Tuesday, July 5, 2011

It’s both a mystery and not a mystery - Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear

“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.


  1. I'll take your bait, Amateur Reader, and agree on principal that Marías' "frankly facile device" re: deliberately extending wordiness could be achieved by others. But could they do it as well? There's a reason Marías is often referred to in the company of the other authors you mention, authors appreciated more for the richness of their prose than the length of their sentences to my way of thinking. The why you bring up here IS key, though, I think. Why praise the virtues of silence in a nearly 70-page monologue? And what do Marías' stylistic "excesses" (so often gorgeous, you must admit, even for such a notoriously cold reader such as yourself!) have to do with the ptreoccupations with mortality shared by Wheeler and the narrator Deza and the narrator's job as a "translator of people" who admits to being just as dishonest as anyone else? I, for one, look forward to finding out. Until then, thanks for reading along with us on this--I also look forward to your following post!

  2. Thank you! You just gave me some advice on a possible direction for my dissertation (which happens to be on silence)! I'm so excited about "Loose lips sink ships" that I'm going to end all of my sentences in exclamation points!

  3. Interesting riff on one of the NPR shows today about whether somebody who's not 80 can really write about what it's like to be an 80-year-old. What might imagination miss?

  4. Anna, no kidding! Well, my pleasure. If it is useful, and if you can wrangle a copy of the novel, twelve posters are included, on pages 309, 314-6, and 320-1. Each poster is described by the narrator in tedious and exacting detail.

    Tediously thorough descriptions - that's another device Marías employs, as if borrowed directly from Robbe-Grillet, more difficult to use well than the lists, not as interesting as the qualifiers, the narrator's refusal to commit to a single position, even about the most trivial matters: a character's eyes are "violet" or "even mauve" or "the colour of garnets, or possibly amethysts or morganites or the bluer varieties of chalcedony" (80). This surely goes far beyond what is actually helpful and into another realm of effect.

    I am not sure that Your Face Tomorrow is particularly well-written - Marías has to give up some conventional "good" writing for conceptual reasons. All Souls and Dark Back of Time are not written like this, and neither are, sticking with books I just checked, Old Masters or Austerlitz. Sebald's and Bernhard's super-long sentences are actually quite rare. Their lack of paragraphing sort of hides their short sentences. I wish I had a Krasznahorkai novel handy.

    Bernhard relies heavily on repetition, maybe more than Marías. His characters keep circling back to their obsessions. They are not so keen on qualifiers - they are confident:

    "When you accompany a Viennese to his flat your mind boggles at the dirt" (81 of Old Masters), part of four full pages on how hideously filthy Vienna is, particularly its lavatories and tablecloths.

    Anyway, the long sentence technique is not so difficult and any good writer - I am assuming we are restricting ourselves to good ones, writers worth the trouble - could get into fighting trim quickly given the necessity.

    I will certainly not admit the word "gorgeous" - I do not know what it means.

  5. Oh, you're no fun today, Amateur Reader! "Gorgeous" was my attempt to provoke you without using your much hated "beautiful" description for prose that's more, ahem, aesthetically pleasing than the norm. Not to worry, it's an elastic concept capable of being defined by each reader...

  6. At least in translation (I don't know Spanish), I love Marias' style, being a lover of long, flowing, twisty, non-linear sentences in general (I mean Krasznahorkai is one of my favorite writers, and Bernhard is just a pretender by his standards!). He crafts them beautifully and they suck me into the work. At least in translation, he is so blatantly a better stylist than, say, Bolano or Moya or especially Aira.

    But having read part 1 of YFT and A Heart So White and Dark Back of Time, the ultimate *meaning* of his work seems to slip through my fingers, as though he has these evanescent, evocative insights but does not build on them, letting them evaporate.

    Am I the only person who gets this impression? It's been so consistent for me across his works that I feel that there must be something I'm noticing, but no one else has felt similarly to me.

    (ps--Bernhard's repetition is far less obsessive in his earlier works, and he uses it to different and, in my opinion, more profound effect.)

  7. Words are life; silence is death. Silence saves lives; words kill.

    I think there is a little more, and it relates to the incessant qualifications and expansion of sentences. Words don't just kill, they can be used against you. Anything you say can be twisted, or misunderstood, or altered, or taken out of context, or changed, or ignored, or...every time Deza gives another description of that eye color, he is trying to get another angle of it, because he knows one description will not suffice—one description could be misunderstood far too easily. He has to give half a dozen descriptions so you can triangulate, and so that he doesn't have to commit. How can eyes be the color of garnets and the color of the "bluer varieties of chalcedony"? This should be a contradiction. It is, and then it isn't.

  8. I like the contradiction. Blocks and blocks of longueurs just telling one must shut up.

    The flights of wordiness probably arise from the method of writing. Marias and Aira are both known to just type away their texts, without editing and without looking back. So the tentativeness and the clipped momentum that characterized their prose maybe partly due to a constant gestation of ideas.

    I'm thinking of the long sentence, having just finished Austerlitz. The sentence seems to be deployed primarily to attract attention to what's inside the sentence. Sebald (or his translator) relied on dashes and there's even a semicolon tucked somewhere in the middle. Deliberate in its awkwardness. It seems to function as highlighter of content as much as stylistic prolongation. I think it has been exclusively used by the writers mentioned in a speech by their character, consistent with that character's obsessions.

  9. Aesthetically pleasing, that I grant immediately. This is the novel, though, that tempted me to write about the aesthetic value of boredom - there is some ingeniously deployed tedium in this book.

    nicole - oh yes, good. The narrator is trying to exhaust the possibilities, which paradoxically creates rather than removes uncertainty. It's an impossible, exhausting task.

    Rise - One must shut up, says the narrator, with only 800+ pages to go! The use and abuse of long sentences is a fascinating topic. Many of us, I think, share David Auerbach's taste for the long, twisty sentences, and the strange things different authors do with them.

    David - I will have to defer answering your question about the ultimate meaning of any particular Marías novel. Gotta finish Dark Back of Time, at least. I know where you are coming from, though. Bernhard, for example, and Sebald almost seem to be building a system. Bernhard's may be pretty narrow, but it has weight. If Marías is doing the same, I don't recognize it. This is all plenty vague.

    Rise's highly relevant Austerlitz piece is here. And Auerbach takes a serious run at Krasznahorkai here.

  10. 'I like the contradiction. Blocks and blocks of longueurs just telling one must shut up. ' Haha, very good Rise!

    I also like Nicole's idea about Marias triangulating.

    And of course your thoughts are always interesting Amateur Reader - I agree about Marias being almost excessively wordy, but I'm liking it. I am curious if I will still be liking it by the end of volume 2...

    I'm adding Bernhard and Sebald to my reading list.

  11. Bernhard - The Woodcutters or Old Masters. I find those novels hilarious. Side-splitting.

    Sebald is a sort of tutelary spirit at Wuthering Expectations.

  12. Amateur Reader, please don't pimp Bernhard's Woodcutters too effectively. It's one of my top choices for a Wolves group read next year if I can wait that long to read it! Have had Krasznahorkai's Melancholy of Resistance waiting to be read ever since I saw Béla Tarr's Satantango a couple of years ago. Have you seen that? Suspect Marías' "delaying tactics" here may be mimicking Tarr's slow, long takes and shifts in perspective but time will tell. In the meantime, I need to find time to read Melancholy of Resistance soon somehow since I only know Krasznahorkai as the co-screenwriter of a 7-hour long movie at this point.

  13. Oh, good point. Everyone skip The Woodcutters until next year and read Old Masters or something else now. Meine Frau described one of B.'s books as the most depressing novel ever written. I believe she meant Yes - see, Bernhard is a scream!

    Satantango (the novel) is appearing in English next winter. I'm going to throw a gloomy party. I have not had the willpower to see the movie - did make it through Werckmeister Harmonies, not without some squirming. The tone of Melancholy of Resistance is so different than Marías. I wish I had a copy here - I likely misremember.

    Man, that would be a good Wolves book. As in "thrown to the."

  14. I'd thought of Krasznahorkai as a snazzy idea for the Wolves as well, but I'm quite sure I won't be able to wait another year for Melancholy. You, Obooki, this David A. fellow--enough of the peer pressure! Your gloomy party sounds like a great idea, by the way, as does your wife's sense of Bernhardian humor.

  15. Honestly, Melancholy of Resistance is a terrible readalong or book club choice. Different readers - I mean sympathetic readers - are going to read it at such different paces. There will be headlong-rushers, page-at-a-timers, everything in between. Best for Krasznahorkai's novel to let its readers breathe naturally.