Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Douglas Messerli | "The Time That Has Yet to Exist" (on Javier Marias' Dark Back of Time) and "Coincidence and Contradiction" (on Javier Marias When I Was Mortal)

the time that has yet to exist
by Douglas Messerli

Javier Marías Dark Back of Time, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (New York: New Directions, 2001)

Although Javier Marías characterizes his own fiction as a "false novel," the work has little to do with the traditional roman, concerned with a hero and his life (although the author, his characters, and his friends are featured in the work), choosing instead to focus on the debris at the edges of life, the incredible accidents and coincidences that occur at the borders of Marías' writing activities.

     The book first focuses on a previous Marías fiction, published in English as All Souls (in Spanish, Todas las almas), broadly based upon his tenure as a guest professor at Oxford in 1983-1985. Although Marías goes to some lengths to insist that all but one of the figures of the work were fictional—as with almost all writers, he admits to stealing small characteristics of the people he knew, but argues that he combined them in ways that resembled no one he'd met—many of the professors with whom he worked specifically identify others and themselves as characters in the fiction, determining that his work is a roman à clef, and going so far as to rechristen the characters of All Souls with the real names of their colleagues.

     Marías is quite horrified by that fact, afraid of offending individuals who he hardly knew (a woman acquaintance is identified by his friends as a female he portrays as having an affair in his work) and possibly even being sued. Certainly the British publisher, delaying the contract, is quite afraid of slander, and it apparently does not matter in British law that all the characters are fictional, for even if one imagines that he or she is being portrayed a lawsuit is allowed to go forward. At one point in this hilarious conundrum, Marías reiterates the fears of all writers; after the British publisher explains that "All that it would take (for a lawsuit) was for someone's circle of acquaintances...to believe they recognized that person in a character in a novel 'with resultant hatred, disdain, discredit or derision,' and the real individual would be able to file suit against the book's author and publishing house and have the suit accepted for consideration," Marías responds:



            But how can that be avoided when it depends on the way readers read the book
            and not the way the writer wrote it? Any lunatic can believe anything he wants, can't
            he? Any paranoid could recognize himself, couldn't he?.... How can it ever be known
            if the arbitrary identification has caused hatred or derision?... It can't be known with
            any certainty, since that depends, above all, on the perception of the injured
            party.


In short, almost any writer using fictional figures might possibly— according to British law at least—be liable to a suit. But the problem Marías indentifies is perhaps even more disconcerting than a lawsuit. Since interpreting a fiction or other literary work is also dependent upon the reader, how can any fiction be separated from reality? Or how, to turn the equation on its head, can reality be separated from fiction? How can anyone possibly ever determine the truth, however one might want to define that? And if there is no way to determine "truth," how do we function as a moral society?

     The rest of Marías' brilliant work explores that question in various ways, using events and accidents related to his writing of All Souls and other works, and employing, in Dark Back of Time presumably "real" histories and facts that seem as fabulous as the events of fiction. One of those figures, John Gawsworth (whose real name is Ian Fytton Armstrong), a poet, who appeared as the only character drawn from life in All Souls—although some readers of that book may have felt that the self-proclaimed King of Redonda was too far-fetched to be believed. By chance Marías is named literary executor of Gawsworth and his mentor-friend M.P. Shiel, and so gains the rights to Redonda.

       To support Marías' claim of Gawsworth's authenticity, he published two photographs of Gawsworth in All Souls and reproduces them in Dark Back of Time, one representing a handsome younger man, the second a death mask of the poet by someone named Hugh Oloff de Wet (who, so I later discovered, also did busts of British poets Louis McNeice and Dylan Thomas).

     Gawsworth, a man connected with a group of writers in early 20th century England, including figures such as Shiel, Arthur Machen, Lawrence Durrell, Richard Middleton and Hubert Crackanthorpe—the last two who committed suicide at an early age—gave them various roles in his uninhabited kingdom of Redonda.

     Gawsworth's own literary achievements were devoted primarily to anthologies of "mystery and terror," of which Marías mentions eight volumes between 1932 and 1937, many of them containing writings by his circle and work by younger authors whom Gawsworth promoted, including Wilfrid Herbert Gore Ewart (1892-1922). He attracts Marías' attention, the author going so far as to translate one of Ewart's stories and publish it in an anthology of rare tales of fear appearing the same year as All Souls. Although Marías is able to find names of several books Ewart published, he is unable to locate copies, and knows little about the author except for his "strange" death in Mexico.

      Soon after, Marías receives two mysterious letters: one from a Mexican essayist, Sergio González Rodríguez, on the death of Ewart, and another in 1990 from a man named Rafael Muñoz Saldaña, who claims to have tracked down the facts of Ewart's Mexican death. Through a bit of further research, with help from Marías' novelist friend Juan Benet, the author gathers together information on Ewart's service in World War I, his quick rise to literary success, and his breakdown recounted by a close friend of Ewart's, Stephen Graham.

     That story takes the character on a voyage from England to the US and eventually to Mexico, ending in Ewart's "accidental" shooting on New Year's Eve on the balcony of his Mexico City hotel. But the pieces of the tale are stranger even than fiction, and several contradictions arise even in Graham's telling of the story and through other bits of information, including the revelation that the hotel in which Ewart stayed on the 5th floor did not have a balcony at that level. Marías reveals these strange facts with all the eagerness of a great fiction writer and amateur detective. Yet his methods of gathering information are strangely passive. He insists that he only seeks out books through bookdealers and will not move forward unless someone sends him information. Marías claims that he does not use a computer and uses only materials that have "sought him out."

     So the plot thickens when Marías receives a book edited by Stephen Graham, the narrator of Ewart's death, signed by John Gawsworth. More significantly, another correspondent writes him that, coincidentally, his first poem was published in a magazine edited by John Gawsworth and that, years later, he met Hugh Oloff de Wet in Madrid and was entertained in a local café for several weeks by de Wet's wonderful stories. Thus the photographer of Gawsworth's death mask and the mysterious poet King Juan I of Redonda are magically brought together as Marías now recounts an equally fabulous tale of de Wet, interweaving the two with various other real figures from Sir Conan Doyle to Ödön von Horvath (the Austria-Hungary writer who spent a life in fear of being struck by lightning and died, oddly enough, in Paris of the effects of a lightning bolt) that interconnects the figures he has mentioned with war, their literary activities, their somewhat insane actions, and their deaths, which Marías brilliantly reflects back upon his own life and activities.

     In a strange way, accordingly, Dark Back of Time is almost like a reverse image of a fiction, as if Marías were challenging those Oxford professors who confused imagination with everyday reality; but it is almost certain that many of the characters of this book, who are all real (I found substantial entries for all on the internet, and had previously read works by Machen, Durell, and von Horvath) will be thought of as imaginary given the outrageousness of their lives wherein events, as the author himself admits, were "random and absurd."

     Just as the author learned to write as a child—he is left-handed and learned to write backwards so that his name XAVIER read to others as REIVAX—the strange worlds Marías relates in this fiction, are visions of existences where the past is the future, worlds of times that do not yet exist. Thankfully he promises us at least one more future journey to that "Dark Back of Time."

    

Los Angeles, June 7-9, 2009





Marías' approaches to fiction remind me of some of my own methods—perhaps even including the non-fictional fiction of my life in these pages—particularly in my creation of imaginary countries and various pseudonyms. Although I have yet to meet Marías, I do hope I get the opportunity. I also never met Javier Marías' beloved friend, Juan Benet (1927-1993), but Benet did send me, before his death, a small piece titled "Saturday or Sunday Brunch" for my Eating through Literature and Art "cookbook" published in 1994:



              I do not cook. I do not even know how to boil an egg and hardly may I offer
              a recipe of my own for your book. I only dare to make a suggestion: try every
              two weeks, on Saturday or Sunday morning, a brunch consisting of Icelandic
              or Scandinavian marinated herrings, smoked eel, Spanish "salazones" (i.e.
              mojama, tuna and several other roe), German sweet gerkins, "serrano" ham
              and lots of Danish beer and Russian vodka. That is all. You will feel great
              on Saturday or Sunday afternoon.



A wonderful combination to which I will one day treat myself!

     I also reviewed Marías' collection of short tales, When I Was Mortal, published in English in 2000, which I've included below.



Los Angeles, June 16, 2001





coincidence and contradiction



Javier Marías Cuando fui mortal (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1996). Translated from the Spanish by Margaret
          Jull Costa as When I Was Mortal (New York: New Directions, 2000).



Although, as the author makes clear in his brief Foreword, the stories of When I Was Mortal were culled from many sources and written often on consignment with specific requirements, there is an odd continuity between the twelve short works of this book. All but two concern death, and in one of those two in which a death does not occur ("Unfinished Figures"), it is imminent. Seven of the deaths are murders, primarily of spouses and sexual partners. Ghosts haunt two of these works (the title story "When I Was Mortal" and the last tale of the book, "No More Loves") and a seeming ghost is central to the best tale of the volume, "Spear Blood." The narrator or onlooker is more or less a voyeur in seven of the tales, and even when the subject of observation is merely a horserace, as in "Broken Binoculars," there is throughout the story a sense of voyeurism as two men at the track share a single pair of binoculars in order to watch the races and the possible entrance of one of the man's employer. Illness stalks the characters of four of these stories, and in two of them ("Everything Bad Comes Back" and "Fewer Scruples") figures central to the story commit suicide. Two of the stories deal with homosexuality. One might simply chalk all these commonalities up to the author's interests, his major themes, his preoccupations. But the continuities between stories—although the works themselves are superficially unlinked—continue. Two tales contain a character named Custardoy, and in two-side-by side tales ("Fewer Scruples" and "Spear Blood") figures visit the same street, Torpedero Tucumán. In two stories central figures are bodyguards, one who plots the death of his employer and the other whose charge manages to kill herself despite his protection. In these same two stories characters wear cowboy hats in connection with sex. And two of the book's characters die at the age of 39. Even within tales, coincidences and continuities abound: in the first story of the book, "The Night Doctor," the narrator leaves a party to accompany a woman to her home, where she is being visited by a late-night Spanish doctor, only to return back to the home of his host, for whom the same doctor later appears. In "The Italian Legacy" two of the narrator's Italian friends living in Paris (a character in the first story was also an Italian friend living in Paris) marry husbands who upon traveling become suddenly ill, recover, and change (or promise to change) into violent personalities.

    I mention all of these situations not for any thematic intention on the author's part, but because they lend this assortment of tales a kind of strange magic, a subliminal linking that forces the reader to look more carefully at individuals, events, objects. The story central to the book, expanded from its original form, is, indeed, a kind of detective story which requires exactly this sort of attention to detail that Marías seems to ask of the reader. In "Spear Blood" the narrator's friend from childhood is found dead—the very day after he has dined with him—in his own bed with a spear plunged through his body. Next to him lies a nearly naked South American woman who evidently was speared previous to Dorta, his friend. The weapon was Dorta's, brought back from a trip to Kenya. But the police cannot determine the identity of the other victim nor have they any leads on the murderer himself; they can only presume that the woman was a prostitute brought home by the victim, who was murdered by a jealous husband or pimp. But the narrator, who knows his friend well and, as we gradually discover through the course of the story, has an abiding love for him, cannot believe this version of the murder—primarily because his friend was a confirmed homosexual who eschewed all sexual relations with women. Incredulous as the events seem, the narrator becomes fascinated by the existence of this woman, going so far as to ask the detective for a photograph of her dead body. Without further evidence, the police stick to their version and the case is allowed to be forgotten. One night, however, as the narrator is enjoying an evening at a local restaurant, he spots a woman who appears in every detail to be the same as the one in his photograph—she even smokes the same Indonesian cigarettes as had his dead friend; however, in the photograph he has primarily studied her exposed breasts, and he now realizes he must actually see her breasts to determine if it is actually the same woman. He follows her and her companion to a bordello. Without giving away the plot, the result—if one has attended to all the small details of the story—is as inevitable as an adventure of Sherlock Holmes.

     Not all the tales in this volume are as brilliantly plotted and crafted as is "Spear Blood," but all are marvelously mysterious and clouded in suspense. And Marías' suspenseful style of numerous run-on sentences, compounded into ongoing streams of excited phrases marked by commas, comes across in Margaret Jull Costa's excellent translation. One can hardly wait for New Directions to publish, as they have promised, several of this Spaniard's novels.


Los Angeles, 2000











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