Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Douglas Messerli | Falling Trees (on Thomas Bernhard's Woodcutters)

falling trees
by Douglas Messerli

Thomas Bernhard Holzfällen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag. 1984), translated from the German by David McLintock as Woodcutters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987)

 American writers (and artists), particularly poets, often complain that their communities are viciously divided, and decry the fact that at the center of their art is great deal of vicious commentary, particularly between different literary sensibilities. My reaction to the various attacks from one front or another has always been a simple acceptance of the fact—although I have seldom willfully contributed to these assaults. Why shouldn’t a poet or fiction writer, if she or he is truly committed to art and his perception of what art consists of, feel a sense of affront by those who do not have that same commitment? If art matters, so does the territory; all writing (or art) is necessarily not equal, unless one doesn’t truly care about that art.

      In Thomas Bernhard’s 1984 fiction, Holzfällen, moreover, we perceive that the feeling of disgust by some writers for others is not just an American phenomenon, but if we are to take the voice of Bernhard’s narrator as an example, perhaps even more virulently experienced in Austria. And, unless we are somehow involved in that scene, the petty hatreds and disgust (amounting almost to nausea) felt by the central character makes for great fun, as he cattily attacks his fellow dinner partners gathered together in Vienna’s Gentgasse for what the hosts, the detested Auersbergers, have described as “an artistic dinner.” For Bernhard’s Viennese counterparts, some of whom recognized themselves in his satiric attacks, the presentation of their failures, however, was not at all “fun,” one going so far to sue the author and preventing his book from sale.

     There is certainly no question that Bernhard, bearing a close relationship to the narrator, presents a devastating portrait of his fellow artists—writers, musicians, tapestry weavers, dancers, actors, and just plain hangers-on. The drubbing they receive and the recounting of the narrator’s intimate relationships with many of these figures is almost maniacal as he recounts over and over how he came to know each figure, what role they played in his life, and how they ultimately came to be the truly “hated” figures he regurgitates up before us. Bernhard’s book, in short, is precisely as its title suggests—at least in the German—a wood-cutting exercise, Holzfällen suggesting in the original not just the noun “woodcutters,” but the verbal construction of a critical denunciation.

     Bernhard’s narrator, having himself suffered an emotional breakdown and, consequently, spending a period in a mental hospital, has a great deal in common with the author, and the major event of the day of the “artistic dinner” is a graveside ceremony for the narrator’s friend, Joana, upon her having committed suicide at her childhood home in Kilb, is similar in some ways to Bernhard’s own reported suicide in Upper Austria only five years after publishing this fiction. The reader, accordingly, recognizes the narrator’s attacks as highly personal and, at times, nearly hysterical, as the character admits that for years he has gone out of his way to steer clear of his old friends from the 1950s and early 1960s upon his return to Vienna from years abroad. But even if the narrator did not admit to these personal vendettas—which, in fact, lay at the heart of this fiction—the reader would be forced to recognize the subjectivity of the narrator simply by the grammatical structures and intense repetition of his sentences. Each attack on his hosts and their guests, particularly the Austrian Virginia Woolf, Jeannie Billroth, and the Austrian Marianne Moore and Gertrude Stein (in my mind, two diametrically opposed figures), Anna Schreker, is repeated over and again in detail, with each foray the narrator adding a bit of new information, that we soon recognize the separated figure sitting, as he tells us dozens and dozens of times in the narrative, in a wing-tip chair, is clearly obsessed with these beings.

     As well he might be, given the fact that as a young man he was pulled into artistic and sexual relationships with nearly all the central players, including his hostess—a woman from a wealthy bourgeois family who uses her money to help buy her and her husband’s way into the cultural scene—he, a composer “in the Webern tradition”—along with the Austrian Virginia Woolf, the Austrian Marianne Moore and Gertrude Stein, and the talentless Joana who spent her life transforming her tapestry-maker husband into a world-renown artist who bolts to Mexico just as he reaches the pinnacle of his profession.

     While the narrator may seem utterly ruthless in his attacks, quite viciously recounting the demise of each of these figures, now unable to even tolerate them for their abandonment of whatever they might have had of any talent, he somewhat redeems himself by being as brutally honest about himself, admitting how they each helped mold him into the artist he is today while also attempting, in a Tennessee Williams-like metaphor, to emotionally and spiritually “devour” him, equating it to the way all of Austrian culture grinds down its most talented young artists. The Auersbergers have used him sexually to “help save their marriage,” Jeannie has taken him in as a kind of devotee of her artistic endeavors, Joana has created a relationship with him to help her develop her failed career as a dancer/actress. In order to survive, he proclaims, he has had to abandon them, while they have vilified him to all their acquaintances for that very abandonment, Joana perhaps even through her death expressing her sorrow in her loss of her once dear friend. So while the narrator may seem to be selfishly satisfied with his tale of his friend’s immense failings, he is equally brutal about his own hypocrisies, and praises the talents they once possessed—including Herr Auersberger’s musical abilities, his wife’s singing talents, and even Jeannie’s early devotion to literature before she sold out to the State officials who award stipends and literary prizes, one of which the Austrian Marianne Moore and Gertrude Stein has just been recipient.

     At the center of the “artistic dinner” is a third-rate actor playing Eckdal in the Burgtheater’s production of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck., who, when he finally arrives well after midnight, shifts the narrative to a comic realization of just the boorish “artistic” conversations against which the narrator has been railing. Most of his commentaries are ridiculous statements of the difficulty of the actor’s life, criticizing nearly everyone—directors, writers, fellow actors and the theater itself, while exalting his own innumerable talents. When Jeannie Billbroth attempts to turn the conversation upon herself, however, at first vaguely, but, as the actor himself puts it, later “tastelessly” posing provocative questions, the actor turns from performing as a simple ham, endlessly recounting tales he has told dozens of times, to a kind of outraged philosopher, lambasting “the Austrian Virginia Woolf” for rude impertinence, lashing out against her obvious attempts to put down anything of value. In short, he voices just the criticisms that the narrator has privately held yet, hypocritically, failed to publically express. For the aging actor, his desires are for a kind of return to nature—what anyone who has read Austrian fiction realizes is at the very center of that country’s romantic ties to a kind of peasant simplicity—a world of “the forest, the virgin forest, the life of a woodcutter,” perhaps Bernhard’s ironic condemnation of the culture’s (as well as the narrator’s) own self-destructive desires.

     Indeed, Bernhard’s narrator, ultimately, does not come off much better than the devouring dead folk of his memories, as he waits until everyone has left, kissing the forehead of his hostess, and murmuring wishes that he might have heard her sing, while promising another visit—all of his actions and words representing more hypocritical mendacity. Or perhaps they do represent a kind of truth, as he goes racing down the stairs like he were still in his 20s, running away from his current home toward the city, determined to write down everything he has just suffered “at once…now—at once, at once, before it’s too late,” while at the same time admitting that as much as he hates these people and Vienna, he, just like the Burgtheater actor, loves them and the city:

                      This is my city and always will be my city, these are my people and
                      Always will be my people….,

an admission that almost instructively contradicts his deep hatred of all he has just recounted to us.

     In this sense, finally, Bernhard’s Woodcutters is not just a critical attack; while it is that, it is also an intense dialogue with the narrator’s self over his and his society’s failures, a public airing of his and his compatriot’s laundry, so to speak. And so the fiction is transformed into a kind of loving portrait of a failed world, the world which, after all, all artists are forced to encounter, endure, and write about: never an easy task.

New York City, May 4, 2012

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Douglas Messerli | Pomp and Circumstance (on Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March)

pomp and circumstance
by Douglas Messerli

Joseph Roth Radetzkymarsch (Berlin: Gustave Kiepenheuer Velag, 1932), translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel as The Radetzky March (New York: The Overlook Press, 1995)

One is immediately struck when reading Joseph Roth’s masterwork, The Radetzky March, at just how amazing is the author’s ability to transform rather unlikeable figures into characters who emotionally involve his readers. Perhaps it even begins with the title: when I answered my companion, who asked me what I was reading, with "The Radetzky March," he turned up his nose in disgust: “I hate that piece. I think it is my least favorite of all march music.” “Mine too,” I replied, “but I love this novel.”

     One might be tempted to say similar things about the novel’s characters: the three generations of the Trottas, beginning with the infantry lieutenant, Joseph, who saved Franz Joseph, the Supreme Commander in Chief’s life by pushing him down at the very moment, at the battle of Solferino, when the emperor had put binoculars to his eyes. Joseph suffered a shattered clavicle and bullet lodged in his left shoulder blade, but both he and the emperor survived. In appreciation for his brave deed, Trotta is decorated with the Order of Maria Theresa and knighthood, now called Captain Joseph Trotta von Sipolje, in honor of his native town. Neither a great military man nor, for that matter, particularly gifted in any specific profession, Joseph Trotta, however, is a thoroughly honest man, outraged when he reads in a children’s history of his alleged salvation of Franz Joseph:

             An enemy lance bored through the young hero’s chest, but most of the
             foes were already slain. Gripping his naked sword in his hand, our un-
             daunted monarch could easily fend off the ever-weakening attacks. The
             entire enemy cavalry was taken prisoner. And the young lieutenant—Sir
             Joseph von Trotta was his name—was awarded the highest distinction
             that our Fatherland has to bestow on its heroic sons, the Order of Maria

Against the advice of all his friends and authorities, Captain Joseph Trotta petitions the government for changes in the text, but is unsuccessful. Youth needs heroes, the authorities and the emperor proclaim. In response, Joseph retires to a country house, puttering around the place for the rest of his life, his only bequeaths to his son amounting to the family title and a painting by his son’s friend, Moser, during one of his visits home.

      The son, a central character of Roth’s novel, grows to be the District Captain, Franz, Baron von Trotta und Sipolje, a man of no great imagination, but of superior character and obedience to the demands of the society. Sending his son to military school, he dutifully relays the laws of the Habsburg Empire to his local populace. But his greatest achievements are the absolute regularity of the Sunday concerts by the famed conductor Nechwal—concerts beginning always with the renowned “Radetzsky March”—his morning constitutionals, and his afternoon visits to a local bar where he plays chess with the garrison medic, Dr. Showronnek. Franz’s life, in short, is a regularized life of a dying generation, a world of moderated pomp and circumstance, played out upon the backdrop of the small town of W in Moravia.

     His son, Carl Joseph, in turn, is raised as a military man, serving first as a member of the cavalry, later as in infantryman. He too is unimaginative, a nonreader, who basically obeys authority. But Carl Joseph, the hero of Roth’s epic tale, has none of the backbone of his father and grandfather, but rather is a weak man, who as the tale moves forward, finds love with two motherly, older women, Frau Slama and, later, a wealthy married Frau von Taussig, becomes an alcoholic, and assumes others' gambling debts—all of which result in scandals and in the deaths of some of his only friends. In the end, like nearly all the figures of this fiction, he dies in battle in the prelude of World War I, a death that is so banal that it reminds one of the children's nursery rhyme, "Jack and Jill" ("Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water"), an act Carl Joseph undertakes from the embankment in which he and his men are holed up in order to slake the thirst of his soldiers.

      In short, the Trottas are representative of just those figures in the great Austria-Hungary empire who outlived their era, contributing to the fall of the empire, a world of Romantic ideals without any substance. As my friend Marjorie Perloff, mused, “How does Roth, then, make us care so much about these people, people whom you might detest in real life? Yet we do care intensely about the Trottas, and we are moved by the events in their lives.”

     One might simply attribute this ability to feel for Roth’s insignificant characters by pointing to the author’s narrative capabilities. Yet, on the surface at least, Roth’s fiction is simply a realist work, with no great flourishes of narrative technique to explain why as late as 1932, long after the great narrative experiments of Proust, Woolf, Kafka, and numerous others—to say nothing of Stein, and in the very same period as Faulkner’s greatest works, The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Roth’s more traditional-seeming fiction still holds its own, seeming even to be part of that modernist sensibility.

     In part, it is Roth’s ability to present his numerous figures within a cinematic-like structure, interconnecting them with all the art of a great cinematographer moving through time and space. The entire fiction is brilliantly played out between two crucial events in Habsburg history: the salvation of Franz Joseph in Solferino—which permits him to reign longer almost than any European monarch—and the assassination of the heir apparent, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an event which would soon end the Austrian empire. These two points in time—1859 and 1914—eleven years after Franz Joseph’s coronation and two years before his death, link the Trottas to the emperor through fifty-five years of his reign, more than a half-century.

     Within this matrix, Roth moves freely back and forth in space, from Solferino to the small town of W, from Vienna to the small borderlands town where Carl Joseph is stationed. There are many examples of Roth’s abilities to cut and intercut with great exactitude, but none so startling as the series of events that begin with Carl Joseph’s involvement with the killing of local factory workers on strike. Presenting Trotta in bed with encephalitis and other injuries, Roth cuts to  the Kaiser in his castle at Schönbrunn vaguely recalling the Trotta name and associating it with the name Solferino, before writing on Carl Joseph’s dossier the words settle favorably. A brilliant chapter about the aging Franz Joseph follows, presenting his isolated life in which the wise monarch is forced to play the simpleton and fool. Despite having a cold, Franz Joseph is determined to attend war-games and maneuvers in the distant borderlands, at which point the author moves him forward in space so that by the end of that chapter, he meets up with Carl Joseph himself, associating the young lieutenant with his grandfather, and mistaking him his father, the District Captain. It is as if history itself has intervened in the Trotta family’s life, all accomplished with a few splices of narrative ingenuity.

     A similar event occurs when the ever-troublesome Carl Joseph is forced to pay up on loans and gambling debts (debts he has taken on for others), writing to his father for help. The father, we are surprised to discover, has no money—like his son, he is incapable of balancing accounts. Here also, Roth suddenly moves his small-town figure—often described as a near look-alike of the Emperor—into the royal court as the dashing elderly man, dressed in his white military attire, seeks out and is finally permitted an audience with the Emperor in order to plead his son’s case. When the two finally do meet it is not only that they look like brothers but appear to be looking into a mirror, forcing the reader to recognize that they are not only similar in appearance but that the District Captain, son to the man who has saved Franz Joseph, and the Emperor are mirror images of one another in their beliefs, their demeanors, and their lives—reiterating the fact that the son of the “hero of Solferino” has remade his life in the image of Franz Joseph. By bringing the two face-to-face, Roth has cinematically demonstrated that time and space have become one, over time the elder man has seemingly spawned his double in the surrounding societal space, which is, of course, the desire of any despot, beloved or not.

     Another device Roth uses to develop his characters is to imbue them with special eccentricities or endow them with sudden perceptions which link them to us. Once he has established the Trottas as types—as blustery remnants of a romantic past—the author suddenly recasts them against type as they are faced with special perceptions and exceptional circumstances. Most of these scenes are also laden with irony, not only with our realization that they are not usually like this, but through the exceptionalness of their emotions and situation they are not so very different from ordinary folk, confused and very human beings. One of the most notable of numerous such occasions is when Carl Joseph returns home to be told that the woman, Frau Slama, with whom he has had a long affair, beginning in his youth, has died in childbirth. Carl Joseph is stunned by the news, and even more troubled by his father’s insistence that he visit and present his condolences to Slama himself. Carl Joseph puts off the event as long as possible, but ultimately encounters Sergeant Slama in his now-empty house. The two uncomfortably share bits of conversation, the young Lieutenant having to pretend a near ignorance to the objects in a room in which he has spent long hours. Offered a raspberry drink, Carl Joseph must almost unendurably sit through Slama’s attempts to find where the liqueur is kept, looking in all the wrong places, Carl Joseph knowing of its exact location in the kitchen. The pain and frustration of this scene is almost unbearable, as we feel the deep tension between the two men. But Slama turns the tables, so to speak, as Carl Joseph attempts to make a hasty retreat, calling him back to hand his wife’s love letters over to the young lieutenant. Although Carl Joseph has saved Frau Slama’s letters he clearly has never imagined that she might save his, and that not only has Sergeant Slama known of their affair but so too has his own father. Such situations, in short, intrigue the reader and involve him, as we first feel for the figures involved and then delight in the ironic humor of the situation.

     At numerous times throughout his work, Roth creates similar situations: each time father and son come together in what begins as a formal and rather distant relationship, the two increasingly reveal and even display their love for one another, Carl Joseph, on his final visit, for the first time not only taking his aging father’s arm, but holding it, walking home arm in arm. At other times Roth attributes to these two figures with sudden flashes of perception, Carl Joseph, for example, coming to realize his great love and compassion for his friend Max Demant; the District Captain, upon his trip to visit his son in the borderlands, discovering through the pessimistic observations of Chojnicki, that the empire is indeed about to collapse. Similarly, the emotional complexity of both mens' deep relationships with the most worldly and least-traditional thinking figures in the book—Moser, Demant, Chojinicki, and Skowronnek—gives dimension to the obedient and unquestioning Trottas.

     In the end we begin to see that, despite their simplicity, their obvious weaknesses, even their stupidity, the generations of the Trottas are no so very different from anyone else. Indeed, had they been left to their origins as simple peasants they might, like Carl Joseph’s orderly, Onufrij, have survived very nicely. Certainly Carl Joseph seems to be at his happiest in the few days when he lives in natural solitude in Chojinick’s woods, keeping out of sight of his former infantry friends and greeting the local peasants.

     Finally, in a book with all the hoopla of military parades, rattling sabers, and heel-clicking (one of the most painfully revealing scenes in the book is when the District Captain’s loyal servant Jacques is ill in bed, he attempting to click his heels under the covers when visited by his employer), and, yes, the blaring trumpets of “The Radetzky March,” the dominant images and sounds are strangely those of the natural world: from the canary’s beautiful songs that accompany both Jacques’ and the District Captain’s deaths, to the croaking frogs of the borderland swamps, the strange honking early migrations of the geese, the constant murmur of crickets, and the eerie silence of the ravens signifying to the locals the end of their world, it is nature that has the final say in Roth’s noisy dissonance of Austrian society. And, in the end, it is not the marches, the clashing swords, the explosion of rifles, or plod of feet that defines this dying world, but silence, the mouthing of words that cannot be heard as the Kaiser lies dying, the empty silence that settles over a son’s death.

      Roth’s great fiction may seem almost artless, a simple—if epic—tale of the death of the Austria-Hungry empire, but it is, finally, a domestic drama most carefully crafted in his vast cinematic movements, its delicate shadings of characters, and its skillful juxtaposition of human and natural voices. And by fiction’s end, the blare and bluff of “The Radetzky March” is drowned out by the rich and various cadences of living and dying men.

Los Angeles, May 1, 2012

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Douglas Messerli | "Moving Forward by Standing Still" (on Samuel Beckett's Mercier and Camier)

moving forward by standing still
by Douglas Messerli

Samuel Beckett, trans. from the French by the author Mercier and Camier (New York: Grove Press, 1974)

Written originally in 1946, Beckett's first novel after World War II did not have a easy time of it getting to press. Although it was accepted by the French publisher, Bordas, in 1947, Beckett withdrew it before it was printed, insisting that, according to biographer Deirdre Bair, it was "a working draft or preliminary attempt to evolve a new technique of fiction." After years of forbidding its publication—during which various critics quoted from it and wrote about it in their studies—Beckett was finally convinced to allow its 1970 publication in French. He still resisted translating it, the English language edition not appearing until 1974.

     Perhaps that delayed publication helped the work—which, had it appeared earlier, would have seemed as a very strange fiction indeed—receive its proper due. Personally, it is now one of my favorite of Beckett's works.

     The two characters, whom Beckett describes elsewhere as a pseudo-couple, in many respects are early versions of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. Like the couple of his famous play, they are vagabonds, opposites in appearance—one, "small and fat...red face, scant hair, four chins, protruding paunch, bandy legs, beady pig eyes," according to Conaire; the other, "a big bony look with a beard, hardly able to stand, wicked expression"—who similarly come together, talk, speculate, argue, wonder, doubt, and attempt time and again to separate, only to return to one another's side. Like the famed dramatic duo, they seem to be awaiting something or, at least, seeking something they never find. Some passages, in fact, seem to be directly repeated in the later drama.

     Like Vladimir and Estragon, their pairing belongs to a long tradition of inseparable comic figures dating back at least to Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet and embracing 20th century figures such as Laurel and Hardy.

     But these two, in other respects, are quite different from Gogo and Didi, for they do not simply remain on an empty plain with one tree in sight, but move forward and backward through a town that is similar to Dublin, venturing out and returning to rediscover their pasts and the dejecta they have shed in moving forward: a sack, a bicycle, a raincoat, an umbrella. Even more than Gogo and Didi, these two are a couple, not only through deep friendship, but sexually as well. They sleep together, side by side, hand in hand throughout the story (the dramatic couple of Godot separate each night), and, at least at one point, at Helen's place—the brothel to which they return again and again—Beckett describes their activities as such:

                         They passed a peaceful night, for them, without debauch of any
                         kind. All next day they spent within doors. Time tending to drag,
                         they mansturprated mildly, without fatigue. Before the blazing
                         fire, in the twofold light of lamp and leaden day, they squirmed
                         gently on the carpet, their naked bodies mingled, fingering and
                         fondling, with the languorous tact of hands arranging flowers,
                         while the rain beat on panes. How delicious that must have been!

While this passage, and others in the fiction, seem to indicate  homosexual bonding between the two, however, we must not make too much of this, since one describes a former marriage and Mercier, momentarily left alone, is confronted early the book with two children who, upon seeing him, call him "Papa." More importantly, in many respects Mercier and Camier, despite their physical oppositions, are one: both aspects of Beckett's own persona, an inner and outer portrait of a lost being in search of some place to which he might escape.

     Yet, the intensity of their relationship, the deep emotions they feel for each other—despite their attempts, at times, to escape each other's presence—is important to the work. For without each other and the kind of yin and yang they represent, the other is nothing, and when they do part near the end of the book, Beckett introduces a character from a previous fiction, Watt, to temporarily bring them back together, reintroducing them to one another all over again. Just as Beckett's tale cannot begin until the two, on slightly different time tables, have comically matched their arrivals and departures to meet up with each other, so when, the time round, they finally part—"Well, he said, I must go. Farewell, Mercier. Sleep sound, said Mercier."—does the story go dark:

                       Alone he watched the sky go out, dark deepen to full. He kept his
                       eyes on the engulfed horizon, for he knew from experience what
                       last throes it was capable of. And in the dark he could hear better
                       too, he could hear the sounds the long day had kept from him, human
                       murmurs for example, and the rain on the water.

In short, the fiction ends with a kind of death, not that very different, however, from the experiences of the couple throughout their "adventures."

      What their so-called "adventures" consist of, obviously, make up Beckett's tragic-comic story. In one sense nothing happens except little oddities such as, early on, two dogs having intercourse in the same small archway where they wait out the rain, later the appearance of a businessman who claims they had made an appointment, and the violent intrusion and an attempt to arrest them by a busybody constable. They are not precisely elements of plot, but random events that serve as counterpoint to the two figures' questions and speculations, as interruptions to their elementary summations. Indeed, as Beckett makes clear, there is in Mercier and Camier no story to be told, a reality he brilliantly satirizes with a ridiculously abbreviated summary after every two chapters. Yet for all that, it is as if these two lived out an entire life in their few days of travel. While Beckett's later figures often hardly move, but live out the fictions they tell in their minds, these two move without getting anywhere, moving forward sometimes by standing still, yet becoming strangely exhausted by their seemingly Herculean ambulations. And by fiction's end, not only have they rid themselves of all possessions, they have drained their bodies of the desire to move forward—or even backward for that matter. Like the characters in later Beckett works, they have transformed their busy activities into abstract motions of thought. In this sense, Beckett truly does create in this marvelous work a kind of blueprint for his new fictional techniques, demonstrating just how much can happen in world in which nothing of importance seems to transpire. And in that sense, the little voyages taken by Mercier and Camier are journeys more vast than those of the rest of humankind.

Los Angeles, April 27, 2012

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

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