The Spanish novelist Javier Marìas was born in Madrid in 1951. His father Julián Marìas (1914–2005) was one of twentieth-century Spain’s most important philosophers and the author of a history of philosophy that became the standard textbook on the subject in the Spanish-speaking world. Marìas senior was also on occasion an outspoken critic of the Franco regime; he was briefly imprisoned, and banned from teaching in Spanish universities from the late Forties to the early Seventies. His first appointment abroad, in 1951, was at Wellesley College, where the Marìases lived in the same building as Vladimir Nabokov, and became friends with him.
Like Nabokov’s, Javier Marìas’s fiction might be described as a supremely self-conscious, near-obsessive inquiry into self-consciousness and obsession. At some point his protagonists almost invariably engage in Humbertian acts of tortured, covert surveillance, and these in turn release dizzying flights of compulsive but fruitless speculation. One of his stalkers, Vìctor in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, actually watches his quarry, Luisa (one of many Luisas in his oeuvre), purchase a copy of Lolita in the course of a shopping trip; “an excellent choice,” he observes.
Marìas established his name with the novella The Man of Feeling of 1986, although aficionados may seek out Voyage Along the Horizon, published when he was only twenty-one: it’s a spoofy, somewhat surreal homage to the adventure stories of such writers as Conrad and Conan Doyle that pays tribute also to the complexly indirect narrative methods of the later Henry James; though entertaining in parts, it ends up—rather like the voyage to the Antarctic it sets out to relate—making relatively little headway. Deciding literary translation might prove a more valuable apprenticeship in the art of fiction than pastiche, Marìas devoted his twenties to creating Spanish versions of English-language classics by Sterne, Sir Thomas Browne, Conrad, Faulkner, James, Kipling, Hardy, Shakespeare, and Nabokov. His version of Tristram Shandy won the Spanish national award for translation in 1979.
The narrator of The Man of Feeling is an opera singer known as the Lion of Naples who falls in love with the unhappy wife of a powerful Belgian banker, Hieronimo Manur. During a week of rehearsals in Madrid for the role of Cassio in Verdi’s Otello, the Lion pays extravagant court to the enigmatic Natalia Manur, and succeeds in wooing her away from her seemingly brutal and always busy husband—who promptly, and to the reader’s great surprise, commits suicide. It is Manur, rather than the operatic tenor, who emerges as the man of feeling of the title, as the Othello figure in the love triangle.
The story is being told in the wake of the collapse of the Lion’s love for Natalia, four years after his declaration of love to her culminated in a grand and eloquent vision of a shared Liebestod. But he is only Cassio, unable to scale the heights of passion of idealists such as Manur, or the tragic Hörbiger, who plays the role of Otello to the Lion’s Cassio: although in the twilight of his career, the stubborn and cranky German singer refuses pointblank to appear onstage unless every seat in the stalls and boxes is occupied; as his powers wane and his popularity declines, theater managements take to hiring people off the street to satisfy his demands for a packed lower house, until the theaters where he performs are full of “strange, tie-wearing rustics whom one could tell had never been to an opera before in their lives.”
His very last performance, again in the part of Otello, occurs in an opera house in Munich filled largely with these “false aficionados,” as well as with the theater’s own personnel, its ushers, porters, cloakroom attendants, cleaning women, and box-office staff. Despite these heroic efforts, peering through a crack in the stage curtain with his small Japanese telescope, the implacable Hörbiger spies an empty seat in the antepenultimate row of the right-hand aisle. Emitting an unearthly moan,
in full Otello costume, with his blacked-up face, his wild, curly wig, his eyes and lips made to look bigger with make-up, an earring in one ear and his telescope in his hand, the magnificent Hörbiger stepped onto the stage, climbed down into the stalls area, strode through it, to the astonishment of an already irritable public, and sat down in that one accusing seat, thus completing the audience that had been his downfall.
No entreaties can lure him back onto the stage, and he is eventually borne from the theater in full costume by Iago, Cassio, Roderigo, and Montano, never to perform again. Hörbiger too, then, is a man of feeling.
There are various ways in which this subtle, probing, oblique novella establishes a template for Marìas’s subsequent fiction. Aside from one short story in the collection When I Was Mortal, all make use of male first-person narrators whose consciousness is rendered in long, unspooling sentences that reveal the influence on his prose of translating writers such as Faulkner and Browne and James, as well as the impact of reading that master of the monologue, the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard.
In addition, the drama in many of Marìas’s novels derives from an actual or feared or threatened love triangle, always involving two men and a woman, and Vìctor in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me even develops a set of pseudo-Anglo-Saxon terms, such as ge-licgan, meaning to “co-fornicate,” and ge-bryd-guma, meaning a “co-bridegroom,” to indicate the relationship between two men who have slept with the same woman. Later books also follow A Man of Feeling in frequently playing off a somewhat uncertain, cerebral protagonist against an older man of much greater decisiveness and worldly authority.
The Man of Feeling’s use of Shakespeare also persists, as signaled by so many of his titles: A Heart So White of 1992 is taken from Macbeth (“My hands,” Lady Macbeth declares after returning the dagger to the room where Duncan lies murdered, “are of your colour, but I shame/To wear a heart so white”); both Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me and When I Was Mortal derive from Act V, scene 3 of Richard III, in which the Machiavellian usurper, on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth, is visited by the ghosts of those he’s murdered: “When I was mortal,” Henry VI ruefully recalls, “my anointed body/By thee was punched full of deadly holes,” while the ghosts of Clarence and Lady Anne utter the same curse, “Tomorrow in the battle think on me/And fall thy edgeless sword. Despair and die”—lines used like a motif or musical phrase throughout Marìas’s unsettling novel of sexual usurpation and intrigue. Dark Back of Time is adapted from Prospero’s “dark backward and abysm of time,” and Your Face Tomorrow from a speech of Hal’s to Poins in Henry IV, 2 in which the Prince finds himself wearying of his low-life companions, and even anticipating his betrayal of them: “What a disgrace is it to me to remember thy name! or to know thy face tomorrow!”
All Souls, Marìas’s next novel, is set in England, and comes prefaced with a note denying any resemblance between its author and narrator, despite the fact that both spent two years in the same post, that of a lecturer in Spanish literature at the University of Oxford. Inevitably this led to its being read as a roman à clef, an outrage for the author that in turn furnishes one of the main topics of discussion in Dark Back of Time, published almost a decade later. “I believe,” that novel, or “false novel,” opens,
I’ve still never mistaken fiction for reality, though I have mixed them together more than once, as everyone does, not only novelists or writers but everyone who has recounted anything since the time we know began, and no one in that known time has done anything but tell and tell, or prepare and ponder a tale, or plot one. Anyone can relate an anecdote about something that happened, and the simple fact of saying it already distorts and twists it, language can’t reproduce events and shouldn’t attempt to….
Like W.G. Sebald, Marìas enjoys intermingling the fictional and the documentary; the love story of All Souls between the lecturer and Clare Bayes, a married woman, is wound around the life of John Gawsworth, a real writer who was born Terence Ian Fytton Armstrong in 1912: Gawsworth, who also occasionally wrote under the pen name “Orpheus Scrannel” (an allusion to Milton’s “Lycidas”), forged a small reputation with a series of defiantly antimodernist volumes of verse published in the 1930s, but is perhaps best known now for his biography of another of Marìas’s enthusiasms, the Welsh writer of supernatural fiction Arthur Machen. For reasons he can’t quite fathom, the narrator of All Souls finds himself obsessed with Gawsworth’s not very distinguished writings, and the sad tale of his gradual decline into vagrancy in his later years. The book includes a photo of him in his RAF uniform, probably taken in Cairo, with an unlit cigarette in his mouth, and also one of his death mask, made by a certain Hugh Oloff de Wet, another of Marìas’s galère of eccentrics whose life story is given in full in Dark Back of Time.
In both these books Marìas seems to be attempting to create perspectives on people and events that make the factual and the imaginary hard to prise apart; as a result we are insistently forced to acknowledge that there is no solid ground of unimpeachable truth on which to rest. The chronically underemployed lecturer of All Souls, for instance, spends much of his time haunting the secondhand bookshops of Oxford; his favorite is one run by a certain Mr. and Mrs. Alabaster on Turl Street, where he spends long hours sifting through their stock in search of tomes by Gawsworth, Machen, and other obscure English authors. On a return to Oxford described in Dark Back of Time he revisits his favorite shop, and is amazed by a proposal made to him by the couple, here called Mr. and Mrs. Stone: not only have they read his Oxford novel, but they have identified themselves as the originals of Mr. and Mrs. Alabaster. Hearing that a film is to be made of the novel, they have a request for the author: Would he kindly ask the producers of this film, to whom they have already written but to no avail, to cast them as themselves in it? Both belong to OSCA (the Oxford Society of Crowd Artistes), they explain, and are talented thespians.
When Marìas appears dubious about their rights to these roles, they present him with the photocopy of an interview—duly reproduced in the book itself—that they gave to the trade magazine The Bookseller, in which they lay proud claim to their fictional alter egos. In a reversal of Höbiger’s crossing from stage to audience in his Otello costume in order to watch himself as Otello, they dream of playing themselves as booksellers in a film of the book in which they are convinced they have already appeared.
Another embodiment of this ideal of a realm simultaneously real and imaginary in Dark Back of Time is the island of Redonda, which Gawsworth inherited in 1947 from the Montserrat-born science fiction writer M.P. Shiel. Shiel’s claim to be king of this uninhabited lump of rock between Montserrat and Nevis seems to have been none too serious, but his heir loved the idea of being elevated to royalty, and took to styling himself His Majesty King Juan I. The copiously illustrated Dark Back of Time includes numerous photographs, maps, and engravings of Redonda, and even bookplates from volumes owned by its various regents, who number four: Shiel, Gawsworth, his friend and heir Jon Wynne-Tyson, who styled himself Juan II, and finally Marìas himself, who inherited the throne on Juan II’s abdication in 1997. Along with the title go the not too lucrative publishing rights to the complete works of Gawsworth and Shiel, and the power to ennoble at will. Redonda’s dukes and duchesses now include the likes of Pedro Almodóvar (Duke of Trémula), Alice Munro (Duchess of Ontario), J.M. Coetzee (Duke of Deshonra), and A.S. Byatt (Duchess of Morpho Eugenia). “It’s a realm,” Marìas writes in Dark Back of Time, “inherited through irony and writing, never through solemnity or blood.”
The ironies in Marìas’s fiction mainly emerge through his attention to the distortions inherent in all acts of telling. Like the late Henry James, he loves to slow down his narrative to the point almost of paralysis, allowing his narrator’s perceptions, thoughts, and memories to expand and proliferate at will; this makes the texture of his books resemble a dense, turbid, meditative stream, at once hesitant and irresistible, which in turn contrasts sharply with the events of brutality and violence that each novel eventually gets around to relating.
There is something oddly addictive in the way in which plots that subtly evoke the traditions of film noir or hardboiled detective fiction are mediated through a consciousness open to the point of distraction to the delights of lateral thinking, to endless refinement and generalization. Vìctor, for example, in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, finds himself in bed for the first time with a woman called Marta Téllez whose husband is away in London, and whose two-year-old son is asleep in the bedroom next door. Before, however, they have even fully undressed each other, Marta begins to feel unwell, and within a matter of minutes (minutes that take many pages to pass) she has died in his arms, leaving Vìctor uncertain about what course of action he should take. His responses are typical of the deceleration of narrative to a kind of frame-by-frame exposition of the succession of thoughts and feelings that is perhaps the most distinctive feature of Marìas’s prose style. Every aspect of the moment is weighed and assessed, done justice to, as if the fullness of the narrator’s observations could compensate for his helplessness and innate passivity:
“She’s dead,” I said, “this woman has died and I’m here and I saw it and I could do nothing to stop it, and now it’s too late to phone anyone, too late for anyone to share what I saw.” And although I said that to myself and I knew it to be true, I felt in no hurry to move away or to withdraw the embrace that she had requested, because I found it or, rather, the contact with her recumbent, averted, half-naked body pleasant and the mere fact that she had died did not instantly change that: she was still there, her dead body identical to her living body, only more peaceful, quieter and perhaps softer, no longer tormented, but in repose, and I could see again out of the corner of my eye her long lashes and her half-open mouth that were still the same, identical, her tangled eyelashes and her infinite mouth that had chatted and eaten and drunk, and smiled and laughed and smoked, that had kissed me and was still kissable. For how long? “We are both still here, in the same position and occupying the same space, I can still feel her; nothing has changed and yet everything has changed, I know that and I cannot grasp it. I don’t know why I am alive and she is dead, I don’t know what either of those words means any more. I no longer have any clear understanding of those two terms.” And only after some seconds—or possibly minutes, one, two, or three—I carefully removed myself from her, as if I did not want to wake her or as if I might hurt her by moving away, and had I spoken to someone—someone who would have been a witness there with me—I would have done so in a low voice or in a conspiratorial whisper, born of the respect that the mystery always imposes on us if, that is, there is no grief or tears, because if there is, there is no silence, or else it comes only later. “Tomorrow in the battle think on me, and fall thy edgeless sword: despair and die.”
Like many of Marìas’s narrators, Vìctor occupies a somewhat marginal position in society: he is divorced and lives alone, writing scripts for TV shows that never get made, and ghosting speeches for politicians and even for the King of Spain, who in a hilarious set piece laments to Vìctor the lack of impact his appearances have on the nation, and expounds the various doubts he has about how he should perform his royal role. The fanatical registering of nuance and detail, of example and counterexample, that is so characteristic of Marìas’s novelistic style works dramatically as a vehicle for the consciousness of narrators who like to observe from the sidelines rather than take center stage, who translate or read or ghostwrite or interpret the words and actions of others.
“Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!” Henry James famously counseled the aspirant novelist in “The Art of Fiction” in 1884. Jacques Deza, the narrator of Your Face Tomorrow, is not exactly a novelist, but like one he spends his days observing and interpreting character, assembling the clues yielded by an individual’s speech, mannerisms, and appearance, and working them into a coherent narrative. Deza, who is the narrator of All Souls some ten years on, has returned to England, where he has a job at the BBC, leaving in Madrid a wife, Luisa, from whom he has gradually drifted apart, and two children. One Sunday he attends a buffet lunch in Oxford hosted by an old friend, a retired don called Sir Peter Wheeler, whom he suspects of a long career in espionage for MI6. At this lunch he is introduced to one of Wheeler’s ex-students, Bertrand Tupra, who shortly after invites him to join a peculiar clandestine organization that specializes in predicting the future behavior of individuals it is asked to investigate and assess.
As Wheeler had foreseen, Deza turns out to have a rare gift for dispassionate observation and interpretation; ensconced behind one-way glass, he notes the tics and habits of whoever is being interviewed, and delivers forthright answers to Tupra’s post-interview questions. Would so and so kill? Would he back down in an argument? What else? He has no idea to what purpose his opinions and assessments are put, but assumes Tupra is in the employ of the British secret security services.
The second volume* culminates in a scene of bloodcurdling violence in a London club. Deza has been asked by Tupra, who wants to be known as Reresby on this particular occasion, to accompany him on a night out with an Italian mobster type, to act as translator where necessary, but also to entertain the client’s wife should she get restive. Deza has the misfortune to run into a compatriot in the club, a lecherous Spanish embassy attaché named De la Garza, who insists on being introduced to his charge, and then spirits her off when Deza is called upon to perform his translation duties. A different side of Tupra, or Reresby, emerges once he and Deza have located the absconded couple, and taken the luckless De la Garza off to the disabled lavatory for summary retribution. Tupra offers him a line of coke; as De la Garza kneels to snort it on the toilet seat, Tupra draws a Renaissance sword and prepares to behead him:
The sword fell with great speed and force, that one blow would be enough to make a clean cut and even splinter or split the lid, but Tupra stopped the blade dead, about one centimetre or two from the back of the neck, the flesh, the cartilage and the blood….
Perhaps in parody of the three blows heaved by the Green Knight at the neck of Sir Gawain in the medieval poem, three times Tupra brings his razor-sharp blade down on De la Garza’s neck. Having successfully reduced him to a state of gibbering fear, Tupra gets down to business:
Once Tupra had lifted De la Garza’s head high enough, he pushed up both lid and seat and plunged the latter’s head into the bowl with such violence that De la Garza’s feet lifted off the ground, I saw his loose shoelaces waving in the air, neither he nor I had got around to tying them. I did not, at first, fear that the water in the bowl would drown him, because it was too narrow at the bottom for his broad, full-moon face, which nevertheless got battered against the porcelain—and slightly stuck—every time Tupra pushed it back in again after pulling it up for a while, and he also flushed the toilet three or four times one after the other, the rush of blue water was so strong and so prolonged that I was once more briefly filled by terrible alarm.
Like the death of Marta, the scene is narrated in slow-motion style that makes it last for dozens of excruciatingly tense pages. After almost drowning him, Tupra slams De la Garza against the bar fitted for the convenience of disabled toilet users, cracking a number of ribs. It later emerges that he learned his arts of intimidation from the notorious Sixties gangsters the Kray twins, and he responds in Kray-twins fashion to Deza’s complaint that “you can’t just go around beating people up, killing them.” “Why,” he asks, “can’t one do that?”
The violence Deza is forced to witness, and in which he is to some extent complicit, is particularly shocking because it is handled in a manner that is so different from the oblique ways in which atrocities are normally presented in Marìas’s fiction. The historical consciousness his work articulates was shaped in large measure by the Spanish Civil War, and this scene in the disabled toilet is in fact intercut with memories of a conversation Deza had with his father, now in his eighties, in which Deza senior relates the appalling death of an acquaintance of his, a Republican called Emilio Marés: captured in Ronda, Marés is taken out with two other prisoners to be shot, but first they are ordered to dig their own graves. Marés refuses, declaring, “You can and will kill me, I know that, but I’m not a bull to be baited.” Affronted, his executioners decide they will indeed bait him like a bull; they harry and jab him with banderillas as if they were picadors, and finally deliver the coup de grâce with a sword. As a final indignity, his ear is then severed and brandished as a trophy.
Tupra’s violence, though it might seem to be imbued with a Tarantino-ish theatricality, is in fact made almost unbearably actual and immediate, and it comes to seem an enactment in real life, so to speak, of all the atrocities recounted by other means in Marìas’s fiction, retold from books or films or conversations with such as his father or Sir Peter Wheeler. And of course it forces Deza to wonder what he might do under certain circumstances, what his face might look like tomorrow. For he can find no answer to Tupra’s question about why one can’t go around beating people up, or killing them.
There is perhaps something of the enigmatic, Kurtzian Übermensch in Tupra—a Kurtz who has not yet been laid low by illness and guilt. And like Kurtz’s creator, Joseph Conrad, Marìas achieves many of his finest effects by using a sophisticated narrative technique to tell stories that often verge on the lurid. His novels tend to build toward some long-awaited moment of revelation that then decisively alters our sense of all that has gone before: we learn of a murder at the end of A Heart So White; A Man of Feeling and All Souls both conclude with a suicide, while in the last section of Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me Vìctor finally meets the man he almost cuckolded, only to learn that at the time of Marta’s death Deán Téllez was in London with his mistress, and that she too died that very night, run over by a black taxi after escaping Deán’s attempt to strangle her on a double-decker bus.
Above all Marìas’s novels are concerned with the processes of telling, with what it means to tell and not to tell, with the bonds we establish or dissolve by telling, with the ways telling may either release us from the past or seal us in it. “One should never tell anyone anything,” Deza declares in the opening sentence of Your Face Tomorrow, but then proceeds to tell us all he does and thinks, and he makes of that telling a compulsive and enthralling performance; for he is one of those people on whom nothing is lost.
January 17, 2008
The third, Veneno y sombra y adiós (Venom and Shade and Goodbye), has just been published in Spain; an English translation by the superbly gifted Margaret Jull Costa is scheduled to be published by New Directions in the autumn of 2008. ↩