“One doesn’t know why or how or about what, but the fact is that they [us, you and me, everyone] spend the hours engaged in chit-chat, without once closing their mouths, even snatching the word from each other’s lips, all intent on monopolising it. It’s both a mystery and not a mystery.” (336)
That’s a sliver of Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear, the 2002 pseudo-spy novel (both a spy novel and not a spy novel) by Javier Marías. The speaker, Peter Wheeler, is an eighty year-old Oxford professor and former spy; the narrator is a younger Spanish translator who suspiciously resembles, and more suspiciously differs from the novel’s author. The quotation is somewhere in the middle of a seventy page near-monologue on the value of silence, spoken by a man who will not stop speaking, reported by a narrator if anything even wordier.
Marías, like Proust and Thomas Bernhard and W. G. Sebald, is known for long sentences, and Your Face Tomorrow seems particularly extreme in this regard, deliberately expanding each sentence with every conceivable qualifier and contradiction, unable to fix a single position for longer than a phrase or two, with the beginning of the above quotation (“why or how or what about”) only the simplest example, or anyway one of the simpler examples I could find in this onslaught of words, no wordier, to be sure, than any other novel of the same length (nothing but a tautology, that observation) and while “wordy” must be the most pointless imaginable description of a piece of prose, Marías is here employing a particularly wordy wordiness, so to speak, but only because conjunctions and other connectors replace punctuation – Your Face Tomorrow has more than its share of ands, buts, ors, and so on – which is really all there is to the trick, or the gimmick, or, more politely, technique, a frankly facile device, something any writer can mimic if he sets his mind to it; the question, then, is neither how nor about what but simply: why?
Your Face Tomorrow, this first volume, at least, is very much about wordiness, about words and their absence:
Keeping silent, erasing, suppressing, cancelling, and having, in the past remained silent too: that is the world’s great unachievable ambition, which is why anything else, any substitute, falls short, and why it is pure childishness to withdraw what has been said and why retraction is so futile; and that is also why… (16)
Ellipses mine. As you might guess, that sentence goes on for a while. Similar passages, paraphrases, really, are on pages 5 and 8. Repetition is another necessary technique for Marías, as are lists.
Wheeler’s monologue on silence, centered on a series of World War II posters (reproduced in the novel) of the “Loose Lips Sink Ships” genre, the genuine climax of this novel about words, is interrupted by an external shock and an inability to remember a particular word, possibly as the result of a previous stroke. Wheeler seems to regard the phenomenon as a premonition of death. His silence is echoed, metaphorically, by the story of a man who was silent under torture during the Spanish Civil War. Words are life; silence is death. Silence saves lives; words kill.
This is what everyone else is getting from the novel, yes? Richard of Caravanos de Recuerdos has kindly organized a readalong opportunity. I urge anyone interested to jump in. Start with volume 2; why not? Paradoxically you’re already at least two books behind if you start with volume 1. I’ll write about that later this week.