Discussed in this essay:
• All Souls, Javier Marías (trans. Margaret Jull Costa). New Directions. $14.95. 224 pp.
• Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, Javier Marías (trans. Margaret Jull Costa). New Directions. $15.95. 320 pp.
• Your Face Tomorrow, Javier Marías (trans. Margaret Jull Costa). New Directions. $15.95. 400 pp.
• In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust (trans. C.K. Moncrieff). The Modern Library. $75.00. 4211 pp.
The writings of Marcel Proust and Javier Marías are concerned with the contrast of finite human memory against nearly infinite time. They lay bare a tragic fact of a human existence: we compare the limitations of our own memories to the ceaseless expanse of time and space surrounding them. Proust’s and Marías’s works also constantly involve deliberation over the extent to which we can understand the past, and they represent that past via language and the degree to which can we know either ourselves or others. Both authors might suggest that what we can know of any of these things is an extremely limited amount, if it is any amount at all.
What is also frighteningly evident in Proust’s and Marías’s delineations of the effects of time on human beings is that, as a defense mechanism, humans will inevitably deceive themselves into believing that they can indeed “know” a great deal about the past, or of the world around them, creating in this false and desperate need of certainty an internecine world which is constantly tearing itself apart.
Marías’s relatively early novel All Souls is exemplified, for example, by its exploration of the ghostliness of human memory and the desperation with which human beings attempt to hold onto the past, as suggested by the novel’s title (a pun on the name of an Oxford college). 1 Within the novel’s first paragraph, the narrator describes his inability to fully express, via his writing, the time he spent in Oxford as a lecturer in Spanish literature and translation, since this would merely be giving in to an illusory sense of certainty about a past he knows he is unable to fully represent:
[In] order to speak of [two friends that have died], I must speak of myself and of my time in the city of Oxford, even though the person speaking is not the same person who was there. He seems to be, but he is not. If I call myself “I,” or use a name which has accompanied me since birth and by which some will remember me, if I detail facts that coincide with facts others would attribute to my life, or if I use the term “my house” for the house inhabited by others before and after me but where I lived for two years, it is simply because I prefer to speak in the first person and not because I believe that the faculty of memory alone is any guarantee that a person remains the same in different times and different places. The person recounting here and now what he saw and what happened to him then is not the same person who saw those things and to whom those things happened; neither is he a prolongation of that person, his shadow, his heir or his usurper. 2
From the outset, then, the narrator of All Souls is looking back on his life as though, as is typical of nearly all of Marías’s narrators, he is a ghost looking back on his past life. That the incommensurability of language and memory impose this ghostly effect on the novel is no accident. For Marías, as for Proust, the fact that we generally express memory through language means that there will be a wide gulf between memories and our expression of them, just as there is a dissociation between memory and experience. As Proust’s narrator says in In Search of Lost Time, “We feel in one world, we think, we give names to things in another; between the two we can establish a certain correspondence, but not bridge the gap.”
The narrators used by both authors also understand themselves as conduits of language’s evolution, in much the same way that the human body may be seen as a vessel conveying evolutionary traits: for both Marías and Proust language is something continuously changing, active, non-static, just as the self is something constantly transforming, only giving the semblance of continuity. As the narrator of In Search of Lost Time notes:
Those French words which we are so proud of pronouncing accurately are themselves only “howlers” made by Gaulish lips which mispronounced Latin or Saxon, our language being merely a defective pronunciation of several others. The genius of language is its living state, the future and past of French, that is what ought to have interested me in Françoise’s mistakes. Wasn’t “amender” for “mender” just as curious as those animals that survive from remote ages, such as the whale or the giraffe, and show us the state through which animal life has passed?
Language is in this instance something stretching out far beyond us into the dark past, something over which we lack control. When the narrator of In Search of Lost Time attempts to understand the origin of a particular word within the fabric of language, what he glimpses is language’s variegated nature; he is in a sense looking back through time, like an archaeologist examining a fossil record:
I asked Brichot if he knew what the word Balbec meant. “Balbec is probably a corruption of Dalbec,” he told me. “One would probably have to consult the charters of the Kings of England, Suzerains of Normandy, for Balbec was a dependency of the barony of Dover, for which reason it is styled Balbec d’Outre-Mer.”
The word Balbec has a history, mostly unseen, whose evolution we can perceive only the slightest glimpses into via history; so too is Proust’s work one point in the continuous expanse of time, much like the narrator of his novel finds himself to be:
I was not situated somewhere outside of Time, but was subject to its laws, just like those characters in novels who, for that reason, used to plunge me into such gloom when I read of their lives, down at Combray, in the fastness of my hooded wicker chair. In theory one is aware that the earth revolves, but in practice one does not perceive it, the ground upon which one treads seems not to move, and one can rest assured. So it is with Time in one’s life. And to make its flight perceptible novelists are obliged, by wildly accelerating the beat of the pendulum, to transport the reader in a couple of minutes over ten, or twenty, or even thirty years.
How strange then that Proust’s novel is a point in time that is, as it were, conscious and reflective of itself, as though it exists in a world of sleep and dreams, as something that has awakened, and is the sole thing looking over that sleeping world. Indeed it is as though language is looking over, and commenting on, the very process by which it evolves.
All Souls is also fascinated with language as a marker of time: Marías’s narrator, long bored by what he views as the pointless nature of his role as a lecturer in Spanish translation, responds to his students’ self-aggrandizing questions on the meanings of seemingly arbitrary and obscure Spanish words by creating lengthy and humorously false explanations on their origin. At first the narrator is scared that his falsehoods will be discovered by colleagues sitting in on the lectures, but in a moment of extreme irony the narrator consults a dictionary and finds that, in fact, one word to which he has ascribed a particularly absurd source in fact originated just as he said. It as though history is playing a joke on the narrator by confirming that the idea of a word’s “origin” is necessarily absurd, and that such origins are always forever forgotten in a vast abyss of time, even while we attempt to delude ourselves into believing that we have grasped those origins: “I felt more of an impostor than ever,” the narrator says, “but at the same time my conscience felt clearer, for it seemed to me that my crazy etymologies were no more nonsensical, no less likely than the real ones. . . . When true knowledge proves irrelevant, one is free to invent.” Even as the narrator attempts to escape the absurd satire that memory and time play on humanity, he is powerless to do so because his dismissal of humanity’s pride in knowledge turns out to be as absurd as the pride itself.
This image of a teacher passing on information that is both arbitrarily true and arbitrarily false serves also to illustrate the problem of received information. That is, information passed down through time and memory never can contain what it claims to—a pure understanding of the past—just as one of the main problems put forth by post-structuralism is the lack of an original point from which “pure” information can be obtained. It is as though Marías’s lecturer is a point, a cipher, through which language passes, and is warped, like a beam of light bent by the gravitational pull of consciousness. Because our memories are too limited, there is no point of origin from which the narrator can pass on “true” information.
The Dark Back of Time
The theme of memory as something constantly fleeting and illusory is also highly developed in Marías’s Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me. Here, Marías’s narrator is a television writer who sometimes, in one of Marías’s many narrative jokes, ghostwrites for a ghostwriter. (“I have therefore become the ghost of a ghost,” he says at one point) As in All Souls, the narrator’s examination of the relationship between himself and the past gives way to something extremely profound.
Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me begins with the narrator witnessing the sudden death of his lover (the cause remains unspecified). Because the affair was secret, and because the lover has died while her husband was away, the narrator is the only witness—a crucial point in Marías’s literary world, where immediate information is of great value. In his secret attempts to find out information about the woman’s family and the aftermath of her death, the lover runs into what Marías often describes from a phrase in Shakespeare as the “dark back of time,” the enormous swath of time which is not captured by human memory or subject to our limited perception. The narrator says at one point in the story that:
There is an English verb, “to haunt” and a French verb, “hanter” which are closely related and more or less untranslatable in Spanish, they both describe what ghosts do to the places and people they frequent or watch over or revisit; depending on the context, the first can also mean “to bewitch,” in the magical sense of the word, in the sense of “enchantment,” the etymology is uncertain, but it seems that both come from other verbs in Anglo-Saxon and Old French meaning “to dwell,” “to inhabit,” “to live in” permanently (dictionaries are as distracting as maps). Perhaps the link was merely that, a kind of enchantment or haunting, which, when you think about it, is just another name for the curse of memory, for the fact that events and people recur and reappear indefinitely and never entirely go away, they may never completely leave or abandon us, and, after a certain point, they live in or inhabit our minds, awake and asleep, they lodge there for lack of anywhere more comfortable, struggling against their own dissolution and wanting to find embodiment in the one thing left to them that can preserve some validity and contact, the repetition or infinite resonance of what they once did or of one particular event: infinite, but increasingly weary and tenuous. I had become the connecting thread.
It is notable that Marías, like Proust, illustrates his point via the history and evolution of a word, as though language gives us the brief chance to look down the dark passageway of time.
Having gone to the funeral of his lover (without her family knowing who he is), Marías’s narrator begins to contemplate how his knowledge as an immediate witness to the woman’s death differs from that of the other attendees. As he remarks in the above passage, the narrator views himself as “the connecting thread” between the woman and her family: he is able to view, within his slightly less limited perception of the situation, how they attempt to reconstruct the moment in which she died; the narrator also notices how the woman’s son, who was in the apartment at the time of her death, is too young for his memory to have captured the event. Importantly, Marías is creating a metaphoric situation to contrast primary and secondary information. The narrator considers that:
There is almost no record of anything, fleeting thoughts and actions, plans and desires, secret doubts, fantasies, acts of cruelty and insults, words said and heard and later denied or misunderstood or distorted, promises made and then overlooked, even by those to whom they were made, everything is forgotten or invalidated, whatever is done alone or not written down, along with everything that is done not alone but in company, how little remains of each individual, how little trace remains of anything. . . . [T]he individual memory is not passed on and is, anyway, of no interest to the person receiving it, who is busy forging his or her own memories. All time is useless, not only that of a child, for all time is like that, however much it happens, however much enthusiasm or pain one feels, it only lasts an instant, then it is lost. . . . So much else goes on behind our backs, our capacity for knowledge is so limited. . . . That is what I must be for him, the reverse side of his time, its dark back.
The “dark back of time” is also highly relevant to Proust, and it exists in his writing in terms of personal relationships: they begin as an ideal with the projection we place on others—our idea of what constitutes their personality—but as we find out more and more that ideal inevitably gives way to something obscure and unknowable. As the narrator of In Search of Lost Time says:
Thus it was [Françoise] who gave me the idea that a person does not, as I had imagined, stand motionless and clear before our eyes with his merits, his defects, his plans, his intentions with regard to ourselves (like a garden at which we gaze through a railing with all its borders spread out before us), but is a shadow which we can never penetrate, of which there can be no such thing as direct knowledge, with respect to which we form countless beliefs, based upon words and sometimes actions, neither of which can give us anything but inadequate and as it proves contradictory information—a shadow behind which we can alternately imagine, with equal justification, that there burns the flame of hatred and love.
This jarring realization of our inability to know others is especially important in the third volume of In Search of Lost Time, where the narrator, as a young man, projects an Elysian world onto a socially distant family of nobles, the Guermantes. The narrator’s great desire for the friendship of this family, and his eventual disillusionment with them, leads to the narrator’s subsequent conclusion that we cannot understand others. Thus, before he comes to fully know her the narrator of the novel describes the Duchesse de Guermantes as a “goddess turned woman”; yet by the end of the volume he has learned that the Duchesse is someone who chooses to attend a dinner party rather than spend a few last moments with her dying friend.
The Work of Art as Memory
It might be said that realizations such as these on the part of the narrator of In Search of Lost Time implicitly elevates aesthetic theory. That is, such realizations imply that knowledge of another person is an impossibility (due to the limitations of memory and perception) and that the past is something constantly slipping away. Thus aesthetics are elevated above mere experience because it is only through the work of art, (e.g. in In Search of Lost Time) that we can unite the realities of feeling, language, and the past. Proust himself implies as much: “Through art alone are we able to emerge from ourselves, to know what another person sees of a universe which is not the same as our own and of which, without art, the landscapes would remain as unknown to us as those that may exist in the moon.” At another point the narrator discusses the idea that the work of art is, as it were, a form of superior consciousness:
The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity, the contrary also being true.
Thus while for Proust human beings are defined by the extent to which they exist in a temporal world, they are also capable of brief forays outside of time; these are provided via involuntary memory which, Proust writes, is extra-temporal, and which has its twin within the work of art. There is a tragic corollary to this eternal quality of the work of art, however, in that the work is just as subject to the destructive effects of time as the human body, because above all for art to exist, it must be perceived:
Thus [Bergotte] went on growing steadily colder, a tiny planet offering a prophetic image of the greater, when gradually heat will withdraw from the earth, then life itself. . . . [However] far forward into future generations men may shine, there must none the less be men. If certain species hold out longer against the invading cold, when there are no longer any men, and if we suppose Bergotte’s fame to have lasted until then, suddenly it will be extinguished for all time.
At another point in the novel, Proust’s narrator comments on this idea as it relates to the longevity of his own artistic production:
No doubt my books too, like my fleshly being, would in the end one day die. But death is a thing that we must resign ourselves to. We accept the thought that in ten years we ourselves, in a hundred years our books, will have ceased to exist. Eternal duration is promised no more to men’s works than to men.
As Proust says, human memory is an isolated area in an infinite, cold universe, against which memory cannot measure itself or hold itself out. What the work of art shows, however, is a world outside of time: all works of art contain “an identical beauty . . . they bring into the world . . . a hidden reality revealed by a physical sign”; elsewhere Proust describes a sense of “illumination which had made me perceive that the work of art was the sole means of rediscovering Lost Time.” Moreover, his narrator says that:
This explained why it was that my anxiety on the subject of my death had ceased at the moment when I had unconsciously recognized the taste of the little madeleine, since the being which at that moment I had been was an extra-temporal being and therefore unalarmed by the vicissitudes of the future. This being had only come to me, only manifested itself outside of activity and immediate enjoyment, on those rare occasions when the miracle of an analogy had made me escape from the present. And only this being had the power to perform that task which had always defeated the efforts of my memory and my intellect, the power to make me rediscover days that were long past, the Time that was Lost. . . . A moment of the past, did I say? Was it not perhaps very much more: something that, common both to the past and to the present, is much more essential than either of them?
Thus for Proust art is not only a way of transcending time but also a way of perceiving reality: “the world around us . . . was not created once and for all, but is created afresh as often as an original artist is born.” Indeed, he says, “There was a time when people did not perceive reality when it was painted by Renoir.”
Memory as Judgment
For Marías, the regaining of time and experience, if it is possible at all, takes on a much darker hue. He seems to suggest that if we had even the smallest access to the “dark back of time”—that is, if knowledge of others were more accessible—we would see a truly nightmarish world. A brief glimpse into such a nightmare world is precisely what is presented in Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow, a novel about intelligence agents, who, from their “privileged” vantage point as interpreters of the lives of people they deem suspect, have access to a secret world in which private life is for the most part an illusion. However, Marías ultimately shows that even access to all this information is absurd and, finally, ludicrous, a metaphor for our culture’s unending desire for knowledge it cannot possibly totalize. One character in the second volume of Your Face Tomorrow notes that
Life is not recountable, and it seems extraordinary that men have spent all the centuries we know anything about devoted to doing just that. . . . Sometimes I think it would be best to abandon the custom altogether and simply allow things to happen. And then just leave them be.
In another scene in Your Face Tomorrow, the narrator begins to consider the historical idea of judgment day—an idea increasingly seen as mythological as society has become more secularized—and describes what exactly the accumulation of all human action, as though it were to take place in a hypothetical “end of time,” would mean in terms of personal responsibility. 3 In this scene Marías reinvents the idea of God as an all-seeing, all-knowing deity as a metaphor for exactly what our age claims to be, but which it is not:
What an enormous solace to utter solitude it must have been to believe that we were seen and even spied upon at every moment of our few, miserable days, with super-human perspicacity and attention and with every tiresome detail and vacuous thought supernaturally noted and stored away: that is how it must have been if it truly existed, no human mind could have stood it, knowing and remembering everything about each person from each age, knowing it permanently, without a single fact about anyone ever going to waste, however dispensable it was and even if it never added nor subtracted anything: a real affliction, a curse, a torment or even heaven’s version of hell itself.
In a particularly affecting scene, the narrator visualizes an uncle who was executed in his youth by militiamen based on false accusations (a fate from which Marías’s own father barely escaped, having been falsely accused under Franco’s regime of conspiracy). In his vision the uncle confronts his accusers and murderers:
“You fired a bullet into the back of my neck in the gutter of a street I had never seen before, although it could not have been far away, we took no time at all to get there from the detention center in Calle Fomento from which you dragged me at night and into which you had thrown me that morning after stopping me in the street, because I was wearing a tie, you said, and was carrying a membership card to some club you didn’t like, ‘A lot of Falangists go there,’ you said, and to which I had foolishly applied in order to be like my elder brother, who was in hiding at the time, I was seventeen and didn’t even know what it meant, and you didn’t allow me time to find out or to go back to my comic books which were my great joy and passion, I knew nothing about politics,” my Uncle Alfonso would say when he met up again with the forgetful militiamen who had killed him: they would scarcely remember him, still less the young woman who was with him and who shared the same fate, a bullet in the temple or perhaps the back of the neck, or perhaps in the ear. “You showed no mercy and I felt such pain as you could never imagine all the days of your life or of your death in infinite waiting for this final day, and you falsely accused me even though you were perfectly aware of the absolute falsity of your accusation, and you demanded that I give you names and confess to betrayals I never committed, knowing that I could not do so.”
Marías’s version of judgment day is a tragic symbol of how we conceive of time; it is tragic because the all-consuming accountability of a judgment day is not possible within the confines of human memory. This impossibility must be one of the chief flaws of human experience, for it is one of the reasons that actions that destroy others are made possible.
Thus, as in Proust’s work, there is an attempt on Marías’s part to outline the limitations of human memory. This attempt is chiefly accomplished by exploring exactly what human culture holds memory and history to be, by seeing where both memory and history fall short of what we expect of them. In this way, what Proust and Marías each put forth is a particular understanding of memory and history. They both come to this understanding by a great contrast: the contrast of the enormity of time and humanity’s small place in it.
What is so striking about the similarity of Proust’s and Marías’s considerations of these subjects is not necessarily that they were born eighty years apart from one another (it would be difficult to imagine any late 20th/early 21st century writer not directly or indirectly influenced by In Search of Lost Time); it is that Marías’s vision is distinctly his own, as though he is creating a variation on Proust’s theme which in some ways goes beyond Proust’s. This is achieved via Marías’s application of his vision to his political and social environment, in doing so revealing the way in which political and social agendas are deeply ingrained and justified by our conception of cultural memory. That a contemporary writer is exploring these depths of consciousness with such acuity should be regarded as a great privilege.
Jordan Anderson is a writer living in Oregon. His main interests are the 19th century and contemporary literatures.
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