Saturday, July 15, 2006

More perplexity: responses to Javier Marías

As others have reported and commented, Wendy Lesser of The ThreePenny Review has begun a blog. Her latest entry is about Javier Marías' trilogy Your Face Tomorrow. On publication of volume two, she says it is "shaping up to be one of the great fictional achievements of the century".

Having just reviewed the novel for the TLS (not online), I have to express bewilderment at this statement. While the novel is objectively impressive and full of fine ruminations, it is also rather tedious and indulgent. I wonder if I'd have finished both volumes had I not been obliged to for the review. This should be a surprise considering the literary allusions peppered throughout his work and the writer to whom this project in particular has been compared.

Lesser mentions the almost-universal name-checking of Proust in connection with Your Face Tomorrow. But what do these comparisons look like? Well, at the beginning of an interview, Sarah Emily Miano says the novel is "already being compared with Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu". Yet rather than explain the implications she merely repeats the statement in the final line. This technique reminds me of those news reports in which the newscaster says "fears are growing for the Middle East peace process ..." while not actually showing or quoting anyone expressing such fear. It's just a device that assumes the peace process and/or being compared to Proust is necessarily a good thing.

Perhaps the trilogy's unusual length is the connection. But that would mean the Left Behind series can also be compared. The Review of Contemporary Fiction refers to the novel's "meditative lyricism", which is a plausible similarity. But many authors share that and they're not routinely compared to Proust.

However, the comparison is legitimate. In another review for The Times' Andrew Staffell says
Marías’s narratives are not dramatic or action-packed: they are slow-breathing, measured ruminations, introspective and philosophical. The few events that occur in the narrative “present” are broken up by long, Proustian passages of recollection and speculation.
It's good that somebody has made the effort! And also like Proust, Marías' narrator Jacques Deza is concerned with time. In his case though, it's our potential knowledge of the future with which he's concerned. I wrote that this is a promising inversion of Proust's project of recovering of the past and that
in Deza's night-time anxiety about his children, one can't miss the echo of Marcel in Combray tracing the ghostly sequences of his own mind as it moves in and out of dreams. But where Proust's novel revolved around redemptive epiphanies, here such moments are darker, more obscure, often indistinguishable from neurosis.
While all this is certainly intriguing and far more worthwhile than most novels so far published this century, the reading experience is not on a par with the Parisian neurasthenic.
If Proust also sent us on long journeys without too many fullstops, his sentences at least clarify and enrich the context of a specific observation. In Your Face Tomorrow, they tend only to accumulate superfluous qualifications and synonyms. Indeed, the series itself seems to be one of accumulation rather than development.
Sometimes it's better to constrain the work. In preparing for the review, I also read All Souls and was moved by its modesty and humour. It has the beguiling melancholy of Sebald's novels and is only 220 pages long. Unfortunately, unique novels like this tend to be overshadowed by their bloated, more ambitious companions.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:54 am

    Hi Steve, I realise you wrote this an eternity ago, but I thought you might like a couple of indirect responses to it. Firstly, a short piece I wrote on the differences between Proust and Marías

    Secondly, an extract from a (not-so-spectacularly written) imaginary interview with Marías

    Only came across your blog recently, but am very much enjoying it.


    Dan Hartley



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