Javier Marías & Proust
by Daniel Hartley
It seems it has become an automatic reaction of certain critics to compare the work of Javier Marías to that of Proust. This is mainly on the strength of the former’s recent trilogy, entitled Your Face Tomorrow (Tu rostro mañana in the original Spanish). Here, I’d like simply to make a few remarks on why this might be and why it is or is not justified. At the outset, I must stress that I’m no expert on either, and that my reading of Marías is based on the first volume of the trilogy alone, the only one I’ve read thus far.
The most obvious reason for the comparison is that most people, quite understandably, haven’t read Proust. And of those who have, most have read only the first tome, and the few who have read it in its entirety have read it through the lens of received interpretations, which on closer scrutiny turn out to be questionable at best. (For example, À la recherche was first translated into English with the title Remembrance of Things Past, which suggests that Proust was concerned with reconstructing a lost past, but anyone who’s read this great work carefully will know that it is the present of which Proust is in search, one capable of a mythical self-plenitude). The result of this situation is that most people think they know what Proust is about without having read him or without having read him carefully.
So it is that whenever an author writes a long book about time, memory and the frailty of identity, especially one using long sentences, it is almost always compared to Proust. But there are three points on which Proust and Marías differ. Firstly, those long sentences. I was delighted to come across a blog by Steve Mitchelmore, who seems to share my view of the incompatibility of Proust and Marías, in which he quotes from an article he wrote for the TLS:
If Proust also sent us on long journeys without too many fullstops, his sentences at least clarify and enrich the context of a specific observation. In Your Face Tomorrow, they tend only to accumulate superfluous qualifications and synonyms. Indeed, the series itself seems to be one of accumulation rather than development.
I agree with the general observation, but I’d prefer to make it a little more precise. Proust’s great, snaking periods, which Walter Benjamin once referred to as ‘the Nile of language’, are predominantly hypotactic. This means that they consist of innumerable sub-clauses, all of which sketch myriad details – either temporal or spatial – surrounding the initial observation, idea or description of the main clause. Marías, on the other hand, as Mitchelmore rightly points out, does not engage in hypotaxis; rather, his sentences are driven by a sort of neurotic parataxis, full of thesaurus-like lists of synonyms and vast arrays of permutations of a single idea. Proust aims to capture an object in language by spiralling it with an increasingly bloated boa constrictor; Marías tends to do so by making alternative avatars of a single idea bounce off one another, in the hope that the consequent vibrations will give rise, like a desert mirage, to the unnameable.
Secondly, there is the concept of identity. Simply put, for Proust there is no basic identity. Our ‘self’ is in such constant flux through time that it is impossible to say we have a single identity; ‘I’ is an illusion, an enforced habitual unity masking a vertiginous multiplicity. But the very title of Marías’ trilogy (adapted from Shakespeare’s ‘thy face tomorrow’ of Henry IV Act II, Scene II) betrays his own conception of identity: the self may well be inconstant, but it is not necessarily multiple. I may not be able to foresee your face tomorrow, but it will still be your face tomorrow; for Proust, on the other hand, even this small consolation remains elusive.
Thirdly, there are those philosophical digressions. The first volume of Your Face Tomorrow opens with a masterly disquisition on the secret act of faith involved in telling anyone anything, but it is not Proustian by any means. Marías’ digressions, for all their protractedness, are mere aphorisms compared with their Proustian counterparts. But quantity is not the only difference. There is a certain philosophical exhaustiveness about Proust’s musings, the sensation of a mind at full intellectual stretch, a real straining for truth in the laboratory of life. Marías, on the other hand, is nonchalant in tone and timbre, apparently (but only apparently) much wiser and more knowing in outlook, less penetrating. The difference is that between a hypochondriac in a cork-lined room, racing against death to communicate eternal truths, and a Madrilenian sat at a high apartment window, coolly smoking a cigarette and looking down on the world, bemused and supercilious.
Ultimately, however, this whole game of comparing modern writers to past writers is idealist to its very core. It ignores the dramatically differing historical situations to which the respective writers were responding, in no matter how conscious or unconscious a manner, and presupposes some Platonic realm where Great Writers from all epochs converse with one another in an eternal, pristine dialogue. Beyond that, it enables the legions of literary critics to maintain a steady wage; by publicly flaunting their entropic systems of name-dropping and historically rootless stylistic comparisons, they conjure the impression of an arcane literary know-how to which witless literature graduates the world over can aspire.