13 December 2011

The novelist as ghostwriter

Tomorrow in the Battle Think On MeTomorrow in the Battle Think On Me by Javier Marías

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A man and a woman are about to commit adultery. Suddenly the woman dies on him. The man cannot report her death and must immediately leave her and her sleeping child behind. From this opening scene, the novelist explores the idea of narrating and storytelling as acts fraught with emotional baggage, of the art of novel-writing as essentially ghostwriting. Later, the man considers revealing his identity to the woman's husband. He feels that unburdening himself can be the only way to save them both. He does not realize that both of them may already be past saving.

I reeled from the unexpected ending of this novel. The novelist's style is just as suspenseful and addictive as his other books. It is in some ways a companion book to his short story Bad Nature, whose narrator appears as a minor character in this novel.

The novelist can be said to act as a ghostwriter for his narrator, V., who was himself a ghostwriter in the novel. All the characters' thoughts and dialogues are filtered through V.'s consciousness, sometimes to the point of second-guessing them, as when he thought, inside quotations (emphases added):

"It's so easy to live in a state of delusion, or to be deceived," I thought, "indeed, it is our natural condition: no one is free of it and it certainly doesn't mean that one is stupid, we should not struggle so hard against it nor should we let it embitter us." That is what [he] had said, although he had added: "And yet, when we do learn the truth, we find it unbearable."

This is a key passage not only to this novel, but to the rest of Javier Marías's major fiction, all using the first person narration. It underscores his sublime ventriloquism and ghostwriting: the narrator thinking aloud his story and imputing words to the other characters. In a recent interview Marías said of his writing style: "I don't play tricks, that’s why I write in the first person." That is a tricky thing to say.

The narrator's profession is yet again a wonderful conceit on the part of the novelist, as it forces the two of them (narrator and novelist) to invent words for someone. As with A Heart So White, this novel luxuriates in the "dangerous" acts of observation and perception. This time, the narrator is actually twice removed from his subject (the politician he is writing a speech for) by having to fill the shoes of his ghostwriter-friend Ruibérriz who acts as his literary agent. He is, in fact, a "ghostwriter of a ghostwriter". Perhaps a fitting occupation for someone who is, all throughout the book, haunted by a ghost.

Marías's novels support the idea of 'faithful' translation and storytelling (novel-writing) as acts of careful and informed interpretations, as vehicles of interpretation themselves. The main characters - as translator, interpreter, ghostwriter - act as intermediaries between two parties trying to seek an understanding. In A Heart So White, between two world leaders; in this book, between a powerful political figure and his subjects. The translating language, the 'target' language, thus becomes a hospitable medium. Reading it in Margaret Jull Costa's expert translation adds a layer of déjà vu to the mix.

The novel-writing then doubles as translation, a way to capture and match ideas and intentions in the original language (thought) and to convey them in another (text/speech). The free first-person narrative style, proceeding in a deliberately digressive and lengthy trajectory of conscious memories and dreams, betrays the writer's intent to sharpen the perception of a reader caught in a swirl of words and ideas. To open communications between the embattled reader and the text.

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  1. Has to join the serried ranks of my TBR list.

  2. Although aware of the writer, was not aware of this book, that will have to change as this really has me intrigued a ghost-writer of a ghost-writer and also the idea of language and translation has a fascination that I like to indulge.

  3. Séamus, I think it will be a worthy addition to your list. It had the same Marías touches but never fails to surprise.

    Gary, we share that same fascination. Translation in fiction is a genre I'd like to read more of. This book is not really explicit on translation, but the same hermeneutics principles can apply.

  4. As much as I enjoyed these heavy duty aspects of the novel you bring up here, I also enjoyed the occasional comic touches such as the thinly-veiled cameo featuring King Juan Carlos I of Spain. Such a light touch with such otherwise serious subject matter! This was the Marías novel that turned me into a hardcore fan, so it was nice to finally see your thoughts about it here after waiting half the year for them!

  5. Rise - I'll echo Richard and say that it's a real pleasure finally to get to read your thoughts on "Tomorrow in the Battle," since I know you were reading it about the same time I was (and even though I can't promise that I'll ever get around to posting about it myself). I had somewhat low expectations for the book, given how much I loved the later "Your Face Tomorrow" trilogy, but this earlier work I found just stunning, starting with one of the more interesting conceits for a novel I'd encountered in a long time and then developing with such richness and elegance. As I recall, Marias was how I stumbled onto your blog in the first place; you keep on making it a fantastic place to which to return for commentary on his work. And I can only applaud your project to read more "translation in fiction" (come to think of it, that could make for a nice blog title...).

  6. Definitely need to get into Spanish-language fiction, an area I haven't really explored at all. I have just finished 'Open Door' by Iosi Havilio, and I found the style fascinating. Good to know that there are a lot of good writers out there...

  7. Richard, I agree his highness was a scene-stealer! Such a fully realized character whose connection to the main story was another trick I appreciated in this well-wrought novel. It took me some time to post as my notes were rather haphazard and few and far between. Not surprised that it solidified your following for the writer. It may be the kind of book that replays in the mind after the reading, one retains it and never shakes off the sense of its novelty. I’m starting to find Borgesian (and Menardian) aspects in his works!

    Scott, thanks. I relate well to the ‘richness’ and ‘elegance’ you mentioned. Marías was a grand slam writer for me this year, having read four volumes (with one re-read) and been amazed at the intellect and force of these pages. It’s a happy thought that you found your way here via this favorite writer.

    “Translation in fiction” would be what I’d consider adopting when I was shopping for a blog title in 2009. Now, I’m interested in building up a reading list of novels (or stories) with translators as protagonists.

    Tony, I’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Spanish fiction. I liked what I saw and so am gearing up for more in the future. Now, thanks for mentioning Havilio. A few clicks and I’m definitely interested.

  8. Rise - I have one for you. I hope to post about it in a few days. At the moment it's on the top of my "Books Read 2011" list.

  9. Antonio Muñoz Molina's El jinete polaco has a simultaneous translator as its protagonist, Rise, but I'm not sure if it's been translated into English yet. If I'm not mistaken, it's one of those highly heralded Semana.com titles as well--so it should be a good 'un!

  10. Scott, let me guess. La traduction est une histoire d'amour by Jacques Poulin? I've gotten some suggestions from my online groups.

    Richard, I don't think it's translated either. But having ranked in a good place in the Semana list must make it a solid candidate for translation. I have one book by Muñoz Molina in TBR that I can try in the meantime.

  11. Rise - Actually it's a book of poetry: "Keeping Mum," by Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis - a collection with an overarching theme of the translator as murderer, detective, psychiatrist and angel all rolled into one. Thanks for mentioning the Poulin, though, as I had that book on my TBR list and will now move it up.

  12. Scott, that's an interesting title. I've gotten loads of suggestions from my groups in Goodreads and LT. I might share them here later.