August 31, 2011

A cosmogony of Javier Marías's major fiction

Poison, Shadow and Farewell is the valedictory volume of Javier Marías's spy novel whose prose style represents a calcification of the novelist's poetic images, lines, phrases, and symbols, all unfolding in the pedantic mind of its narrator in a very very very very very very very slow motion. (Yes, that's seven verys for each chapter.) In the 1,200-page opus Your Face Tomorrow, we find Jacques Deza, recently separated from his wife Luisa in Spain and employed in London as an interpreter and as a kind of behavioral consultant under the tutelage of his boss Bertram Tupra, an enigmatic and strong character of an unidentified national descent - we find Deza afloat in a thick fog of reminiscences and observations, endlessly conversing with people, with his father and with his mentor Peter Wheeler, both old and ailing, involved in some shady adventures with his superior, and finally involved in his own personal battle. What started as a mental bloodbath among spy-wits in the previous two volumes ends as a voluble political treatise on actual physical violence of wars and conflicts: (i) the recent and modern wars between nations and (ii) the intimate personal conflicts between two men.

Despite its obvious quarrel with a straightforward plot, there is an actual linear progression of story that builds from its feverish beginning, to the point of spear and a bloodstain, to dancing and dreaming, and in this volume, to the injection of poison, to the transformation of a person into a shadow-character, and to a final farewell. Here is how Deza's corruption began:

   As I looked and half-looked and saw, a poison was entering me, and when I use that word 'poison', I'm not doing so lightly or purely metaphorically, but because something entered my consciousness that had not been there before and provoked in me an immediate feeling of creeping sickness, of something alien to my body and to my sight and to my mind, like an inoculation, and that last term is spot on etymologically, for it contains at its root the Latin 'oculus', from which it comes, and it was through my eyes that this new and unexpected illness entered, through my eyes which were absorbing images and registering them and retaining them, and which could no longer erase them as one might erase a bloodstain on the floor, still less not have seen them.... [124]

The passage of course runs for longer than that, but Jesus, how weird it is for the man to still invoke the etymology of a word when he is strapped helpless and forced to view some graphic images. Beyond the vocabulary lesson, there is an insistence on the part of the narrator to capture the most suitable word to describe the increasingly envenomed state he's entering. Stumbling upon the word "inoculation", as a conscious or unconscious translation of his condition, almost provides a comic relief, almost relegates the process to comedy, black and pitch. Deza's acceptance that he is being 'inoculated' proceeds from a linguistic recognition ("that last term is spot on etymologically") to a validation of that recognition ("it contains at its root the Latin 'oculus', from which it comes") to a final recognition that he is now infected. Awareness of what is happening to him brings with it a certain comfort since he is able to interpret the situation at the level of language at least. His command of language is used as defense mechanism to 'process' images of unspeakable horrors into recognizable shapes, into a semblance of comprehensibility. He detects evil in what he sees and it is being passed on to him.
It is innate in humans to try to act rationally in the face of the irrational. And so pedantic Deza continually corrects the charismatic Tupra in their long drawn out conversation that culminates in the video showing. For instance, he corrects Tupra on the correct attribution of a quote (Rimbaud), on the right pronunciation of "Coahuila", and on many other linguistic matters which are seemingly at odds with the issue at hand, the issue of the moral and ethical justifications of the "use of force". Deza's obsession with the precise application of language seems to him the very act that will restore order in the increasing imbalance against peace and good that the latest events are undermining. But what practical and lasting use are one's powers of perception and linguistic skills in the face of an increasingly violent, intolerant world? In the face of bloody wars?

Through the videotaped images of atrocities, the implications of 'careless talk' introduced by the novelist in the first two chapters are now, for Deza, coming closer to home. The book has traced the gradual progression of plot from talk to live action, from language to reality. The flood of poisonous words - consistent in its unchecked spilling - becomes the very material of the novel's movement and resolution. Words betray. Words sink ships. Words are instruments of one's undoing. On the other hand, words warn. Words can be a ticket to salvation. Words console. Words memorialize. For spies, the exchange of words has become both necessary and suspect, a paradoxical situation whose balance a speaker constantly strives for whenever she opens her mouth, whenever she decides with finality to finally communicate, to finally speak out and declare a simple fact.

The plot is thin, and the book thick. The ideas are plentiful. The writing style has crystallized and hardened to such an extent that it almost rivals the exquisite and delicious boredom of Henry James's last three poetic masterpieces (but I will single out the brooding boredom of The Golden Bowl). However much the charismatic Tupra plead for our narrator not to "linger and delay", linger and delay he did, in every significant incident, as if the injunction is just the thing he needed to hear so he can disobey and freely follow his thoughts. The narrative style is that of free thinking, of freezing the frames of action and dwelling in them at leisure, and then to branch out to other frames, to go off tangent in the freedom of space.

* * *

If the major fiction of Javier Marías is likened to a solar system, the sun will have to be yielded to Your Face Tomorrow. The other six books make an elliptic orbit around this massive planet, sucked in by the latter's strong gravitational potential energy. It is the sublime energy of ideas, forcible feelings, and serpentine expressions that hold the inertia of this literary space. Like planets, the novels also have satellites of their own, orbiting around them. Because of the book's random composition, published one after another in the continuum, the novels gradually accumulate a scattered dust of ideas. The reader, in bringing these ideas together as he navigates the fabric of space-time, can sense a set of physical principles related to the constant gestation of the novelist's ideas, to his process of fictive creation that religiously follows the law of imagination. There emerges a literary universe - the Marían cosmogony - answerable to a single-minded desire to talk, to think, to talk more about what has been previously talked about, to think through what has been so far talked about, and to do more talking and thinking as long as one has the luxury of blank pages to do so. To talk and to think being further qualified as deliberate acts of searching for meanings: of translating, interpreting, and to generalize: of reading.

How did the birthing of this universe came about? In 1989, All Souls, Marías's first novel in this spatial configuration, was published in its original Spanish language. The unnamed narrator, a Spanish scholar in Oxford, will continue his story in YFT. Three years after, A Heart So White followed, introducing a character who was in many respects similar to Deza. The book contained an almost inconspicuous reference that winks at previous novel. In the same year, Written Lives was published, a collection of biographical sketches, ostensibly of a different genre, but the subject matter was relevant. The writers in it were some of those the novelist translated and whose works unquestionably contributed to his literary education. Another two years will pass (1994) before Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me came out to sketch entirely new characters and situations and yet with obvious thematic and plot links with the other two (for instance, the death of a woman at the beginning). A short story collection, When I Was Mortal, followed in 1996. The stories shared characters and backgrounds with the previous books and anticipated references in the books to come. Also in 1996, the almost-novella Bad Nature plucked out a previous character, or at least his name, and brought him face to face with cultural prejudice, a central conflict in the novelist's literary space. After that Dark Back of Time (1998) shook things a bit more by playing a game of fact-and-fiction with the first book and using again the same characters, or at least their names. After four years, the three volumes of YFT started to arrive in installments (2002, 2004, 2007), almost completing the writer's elegant train of thought. 

The above figure is an initial attempt - I haven't yet read When I Was Mortal and am just about to start Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me - to tease out the cosmogony of Marías. The books are treated as discrete celestial objects in the same space cluster. The solid lines indicate a sharing of one or more "major" characters in the story; the broken lines show a sharing of stray Shakespearian phrases and images (e.g., "dark back", "tomorrow in the battle think on me") and of minor characters and their names. In the first case, the object directly revolves around a book in a well-defined orbit, having a direct link between them. In the second case the object wobbles in its orbit, having an 'imposed' semantic/philosophical/literary connection with the others. The orbit can be assumed not to be unstable or semi-stable (think Pluto) as to escape from the attraction of thematic gravity.

For sure there is an element of 'chance' in the composition of this cosmogony. It's possible that if there is a rough outline of it, then it is conceived in sequential bursts of creativity and revised along the way. The serial nature of YFT, its unwieldy style, and the tenuous recycling of character's names from other books, indicate that there is only a provisional map of it in the novelist's mind. At any rate, there is an agglomeration of the dust and chaff of novelistic ideas, Shakespearian drama and episodes. Their consolidation into a solid mass begins to form a more expansive core to forge the adamantine style, to calcify into a sun that is YFT.

How can something so boring like YFT be the one at the center of this solar system? Well, it's only boring to some, but I find several sections of it a page-turner, especially in the last volume. The sheer mass and density of YFT sweeps and reins in the dramatis personae of the other books, including some of the philosophical and aesthetic ideas in them. So its magnitude could not help but align the other books into its fictional system. The novel, voluminous and volatile, is powered by a slow-burning energy. At its center, a nuclear furnace of words, long trailing paragraphs, and flaring images, all of which elements are also in the other books but in YFT are blazing with renewable intensity, as if it wants to consume all its energy.

To read (into) these books is a wondrous experience of creative reading. Tracking meanings, codes, and images, attempting to decipher from them the basic principles that govern the planetary orbits. There is too much matter (words) to lose oneself into. The lines of poetry are repeated many times over in a book, and then they freely cross over other books, as if conversing with them. One book to another book. One poem to another. The poetic lines are deliberate devices to stitch together the fabric of one literary cosmos. They ("like snow on shoulders, slipping and docile") are pieces played out like mantras, incantations, amulets. The poems are like novenas offered to dispel the impending loss of continuity of the story. They are "markers", "signifiers", force fields pulling readers back to the thread of the story. Without exception, the titles of the seven books, as translated, are all cribbed from the plays of Shakespeare (with variations only for "All soules", "dark backward and abysm of time", and "evil nature").

The lines from poetry also play out as musical variations. By the end of the novel (YFT, as with A Heart So White), the lines coil around each other in a tightening noose. The snippets (from Shakespeare, Rilke, Eliot) are repeated as in the movements of a symphony, signalling that the novelist is ready to wrap up the story, to elevate it to one final stirring movement, his baton poised to gather all the elements into a tight, constricting unity.

But what is exciting about this solar system thing is not that there are tenuous connections at all, but that the oeuvre formed from the constellation of novels is still expanding in the reader's mind long after the reading.

* * *

NAMES. The names in these books are sacred grounds. It's as if a name has the weight of blood, as stubborn as the rim of bloodstain on the floor. A man's character is his fate. In Marían cosmogony, so is his name. The revelation of names, their withholding, and their numerous bifurcation into aliases, matter as much as the destiny of the characters behind the name. A name is the first level of measurement, the nominal label of a person. One's most basic attribute is inscribed in a name. Anyone's transaction, public or private, is associated with a name. Names are words, too. And the novelist luxuriates in words. So there.

SECRETS. One should keep his mouth shut. But there are exceptions after all. "I suppose there comes a point when one has to tell things, after a lot of time has passed, so that it doesn't seem as if they simply never happened or were just a bad dream ... " [510]

SEMANTICS, HERMENEUTICS, TRANSLATION. Marías's protagonists - Jacques Deza, Juan Ranz, Ruibérriz de Torres, "Javier Marías" - navigate the world through translation. Their professions as translator or interpreter or linguistic scholar or "novelist" are primarily concerned with the decoding of dense languages and images into small understandable components. Otherwise, they become lost in the verbal labyrinth, just like the often-incensed reader. And so the protagonists are prone to self-examination, to self-justification and self-abnegation. Almost always they put under the microscope the very fine (grain-sized) details that they encounter. They describe events and surrounding details with the utmost precision for they are concerned with the transmission of information, with the exploration of workable (and alternative and flawed) translations. They fully recognize the limitations of communication, of the speculative natures of 'excellent' interpretation of one person's future actions, what she's capable of tomorrow, what her face tomorrow will reveal. In their physiological make-up there is a gene desiring to exercise its specialized function. This gene automatically answers to linguistic stimuli and is responsible for a variety of allied functions: to analyze, to make judgements, to philosophize, to interpret, to break words apart, to search for definitions and cultural contexts, to translate, to read.

This indicates that a robust framework for conceptualizing the linguistic/cultural system of YFT, and maybe even of the whole cosmogony, is a theory or philosophy of translation. One such philosophy is explored by the late French philosopher Paul Ricoeur in On Translation (Routledge, 2006; trans. Eileen Brennan), a book of essays on the philosophy of translation that distills the work of George Steiner (After Babel) and other translation theorists. Ricoeur's book is a rigorous and concise (72-page) exposition on the ethical justification for the existence of translation.

The work of translation, according to Ricoeur (after Freud), is an act of remembering and of mourning. This is from the first essay called "Translation as challenge and source of happiness". Throughout YFT, readers are treated to Deza's constant allusion to the past, to "the things as they were" before his separation from his wife, a separation which decisively marked his life. In the novel's store of stories, readers are made privy to the reminiscences of Wheeler and Deza's own father. In translating and interpreting, Deza constantly goes back to the sources of language, the etymology, the idiomatic and popular uses of a word or phrase, the puns and the historical-cultural contexts behind words. He remembers and at the same time he mourns, with a sometimes tragic sense of loss, for "what might have been". He mourns for what more faithful meaning could have been substituted to some slippery word or statement. Atmospherically, the novel is so suffused by tones of elegy and melancholy as to be draped in black cloths of mourning.

In delineating the private-public spheres of human relationships, through translation and semantics, Ricoeur highlighted the division between external and internal translations. External translation being the translation from a source to a target language, internal translation being the process of translating "within the same linguistic community", i.e., from Spanish to Spanish, or from English to English.

I would like to show, at least very succinctly, that it is in this same language’s work on itself that underlying reasons for the insuperability of the gap between a supposed perfect universal language and the languages that we term natural, in the sense of non-artificial, are revealed. As I have suggested, it is not the imperfections of natural languages that we would like to do away with, but the very functioning of these languages in their astonishing peculiarities. And it is the work of internal translation that in fact reveals this gap. I come close here to the statement that commands the whole of George Steiner’s book, After Babel. After Babel, ‘to understand is to translate’. This is about much more than a simple internalization of the relationship to the foreign, in accordance with Plato’s adage that thought is a dialogue of the soul with itself – an internalisation that would transform internal translation into a simple appendix to external translation. This is about an original investigation, which lays bare the everyday processes of a living language: these ensure that no universal language can succeed in reconstructing its indefinite diversity. This is really about approaching the mysteries of a language that is full of life, and at the same time, giving an account of the phenomenon of misunderstanding, of misinterpretation which, according to Schleiermacher, gives rise to interpretation, the theory of which hermeneutics wants to develop. The reasons for the gap between perfect language and a language that is full of life are exactly the same as the causes of misinterpretation.

All of which may, or may not, acquit Deza of his insufferable mannerism of trying to find equivalent synonyms to obscure words. Ricoeur here highlighted diversity and vitality ("full of life") implied by the act of translating within the same linguistic tradition. This requires internalization and critical defamiliarization in the source language, maybe the act of attaining fluency in one's native language. I like the part in the above quote where it says that no universal language can successfully reconstruct the staggering diversity ("fullness", let us say) of a living language. I also like the idea behind interpretation arising from a given account of misunderstanding and misinterpretation. For without the discrepancies of sense and meanings in and between languages, without misprision (the willful distortion and misreading of texts, as Harold Bloom would have it) in translation, there is nothing to interpret at all, nothing to speak of, to write about, hence, nothing to read, to argue about, to talk about, to think about.

'THE OTHER'. Compounding the external-internal, private-public spheres of translation and semantics is the perception of that that is other than you or unlike you, which is perhaps the untranslatable, the foreign, the strange, and the alien. The novelist brings these spheres of human relationships and the internal-external into direct engagement with wars and conflicts in history, the past and ongoing history. He interfaces these wars with an individual's private wars and demons (as with Deza's confrontation with C). And this he simultaneously made to bear on an "ancient and modern" conundrum, i.e., a timeless concern of the past, present, and future (tomorrow's unknowable face) - how to tolerate the 'other'.

Bad Nature encapsulates most succinctly the novelist's recurrent theme in his major works. In this short story, the protagonist is witness to the same problem of confronting people unlike one, people who speak a different language and whose values and backgrounds are relatively different from one. The situation is representative of the conflicts that tend to plague the Marías cosmogony. Here's from something I wrote in a previous post:

The book is about a translator/interpreter who worked for Elvis Presley in a movie set in Acapulco, Mexico. In one of their bar hops, one of the guys in Elvis's contingent offended a Mexican gangster. Inevitably, Elvis and his companions became embroiled in an argument with the gangster's group. The translator is the only person who could communicate the insults shuttling back and forth between the two factions. As is usual with Marias, the currents of terror are at first gliding innocently on the surface of the story and then breaks to the surface to take over the story. As I understand it from this story: the bad nature resides in all of us. The gangsters and also Elvis can be bad, as in evil, anytime. The key to world peace is tolerating "the other" but this is impossible because there is always a barrier of communication. Language and the significations of language can get the better of people. If we can not get past our own linguistic (i.e., cultural) prejudices then we are at a permanent state of conflict. Even gestures, like language, can be fatal.

TOLERANCE. In his introduction to Ricoeur's On Translation, Richard Kearney explains the concept of translation in terms of hermeneutics:

Translation can be understood in both a specific and a general sense. In the specific sense - the one in common contemporary usage - it signals the work of translating the meanings of one particular language into another. In the more generic sense, it indicates the every day act of speaking as a way not only of translating oneself to oneself (inner to outer, private to public, unconscious to conscious, etc.) but also and more explicitly of translating oneself to others. As Dominico Jervolino puts it:

To speak is already to translate (even when one is speaking one's own native language or when one is speaking to oneself); further, one has to take into account the plurality of languages, which demand a more exacting encounter with the different Other. One is tempted to say that there is a plurality of languages because we are originally plural. The encounter with the Other cannot be avoided. If one accepts the necessary nature of the encounter, linguistic pluralism appears no longer as a malediction, as the received interpretation of the myth of Babel would have it, but as a condition which requires us to surrender the all-encompassing dream of a perfect language (and of a global translation, so to speak, without residues). The partiality and finitude of individual languages is then viewed not as an insurmountable obstacle but as the very precondition of communication among individuals. 

The key passage from Jervolino that Kearney quoted is the beautiful solution that Ricoeur has arrived at. This is also, in my view, what Marías has been obliquely mapping in his fictional sequence featuring translators as characters. In his book Ricoeur introduced a wonderful term, linguistic hospitality, to describe the appreciation of translation through the acknowledgment of its limitations, the acknowledgement that there is no total (or perfect) translation: "Just as in the act of telling a story, we can translate differently, without hope of filling the gap between equivalence and total adequacy. Linguistic hospitality, then, where the pleasure of dwelling in the other’s language is balanced by the pleasure of receiving the foreign word at home, in one’s own welcoming house." That acknowledgement is a source of mourning for the translator who is not able to fully capture the sense and essence of what one is asked to translate, the inability to find exact equivalents, a one-to-one correspondence between the source text and the translating medium. At the same time (and this really depends on one's orientation, one's readiness), this limitation can be a source of happiness because one has given up. One has finally surrendered from trying to excavate the most faithful cognate, from trying to unearth the statement that would represent utmost fidelity to what is (assumed to be) really meant by the original.

USE OF FORCE. This linguistic surrender, this acceptance of our inadequacy to fully comprehend each other, may be the precondition for building a humane and just society. Maybe. And perhaps it can be a way to skirt around the perceived ethical problems of translation, a way to bridge post-national cultures, prevent incidents of violence and bloodshed, enable tolerance. Maybe. These suppositions may as well be formulated as rhetorical questions (This linguistic surrender ... just society ? Perhaps it can be a way to skirt around ... enable tolerance?). The framing of these positive statements makes them sound insincere. They will bring us neither here nor there.

Faced with a more brazen question, like, Why should one not hurt or kill people?, we seem not to be at a better position. On hearing this question, the value system starts to rebel. Our order-loving sensibilities are offended. Yet in YFT, the novelist forces the reader to confront naive questions like this. To consider the larger implications of using violence in desperate times. The reader may as well listen in rapt attention since these questions, as the poet Wisława Szymborska noted, are "the most pressing" ones. By giving it a proper context and narrative grounding in the novel, that 'innocent' question turned out to be not as naive as it sounds.

At the end of the novel, Deza gives up on his job as translator under Tupra. His unconditional surrender is not just an act of principled defiance; he is giving himself up to embrace his 'other life'. There is now in him an openness to transform and translate his real life into something more real, more concrete, something he can derive an ounce of happiness from. And so the novel arrives at its resolution after a long agonistic telling, a telling permeated with a fever of protracted remembering and sorrowing. At the cost of long stretches of boredom, irritation, and compulsive reading, the protagonist, and maybe the reader too, is harvesting from it the rewards of a reading experience, a sharpened sense of memory and loss. An expectation to face a new task of translation, a new opportunity for hospitality.

Your Face Tomorrow is rendered in English by Margaret Jull Costa, as are all other translated books by Marías, except for Voyage Along the Horizon, translated by Kristina Cordero, and Dark Back of Time and Bad Nature, translated by Esther Allen.

With thanks to Richard (Caravana de recuerdos) for leading a three-part group read (Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3) of this one-of-a-kind novel. For a mapping of Marías's books, see Conversational Reading, Wuthering Expectations, and the review by William Deresiewicz in The Nation. I first read about Ricoeur's ideas in an interview with An Sonjae in Asymptote. "The Century's Decline" by Wisława Szymborska can be viewed here (pdf).

August 20, 2011

First Love (Ivan Turgenev)

This post is my wee participation to The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge, instigated by Frances of Nonsuch Book with the support of publisher Melville House. I'm all out for the Curious Level (1 novella) but a look at the eclectic list of novellas in the series - not to mention the elegant cover designs pared down to a one-tone background color - tells me this is not a one-night stand affair. I'm already eyeing a couple of titles for my next reads post-challenge. But first my gratitude to Nicole of bibliographing, the source of my copy of the novella which I won in her giveaway. An opportune prize to win since by reading it I also get to come close to fulfilling the requirement of one of only two reading challenges I signed up for this year. (After Zamyatin and Szymborska, it will be my third book for The 2011 Eastern European Reading Challenge, over at Black Sheep Dances.)

While this Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) novella was the first I've read under the Melville House imprint, I counted this as the fifth or sixth I've finished for the year. The last two before First Love were unequivocal masterpieces - Chess by Stefan Zweig and The Fall by Albert Camus. Quite unlike the narrative playfulness of these last two modern novellas, Turgenev's story was a linear and controlled exploration of being in love at a young age. It offered a portrait of a transition from youth to adulthood: from the confusion and giddy puzzlement that accompanied the raw feelings of youth to a more luminous perception of reality as one gained more experience. The protagonist was a sixteen-year-old student, a young man of middle class background. The object of his affection was a young princess, older than him by a few years, who with her mother was his family's new house neighbor. Turgenev created tension in two fronts. First, although members of Russian nobility, the new neighbors were actually on the verge of poverty. Their tenuous hold on their upper class status was endangered by their large debt owed to some influential persons. Second, the beautiful young princess was not entirely a bashful one. She was as carefree as can be and she was surrounded by a lot of suitors who were slaves to her every wish. Into their midst was flung the young protagonist - awkward, dejected, and in love. Soon, the young princess was sending a covert message to the group of young men (our student, a poet, a doctor, a handsome count, and a hussar) around her. She had found someone: a lover who was her match. She, her heart, was already taken. But who among them could it be?

The novella was translated by Constance Garnett, she who was often reviled as a poor translator of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy but acknowledged even by translators working today as a peerless stylist when it comes to finding equivalents for Turgenev's natural prose style. Her words in this novella are well chosen and restrained; they possess a certain vitality that pushes the story forward to its more emotional and more elemental conclusion. In Garnett's translation First Love, first published in 1860, still maintained a fresh coat of varnish for a classic Russian tale. The highlight of the narrative was when the text briefly switched to the poetic mode near the end - with precious words like dost, thou, thee, canst, art, wilt - not really in a sappy way, in order to impart a lasting "lesson" for the young man, a lesson that he will treasure for its insight into the workings of life. A way for his young heart to adapt to the bittersweet experiences that came, will come his way. This poetic interruption was like a Chekhovian nudge, enriching even as it culminated in a hypothetical statement of despair.

I know that one of these days I may enter a Russian phase of reading and will finally make my acquaintance with Turgenev's celebrated novel Fathers and Sons. Such as it is, this novella is already a good starter for dipping into Turgenev's essential writings.