Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Heart So White and All Souls, by Javier Marías

I read A Heart So White last December while trying to duck the pressure of term papers. The Oxford-set All Souls probably would have been more suited to the job, but A Heart So White worked beautifully. And now, having also read All Souls (and seen Marías speak), I find Marías is now among my favorite authors, a fate probably foreordained (his style and themes seem quite congenial to my tastes) but highly satisfying in its fulfillment.

Not that this would necessarily be a recommendation to you; after all, many seem to like his work, but it rarely seems to evoke such exuberance. I have a theory about that, though, because I have found reading Marías to be a very odd experience, for my enjoyment of his work is deeply dissimilar to my enjoyment of any other writer.

My advice for reading Marías is to read him as quickly as possible, with as few breaks as possible. Despite a moment in All Souls where the narrator refers to his "general state of disequilibrium," what marks Marías's prose is an extreme sense of total equanimity, in fact a very powerful sense of equilibrium, of minute adjustments within a sentence or paragraph—even within a thought—that are constantly calibrating, correcting, reconsidering. This is not a prose style which one feels pleasure from by just reading a few pages at a time (although some of Marías's individual set-pieces—like the scene in A Heart So White where Juan meets his future wife, or the scene in All Souls where the narrator eats at the high table—are so good that they do provide just that immediate jolt of pleasure); it is a pleasure that one must adjust oneself to, and that adjustment takes time.


This all may be an odd thing to say about an author who is famous (or relatively famous) for the nonpareil fireworks of his opening lines, lines which are almost obscenely deft at leaping over expository throat-clearing and knocking you immediately on your heels. They are plunging, precipitous, like building a floor under you and knocking it through with the same gesture. "I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn't a girl anymore and hadn't long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father's gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the dining room with other members of the family and three guests" (A Heart So White). "Of the three, two have died since I left Oxford and the superstitious thought occurs to me that they were perhaps just waiting for me to arrive and live out my time there in order to give me the chance to know them and, now, to speak about them" (All Souls). "No one ever expects that they might some day find themselves with a dead woman in their arms, a woman whose face they will never see again, but whose name they will remember" (Tomorrow in the Battle Think of Me). These lines are all, of course, in content cheap or melodramatic, but the style! One could write the basic facts of these lines in thousands of different ways and it would never turn out this way.

So it is rather strange that an author who could fire off these lines without preamble might be so resistant to giving other immediate pleasures—although the prose is always very good and often very funny, I don't think one can successfully read Marías often just for the joy of a single page, or of a single paragraph. The effects are generally cumulative, even concatenating, almost always the product of something one has just encountered and something that is buried many pages before (or perhaps even in another of his books). He is, in a sense, the polar opposite of Borges, although both are fascinated by tales of horror, suspense, and detection, as well as by books and the effects they have upon the mind.

In part, this style is the product of a certain mania for embedded repetition, the patterning of his books through certain key phrases which are something less than leitmotivs and more like tics or idiosyncrasies. One can see it at work even in a single line sometimes, as in this, where the narrator of All Souls could as well be describing Marías's prose style in general: "I feel deeply troubled, yet my sense of unease has never lacked coherence or logic, it is light, logical, coherent, transient…" This is obviously not sloppiness (either on the author's or the translator's part). The lacking but appropriate word here is consistent, and it is consistent, in a rather unusual way, for the narrator to use two inflections of "coherence" and of "logic." Marías's embedded repetitions structure his novels by creating these subterranean consistencies, these almost subliminal rivulets of self-congruity, even predictability. (It is, in fact, the predictability of these echoes that allows his plots to be so wild and baroque, so utterly outlandish.)

There may be a metaphysical dimension to this structuring. At one point in All Souls, the narrator refers to an essay by Nabokov on Lermontov's short novel A Hero for Our Time in which Nabokov refers to eavesdropping as, at least in the world of Lermontov, "the barely noticeable routine of fate." Fate is, in Marías's world, audacious, quite ostentatious—it's those deaths, thrown in our faces in the first few words of the novels, predetermined, overdetermined, a little garish. Yet even the absurdity of a literary convention so boldly artificial as an overheard conversation is also quite mundane because of its recurrence, its conventionality, like the embedded repetitions and idiosyncratic patterns of Marías's work. Fate is bold, but even that boldness has more quotidian underpinnings, more routine inner workings. This, I think, is the meaning of these 'echoes,' this style of accumulation and repetition.

If you are not aware, Scott Esposito is hosting a group reading of Marías's epic trilogy Your Face Tomorrow this spring. I will be trying to keep up, although I'm unsure how this term's papers might interfere. At any rate, I encourage you to join, especially if you have not read Marías before. From what I understand, reading some of his other books (particularly the two I have read) may be helpful preparation, but YFT is also a pretty good introduction.

3 comments:

bgz said...

great comments. I've been following Marías since about '94. If you're ever curious the one accessible and fascinating book by his father is Generations---involves, in part, the idea/argument that we can more easily imagine the lives of our grandparents than we can the lives of our parents. Though Your Face Tomorrow might be said to disprove that.

karlo said...

Thanks for this nice post on Javier Marias' peculiar prose style and your recommendations as to how to read it. I've been hearing about Marias for some time but haven't gotten myself to pick up his novels. This blog post should work as more encouragement for me to do just that. :)

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