Excerpted from the Introduction
I think it was Faulkner who once said that when you strike a match in a dark wilderness it is not in order to see anything better lighted, but just in order to see how much more darkness there is around. I think that literature does mainly that. It is not really supposed to ‘answer’ things, not even to make them clearer, but rather to explore – often blindly – the huge areas of darkness, and show them better
This was Javier Marías’s response to an online interviewer who asked him, ‘What is the purpose of writing?’, and it not only provides an unexpectedly lucid answer to that intimidating question; it also directly illuminates Marías’s own practice, and that of A Heart So White in particular. For this is a novel which asks the profoundest, most unsettling questions about knowledge itself: about human curiosity, about the keeping of secrets, about our need to know the truth and our (sometimes equally pressing) need not to know it; and about language, too – for knowledge can only be imparted in words, and words, as writers know only too well, are slippery, unreliable, and have a tendency to falsify the very truths they are meant to impart.
Most novelists have a ‘breakthrough’ book, the one that introduces them to a wider public: in the case of Marías it was All Souls (Todas las almas), published in 1989. Offering up the simple pleasures of traditional fiction rather more willingly than some of Marías’s subsequent work, it tells the story of a Spanish academic who comes to Oxford and has an affair with a fellow-tutor, and has some points of contact with the ‘campus novel’ genre so beloved of Anglo-Saxon comic writers. A Heart So White (Corazón tan blanco) followed in 1992, hard on the heels of that success, but there is not much sense here of a writer compromising himself in order to accommodate a larger, less specialized readership. The wisp of a plot can be summarized in a few words – newlywed translator learns the deadly secret behind his father’s three marriages – but it is a more opaque, demanding work than its predecessor. The novel’s long, looping opening sentence sets the agenda at once:
I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father’s gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the dining room with other members of the family and three guests. (p.3)
Notice, first of all, what a strange, violent temporal journey we make while negotiating the jumble of tenses in that sentence. We start (‘I did not want to know’) at some unspecified point in the past, then (‘have since come to know’) move forward, then (‘when she wasn’t a girl anymore’) rewind even further into the past and then (‘hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon’) locate ourselves a little more exactly within this timeframe, and so on. Any promise of a conventionally linear narrative is immediately shattered, and we are already made aware, subliminally, of one of the novel’s major themes: the evanescence of human experience, the fact that everything belongs to the past as soon as it has happened, the fact that ‘everything is constantly in the process of being lost’.
This might, of course, easily be described as a Proustian theme, and indeed the length and complexity of Marías’s sentences have evoked stylistic comparisons with Proust, as well as with Henry James and Thomas Bernhard. But we would do well to remember that, earlier in his career, Marías had a distinguished parallel life as a translator, and probably his most celebrated translation was his Spanish rendering of Tristram Shandy. Because he is not the most obviously humorous of novelists, it might be tempting to downplay the extent of Marías’s affinities with Laurence Sterne: but they seem to me just as strong as his links with the great twentieth-century European writers. Like Sterne, Marías is prey to a radical scepticism about the novel’s capacity to render the complexity of subjective human experience in anything other than the crudest, most approximate way. Like Sterne, too, he is possessed by the notion that some of the smallest and most fleeting events in our lives are also the most significant; that these events occupy a space in our memories which seems quite out of proportion to their original duration; and that writers must therefore develop ever more inventive strategies that will give such transient but momentous events their narrative due.
There the resemblance more or less ends: for Marías, unlike Sterne, inclines towards narrative subversions which are po-faced rather than zany or farcical. One of his methods, for instance, is a highly distinctive form of repetition. Many novelists are scared of repetition, assuming that readers will take it for laziness or carelessness. Marías, on the other hand, realizes that our thought processes are often repetitious, and he wants to render this quality as scrupulously as possible. Thus we will find the narrator of A Heart So White reflecting that,
What takes place is identical to what doesn’t take place, what we dismiss or allow to slip by us is identical to what we accept and seize, what we experience identical to what we never try, and yet we spend our lives in a process of choosing and rejecting and selecting, in drawing a line to separate these identical things and make of our story a unique story that we can remember and that can be told. (p.28)
Almost two hundred and fifty pages later, when the narrator has overheard a crucial conversation between his wife and his father, and has at last become privy to his father’s secrets, he writes:Sometimes I have the feeling that what takes place is identical to what doesn’t take place, what we dismiss or allow to slip by us identical to what we accept and seize, what we experience identical to what we never try, and yet we spend our lives in a process of choosing and rejecting and selecting, in drawing a line to separate these identical things and make of our story a unique story that we can remember and that can be recounted, either now or at the end of time, and thus can be erased or swept away, the annulment of everything we are and do. (p.272)
Among other things, there is a certain rueful world-weariness about this technique: one of the things Marías is trying to tell the reader, it seems, is that no matter how much we experience, no matter how shocking or intense our experiences are, we remain locked within the same patterns of thought and reflection. One usually closes a Marías novel with the sense that human experience is immutable, and that people themselves rarely change. The precedent, again, might come from Sterne, although again Marías expresses the idea calmly and regretfully, with little of Sterne’s cavorting humour.
The notion that ‘what we experience is identical to what we never try’ has another consequence: not for Marías’s characters, this time, but for his literary aesthetic. It makes him sceptical of the line dividing fiction from non-fiction: a scepticism he shares with many other European writers poised on the cusp of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Two obvious examples might be Milan Kundera (whose books were, as our narrator is somewhat tiredly aware, highly fashionable at the time when A Heart So White was written) and W. G. Sebald. Like Sebald, Marías likes to include photographs in his fictions (there are photographs in both All Souls and Your Face Tomorrow), leaving the reader with nagging uncertainties as to whether they are real or fake. And, like Sebald, he is just as interested – more interested, it might be argued – in reflection and analysis than he is in narration. A typical Marías sentence might begin with the description of an event, but this act of telling will rapidly morph into something discursive.
Copyright © 2012 by Jonathan Coe. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.