Friday, September 2, 2011

O, speak not of her! then I die with grief. - Marlowe, Rilke, and the quotable Your Face Tomorrow

Yesterday’s ragbag on Javier Marías’s gigantic so-called spy novel Your Face Tomorrow may well have been the most reader-unfriendly post I have ever inscribed on Wuthering Expectations.  It did not assume that you, dear kind gentle reader, had read the novel, but rather that you had read and retained my little series on the novel’s first volume written back in June, had followed the path to Caravanas de Recuerdos and bibliographing and that insightful piece at In lieu if a field guide, and then returned to me.

An alternative view: it was among my clearest, friendliest posts.  It signaled, quickly and clearly: do not just skim, but skip.  A real time saver.  You’re welcome!  My pleasure.  Today, more of the same.  You’re welcome!  Monday is a holiday, so I’ll see you on Tuesday.  Have a nice weekend.

A digression on Nabokov.  When I read Nabokov, I know that he is using images, adjectives, jokes, all of his tools, to create a complex system of correspondences that reach across the novel, connections that belong not to the first-person narrator, if there is one, but to the novelist, and the attentive reader.  The butterfly that appears near the end of the book should send us back to the butterfly in Chapter 2. The butterfly may not have any particular meaning of its own, but the scenes in which they appear will correspond in surprising and delightful ways.  That is how Nabokov works.

The Nabokovian Javier Marías is doing something similar in Your Face Tomorrow with his use of quotations.  I was hardly able to follow them all, the incessant stream of Shakespeare in particular.  I wonder what Marías is doing with Christopher Marlowe’s single greatest line, for example (Barabbas, the Jew of Malta, is being interrogated by a pair of monks, “two religious caterpillars”:

FRIAR BARNARDINE.  Thy daughter--
FRIAR JACOMO.  Ay, thy daughter--
BARABAS.  O, speak not of her! then I die with grief.
FRIAR BARNARDINE.  Remember that--
FRIAR JACOMO.  Ay, remember that--
BARABAS.  I must needs say that I have been a great usurer.
FRIAR BARNARDINE.  Thou hast committed--
BARABAS.  Fornication:  but that was in another country;
      And besides, the wench is dead.   (The Jew of Malta, Act IV)

Deza, the narrator, an expatriate, repeatedly uses the phrase “but that was in another country,” usually just that snippet.  It would be productive to follow that phrase around the novel.  But I cannot; I would have to  re-read.

I was quick enough to catch another one, Deza’s repetition of a fragment of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies.  Here is the relevant passage, two-thirds through the First Elegy, in Stephen Mitchell’s translation:

Of course, it is strange to inhabit the earth no longer,
to give up customs one has barely had time to learn,
not to see roses and other promising Things
in terms of a human future; no longer to be
what one was in infinitely anxious hands; to leave
even one’s own first name behind, forgetting it
as easily as a child abandons a broken toy.
Strange to no longer desire one’s desires.  Strange
to see meanings that clung together once, floating away
 in every direction.  And being dead is hard work…*

Deza never quotes all of this, but rather a fragment, just three times, I think, one of the strange ways that the three volumes of the seven part single novel has some meaning.  The Rilke lines first appear, unattributed, on page 346 of the first volume, near the end of the enormous Monologue on Silence.  The elderly Peter Wheeler, the novel’s secret hero, is describing or lamenting the silence of death – “the only people who have no language and never speak or tell or say anything are the dead.”  When the lines return in volume 3, p. 518, we are hearing about the personal grief behind Wheeler’s earlier speech.  This last scene, the novel’s ethical climax, includes, or, really, is interrupted by, quotations from across the novel, some literary, some lines from within Your Face Tomorrow.  Some I recognized, not all.

The use of the Rilke line in volume 2 is more elliptical.  Deza’s father is telling a story about an atrocity from the Spanish Civil War that took place near the Andalucian city of Ronda.  Rilke “had stayed in Ronda for a couple of months twenty-four years before… there is a statue of him, of the poet, a very black, life-size one, in the garden of a hotel.”  The whole passage is unusually Sebaldian, a refugee from The Rings of Saturn.  I have visited Ronda, but did not know about the Rilke statue.  Deza’s fragment of the Duino Elegies is part of the story – “[i]t may have been there that he began to conceive these lines.”  Peter Wheeler is in fact mentioned, but I could not, initially, connect his story to the scene – I did not know his story. 

The details about Rilke, like the mention of Wheeler, seem like a non sequitur, but they tie Wheeler's tragedy into a different one and develop the parallel between Wheeler and Deza’s father and do who knows what else assuming I pursued the idea, which I had better not, because look how far my rambling has already taken me, and I have not even written anything about the hilarious Godfather joke on III.424.  I could just keep going.  But I won’t.

*  P. 155 of The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Vintage International.


  1. Have tremendously enjoyed both of these posts on Vol. 3, Amateur Reader, and I'm glad you wrote about the Rilke since I knew about the source but was too lazy to do the effort of looking it up. Marías' use of Shakespeare is a constant in just about all of his work, it would seem, but like you here, I'm not sure what to make of it much of the time without the benefit of a reread. Which I'm not at all opposed to, you know, but like Lou Reed tells it in "Sister Ray," "I haven't got the time time." Hey, does your version of this volume have the three reports by Tupra and others at the end of the novel as an epilogue? Was looking at another English edition, and I noticed that they were missing from that one but present in the Spanish original.

  2. "the three reports by" - sputter sputter - No! No! I do not have those!

    Margaret Jull Costa, New Directions - what's the deal?

  3. The reason I included so much Rilke, far more that is in the novel, is that any quotation in a novel, at least in a novel of any trickiness, should be checked against its context. The omitted parts may well be more interesting than whatever is included. I do believe that is the case here.

    Something else I learned from Nabokov.

  4. What you call the "ethical climax" is one of my favorite parts. A very high-strung moment in the book.

    I also recognized the lines from Rilke, having attempted a translation of the first elegy (Mitchell's version) to my language. It's great how you traced its recurrence in the novel. Your post leads me to a re-read of the "Rainer Maria Rilke in Waiting" from Written Lives, which is pure fun and ironic as before. I notice the mention of Ronda and the witty asides about the composition of the Duino elegies.

  5. The Written Lives piece reminds me that Rilke is obviously a long-time interest for JM. I wonder how or if he or his work are used in other novels.

  6. Hahaha, so glad you mentioned the Godfather thing. I did at least a triple-take. My own Godfather knowledge, despite the best efforts of the man in my life, remains shaky, so I really questioned my own knowledge there! "That can't be right..."

  7. So the Godfather joke is funny because it's bait, a tossed off incitement. but what makes it especially funny to me is that I pretty much agree with it. I would have to change a few words. If this were a film blog, I would have gone into this in detail already.

    To anyone who is curious, the joke is that the narrator of the novel offhandedly, for no discernable reason, inserts his opinion that Godfather III is the best movie of the trilogy.

  8. I keep thinking about it, and I keep thinking I have actually not seen number three--I think I've been "protected" from it, or something.

    Also, meant to mention in my initial comment--your digression on Nabokov reminded me of another comment thread, elsewhere, a while ago, about Typee and tattoos and how clearly you could only put this all together because of illicit knowledge. Naughty, naughty. And thank goodness for that. How else could we read VN?

  9. I remember that comment thread. Someone in it had no idea what you were talking about. I acquired the illicit knowledge about how to read Nabokov by the underhanded method of reading Nabokov.

    I have not seen any of the Godfather movies for 20 years, so I should probably just be quiet.