man, nattily dressed on a bright, sunny day.  The other was a post-mortem photograph of the same young man, made for the purposes of identifying bodies and was not reproduced in the book.

Whether or not there is a photograph involved, Marias’ narrators often try to read the faces of the people they observe or meet.  Marias seems enamored with the now antiquated notion that deep insights or reliable personality traits can be discerned by studying the face, a reminder that Marias, for all his post-modern attributes, is essentially a novelist of the late 19th and early 20th century.  There are direct bloodlines from writers like Henry James and Joseph Conrad and Thomas Mann to Javier Marias.  Here’s a moment that could have come right out of Death inVenice.  In the Ashmolean Museum, the narrator runs across Clare, his lover, who is also visiting the museum and who is accompanied by her son and her father, thus permitting the narrator to study three generations of family faces at once.  He follows the trio and observes the faces of Clare and the elderly gentleman before turning his attention to the young grandson.  Almost immediately, the three faces are transposed on top of each other as if they were transparent.

…what I saw was the same identical face for the third time, Clare’s face that I knew so intimately and that I had kissed and whose lips had kissed me so many times. …They were one and the same face, the face whose lips had kissed me in one of its incarnations, representations, figurations or manifestations…

Here, in contrast to Will, who lives in different years every day, Marias seems to be insisting on the fluidity of personality across three generations.  To kiss the lips of his beloved is to kiss the father and the son as well.

All Souls, which Conversational Reading calls “something of a precursor” to Marias’ recent three-volume novel Your Face Tomorrow, is less ambitious, more traditional, but I think it might be more successful.  It has a companion novel, which I have not yet read, called Dark Back of Time.  For some fine writing about Marias, slide on over to Conversational Reading.

The Fatal Word, The Confirming Photograph

Fever and Spear, the first volume of Javier Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow is a novel about two parallel and often interchangeable fields of activity: spying, with its concomitant actions of betrayal and deception, and language, with its subsets of translation and digression.  Marias uses the world of spies and spying as a vast, flexible metaphor for literature.  The narrator, a Spaniard named Jacobo Deza, is drawn into this mysterious world because he has a special gift, which is explained to him here by a friend:

Toby told me that he always admired, and, at the same time, feared, the special gift you had for capturing the distinctive and even essential characteristics, both external and internal, of friends and acquaintances, characteristics which they themselves had often not noticed or known about.  Or even people you had only glimpsed or seen in passing, in a meeting or at high table, or whom you’d passed a couple of times in the corridors or on the stairs of the Taylorian without exchanging a single word.

Jacobo’s job becomes to observe and occasionally interview strangers and deliver oral opinions or write reports.

Do you think he would be capable of killing someone?  In some extreme situation, for example, if he felt really threatened?  Or would he be simply incapable of it, would he be the sort who would just give in and allow himself to be knifed to death, rather than get his blow in first?  Or, on the contrary, do you think he could kill, even in cold blood?

When Marias has Jacobo describe his role within the spy industry, Marias might as well be writing a description of his own role as a novelist.

Some of us have been paid…to tell and to hear, to put in order and to recount.  To retain and observe and select.  To wheedle, to embellish, to remember.  To interpret and translate and incite.  To draw out and persuade and distort.

Fever and Spear begins with a seventeen page excursus on the inevitable risks of speech – “treachery, misunderstanding, and chaos” – but for the next 370 pages Jacobo and his two main cohorts simply don’t know how to stop talking.  Marias gives Jacobo a narrative tic: Jacobo can’t just say something once.  He will make a statement, then rephrase it, and then rephrase it again and again.  It’s a kind of sculpting effect that Jacobo uses, perhaps thinking that he’s providing extra shape and clarity to his ideas.  But the net result is to make language more opaque, to distance words from their referents.  In the end, the reader doesn’t seem to know what the narrator believes or what is true.   Jacobo himself  has no idea what becomes of his reports. “They didn’t usually tell me when I had been right and when I had been wrong.”  He has no idea if his special gift is for real of if it is even useful.

If words are “fatal,” as Jacobo declares at one point, he seems to feel very differently about photographs.  Nearly halfway into Fever and Spear, the reader turns the page and suddenly comes face to face with a blurry, full-page photograph of a twenty-something young man.  Suit, tie, pocket foulard, brilliantined hair.  The photograph falls in the midst of a long digression about an event that happened before Jacobo was born.  During the Spanish Civil War, his mother-to-be  has gone off to search for her younger brother, who she fears has been murdered by the militia. Many years after his mother’s death, Jacobo discovers a tin containing some mementos, including two photographs that he presumes are of her brother, who was indeed murdered before he had a chance to become Jacobo’s uncle.  One of the photographs in the tin is a post-mortem photograph, probably taken by the Red Cross to certify the death of the young man.  The other photograph is the one reproduced in the book.   Jacobo spends four pages describing the photographs and his reactions upon finding them.

Upon seeing the post-mortem photograph:

“My first impulse was not to look at it, at the photo…My first impulse was to cover it up again with the little piece of satin, like someone protecting a living eye from seeing the face of a corpse, and as if I were suddenly aware that one is not responsible for what one sees, but for what one looks at, that the latter can always be avoided – you always have the choice – after the first inevitable glimpse, which is treacherous, involuntary, fleeting, and takes you by surprise, you can close your eyes or immediately cover them with your hands or turn away or choose to pass swiftly on to the next page without pausing (‘Turn the page, turn the page, I don’t want your horror or your suffering, Turn the page, and save yourself’).

Jacobo imagines that his mother took the photograph away with her when it was shown to her by the authorities “because to leave that photograph in the file of administered deaths would have been rather like abandoning to the elements a body she never actually saw and whose final resting place she never knew, tantamount to failing to give it a decent burial.”  For Jacobo, the photograph is a “confirmation”, not a betrayal.  The photograph commands respect. “…there are images that engrave themselves on the mind even if they last only an instant, and so it had been with that photo, so much so that I could draw it precisely from memory…”

It’s a curious decision of discretion that Marias does not reproduce a photograph that corresponds with the post-mortem photograph  of the bloodied face, which Jacobo describes in some detail.  Rather, we see only the sunlit image of the young man while still alive, unaware of the fate that awaits him and that surrounds him in the text.  Although there are other illustrations in Fever and Spear (mostly reproductions of British World War II-era posters from a campaign warning the population against spilling secrets to the enemy – “Careless Talk Costs Lives”), this is the sole real photograph in the book.

Javier Marias and W.G. Sebald knew and admired each other, with Sebald purportedly referring to Marias as a “twin writer.”  Sebald included a photograph of Marias’ eyes in his book of poems and photographs Unrecounted.  Marias dubbed Sebald the Duke of Vertigo in the imaginary Kingdom of Redonda that he administers.

Reading Your Face Tomorrow

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.