YFTS: Spy Games and Redundancy

Hi, everyone, this is Andrew Seal. Scott has asked me to pinch-hit for this week of Your Face This Spring, and it’s a great week to do so. We’re now up to page 233, and a number of exciting developments have finally come into view, but our interest in the back-stories of Peter Wheeler and Toby Rylands has also been further piqued.

Once again (in case you’re joining us late), you can view all the YFTS posts on this page.

Some really excellent discussions have been going on here about Javier Marías’s stylistic similarity or kinship with a number of other writers: Thomas Bernhard, Samuel Beckett, W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, and Marcel Proust. At the risk of sending this conversation into compare-and-contrast overload, I’d like to add one more name to the mix and to make a slight distinction about what I think we’re seeing with Marías that differs significantly from the modernists just named. The name I’d like to add is Laurence Sterne, whom Marías has translated (as Scott has pointed out in an earlier post). Sterne’s writing is a sort of ne plus ultra of the digression and the qualification; it is practically impossible to think of fiction as being more circumlocutory or preambular (more Spanish, really—see page 188 of Fever and Spear) while still retaining a shape, endlessly filigreed as it may be.

The difference that I see between Marías and modernists like Bernhard or Sebald or Proust is in the nature and purpose of repetition, digression, and pleonasm—various forms of excess. Let’s take a look at the first sentence from Bernhard’s Correction:

After a mild pulmonary infection, tended too little and too late, had suddenly turned into a severe pneumonia that took its toll of my entire body and laid me up for at least three months at nearby Wels, which has a hospital renowned in the field of so-called internal medicine, I accepted an invitation from Hoeller, a so-called taxidermist in the Aurach valley, not for the end of October, as the doctors urged, but for early in October, as I insisted, and then went on my own so-called responsibility straight to the Aurach valley and to Hoeller’s house, without even a detour to visit my parents in Stocket, straight into the so-called Hoeller garret, to begin sifting and perhaps even arranging the literary remains of my friend, who was also a friend of the taxidermist Hoeller, Roithamer, after Roithamer’s suicide, I went to work sifting and sorting the papers he had willed to me, consisting of thousands of slips covered with Roithamer’s handwriting plus a bulky manuscript entitled “About Altensam and everything connected with Altensam, with special attention to the Cone.”

The difference that I see here (and maybe it’s not fair just picking one Bernhardian sentence to illustrate it) is that the repetition of a phrase like “so-called” pulls the sentence in tighter to itself (mostly through the irony of the phrase); as it repeats, the sentence condenses. So too with the numerous mentions of time—the phrase “not for the end of October, as the doctors urged, but for early in October, as I insisted,” does not just tell us about the cantankerousness of the character, but herds the sentence into itself, quickly gathering back in the stray thoughts of the speaker as soon as they begin rushing away from him. Bernhard’s sentences are miserly; even at their most repetitive or most digressive, they are never allowed true expansion. (I like this style, by the way—that’s not a critique.)

Marías, on the other hand, has a truly profligate attitude toward repetition. Repetition occurs in his novels not just for patterning, but for redundancy’s sake. To some extent, it seems like Marías repeats and over-elaborates on his ideas because he wants to make sure that you’ll catch on even if you missed or forgot an earlier iteration of the word or the scene or the theme; if you were napping (and, let’s be honest, even James Wood nods) and didn’t perk up the first time you heard “fever” or “spear” or “face,” you’re going to be covered because it will certainly come around again.

Or, in the man’s own words:

‘Please be quite clear, however, that here we have no interests,’ he went on to say, even though he was referring to something from further back in the conversation. Most people would not have returned to it, they would not have retrieved that extremely marginal comment of mine (‘whether it suits your interests or not’), it’s incredible how quickly words, pronounced and written, frivolous and serious, all of them, insignificant or significant, get lost, become distant and are left behind. That’s why it’s necessary to repeat, eternally and absurdly to repeat, from the first human babble of sound and even from the first index finger silently pointing. Again and again and again and, vainly, again. Words did not slip quite so easily from our grasp, his and mine, but this was doubtless an anomaly, a curse. (207-208)

Obviously, with a phrase like “an anomaly, a curse,” we should be paying attention: Deza (and Tupra) is gifted in a special way, and his gift requires something of us—an unusual amount of attention—but it will also be used for us. This incredible retention is the major factor of his style as it is of his personality, distinguishing him as a voice as much as it distinguishes his character and his skill set.

Yet he is also caught up in a world that puts unusual pressure on this skill set, a world that is, if you’ve read John Le Carré or really any spy novel other than James Bond, also about redundancy, about creating repetitions that overlap and embed themselves within one another—games within games, wheels within wheels. Spymasters in these novels always have multiple plans in place—not just contingency plans, but ancillary plans, schemes that are deployed within other schemes to ensure that if one fails, something will still be gained. (James Bond is very different; if James Bond fails, everything fails, buttons are pushed, continents die.) In the game of espionage, everyone is being watched twice or thrice over, not just by opposing sides, but twice or thrice by the same side. Wheels within wheels—this is what Marías’s writing does. It says things “just in case” you missed or didn’t quite grasp what was said before, much as, in the anecdote Deza tells about the U.S. customs officials asking the question “have you any intention of making an attempt on the life of the President” to any traveler (187-188), bureaucracy (and particularly intelligence bureaus) do many things “just in case.”

This “just in case-ness” also, I think, makes the prose frequently more pedestrian-sounding; the aim is not condensation but actual tautology. Marías says something twice not to pull the sentence in tighter to itself but to say something twice. (Marías discusses tautologies on page 176-177.) For instance, the sentence “Sleep with one eye open when you slumber” (158) which may be an actual proverb, I don’t know, is absurdly repetitive, a pleonasm, more words than necessary. Sleep and slumber are not both needed, but Marías says it this way, and I’m not sure that Bernhard, or Beckett even, or Proust or Sebald, would.

Alright, so tell me what you think about the curious relationship between Wheeler and Mrs. Berry: why is she standing at the table while Wheeler asks Deza to read from Who’s Who? And what do you make of the interrogation scene with “Colonel Bonanza?” Does Deza’s job sound like fun? It sounds a lot like consulting, actually—if you’ve read Mohsin Hamid’s wonderful novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, you might see some similarities.



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Oh, also, I should say that if you’re interested in the names that Wheeler brandishes on page 212 (“Knightley, Cecil, Dorril, Davies, or Stafford, Miller, Bennett… Rowan, Denham…”), they do exist, or at least some of them exist.

Stephen Dorril has written a 900 page history of MI6 called “MI6 : Fifty Years of Special Operations,” as well as a book titled “Silent conspiracy: inside the intelligence services in the 1990s” and another called “Honeytrap: The Secret Worlds of Stephen Ward.”
David Stafford has written a history called “Churchill and the Secret Service” and another called “Spies beneath Berlin.”
Philip Davies has collected an annotated bibliography titled “British Secret Services.”
Phillip Knightley wrote a book about the spy Kim Philby (“The Master Spy: The Story of Kim Philby”) as well as a general history of espionage (“The Second Oldest Profession: The Spy as Bureaucrat, Patriot, Fantasist and Whore”).

I’m having trouble tracking down the other names, but Marías obviously did his homework.

Very interesting post, Andrew. I like your distinguishing between Bernhard’s and Marias’s sentences. Your idea of expansion versus contraction strikes me as very true since I often find Bernhard’s narrators obsessives (perhaps even clinically so). They fasten in on one little part of their lives, like someone tearing a piece of paper into tinier and tinier fragments, whereas Deza’s inquiry feels to me more like a continuous unfurling. (In fact, I wonder if at some point the unfurling will stop and the book will move more into a mode of manipulating the pieces it has set on the table.)

The redundancy aspect is very much worth pointing out. It reminds me of the idea that memory and even written records inevitably deteriorate, and that one way to safeguard against that is through redundancy. But then of course the multiple subjectivities contributing to the record will inevitably muddy the story (or broaden it, enrichen it, elaborate it, embellish it, make it more accurate . . . pick your interpretation).

Great consideration of the difference between Bernhard and Marias, in terms of their respective use of digression and repitition. It really captures why encountering these two authors is such a different experience despite their similar techniques. I also like the way Andrew links Marias’ style to the character of the narrator, suggesting that we consider repetition and digression as an attribute of Deza’s personality, distinguishing him as a voice. But in that case who exactly are we dealing with here ? I guess I am just wondering if Deza is a member of Tristam Shandy’s lineage–if we can say that Tristam is the progenitor of a certain type of isolated, eccentric, rambling and meloncholy-prone narrator. And if so, what are the implications? Based on his skills one would think Deza would be the ultimate reliable narrator, but I don’t really know if I want to trust his version of events, both those that are to come, as well as whatever it was that happended between him and Luisa.

My issue with Deza is really a concern with the philosophical and speculative beginnings or prologues, and their relationship with the narrative that is unfolding. At first I wondered if there was an omnipotent narrator, but since have come to think that it is Deza on another level, or in another state of mind or perhaps at another time. We get this Deza, who philosophizes, sounding at times like a platonist, and who seems to love Don Quixote, . . . stating in the ‘fever section’ that “we prefer to throw away our shield and march lightly ahead, brandishing our spear as if it were a decoration.”, and in the ‘spear section’ describing “those still groping their way uncertainly forwards or walking lightly with shield and spear, or slowly and wearily with shield all battered and spear blunt and dull . . .”. And then we get the Deza who is narrating the main events; the party, the dancing man who he can’t seem to read, the night at Wheeler’s and the morning after. Marias blends these at times seemingly disparate narratives, so that they are indeed being told by the same person. But are they being told at the same time to the same audience, witness, interogator or reader under the same circumstances ? I don’t know, but Deza is certainly itriguing.

Just caught up with the readings and comments, and wanted to wholeheartedly agree with Andrew Seal.

The difference in style btw. TB and JM is pretty clearly based on the personalities of the narrators. All of TB’s narrators are “obsessive,” and therefore interesting, and continue to hit you over the head (in a very funny and profound way) with their hangups.

Deza on the other hand is something of a bore. With the exception of his drunken research through Wheeler’s study, he seems to be aimless. I’m having a hard time understanding how he could fall under Tupra’s spell so easily – and without much research – after spending an entire evening trying to track down Wheeler’s service record. He’s all hedgehog in the study, but fox the rest of the time.

The obvious direction seems to be that he will be compromised in a way that some of his father’s Spanish Civil War friends were, but I hope there’s more. JM is a good enough writer so far that I’m hoping the personality contradictions are exploited in a more interesting way than they have been presented so far.

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