Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Javier Marias

A year or so ago I spent a dollar at a library de-acquisition shop to purchase a novel by the Spanish writer Javier Marias. (I don’t read much fiction any more but he’s one of my favorites.) When I got home I noticed it was volume two of a three-part series. My first thought was simply to toss it, but I eventually went on-line and discovered that there was a single copy of volume one available from a bookshop in Point Reyes, California, for $7.00. A dilemma. The novel might well be great, but at 1200-odd pages, would I ever read it? On the other hand, what if that’s the only copy left in the entire country? Forever? Tossing good money after bad, I brought the book, and read both volumes with relish.

Let us hope that no one ever asks us for anything, or even inquires, nor advice or favor or loan, not even the loan of our attention, let us hope that others do not ask us to listen to them, to their wretched problems and painful predicaments so like our own…

That’s a strange way to open a twelve-hundred page novel in which the narrator never stops talking, don’t you think?

But Marias is a thoughtful person, adept at generating those interior monologues that have won Proust such favor with readers. He's less interested than Proust in manners and refinements in feeling, however, more interested in adventure, intrigue, duplicity, truth, courage, cowardice and betrayal. It seems to me he also has a better grasp than Proust of how memory actually works.

The best brief indication of the sophistication of Marias’s approach that I know of appears in an interview he gave to BOMB magazine in 2000. At one point the interviewer asks Marias to define what he means by “literary thinking” and Marias replies, in part:

A character within a book can say two totally contradictory things, yet both can be true. Shakespeare does that all the time. You read Shakespeare and generally you understand everything easily. But when you stop and reread a bit, often you begin to ask, What’s he saying? What is this? I give an example of this in my latest novel, or “false novel,” as I have called it, Dark Back of Time (Negra espalda del tiempo). It’s the beginning of the famous monologue in Othello, in which Othello, before he kills Desdemona, says something like, “It is the cause, my soul, it is the cause. Let me not name it. You chased stars. It is the cause.” You read that, you’ve listened to it a hundred times, you’ve seen it in films and generally you say, Okay. But then you stop and ask yourself, What’s this? What does he mean? Which cause? What is the cause? You come upon things you apparently understood on first reading, but you haven’t really—they are mysterious or even contradictory. That’s literary thinking: something producing itself in flashes. It’s less a form of knowledge than of recognition, at least in the kind of novel I like most, which would include Proust, Faulkner, and Conrad. Reading them, you recognize things you didn’t know you knew. And sometimes I try to create the same effect in my books.

Eager to read volume three of the trilogy, which had not yet appeared in English, I secured a review copy from RainTaxi magazine and finished the journey. In case you’re interested, you can read the review I wrote here.

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