YFTS: The Hardest Part About Fictions Is Not Creating But Maintaining Them

One small housekeeping note for Your Face This Spring participants. If you want to see an easily browsable list of all the posts written for this venture, click here.

Now then, a couple of things I wanted to point out from the first 20 or so pages of the segment of Fever and Spear that we’re reading this week.

  • For those not reading along, Bertie Tupra is this mysterious, vaguely spyish guy that our narrator, Jacobo Deza, meets at a party in his friend Wheeler’s house (an 80-year-old British knight and veteran of the Spanish Civil War). Given what we eventually discover about the nature of Tupra’s line of work, as well as the role that Deza will play in it, this paragraph really stood out for me. To set the scene: Wheeler’s party has ended about an hour ago and he and Deza are talking. Deza inquires about this beautiful woman that Tupra was kind of with throughout the night, and Wheeler explains that it was Tupra’s estranged wife, whom Tupra is hoping will get back together with him. Then Deza says:

    “He must have it really bad,” I said, “he must be completely blind if he’s only ‘worried.’ It stands out a mile that she’s more interested in almost any other possible future than in a present existence spent by his side. Obviously I can’t be sure, but, I don’t know, it was as if from time to time she would suddenly remember that she was supposed to be trying to win back her husband, which, as you say, is her announced intention, and then she would try a bit harder for a while, or, rather, she would apply herself to routinely pleasing or even flattering him . . .” [105]

    Now given Tupra’s line of work, which relies extremely heavily on judging character and separating intention from appearance, I found this whole plotline and exchange of more than a little importance. Not quite sure where Marias is going with it, but I’m definitely keeping an eye out.

  • Then there’s this remark of Deza’s on the next page:

    The hardest part about fictions is not creating, but maintaining them, because, left to their own devices, they tend to fall apart. It takes a superhuman effort to keep them in the air. [106]

  • And lastly, what the hell is up with Wheeler’s socks? I count at least three points in the post-party conversation where Deza expresses strong distress over the state of Wheeler’s socks slipping down his legs. When he finally overcomes his misgivings and appraises Wheeler of the situation, we get this odd exchange:

    “Peter,” I said, perhaps out of superstition, and showing a definite lack of prudence, “I don’t know if you realise, but your socks have slipped down.” And I managed to point with one timid finger at his ankles. . . .

    “Another time I would have been infinitely grateful to you for pointing that out, Jacobo. But it’s of little importance now.” [107-8]

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Did anyone else feel compelled to watch From Russia With Love over the weekend? After the description of Lotte Lenya as the villian trying to kill Bond by kicking him with her spiked shoes (another reference to feet from Marias), I just had to see it. I don’t know if there will be more references to the film or the book but seeing as the objective of the mission is to obtain a Russian decoder – it seems to fit right in with these themes of multiple interpretations of language, speech, lies, observations etc.

More than socks, watch for shoes. Deza repeatedly notes peoples footwear throughout all three volumes. Later (vol 3) he and Tupra even visit a shoemaker.

Stan: Apropos of that, let me give you this, from an interview with Zak Smith on his illustrations for every page of Gravity’s Rainbow:

There are 3 big shoes in the illustrations, all of which were based on observation of actual shoes and all of which get a lot of attention. I think they’re kind of a good example of a time when the subject was kind of mundane but the picture nailed it.

As for shoes and fate—well in the South they say if you meet a stranger, look at their shoes.

Ok, why? Well, the theory is, your clothes change all the time, but your shoes don’t change as much, so they’ve been through what you’ve been through and show the signs of it.

Not that I imagined any of this at the time, but a big thing in the book is Slothrop trying to hold onto his sense of himself despite being rootless and changing clothes and roles all the time. So maybe when we think of Slothrop’s shoes we’re thinking more about trying to remember everything he’s been through as opposed to how when we see his Hawaiian shirt or his zoot suit or his pig suit or his moustache we just think about what role he’s playing at the moment. Ok, that’s my Shoe Theory.

Shoes, or the lack thereof, are also important in “Dhalgren” by Samuel Delaney. The main character only wears one throughout, and it conspicuously noted. The main character does not know his name, or who he is, or what has happened to him, so perhaps the shoe theme is universal.

I feel that the recurring commentary about the socks is a kind of tantalizing false-allegory to Deza’s comments about the difficulty of maintaining fictions. As in, it seems as though Wheeler is slipping when he neglects to mention Beryl’s history with Tupra, but I don’t believe for a minute that he is. Then again, Wheeler does have a mental slip-up that does seem genuine, when he can’t remember the word “cushion.”

Perhaps all of the old man’s minor slips really don’t matter, because he’s still sharp when it counts. Though for what it counts, I don’t know. (And maylin, I really wish From Russia With Love was in the Netflix instant-viewing catalog right now!)

Having now caught up to the reading of Marias, perhaps a couple of thoughts, expressed discursively. First, the book is very engaging, despite its languid pace. Part of this is the history of the Spanish Civil War, which is fascinating always, and not that familiar to most, even if you’ve read Orwell’s Homage. The fate of Nin is a real mystery, and the (new to me) use of Nin in Ian Fleming is intriguing. I feel like I’ve learned something in the first 180 pages.

That said, I’m not stunned by the work. Let me offer a comparison. I’ve been required recently to read and/or reread all of Conrad and Faulkner. There are, by the way, moments that seem Conradian in style. But when you read pre-1900 Conrad or any of Faulkner from 1929-1940 you can’t help but underline every other sentence. Each sentence is a minor masterpiece: filled with stunning wisdom, eloquence, and grace. I haven’t underlined but one or two sentences of Marias so far. Now I know we can argue about contemporary prose styles, etc. But take a classic like Absalom Absalom, the first chapter alone of which astonishes in a way that YFT just doesn’t (to me).

Now I must confess my Proust is more than weak, so I can’t comment, but am curious, about Proust’s role here. I’m moderately well-read in Sebald, but don’t see much influence there in the prose style at least (Sebald has some magnificent moments). Instead, you get a lot of this in YFT: “I did X, not really X, more like Y really, or even Z, but with a mix of X and Y, which I hadn’t even wanted, or didn’t think I did, at least at first.” The basic style is a statement, then lots of qualifications about it. I do find it engaging, but distinctive without being eloquent. Perhaps this is Proustian? Other influences?

A final note: I do wonder if these books are acclaimed in the limited circles who care about these kind of things because they are in a way a lot about, yes, literature itself. That is, much of the philosophizing in the book is about the possibility of narrative and such. Kinda like Bolano’s use of literature types as heroes. It is really just an embryo of a plan of a hypothesis of a possibility, to use a nice turn from YFT, but this does come to seem a little incestuous, if not masturbatory. Is part of the appeal of these books that they seem to exalt people like us, as opposed to the Thomas Sutpens or the Marlows of Faulkner and Conrad?

I’ve noticed that in contrast to writers like Toussaint who emphasize displacement, a displaced, global character, or in other forms an excile, as with Hemmon’s characters, or reflected in the recent title Nobody’s Home, that Maria’s characters are embedded, in the culture and history of a particular place. Going further I’d say that Marias is very concerned with continuity, both as individual identity, and as members of a nation state as subjects and citizens. And here I see a resonance with Sebald; more specifically, his concerns with national history, and how a nations people accept a false history, because it’s forced upon them or easier to accept. Or, … that’s the question each author seems to investigate, in different ways.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


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.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

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

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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