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.