Javier Marías, part two: Digressions
By CATHARINE MORRIS
Digressions in the fiction of Javier Marías (see yesterday’s post) can be extensive. “My intention is not that I irritate the reader”, Marías told James Runcie at the Southbank last week. “The digression can be as interesting [as the action that preceded it]. I compare it to . . . the second part of The Godfather – there are the two different times. Al Pacino in the present and Robert De Niro in the past, in Sicily . . . . When the film jumps you’re annoyed. But Sicily is also so interesting that when it goes back to the present you say ‘oh’ . . .". Marías went on to mention Don Quixote ("[They’re] about to hit each other with a sword and Cervantes stops the action. He never comes back to it . . . . That’s even more irritating than I may have been") and Laurence Sterne ("Tristram Shandy interrupted as many times as he wanted") – and suggested that such narrative quirks are justified partly by how our brains work. “Minutes have a different duration in our memories.”
Asked why his sentences were so long, Marías borrowed a reply from William Faulkner: “Because I’m not sure I’ll be alive for the next one”. Runcie observed that they contribute to Marías’s “authority of rhythm”. The fact that this rhythm appears to the reader to remain unbroken strikes Marías as “miraculous”, given his writing process; he writes, as he puts it, not with a map, but with a compass (“If I knew the whole story in advance I wouldn’t write it. I’d be bored”), and he usually writes a page a day, but there are days – sometimes long stretches – when he doesn’t have time to write at all. He told us that he was careful, when returning after a break, not to read too many pages back to himself – “What if you don’t like them?” – and referred to Jorge Luis Borges’s idea that a “definitive” text can result from only two things: religion and exhaustion. (“Why should draft 12 be more definitive than 11? . . . . And there’s always 13.”)
When Runcie praised Marías’s forensic analysis of infatuation – “an accurate portrayal of traumatic love” – Marías explained that the Spanish "Los enamoramientos" has no perfect equivalent in English. “Infatuation” is acceptable, he said, but it has a negative nuance that the Spanish doesn't have; the Spanish is more simply “the process and the state of being in love”. As a title it therefore gives less away. Being in love is something that has a rather good reputation, said Marías. “Many think that it makes us better, more noble . . . . It is also true that it may be the other way round . . . . I have seen noble people act vilely.”
In the question-and-answer session Marías said that he didn't read much literary criticism, apart from reviews, but that a few books – including Mimesis by Erich Auerbach (reviewed in the TLS by George Steiner in 2003) – had been very important to him; and that The Infatuations was perhaps his most pessimistic book, reflecting his belief that people, in his own society at least, are more and more reluctant to take responsibility, increasingly indifferent to crime and prone to blaming their situation – the emotional legacy of their childhood, or the state of being in love – for their misdemeanours.
Marías didn’t forget to acknowledge the translator of his work, Margaret Jull Costa (mentioned by Adrian Tahourdin in his round-up of the 2012 translation prizes): “I have been very lucky . . . . She is very faithful. She finds very good solutions . . . . The quality of the doubts and questions [she has] tell me how good she is”. “I even think sometimes that my novels read better in English.”