Thursday, September 1, 2011

Strange to see meanings that clung together once, floating away in every direction – notes on Your Face Tomorrow, Javier Marías’s great folly

“Folly,” as the voluble and persnickety narrator of Marias’s enormous, complex Your Face Tomorrow would surely tell me, is a word with multiple meanings.  I have the architectural definition in mind, primarily, but the metaphor of the folly house always suggests the other meanings, doesn’t it?  I love folly houses.  Who doesn't?

For a couple of days, notes, just notes.  Other readers can tell me if they are promising.  Please see the remarkable In lieu of a field guide for something rather more substantial, especially the section on the meaning of translation - that gets right to the heart of this book.  Thanks to the Memory Caravan for hosting the readalong.

*  A basic question – how is the narrator, Deza, narrating, and who is his audience?  Is he writing, speaking – surely not – or are we overhearing his thoughts, hearing his self-justifications, his own attempts to work through the events or ideas of the book.  I assume the latter, but wonder about the former.  I have pretty strong evidence that someone has written a book.

Finishing the entire novel answers a related question.  Deza’s story is entirely retrospective.  He knows all of the events of the story before he begins telling it.  Any oddities in the ways he tells the story or gaps are his choice.  Although: what does he learn while telling the story, even if he is only telling it to himself?

*  I suspect Your Face Tomorrow of containing puzzles and secrets, that it is akin to Pale Fire and The Good Soldier.  I also suspect that it is not like those books at all, but let me assume that it is.  I wonder if it is possible, for example, to fill in the narrator’s most significant gap.

Why is Deza’s wife unable to live with him?  The couple spends almost all of the book formally separated, with Deza in London and his wife and children in Madrid.  We learn that, after the events of the plot, with Deza back in Madrid, the couple has reconciled but live in separate apartments.  “’Promise me that we’ll always be like this, the way we are now, that we’ll never again live together,’” she tells him during one of their “best or most passionate or happiest moments.” (III.535)

Perhaps the answer is an accumulation of domestic banalities that are not worth the trouble of enumerating.  Or perhaps the problem is Deza’s unbearable, repetitive, pedantic, and unending flow of speech.  I am partly joking about that one.  The marriage and spy plot intersect in one significant long scene, and I detect hints, quite possibly false, of another answer.  I likely missed or forgot something more straightforward.

*  All of this is part of a larger question about the mental health of the narrator.  The novel’s events have been a shock to his system.  What are the lasting effects?  Deza uses the metaphor of poison, or, amusingly, of a Botox treatment.  His endless flow of thought or words is often broken by a strange list:

Why all that conflict and struggle, why did they fight instead of just looking and staying still, why were they unable to meet or to go on seeing each other, and why so much sleep, so many dreams, and why that scratch, my pain, my word, your fever, the dance, and all those doubts, all that torment? (II.278)

The sense of the sentence collapses.  It is like a mental short-circuit, that lapse into the (sleep, dreams, fever, etc.) list, a list which contains some but not all of the titles of the sections of the novel (Fever, Spear, Dance, Dream, Poison, Shadow, Farewell) and has other elements that could have been titles, although the items and order do vary.  Deza's questions become too difficult, or he gets too close to an ugly truth, and – buzz zap – these words pop out.  “Your fever” – who is “you”?

Look how long I have gone on.  I am as bad as Deza, except that I hit the carriage return button more often.  My title is from Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Rilke’s first Duino Elegy – more of that tomorrow.


  1. Difficult tricky questions ... I also think that the story is retrospective. It's possible Deza was telling it to "Marías", the character who wrote one false novel Dark Back of Time, if that makes sense. I think he communicated this story partly by telepathy, sometimes in a lucid voice, but sometimes in dreams or in stupor, in a delirious state, like someone high on something. In any case, the silent interlocutor "Marías" managed to put words on paper without running out of ink.

    I seem to recall that Deza was unfaithful to Luisa when they were still together? I'm not sure anymore. But for some reason Deza himself seemed to be opposed to the institution of marriage. It seems he couldn't stand being in a long-term domestic intimacy, hence his flings were also often short-lived. I'm not sure about his mental health either. But even in All Souls he seemed to revel in states of tedium and vertigo.

  2. Telepathy - that's pretty much where I am. So the interest of this direction is that the style - the digressions, repetitions, etc. - is then Deza's way of telling this story to himself, of making sense of it. And then it's worth looking for breakdowns and gaps and even fictions.

    A radical idea is that the spy agency is fiction, a concoction based on learning about his mentor's espionage background and meeting the mysterious Tupra at a party. Or Deza fears it is a fiction - the arrival of a package of fancy German shoes is essential concrete evidence that it was all real!

    I don't know how seriously I mean this. I like your idea that he is concealing yet expressing his own ambivalence about his marriage, or marriage-as-such.

    The comparison with the voice of All Souls is useful, too. He is so much more restrained there, less word-crazy, more interested in the elegance of his expression. And he's funnier.

  3. Sorry for the delay in specifically commenting on this, Amateur Reader, but I second Rise's "difficult, tricky questions" assessment of what you've focused on in this post. The "accumulation of domestic banalities" seems a logical enough hypothesis what with Deza's father's comment that he didn't see his son as the marrying kind and the fact that both Deza's and Wheeler's "gift" didn't allow them to interpret their wives' needs and/or behavior at key moments in time (at least not in time to prevent the men from being scarred by the women's decisions). I'm open to other ideas, though, and appreciate you raising the possibility of mental health/trauma issues re: the narrator. There was a kind of ambivalence in his relationships with women in All Souls as well as I recall. Hmm.

  4. That comment of Deza's father highlights the absence of detail - it is dang vague. It is just the sort of thing that makes me wonder what Deza is not telling us, or cannot.

    Another possibility is that everything significant is pretty much out there on the surface, delivered directly by our confessional narrator. I have doubts, though.

  5. Your first question ("basic," ha!): This is something I hope to address in a post, but it's the post I've not yet decided whether to write, and I don't know how to use this for evidence (or of what). But one thing I noticed is that Deza spends a lot of time giving direct quotations of his own thoughts. That is, he gives us the stream of consciousness that's happening while he narrates, and quotes the stream of consciousness he was having during events. Or so he says. Rather interesting, especially if you start to pay attention and realize how much you haven't been paying attention to those quotation marks.

    Your second question: There is a definite admission of infidelity prior to Deza actually leaving Luisa, I spotted it again last night, but he doesn't think she knows about it. I simply suspected these everyday banalities, in combination with Deza's seeming inability to live in a normal domestic situation. Does Luisa share that inability or is it only a reaction to him?

  6. There's a reason that a reasonable explanation for the marital problems is insufficient. Deza has no hesitation about telling us, or telling himself, all sorts of 'orrible and bizarre things in deep and bizarre detail. But he veils this one area. He doesn't think about the details of the problems in his marriage? Nonsense - he chooses to omit them. Why?

    It's part of the "Never say anything to anyone" paradox - where are the places where Deza follows his own advice? I might have identified the wrong one, the wrong, trivial, absence, a red herring.

    Those self-quotations are fascinating. I would often miss them until I got to the end of a long paragraph where I would discover the close-quotes. Where's the beginning? Sometimes it was a tangle.