Review: Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear
by Daniel Hartley
To understand the first volume of Javier Marías’s trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, it strikes me that habitual categories of interpretation are insufficient. The first such category is plot; if asked the inevitable ‘So, what’s it about?’ of Fever and Spear, you’d be hard pushed to string together more than: ‘It’s about some Spanish guy with strange interpretive powers, who’s separated from his wife, and who goes to a dinner at Oxford at the home of some old timer and then ends up working for a weird MI6-like organisation, deciphering random people’s speech and body language.’ And even that description belies the decidedly uneventful feel of the novel.
But plot is not the only category which doesn’t seem to fit this work: character is also a dubious one. Yes, we read a lot about various people, and, yes, the narrator is supposedly extremely gifted at immediately intuiting the very essence of people he meets, but one never feels involved with these characters; we don’t really care about them. They have no flesh and blood – and even when flesh is bared (I’m thinking of the mildly titillating ‘scene with the armpit’ in the office) it is so over-cerebralised that any libidinal investment we might have made is dissipated through the course of a two-page, compulsively paratactic, synonym-generating sentence-cum-analysis. (For more on Marías’s style, see my comparison of him and Proust). Any talk of plot or character just won’t suffice.
So what’s left? The usual tactic at this point is to start talking of a ‘novel of ideas’, as if entertaining, plot-driven novels were somehow magically devoid of them. If this really were a ‘novel of ideas’, what would those ideas be? Firstly, no matter how well you think you know someone, no matter how close they are to you, nor how much they say they love you, there is always the possibility that tomorrow they will betray you: you can see their face today, but you cannot foresee their face tomorrow:
How can I not know today your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged beneath the face you show me or beneath the mask you are wearing, and which you will only show me when I am least expecting it?
(Even in a sentence as short as this, note the will-to-synonymy). Secondly, to tell someone anything, to entrust to them a confidence is to lower your shield and offer them a spear which will sharpen in the forge of Time, all the better to pierce you with when the clock strikes darkness. But beyond these two main ideas there is not much more to say.
So what is the novel really ‘about’? In order to answer that question we have to consider three aspects which are intertwined. The first aspect, as far as I can see, is an attempt to ‘win back the rights of subjectivity’ (a phrase taken from Fredric Jameson’s early book on Sartre – an interesting symptom in itself). In order to contextualise what I mean by this, let me quote from a paper I wrote last year on Adorno, in which I outline the basic thesis of Dialectic of Enlightenment (and which touches upon what I wrote in my Birkerts post):
If enlightenment reason liberated the mind from the bondages of myth, then this same reason has since become a form of bondage in its own right. The rational subject was once a force of emancipatory disenchantment, but now he mistakes his quantifying omnipotence for freedom and has re-enchanted himself into a dogsbody of the status quo: ‘The spell cast by the subject becomes equally a spell cast over the subject’. The only form of objectivity which remains is that bought at the cost of the subject voluntarily reducing himself to the contentless point of universality; like an imperial tragic hero, in attempting to grasp all he brings himself to nothing.
In other words, since gloriously enthroning scientific rationality, human subjectivity has become enslaved to scientific, quantifiable standards of truth, thereby diminishing itself to a mere organ of biased ‘point of view’. As a catchphrase for the upshot of this process, we might quote that infuriating relativistic phrase: ‘Yeah, but that’s just your opinion.’ Marías’s narrator counteracts this by continually verbally articulating the normal processes of our everyday consciousness; he does so in such a manner that our consciousness comes to seem superhuman, thus shocking us into the realisation that it really does possess that objective potency which we had long thought lost. And this is also important politically, since, as Adorno points out in Negative Dialectics, every age plagued with subjective relativism is at the same time an age of objective absolutism (i.e. totalitarian oppression of one sort or another).
Hence the power, as I see it, of Peter Wheeler’s explanation to Jacobo, which is the crux of the entire first volume:
“Listen, Jacobo, according to Toby, you had the rare gift of being able to see in people what not even they were capable of seeing in themselves, at least not normally…It’s a very rare gift nowadays, and becoming rarer, the gift of being able to see straight through people, clearly and without qualms, with neither good intentions nor bad, without effort, without any fuss or squeamishness.”
So much is at stake here! If Wheeler has about him the tone of a no-nonsense, Daily Mail columnist (‘Yet more PC madness!’), then that can only be because of a bizarre historical predicament: what is happening here (today? now?) is that a project of winning back an objectivity for the disenfranchised Geist, originally initiated by Husserlian phenomenology, then continued by Sartrean existentialism and a certain Adornian negative dialectics, is overlapping with a British commonsense empiricism which ‘calls a spade a spade’. If Adorno’s claim is correct that relativism and absolutism are two sides of the same coin, then what we have here is a bizarre corollary: a subjective absolutism being put to work in aid of a vague objective Big Brother.
And the nature of this Big Brother is the second unsettling aspect:
I gave them my answers, expanding on them and making comments and observations, identifying and summarising, inevitably going too far. I didn’t know what they did with it all afterwards, if it had any consequences, if it was useful and had any practical effect or was merely fodder for the files…everything – for me at least – came down to that first act dominated by my ideas and a brief interrogation or dialogue…And so, for a long time, I never had the feeling or the idea that I could be harming anyone.
In Kafka’s The Trial K. is ensnared in a dark, deeply oppressive legal system of which he compulsively seeks the centre and means of escape. If Javier Marías’s Jacobo is anything to go by, then today we are just as ensnared as K. was, but without the desire to disentangle ourselves. He has no idea who he is working for, what they do, or why they do it, and yet nonetheless he goes to work, does his job, and goes home. When I read this passage I was instantly reminded of Mark Fisher’s description (in Capitalist Realism) of our current Weberian ‘iron cage’ nightmare – from which we are not even struggling to wake up. Do not all multinational corporations have the structure of this anonymous intelligence agency? We all go to work, give our best, and go home, ignorant of the vast networks of hidden tentacles along which my well-intended actions transform into acts of viciousness I could never have dreamed of in my little office, with the Monet reprint on the wall, the photo of my wife and daughter on the desk, and my favourite Hay Festival mug on the lever arch file.
And now for what I really really think the novel is ‘about’. These two previous points are important but accidental. Their essence lies in that they presented Marías with what I can only think to call a ‘framework-machine’ for producing those notorious sentences and mini-narratives. Everything points to this conclusion: the impersonal aura of the characters, the over-intellectualised nature of the whole text, the vague omnipresence of the intelligence agency, which means that literally anyone anywhere can become the trigger for a barrage of Javier’s finest phrases, the acts of interpretation which the narrator is called upon to perform: all of this is what the Russian formalists would have called the ‘motivation of the device’, the structure which gives Marías the excuse to produce those potentially limitless sentences (limitless because trying to mimic exactly the movements of consciousness in language is like trying to capture the whole of one’s head when stood between two mirrors – impossible and infinite). The framework he has developed is nothing short of miraculous. Almost nothing happens; a single simple event (the mopping of a bloodstain, for example) can last fifty pages – all because ‘what happens’ is simply a receptacle designed to provide some wafer-thin semblance of formal design where, in reality, none exists. It strikes me as no great exaggeration to say that Marías was forced to develop the ‘plot’ simply as a reason to stop writing those sentences, to escape that apartment in Madrid and get out in the fresh air for a while.
Of course, all of this is based on the first volume alone; it will be of great interest to see how my observations endure, mutate or self-eviscerate in the course of the other two.