On the Tendons of Rhythm and the Passing of a Giant
Spanish Novelist Javier Marías has died.
Writing this with a heavy heart… Javier Marías is dead. He died today, after suffering pneumonia for the past month. He was 70, and still writing terrific books.
I’m almost a Marías completist. There are only a few books by the Spanish novelist and columnist that I haven’t read. I wilt to his slow, introspective prose, succumbing to the high suspense baked into his grammar. His writing reminds me of a paleontologist — or the stereotype of one — slowly brushing away the dirt, stroke by stroke, employing that most uninvasive of tools — the brush — until, finally, stroke after stroke, the partial skeleton of a plot, or the shadow of a plot — a situation — is revealed in all its dust and broken glory.
(An aside for some Marías recs if you haven’t read him yet: A Heart so White is his masterpiece, in my opinion. His doorstopper, Your Face Tomorrow is also brilliant: there was a few-hundred page scene that took place in a nightclub’s bathroom that is seared into my memory. And Tomorrow in Battle Think on Me has one of the most memorable openings of any novel I’ve ever read. Marías, and his prose, are also nearly caricatures of highbrow literature, so there are flaws and gaps, and it’s not for everyone. But his sentences make it worth getting through some of his more abstruse or plodding turns.)
There are only a handful of living, now late, authors whose every new publication I try to buy and read almost as soon as it comes out. The latest Marías’ book, Tomás Nevinson, was published over a year ago, and I recently treated myself to it. (We share(d) a birthday, too, so I liked to think of him as my compinche.)
I’m glad he returned to his more spy/detective structured approach, as his previous two books, Berta Isla and Los Enamoramientos were my least favorite works of his, and felt more like character studies than novels.
As much as he cited and obviously loves film, and as brilliantly plotted as some of his books are, they couldn’t be made into films. (I fact-checked myself after writing that sentence, and there are some Marías-inspired films, it turns out.) The spiraling interiority, the helixes of thought, are what Marías’ novels do best, and it’s typically hard to summarize the story, but Tomás Nevinson is brightly relatable, even as it still hews to his high-literary/quasi-philosophical spirit: the eponymous spy must sniff out a female terrorist sleeper cell — one of three women, two of whom are wholly innocent, one of whom is gravely guilty of mass murder. If Tomás doesn’t find, and kill, the responsible woman, the agency will play it safe and kill all three. Cue the ethical hand-wringing. Or, in Marías’ case, cue the flights of literary/historical association, frequently returning to a couple of instances, some fictional, some not, of kindly guys nearly murdering Adolf Hitler.
There are twists, digressions, associative leaps, and plenty of curlicues. Meanwhile, the book always remains, as when Marías is at his best, simultaneously gripping and wildly esoteric.
But what really pushes the plot, and the sentences, is the rhythm. Here are a couple quick stabs at translating a short paragraph of his, to give you an idea.
Lo que más cuesta es matar, es un lugar común que sobre todo suscriben los que nunca lo han hecho. Lo dicen porque no se imaginan a sí mismos con una pistola o un cuchillo, o con una cuerda para estrangular o un machete, la mayor parte de los crímenes llevan su tiempo y requieren un esfuerzo físico, si son cuerpo a cuerpo, e implican peligro (nos pueden arrebatar el arma en un forcejeo y ser nosotros quienes acabemos fiambre).
“The hardest thing is to kill — a common take from those who have never done it. They can’t imagine themselves with a gun or a knife, a cord to strangle or a machete, most crimes take time and require physical force, if they are body against body, and imply risk (they might snatch the gun in the struggle and we’re the ones to end up dead stiff).”
There might be a term for that move, pulled off in bold, chiasmus or anacoluthon — they’re both related, I think, and Marías has wielded them each: the surprise inversion of structure, a clausal anomaly, a sentence munching itself. The grammatical inversion helps enunciate the rhythm.
"…a gun or a knife, or a cord to strangle or a machete…”
A list of four, with one non-parallel item: along with a gun, a knife, or a machete is “the cord,” to which is added the infinitive phrase “to strangle,” which modifies, and specifies, the cord. All grammatically fine and good, but structurally a little odd. What makes it work, what makes it sing, is that blue note of the errant modifier — “to strangle” — the syncopation that effloresces the tap, tap, ta-tap, tap of the established beat.
I’m reminded of a recent and wonderful essay, which I devoured, by the New Yorker’s Merve Emre, about the Australian author Gerald Murnane. Emre describes the “hypnotic rhythm” of Murnane. That rhythm is
a quality almost as important to him as grammar. “You will not be surprised to know that Virginia Woolf had a deep insight into this matter of the rightness of sentences,” Murnane writes. “Here is something she wrote about it. ‘Style is a very simple matter, it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words.’
Murnane and Marías are very different authors, but they both have a spiraling, ruminative, philosophical, slow, and rhythmic quality to their works. They both don’t use the wrong words.
For fun, here’s Google Translate taking a crack at the above paragraph (notice how even the algorithm maintains the original rhythm):
The hardest thing is to kill, it is a common place that is subscribed above all by those who have never done it. They say this because they do not imagine themselves with a gun or a knife, or with a strangling rope or a machete, most crimes take time and require physical effort, if they are hand-to-hand, and involve danger (They can snatch the weapon from us in a struggle and be the ones who end up with cold cuts).
I’ll be sadly looking forward to reading Marías commemorations, and will be hoping we find some unpublished material to delve into in the coming months and years. For now, we are left with only the memory, and the words, of a great writer.
So let’s not slip into, as Marías put it, el mundo desmemoriado, the forgetful world, or the unmemoried world. To lean on the advice of Bertram Tupra, one of his great characters:
Pues estudia un poco más en vez de languidecer y perder tanto el tiempo aquí, acabarás siendo un vegetal. Hay que saberlo todo, lo máximo posible en nuestro trabajo. Historia es lo que más hay que leer, porque ahí están las enseñanzas y las instrucciones y las pautas de comportamiento para cada ocasión. Nosotros sólo nos encontramos variantes de lo que ha sucedido ya.