Javier Marías: Enemy of le mot juste, master of or

There’s a line near the beginning of Javier Marías’s new novel, Thus Bad Begins, that made me smile.

Muriel was very rarely confused, on the contrary, he prided himself on being very precise, although sometimes, in his search for precision, he did have a tendency to ramble.

The narrator, Juan de Veres, is describing his employer, Eduardo Muriel, but he could just as easily be describing Marías’s own writing style, which is dilatory in the extreme: it moves forward incredibly slowly, in long, involved paragraphs, trying out words, phrases and descriptions in order to see which best approaches the behaviour being described. It’s not rambling as such, nothing so random or evasive: the prose seems to move through language in circles, returning and returning to particular key terms (best exemplified by the repeated use of the words in the volume titles of his magnificent trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow: Fever, Spear, Dance, Dream, Poison, Shadow, Farewell) ; the only forward motion is, paradoxically, inwards, deeper into the psychology of the characters. The prose has great psychological penetration.

One of the ways that Marías achieves this is through comma splices, as in the sentence quoted above. Another is through the simple word ‘or’. When Marías uses ‘or’, it is not to offer logical alternatives at the level of plot, but at the level of the sentence, even at the level of the word. No word is precise enough for Marías. Or rather, words are precise, in their way, but human behaviour is so complex and ambiguous that it might take a number of alternative words to successfully describe how a person is, or behaves.

Here is a passage a few pages further on in the book:

‘What on earth has he been told about this dubious friend of his – or, rather, this friend who suddenly appears to be dubious – what can he have said or done?’ I wondered, or thought. ‘After half a life of utter clarity.’ Or perhaps that isn’t what I thought, but only how I remember it, now that I’m no longer young and am more or less the same age as Muriel was then or perhaps older.

Six ors in that little passage; two perhapses; one rather. Sometimes the or is doing a simple job, as in the last one, when the protagonist reassesses his age compared to that of his employer at the time he remembers him; sometimes it offers basic alternatives – said or done; sometimes it is an attempt to improve on the clarity of thought or expression, as in the first line.

My favourite, however, and the one I consider most characteristic of this writer I love, is the one that offers a distinction between wondered and thought. Plain synonyms, in most writers’ hands, but not for Marías. He is the master of the fine distinction, that is never fine enough. Rather than describing a character in one way, and basta!, he offers two, three or four alternatives, with the definite implication that none of them are right.

As I writer, sometimes I use a thesaurus. Like many writers I usually end up back with the word I started with. But, probably like most writers, what I’m looking for when I pick the thesaurus up, is the most precise words, le mot juste. Marías, you’d think, uses the thesaurus not to find a better word to replace the one he has, but others to add to it.

I love this style, so much so that I tried to copy it in a story I wrote. Imitation intended, at least, as sincere flattery. The story is The Story I’m Thinking Of, which you can read on the White Review site.

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6 comments

  1. angharadeyre

    Fascinating review – you’re so right about the implications of his style. I’ve only read his ‘Tomorrow in the battle think on me’ but loved the experience. His writing is like nothing else. It has to be quite a challenge to translate!

  2. Tredynas Days

    One of my favourite writers. Your post reminds me of the punctilious examinations of Christopher Ricks – in a good way!

    • Jonathan Gibbs

      Ah, thanks – it’s a long time since I’ve read anything by Ricks, but I’ll happily take the comparison. The punctiliousness of the specific, random thought, carefully followed up only so far…

  3. Pingback: Javier Marías: Enemy of le mot juste, master of or | call me luciah

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