Men in Love IV: Hiding in full view

I bought Javier Marías’s novel All Souls back in 1992 when it first came out in translation and I was working in the bookshop. I’d never heard of him and had no idea he would come to be such a big literary name, occasionally threatened with the Nobel prize and compared to Proust and Henry James. These comparisons come about because of Marías’s sentence structure, which is ornate and exhaustive in its associations, so that often the reader has the sensation of having fallen head first into a thesaurus instead of a novel. It’s the kind of literary style that makes you slow right down to read it but unlike Proust and James, there is something mannered in this verbal overload that never quite warms up into a linguistic passion. There’s humour, certainly, and no less amusing for being dry and a little cold, but as for heart, it seemed at first that it was lacking, and about halfway through the novel I wondered how it could be that a story ostensibly focusing on an adulterous liaison between a visiting lecturer in Spanish and a woman tutor, Clare Bayes, could manage so adroitly to avoid discussing the love affair at all.

Marías organizes his novel in a series of set pieces, dissected into chapters, and most of them have a quirky focus: the rubbish that accumulates over the course of the day in his appartment, the obscure books by the writer John Gawsworth (who really existed, and Marías includes photos of him in the novel to trouble the fictional narrative further) that he tries to seek out in second hand bookshops, the life of beggars in Oxford. In an early chapter, the unnamed narrator describes how he attended High Table and saw Clare for the first time. His inner monologue at this moment is in fact a foretaste of how he will recount their relationship: ‘ “What an idiot,” I thought, “why can’t I think about something more fruitful, more interesting? Relationships with those with whom we have no blood ties never are; the possible variety of paths such a relationship can take are minimal, the surprises all fakes, the different stages mere formalities, it’s all so infantile: the approaches, the consummations, the estrangements; the fulfillment, the battles, the doubts; the certainties, the jealousies, the abandonment and the laughter; it wears you out even before its begun.’ And indeed, of the classic scenes of a love relationship that he mentions here, he narrates none of them. Instead his insufficiently occupied life in Oxford, is recounted through a series of peripheral encounters in which the spectre of Clare sometimes lingers.

This tendency becomes particularly marked in the second half of the novel when Clare is absent from his life temporarily. Her son is home from boarding school, ill, and she refuses to see him whilst he is around. There follows a series of chapters in which the emptiness of his life is made starkly manifest. In one he goes to a local nightclub and picks up a girl in whom he has no interest, urged on by his colleague from the department. This scene describes far more graphically the narrator’s encounter with the girl than any time he spends with Clare, yet the tone is that of a man going through the motions with no emotional investment in the act. In another he describes the peripatetic life of the beggars and the madmen he sees on the streets of Oxford and wonders whether he is distinguishable from them as he trudges endlessly around the city, seeking distraction. In another he spots Clare with her son and father on a trip to the museum and he shamelessly follows them around, looking at the exhibits they look at, ordering the same meal as her son in the restaurant they attend. And so we reach the crux of our narrator’s strange identity; unlike most first person narratives, which seek to present the narrator in a favourable light by explaining and justifying his actions, this story is told by a man who can only be a shadow, a spy, an outsider. We learn so very little about him, because his focus is on telling the lives of others. How could such a man recount something so intimately revealing as the story of his own love affair?

This was without a doubt the strangest account of a man in love that I have ever read, and yet it was immensely intriguing. For all that the prose is excessively wordy sometimes, and in a way that can seem alienating, there were moments when Marías’s long drawn-out style pays its dividends and scenes of an exquisite sensibility were gradually traced beneath the reader’s careful gaze. The narrator writes from a time beyond his stay in Oxford, a time when he is now married and living in Madrid, and so the two years he spends in England are recounted under the aegis of transience and immanent departure. Nothing can really affect him when he is so rootless and so peripheral to Oxford life, and yet, of course, his relationship with Clare does. He is conscious that he sought out such a relationship in order to be fully present to something significant, in order to be brought to life in a place where he might risk having no more substance than a ghost. And indeed, without her, he is isolated and lonely and doubtful of the value of his existence. I cannot say whether this is or is not characteristic of men in general, but I would be astonished to find a novel about a love affair written in this way by a woman. It is not that our narrator is inarticulate – far from it – but his own emotions are kept ruthlessly out of the limelight and discernible only in the projections he makes onto others, in the stories he does not tell, and in the empty, faded spaces where we might assume love once was. I’m not sure what I thought of this book, not even sure whether I liked it, but I want to read more Marías because he intrigued me so.

7 Weird Facts

I was tagged by The Individual Voice for this meme on seven weird facts about me. Working with academics means that my notion of what’s weird and what isn’t is unreliable, so I trotted off to find a second opinion. Unfortunately the first person I came across in my travels was my husband. ‘I’ve been tagged to find seven weird facts about me,’ I said. ‘Any ideas?’ He gave me a particularly quizzical look, with his head on one side and then he replied, ‘But you just are weird.’ Something about my expression must have intimated to him that this was not necessarily a wise conversational direction to take as he added hastily ‘In a good way, that is.’ So here are some of the ways in which I differ from the average human being, and I apologise if I’ve mentioned them already:

  1. Link to the person’s blog who tagged you.
  2. Post these rules on your blog.
  3. List seven random and/or weird facts about yourself.
  4. Tag seven random [?] people at the end of your post and include links to their blogs.
  5. Let each person know that they have been tagged by posting a comment on their blog

1. I don’t like any form of sport. I know it’s good for me, I know people get lots of pleasure from swimming and walking and hitting balls about, but until supermarket sweep makes it to the Olympics, there’s officially no sport that I’d play of my own free will. I’ll always hold that you have to be moderately capable at something to enjoy doing it.

2. I really don’t like parties. Anything more socially taxing than three people together around a teapot and I start to feel nervous. Any gathering where I have to stand and shift from foot to foot and look approachable and I start to wonder how long it will be before I can be alone reading. I hate introducing myself to people who don’t know me and will probably never meet me again, and I loathe all forms of small talk. I start to ponder, with some desperation, the meaning of existence. The only thing that will perk me up is to fall into conversation with the half-cut, embittered ex-wife of a distant relative of the host, who is just waiting for an opportunity to tell her story and the stories of the other revelers. That’s a conversation I’d have some time for, but sadly that kind of party guest is hard to come by.

3. I’m double jointed. Particularly around the knees. I can sit in a way that would make you wince.

4. I don’t really like traveling. Another great cultural pursuit of the modern age that leaves me unmoved. I don’t have any fear of dying without seeing the Taj Mahal or the mountains of Nepal or even the canals of Venice. In the main I don’t like travel because I’m very claustrophobic in any moving vehicle, which takes a lot of the fun out of it. But if I really cared, I suppose I would be motivated to do it anyway. Essentially, I don’t like the feeling of not being at home, in all senses of the term. I’d much rather live somewhere different for six months (the Latin quarter in Paris, an elegant, leafy street in Boston); that makes sense in a way travel just does not.

5. I’m a lucid dreamer. Which means I control my dreams as I dream them. I have very postmodern bad dreams where I replay the ending over and over again, trying for a better outcome. Eventually I’ll wake myself up, but in the meantime, it’s surprising how many rewrites I can fit in.

6. The amount of books I read. This was my son’s contribution to the debate. So yes, I suppose some people would think it strange that I could read from one end of the day to the other, and that there isn’t anything I can think of that I’d like to do more than read and discuss the books I’ve been reading. In fact the world of book bloggers is probably the only place (outside the universities) where it would be considered perfectly normal.

7. I cry at the silliest things in films. Another direct family quotation, I’m afraid. I do find that watching films with the boys cramps my style. If one is particularly susceptible to the tender, heart-wrenching scenes in films it’s something of an intrusion to the moment to find oneself being peered at and asked whether ‘you’re not going to cry again, are you?’ Nowadays I wait until everyone’s out the house before firing up the DVD player.

As for tagging, well, here’s a few bloggers whom I suspect might have a hidden weird fact or two to share, despite looking terribly intelligent and sensible on the surface:

Archie at Archie’s Archive

Ella at Box of Books

Verbivore at Incurable Logophilia

Harriet Devine

The Hobgoblin of Little Minds

Dewey at The Hidden Side of a Leaf

The Sunday Salon 3

Sunday Salon: Magical Realism

Today I’ve been rereading a novel by Sylvie Germain, a contemporary French author who deserves more recognition outside of mainland France, and I’ve been thinking about the ways in which it fits into the genre of magical realism. I’m a fan of Germain’s writing because it brings together a whole clutch of literary preoccupations that have been important to my research over the years. Fundamental to her writing are concerns with suffering and the divine, with the power of fantasy and dream, with the magical properties of language and the imagination, and with the convergence of the supernatural and the real. For all that her novels focus on profoundly personal epiphanies we find, weaving in and out of her tales, the march of history, and the traumatic, violent events that have marked the twentieth century. Germain’s novels combine in significant ways the individual and the universal; intimate stories of love, loss and reconciliation played out within and through the ongoing drama of history. Her work has been compared many times to the other great magical realist, Gabriel Garcìa Marquez, but the soulful, alienated, fantastic quality of much of her writing owes more of an allegiance to the great Russian writer, Dostoevsky.

The book I’ve been reading, her first novel, The Book of Nights, sets a template that was to be followed in many of her subsequent works with its fascination for repetitive patterns of madness, and with the physical continuation of the past within the present. The narrative focuses on the life of Victor-Flandrin Péniel, a powerful anti-hero, whose story provides the bridging point between the inheritance he carries from his ancestors and the consequences of this inheritance on his children. His father, Théodore-Faustin Péniel is profoundly changed by a war injury when his face is slashed in two by the sabre of an uhlan. What might have been a superficial wound becomes something more fundamental, as the attack leaves him psychically torn in two as well, prey to a form of schizophrenia that will forever mark his grandchildren. All four of Victor-Flandrin’s wives will give birth to twins, and this pattern of doubles will carry on through the generations, with the exception of one great-grandchild, born a humpback, who is understood as carrying his sibling within him. The narrative is packed full of magical and supernatural events. For instance, when Théodore-Faustin leaves his pregnant wife behind to go to war, she fails to give birth until his return, two years later, and the baby that emerges is made of salt crystal. And when his father dies, Victor-Flandrin notices seven tears rolling down his cheeks, the colour of milk. As he reaches out to touch them, they roll off and bounce on the floor. These seven pearls he will subsequently wear around his neck.

Now I’m intrigued by magical realism because I wonder what’s at stake in this marriage of the real and the supernatural. I’ve been reading two other books alongside the Germain, one a critical guide Magic(al) Realism by Maggie Ann Bowers and the other Marina Warner’s huge tome of fantastic symbolism, Phantasmagoria. The Bowers is an ok sort of a book, an introductory guide that spends most of its time tracing literary lineage and drawing fine distinctions. Still, it did contain a strand of thought that interested me that developed out of a reading of the American author, Toni Morrison, and is all about history. Quite a lot of magical realist novels are understood as incorporating a very different take on history because they represent an alternative cultural community that has been in some way steamrollered by a more dominant one. So, in this instance, Morrison represents an African American cultural inheritance which sits uneasily alongside the rational, realist American elements of her stories. Morrison suggests that magical realism provides ‘Another way of knowing things’, and that incorporating this other way undermines the ‘authoritative’ account of history and prevents a very different story of the past from being erased.

But I’m not sure that that alone explains the power of magical realism. After a bit of reading in the Warner, I found myself intrigued by a chapter on ‘the breath of life’ or the ‘spirit’. To return to the roots of the concept of the ‘spirit’, Warner goes all the way back to Aristotle and his two qualities of spirit. The first is animation, the spirit’s capacity for movement, and the second is its powerful ability to form matter, to shape and create. Now this made me think back to magic realism’s earliest manifestations in 1920s Germany and in painting, rather than literature, when the term referred to a type of art that tried to capture the mystery of life behind the surface reality. That different way of knowing things that Morrison talks about refers, I think, to the spirit of life becoming manifest in alternative, supernatural ways. The events of magical realism work to give a very different expression to the truths of emotion and spirit that conventional history often bypasses or fails entirely to record.


So, to return to Sylvie Germain’s novel, the tears that become a pearl necklace, the series of twins that are born, and all the other magical moments are, I think, ways of writing a family history that tells the truth of the family in alternative ways. Essentially, these events are moments where the past becomes material, where loss and memory become transformed into something real and tangible. Germain’s novel tackles the problem of owning the past and keeping touch with the dead by making the abstract essence of what has been lost into something visible and symbolic. Each of these events provides a transformation of loss or trauma into something that the protagonist can possess. Germain’s interpretation of the links between a subject and his or her life history produces a series of characters who are literally marked by history, who possess their history by the act of its being written on the body, part and parcel of their flesh. All of Germain’s novels deal with the effects of loss and trauma on the individual, but her epic family narratives stand out for the way that violence and grief are continually assimilated through this kind of fantastic transformation, assimilated, reconfigured and displayed in a way that denies the finality and absoluteness of the past.

My Best and Worst Books Ever

I was starting to think about a weighty post on the Javier Marías novel I finished last week, and then I thought, for heaven’s sake, it’s Saturday! So today has officially been given over to a little fun and frippery, and I will write something with more intellectual content tomorrow. Marías we’ll get to next week. For now, just because it entertains me to do so, I’m listing my five best and five worst books ever. By ‘best’ I mean the ones that made the most powerful impact on me and have stayed with me over the years as extraordinary works of literature. I could have mentioned far more than 5, but it was also an interesting challenge to limit myself. By ‘worst’ I mean the ones I gave up reading and was most disappointed in, or most repelled by. Naturally many people will disagree and I do apologise to anyone whose favourite novel ends up in this category; reading is a wholly subjective process that is profoundly affected by the age and the stage at which we read things. I would have struggled to find more than five books to list here, so you have some idea how rare it is for me not to get on with a novel.

Best Books

1. Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf

This was one of the great books of my university career for me, and I think it would be very interesting to do a reread one of these days to see whether it still speaks to me the same way. I love everything I’ve ever read by Hesse, who is deeply influenced by Buddhism and writes frequently about questions of individual identity and the path of life. The main protagonist of Steppenwolf must learn to integrate a neglected part of his identity and does so with the aid of mysterious friends and the strange Magic Theatre. Hesse is brilliant at portraying an ambiguous state in which the reader is unsure whether what is happening is real or fantastic and he explores it to the full in this novel.

2. Colette, Chéri

What have I not said about this book already? Colette’s sumptuous prose is married in this novel with a powerful story about the unacceptability of women’s ageing. The opening scene in which Chéri is playing on Léa’s bed, trying on her pearl necklace is one that will stay with me forever more, and Léa is one of Colette’s great female characters. A survivor, a chameleon, a bountiful, generous lover and an Epicurean, she embodies feminine good sense and sensuality. May her example rise before me as I grow old.

3. Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot

One of my great books because it is so very clever in such a fun and playful way. It’s not enough that Barnes is one of the best producers of the brilliant sentence, nor that he should be so erudite and learned, it’s the combination of the two in a wittily experimental form that makes this such a stellar novel. Whenever I have to teach Flaubert’s works, I seriously consider handing out Barnes’s spoof examination paper instead.

4. Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

Talking of experimental modern fiction…. But this is a very different kind of novel to the Barnes. Like everything Rilke wrote, it is powerful and painful and intense, demanding and perplexing and excessively, wonderfully lyrical. Whenever I read it, it takes me to the heart of wondering what literature is about, what stories we can tell and what we need them to do for us. I have a vague, unformulated theory that the most brilliant writers tap into times of cultural and historical transition and write the unease and the incoherence that characterizes them with elegance and insight. That’s what this novel does.

5. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

This is a relatively recent addition to my personal canon, having read it only last year for the first time. There’s a certain literary atmosphere that I think of as ‘elegant doom’ and some novelists create it with spectacular results. It’s hard to put my finger on what was so magical for me about this novel, but the quality of the imagery was amazing, and the way those images were stitched onto a background of sparkling, fervent despair. It’s the novel of what it looks like beyond the end of desire, when everything is shot to pieces and ruined and bilious and exasperated and yet it is all still so very beautiful. It’s the ruination of dreams, the terminal stage of hope, but oh so gorgeously done.


Worst Books

1. The Sea, John Banville

Few books have left me feeling so cheated as this one did. It ought to have been wonderful – childhood loves and losses recalled, the present negotiated, glorious prose, evocative Irish atmosphere, and for me it was just empty. It’s the only book I’ve ever read three-quarters of before feeling that I really couldn’t be bothered to finish it. I didn’t understand why I was being told the story.

2. The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch

I think this was one of the first books I ever gave up on. When I was younger I had a pact never to abandon a novel unfinished, but I read about 50 pages of this before life began to feel terribly short and precious. There have been other Murdoch books I’ve read that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed (The Unicorn, for instance). I can’t recall now, this long ago, why I disliked it so much; I can only recall the surprise I felt that I was actually putting it down for good without a sense of guilt. If anyone ever writes and publishes a novel called The Sea, The Sea, The Sea, I think I should avoid it, don’t you?

3. Lettres Persanes, Montesquieu

This eighteenth century tale is written as a series of letters between two French travelers in Persia and their companions back on the mainland. It’s a classic of its time, one of those, ‘my goodness me, you’ll never believe how the natives organize their society and doesn’t it reflect in ironic and pertinent ways on the situation back at home’ kind of books. People love it; academics have written many fine critical appreciations on it. Me, I just couldn’t get through it despite multiple attempts. It always sounded interesting when lecturers spoke about it, and then a couple of chapters into the reality and I was losing the will to live. What’s truly ironic is that it now features on the introduction to literature course we set for the first years, so I’ll have to teach it when I go back next autumn. Oh helpington! as my son is fond of saying.

4. The works of Boris Vian

Vian is an important cult figure in France for his manically absurd novels. They maintain a frantic pace, use a great deal of wordplay and are relentlessly surreal. I want to like them, really I do, but they just set my teeth on edge. It’s a nuisance because I ought to include his work in the academic book I’m writing, but I dislike it so much I can’t get through a whole novel. I am forced to the conclusion that I don’t care for what’s shallow and parodic. I don’t like Voltaire’s Candide much, either, and Vian is kind of a modern day version on recreational drugs.

5. Bleak House, Charles Dickens

Blame school for this. I was obliged to read Dickens aged 15 and I’ve never quite recovered from the experience. Dickens was a bit too much of everything for me, too much sentiment, too much plot, too much character, rather like pantomime without the laughs. It never felt real or like I could really care of my own free will, without being manipulated into it. I often think I ought to give Dickens another go, and then I look at my teetering TBR piles, full of tempting books I’m longing to read and I think, another time, maybe…