YFTS: Favors, and The Return of the Socks (!)

For those of you who remain with me, we are now just beginning “Dance,” the first section of volume 2 of Javier Marias’ long book (schedule here). As was probably not a surprise to most people, we discover that the young woman following Deza into his apartment at the end of vol. 1 was in fact Perez Nuix, who has an intriguing request to make of him.

I was struck here at how Marias sets up this request with the whole story of the Gypsy woman that Deza’s wife, Luisa, tells to begin “Dance.” Essentially, there’s a heavy kind of synchrony between the two of them, even a sort of doubling. Luisa’s story is one about how performing a favor for another person (in this case, buying a cake for the young boy of a destitute mother) puts you into a relationship with that person, whether you want to be or not. Of course it was nothing for a woman like Luisa to buy a small cake from a bakery–this was never the issue with the favor. Rather, the thing about this story that makes it worth telling is how Luisa navigates the space between a request and its granting. She has to see the Gypsy woman as a fellow human, to sympathize with why she wants the cake for just a moment, in order to be able to grant the request. The fact that Luisa has entered into a relationship that can’t be so easily broken is seen in this exchange with Deza:

“And now that you’ve done what she asked, won’t she always be asking you for more things?” I said.

“No, I don’t think she’s the sort to take advantage. I’ve seen her several times since I bought her baby wipes, and this was the first time that she’s expressly asked me for something else . . .” [15]

And then, roughly 10 pages later, Deza begins a beautiful discussion of the process by which Perez Nuix comes to ask his favor; that is, the way she forms the question, the power relations inherent in the act, what it all means for them.

If I let her continue, I will already be involved; afterwards, possibly caught and even entangled. It’s always the same, even if I refuse her the favour and do nothing, there is always some bond. How does she know that it’s less of a favour for me? That is something no one can know, neither she nor I, until the favour has been granted and time has passed and accounts have been drawn up or time has ended. But with that one phrase she has involved me . . . [29]

Also noteworthy in this discussion is the state of Perez Nuix’s stockings (which are covering legs that Deza makes no secret of his admiration for throughout the conversation). Recall that earlier I noted how peculiar it was that Deza kept noticing Wheeler’s socks during a similar conversation at the end of vol 1. And now it is women’s stockings.

This is one of the ephemeral powers of the person doing the granting or refusing, the most immediate compensation for finding oneself involved, but one pays the price for this too, later on. And this is why, often in order to make that power last, the reply or decision are delayed, and sometimes never even arrive at all. She uncrossed her legs and crossed them again the other way, I saw the run in her stockings begin on one thigh, she would not discover it for quite some time, I thought (she was not looking where I was looking), and by then the size of the run might make her blush. [35]

And the, finally, we find ourselves in a disco, with Deza, Tupra, a couple of their work associates, some big-time Italian they’re interpreting for a client, and his wife. Frankly, I found hilarious Deza’s somewhat mean-spirited thoughts on the wife’s refurbished breasts, and I thought she was a brilliantly evoked minor character. (And I’ll add that so many minor characters in this book seem a well-built as the major ones.)

And speaking of minor characters, was I the only one to not be terribly disappointed to see the return of Rafita, the idiot, Bushesque son of a Spanish politician destined for greatness? There’s something endearing in how bothered Deza gets when he’s around, and Deza’s rather insulting description of his club get-up (think of a real douchy guy trying to look like a rapper) was fantastic. (I particularly enjoyed the scorn he lavished on his hair-net.)

To close here, I want to bring up this passage toward the end of our first segment that brings together a couple of central metaphors from vol 1:

All of you and all of us are just like snow on somebody’s shoulders, slippery and docile, and the snow always stops. Neither you nor we are like a drop of blood or a bloodstain, with its resistant rim that sticks so obstinately to the porcelain or to the floor . . . [59]

I can’t find precisely where Deza first mentions the snow (perhaps someone will help me track it down), but I recall that it’s something of a metaphor for the way the weight of words slowly slides off our shoulders as they are forgotten. The bloodstain, I’m sure, everyone will remember from Deza’s night in Wheeler’s house, and is something along the lines of the opposite: that one persistent memory that will not fade. Interesting to see him evoking them together here (I believe this is the first time he does it). And it makes me wonder, will Marias ever return to what that blood was doing there in the first place?

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I’m not sure if I quite believe Marias when he talks about his writing style.

Maybe I’m remembering this wrong, but I thought he said that he doesn’t outline his plot and never revises or goes back to earlier pages. This seems strange because he works is constantly alluding to the past with his use of language and imagery. Snowflakes, fever, spear, blood, and myriad other small details from previous scenes that he’d have to go revisit in order to quote accurately from.

Marias, or rather, Deza, on snow, from Vol I:

p. 22: “Or, which comes to the same thing, as if they took great pains to anticipate and configure it and to shape its content as much as possible; and that this was what they wanted, as being the only sure way of truly making the most of their remaining time, which seems to move so very slowly, but is, in fact, sliding from their shoulders like snow, slippery and docile. And the snow always stops.”

P. 31: “…even our kisses are replaced, and they close their eyes as they kiss, in memories and in thoughts and in daydreams and everywhere, I am like the snow on someone’s shoulders, slippery and docile, and the snow always stops…”

P. 373: “‘And so the centuries pass and nothing ever yields or ends, everything infects everything else, nothing releases us. And that “everything” slides like snow from the shoulders, slippery and docile, except that this snow travels through time and beyond us, and may never stop.'”

These are the instances of the snow imagery being repeated (and varied, as you can see from the last instance quoted) that I marked, at least. There may well be others in Vol I.

I’m glad you pointed out the snow imagery, Scott, because, like many of the repeated strands of imagery throughout this novel so far, this one really leapt out at me. I agree with your dichotomy of the snow and the blood–to a degree, anyway; although there is a point when Deza wishes to himself that he had not wiped away the drop of blood so thoroughly, that he had left some visible trace of it, and also there is the fact that he begins to wonder if he only imagined it, just as his friend did (the drug courier who encounters the drug lord’s girlfriend who collapses–he seems to believe she was bleeding, that he saw blood, but later questions himself–was there every any blood there?)…

Also, the last instance I quoted above seems to turn the snow image on its head to a kind of snow that “may never stop.”

I suppose one might argue that these twists in or variations of the repeated images is a weakness, but I find it causing the imagery and the associations involved to work on me even more, even further, in an ever deeper way…

In looking back for my notes on the snow imagery in Vol I, I also reread the sections I marked where Deza quotes (or misquotes, or, as he says, “paraphrases”) the lines from Rilke’s Duino Elegies: “It is strange to inhabit the earth no longer. Strange no longer to be what one was…and to abandon even one’s own name. Strange no longer to desire one’s desires. And being dead is such hard work.” (That’s from page 346–the other instances I noted (and again, there may well be more) are on pages 71 and 87 of Vol I.) I find myself thinking on one level that these words could be referring to Deza’s own feeling in this time he is describing of being in a kind of living death, exiled from Luisa and his children, from his family, from his home, from himself…(he repeates a few times in Vol I also that often in England “I was completely alone”)…with perhaps a bit of foreshadowing of what is to come, as well…Of course, then I find myself delving down to other, deeper levels of association and meaning…

Regarding the statements Marias has made about never going back to earlier parts of a text and never planning and not really revising…I can see what you mean, Neil, and perhaps, like so many artists, he exaggerates such practices (whether consciously or unconsciously) when asked to speak about his work (I seem to remember some interview with T.S. Eliot where the interlocutor asked TSE some wildly complicated question about the symbolism of the lines “maculate like a giraffe,” and Eliot response was “Sometimes a giraffe is just a giraffe”), but on the other hand, i’m not so sure…the variations in the images and repeated phrases (including, of course, fever, spear, my pain, sleep and dreams) seem to me to indicate that Marias himself may well be referring back to things that stuck in his–and his narrator Deza’s–head in the way that we all often do–that is, not exactly the same way each and every time…on the other hand, there is less variation among the repetitions of the fever, spear, my pain, sleep and dreams phrases than there seems to me to be in the others…but I don’t find it all that difficult to believe that such key phrases, like the basic melody line of a Beethoven sonata, or the lietmotifs in Wagner, for instance, would be so present in Marias’ mind at all times while writing this work over a period of years that it would be completely unnecessary for him to go back to Vol I to look them up again while writing Vol II or Vol III….They’ve certainly stuck in my mind while reading, to the point where I find myself mulling over them and even repeating them to myself while at work or on the subway or at lunch or even out with friends over drinks or walking down the street…and I haven’t been carrying these books with me during the day (I decided they were simply not books that could be paid proper attention–for me, anyway–on a subway car or in the cafeteria at work…no, I want to be alone in my apartment, most often at night, by the window, in my favorite chair, when I’m reading Your Face Tomorrow…or any Marias at all, for that matter…).

This is a great discussion, and whether some of the others who started out with us return later or never come back to it, I hope it continues all the way through. I’m finding this give and take, this back and forth, and this reading of others’ thoughts and impressions so inspirational, and so invaluable, Scott. It’s making a really crazy time at work and in my life in general seem not only bearable, but beautiful somehow–so thank you again for organizing this and for pressing on. This is just fantastic.

Great points, Richard. I actually was thinking along similar lines, as soon I pressed “submit comment” and kind of wanted to take back my disbelief :)

But just to echo Richard, this is fantastic and I hope this becomes a regular feature of the blog: taking on challenging work with an intelligent group of people.

Richard: So glad to hear the book is making other aspects of life more bearable! That, in my opinion, is so much more fundamental than all this other talk we have about themes, allusions, etc, delightful and interesting as they are.

To comment on your comments: I do believe that Marias purposely shifts the meaning and use of some of these key phrases, among them so far, fever, spear, blood, snow, dance, (and that quote from Cervantes just before he died that I’m not going to remember at the moment). In my opinion, these subtle shifts gives the allusions more life, almost as though he’s varying them as a classical composer would subtly inflect motifs at different points in a composition.

And thank you for tracking down those snow quotes!

As a general response about Marias’ method: I’m not entirely sure, but based on what I’ve heard him say in interviews, I don’t believe Marias never goes back and revises. I’m fairly sure he does that. What I think he doesn’t do is go and change what characters “know” at a certain point in the novel, based on things he discovers later on.

I find this highly interesting for YFT in particular, since it gives the text itself a sort of “memory.” That is, if certain qualities of the text are not changeable, then that means the text “remembers” certain things, in the same way that a tape will be a record of what was said at a certain point in history, provided that you don’t erase or tape over it. Clearly, given all the import this book places on conversations and the historical record, this synchrony is of more than a passing interest.

Here’s an interesting addendum to YFT, from the Threepenny Review; as a piece of writing, I think it adds to the playfulness and humor that is such a distinct part of the novel:

“The following reports on three well-known public figures were taken from the files in the building with no name, possibly photocopied or stolen by Deza, possibly to make money or as a souvenir. Or was it Mulryan, young Pérez Nuix, or Rendel? Or perhaps Tupra himself?”

I’m glad you mentioned Marias’ wonderful characterization, Scott. I am not very familiar with Shakespeare, but I’ll venture he is like a Shakespearean fool. I love the fool. And I love Rafita, whose appearance is like the arrival of chaos, taking the narrative in surprising directions and undermining the rationalism and earnest plans of the main protagonists. Rafita is truely a great one indeed. Certainly anyone who has been out and about at all, could say, I know this idiot. The one so much in the game and of the game, so hip and shaped by popular culture to the point of being a clue-less parody. Certainly there is nothing admirable about Rafita, his impulsiveness and inconstancy, but in the dynamic tension that developes between him and Deza I can’t help but wonder if Deza shouldn’t learn a thing or two about how to enjoy life. It’s just that I have really fallen for Deza, and I worry about him and his relentless internal mechanizations that allow him no peace of mind or comfort in the world. I guess he is his own fever and spear, to a large extent, and he is such an arrested character perhaps because he thinks too much; he is alway thinking, thinking, thinking, . . . and I am really looking forward to seeing where it all gets him.

One way in which Marias’ work can feel unplanned and unrevised is that he tends to “feel his way into books” … Each volume begins similarly — “Fever” with loose and rambling thoughts on the dangers of telling, “Dance” with loose, rambling thoughts on the dangers of listening/hearing.

For what it’s worth I think the first chapter of “Dance” shows Marias at his weakest. The central insight — that asking for something creates a relationship between people, creates expectations, power relations, etc. — is pretty banal, and then we have the story about Luisa and the Bosnian mother and child, which feels like a case study invented solely to illustrate that central point. The details of the story feel generic: the cake, the child’s look of anticipation.

Scott mentions “doubleness” but one could almost talk of redundancy — everything we get spelled out in that first passage is implicit in the scene where Perez enters Deza’s apartment with the wet dog. Now we are cooking with gas again. Compare the description of Luisa’s knees in the first passage to the descriptions of Perez’s thighs (and stockings) in that second scene.

I know this sounds negative, but I don’t mean it to be. It might tell us something about how Marias works, starting with abstraction and sort of hovering around before moving into specificity. Clearly there’s also a parallel to the kind of observational work Tupra, Deza, Nuix and the others are doing. Marias might be intentionally leaving that first passage there as a kind of rough draft for chapter two. Which is interesting.

This could all be the result of my coming back to YFT after being away for a while.

Eric: I agree very much that the Luisa section of Dance is among the weakest passages I’ve read so far. (Though I did find the opening to Fever and Spear rather good.) I thought Luisa’s speech was pedantic and colorless About the only part of it that really worked for me was the brief moment when she gives the boy the cake.

I do think it serves a purpose of setting up a surface in which to reflect Deza’s later meeting with Perez Nuix, but, yes, it could have been handled better. For that matter, I would also say that Wheeler’ speech to close out vol. 1 would have been better had it lost maybe 30%.

I suppose this is to be expected in a 1000+ page book. It clearly could be tighter, although I still think Marias is doing a lot right here.

Scott, I agree that the opening of “Fever” was much stronger. Though as I get further in (Deza’s thoughts about his ‘parenthetical’, dreamlike existence on p 91) I wonder again if there isn’t an intentional fuzziness in that opening passage. Almost like a painter leaving part of the palimpsest showing through. And it underlines just how much Deza is cut off from his own family, country, language — what constitutes identity for most of us. The parenthetical dream life is what’s real now, and his “real” life has become shadowy and unconvincing.

Looking forward to your thoughts on the bathroom searches, which I thought were wonderful and very funny.


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Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

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5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

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