August reading: Marías, Bolaño, Villalobos, Rivière

Ah, August reading! From the date of this post it is clear that the days of August reading are gone. School and work and house and chores have breached the walls and flooded back in to cover that prized, fertile land, with its flowers of leisure that bloom but once a year.

August means holidays, which means, most often, camping somewhere warm, and thus the chance to do that thing I never really liked to do on holidays before I had kids: lie by a swimming pool, slathered in suncream, while obnoxious children (not all of them my own) and undressed, unlookatable (for a variety of reasons) adults screech and splash and loll, and give myself over to the hour-by-hour mental massage of immersion in a good, long book. How else do you think I read 2666? Or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle?

This year I decided to take with me the final volume of Javier Marías’s mammoth novel Your Face Tomorrow, which comes in seven parts: Fever, Spear, Dance, Dream, Poison, Shadow and Farewell, two parts each in the first two volumes, the last three in the third. I remember when I read the first volume, it was on a different kind of holiday, in a cottage on the damp, misty north Norfolk coast, not so sure about the second, but after a couple of failed housebound attempts at the 544pp third volume I knew I needed time and space to read it, which I definitely wanted to do.

Time and space is needed not just because of the length (you don’t need to go on holiday to read Ulysses, it suits itself quite naturally to the jittery stop-start motion of modern city life) but because of Marías’s writing style, which isn’t that far removed from that of Thomas Bernhard in the length of its sentences and paragraphs. Pages look like dry plateaux, with the cracks of a former riverbed only appearing occasionally, and while paragraphs lasting longer than a page aren’t the norm, as in Bernhard, they are far from uncommon.

Not just the extreme length of their sentences links these writers, but also the looping recursiveness of their progress through and along their sentences. But where Bernhard takes an idea and worries it, like a dog with its quarry (etymological aside: looking up the word ‘worry’ in the dictionary I’m surprised and fascinated to find that this meaning of it – the action of a dog biting and shaking an animal so as to kill it – predates and prefigures the far more familiar contemporary meaning – of general human anxiety) Marías’s approach is more languid, reeling out the thought like a fisherman reels out his line, letting it run, then elegantly coiling it in, hand over hand.

Also, whereas Bernhard is insistent, bullying a thought into submission, and only grudgingly allowing it to develop, Marías is far more generous, letting a thought go where it will, and above all allowing it the possibility of going more than one place. He is the writer of the subjunctive. The critical word in his lexicon is ‘or’; he stands in direct opposition to Occam’s razor, which demands succinctness and simplicity in the explanation of any given fact. For Marías, nothing is simple – or rather, if he is interested in complexity, then it is the complexity that comes from the coexistence of many alternative, equally simple possiblities.

Here follows a single paragraph to illustrate this idea, which, if it bores or offends you, I suggest you skip, but please, in skipping, notice the incidence of the word ‘or’ (27 times), the word ‘face’ (three times), the word ‘tomorrow’ (once), and the words ‘spear’ and ‘shadow’ (once each) and ‘dream’ (twice).

No, you are never what you are – not entirely, not exactly – when you’re alone and living abroad and ceaselessly speaking a language not your own or not your mother tongue; but nor are you what you are in your own country when there’s a war on or when that country is dominated by rage or obstinacy or fear: to some degree you feel no responsibility for what you do or see, as if it all belonged to a provisional existence, parallel, alien, or borrowed, fictitious or almost dreamed — or, perhaps, merely theoretical, like my whole life, according to the anony­mous report about me that I’d found among some old files; as if everything could be relegated to the sphere of the purely imagi­nary or of what never happened, and, of course, to the sphere of the involuntary; everything tossed into the bag of imaginings and suspicions and hypotheses and, even, of mere foolish dreams, about which, when you awake, all you can say is: ‘I didn’t want that anomalous desire or that murderous hatred or that baseless resentment to surface, or that temptation or that sense of panic or that desire to punish, that unknown threat or that surprising curse, that aversion or that longing which now lie like lead upon my soul each night, or the feeling of disgust or embarrassment which I myself provoke, or those dead faces, for ever fixed, that made a pact with me that there would be no more tomorrows (yes, that is the pact we make with all those who fall silent and are expelled: that they neither do nor say anything more, that they disappear and cease changing) and which now come and whisper dreadful unexpected words to me, words that are per­haps unbecoming to them, or perhaps not, while I’m asleep and have dropped my guard: I have laid down my shield and my spear on the grass.’ What’s more you can repeat over and over lago’s disquieting words, not only after taking action, but dur­ing it too: ‘I am not what I am.’ A similar warning is issued by anyone asking another person to commit a crime or threatening to commit one himself, or confessing to vile deeds and thus ex­posing himself to blackmail, or buying something on the black market – keep your collar turned up, your face always in the shadows, never light a cigarette – telling the hired assassin or the person under threat or the potential blackmailer or one of many interchangeable women, once desired and already forgotten, but still a source of shame to us: ‘You know the score, you’ve never seen me, from now on you don’t know me, I’ve never spoken in you or said anything, as far as you’re concerned I have no face, no voice, no breath, no name, no back. This conversation and this meeting never took place, what’s happening now before your eyes didn’t happen, isn’t happening, you haven’t even heard these words because I didn’t say them. And even though you can hear the words now, I’m not saying them’; just as you can tell yourself: ‘I am not what I am nor what I can see myself doing. More than that, I’m not even doing it.

That is how Marías writes, in a kind of hypnotic or hypnotised state, like someone talking in free association to their therapist. It’s not difficult in terms of having difficult words, or concepts – quite the reverse: the language is accessible, and the ideas at the heart of the book familiar. In fact, the book really revolves around the single question: “Why can’t one go around beating people up and killing them?” which, itself, resolves to the particular history of the Spanish Civil War, and to that of the author’s father, who was betrayed by a good friend and imprisoned. (You can read about this in the Paris Review interview here).

And that’s why Marías writes like he does, I think, at such length, and with such apparently languid obsessiveness: because he is dealing with the most fundamental ethical questions, and he wants his answers to come not glibly, or pat, but appropriately, responsibly, organically.

And that’s why this is such a good example of ‘a novel of ideas’, because it is the ideas that drive the narrative, rather than plot, or character. The narrative is, essentially, the thinking through of a tight-knit set of ideas, many of which are recalled over and over again, not least by the set of codewords that title the seven sections – which is why I flagged up their appearance in that long paragraph above; they are like leitmotifs in Wagner, and I suppose you could say that the novel unfolds not so much like a fugue as like the music in Tristan and Isolde, rolling and growing and developing according to some hidden, opaque schema. Not that nothing happens: there are a couple of highly dramatic moments, but those moments are not presented as dramatic set pieces, but rather unpicked from the background and slowly, carefully, teased apart for their significance. A five-minute episode can last 40 pages, a “few seconds” of thought can be stretched over nearly two pages in its elucidation – and here I am reminded of David Foster Wallace and the attempt in the story ‘Good Old Neon’ to get to grips with the relation between thoughts and words. In that story the narrator says:

What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny part of it at any given instant.

– a proposition that, at the end of reading Your Face Tomorrow, you’re likely not quite to believe so much as you did before. That’s why Marías is so good, because he gets close to doing justice to the myriad, and debatable, intricacies of thought.

The other book I took away with me was Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp, as we were camping on the Costa Brava, just along from the miserable resort of Blanes, where the writer lived for at least part of his life, working for some of it as a nightwatchman on a campsite (see also sections of Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis, and the testimony of Mary Watson, Sutherland Place, London, May 1978 in The Savage Detectives (pg 225 in my Picador paperback edition)).

I may have hoped for some in situ synchronicity in this second reading, for the genius of the place to emerge through the proximity of book and locale, but it didn’t really happen. It is a weird little collection of jagged, antsy prose poems that has none of the narrative ease of his bigger, ‘proper’ novels. Reading it is like picking up random pieces of shrapnel from an exploded novel. Not poolside material at all. The cover has a quote from the author: “The only novel that doesn’t embarrass me is Antwerp.” Frankly, that reads like writerly bravado and willful perversity – which, let it not be forgotten, are two of the traits for which we loved in the first place.

The two other books I read in August were Down The Rabbit Hole, by Juan Pablo Villalobos, and Sam Rivière’s poetry collection 81 Austerities. Down The Rabbit Hole I found unutterably irritating, but then perhaps that’s because it’s got a precocious child for a narrator. Opening lines:

Some people say I’m precocious. They say it mainly because they think I know difficult words for a little boy. Some of the difficult words I know are: sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic and devastating.

At which point, reminded of such other young and precocious narrators as Christopher in The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night Time and [insert character name here] from [insert title of Jonathan Safran Foer novel here], I was sorely tempted to put it down. That I didn’t was in part out of respect for the publisher, And Other Stories, none of whose books have quite thrilled me as I hoped. Not Deborah Levy’s Booker-nominated Swimming Home, and certainly not Zbinden’s Progress. I have greater hopes for Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods and Carlos Gamero’s The Islands, but both of those are quite big, and I just don’t have a holiday coming up. But Rabbit Hole didn’t improve. Or rather, the only way it improved was by getting shorter the more I read of it.

Sam Rivière is a poet and a friend, from UEA, so you are more than welcome to write off my praise as harmless boosterism (can’t call it logrolling as I don’t have a log for him to roll, yet), but I found 81 Austerities a brilliant and bracing collection of pop-em-in-the-mouth poems, short, sweet and addictive as, well, sweets. And utterly contemporary. They use the idiom of the internet and the smart phone (one of them even uses *asterisks* instead of italics: how *now* is that) without resorting to fashionable emoticon emptiness. They breeze by – so much so that I worry for their reception in the world of poetry… are they ‘difficult’ enough to count, when proles like me can get so much out of them?

What I love about the book most of all is how the poems manage to marry the giddy disposability of the digital with the hard thereness of the physical. Rivière – okay, Sam – Sam first published them online, on a blog (not visible any more I think – that’s publishing for you) and though I read most of it that way, at the time, I enjoyed them far more on the page.  As Sam says in a Q&A in Dazed & Confused, ” it gives them a good distance from their area of production.” (BTW Here’s his website, and the page with links to some of his poems available online.)

Because here’s the weird thing: the web is omnipresent, but also omni-absent: everything is just a click away, but until you have it in front of you, it’s entirely not there. The next page, the page you are being offered via a hyperlink, is as absent as the page you just left, the page you read this morning, and the page you have never and will never visit. The jump of the click is absolute, the leap covers an infinite distance. Each web page is floating, alone, in the abyss. (This is something that websites try to hide using more fluid functionality, but it’s a basic fact of the form.) In a book, the poems are all present to each other, the ones ahead, the ones behind, nudging at you the way cats soundlessly butt you with their soft cute heads. As I’ve gone on about before, and so have many other people, the presence of a book is actually quite radical, compared to the pure disembodied ‘text’ of a digital version. The more we accustom ourselves to reading online, or onscreen, the more reading on the page will seem magical, in an archaic way, and almost synaesthetic. All of this feeds into Austerities, which is as funny and formally daring as Paul Muldoon, and as funny and basically inviting as Don “Archie and Mehitabel” Marquis. Above all, it shows that poetry (and here I’m drifting into realms of which I know little) is flexible enough to deal with the world that other art forms just aren’t – except, possibly, conceptual art. Think of the sinking feeling you get whenever you get a novelist trying to incorporate an email or text message into their book, and the dismal formal failure that always ensues. Then go read some of Sam’s stuff. It lives and breathes digital life, through every fibre of its real 80gsm or whatever it is Faber paper.

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