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Winter 2012

Caressing Repetitions

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Elizabeth Tallent

Your Face Tomorrow
(a novel in three volumes)
by Javier Marías,
translated from the Spanish
by Margaret Jull Costa.
New Directions, 2002–2007,
$81.00 cloth, $39.00 paper.

For such a heavyweight literary project, which might be expected to hedge its bets, Your Face Tomorrow gambles heavily on the narrator’s attraction for the reader. Its three volumes unfold with the searching, cherishing, recursive aimlessness of intimate talk. The style can appear lightly confiding and undefended, as if no sooner is a thought conceived than it’s conveyed, but its regard for the humble virtue of trying not to lie or to pretend to conviction where none exists is actually fantastically intense, a source of great strangeness: it’s so deeply alienated from the presumed trustworthiness of language that little ecstasies of qualification haze every too-adamant assertion. All its impediments serve an estranging love. Language, it begins to seem, traffics continually in unearned certainty: it can’t help it. To love language profoundly is to subject it to the closest questioning, to hold it fast when it tries to elude you, not to accept even its most adorable lie. In Your Face Tomorrow, language is Albertine.

Questioning is not only style’s template, but plot’s. Employed in a shady operation run by the even shadier Bertram Tupra, the novel’s protagonist, Jaime Deza, has the novelist-like job of “interpreting” other people after observing them, one at a time, in person or on film. Scrutiny isn’t confined to the office, and interrogation-calibre questioning figures in most of the novel’s conversations, even those of colleagues or friends. Apart from Jaime’s estranged wife, who dodges his inquiries, nobody seems to find such questioning intrusive—in this world, it’s a given that people need to grapple mightily with the enigma of each other. It might almost seem that the trilogy’s modus operandi was modeled whimsically on the Oxford tutorial: after all, narrator Jaime (whose “variable first name” can be Jacobo or Jack or Diego or Iago) first appeared as a visiting scholar in the novel All Souls, set at Oxford. Since they are alone together (the tutorial’s justification goes), the tutee can’t get away with evasions, and the tutor can browbeat, quiz, and challenge till the harried tutee at last formulates a defensible conviction. Just so, Your Face Tomorrow tends to pair its characters off for long conversations in pursuit of epistemological quarry.

This is no Proustian party, merrily indiscriminate in its invitations; in the course of three volumes we meet strikingly few people, and their interactions have a destined symmetricality. Thus the first volume, Fever and Spear, discloses the terrors of “the eternity of Franco’s regime” in a rambling talk between Jaime Deza and his revered mentor Sir Peter Wheeler—literary scholar, ex-Oxford prof, and former MI6 agent—who remarks of Spain’s Civil War that there “was a kind of all-embracing hatred that surfaced at the slightest provocation and wasn’t prepared to consider any mitigating factor or information or nuance.” A blurred black-and-white photo, the first included in the book, shows the young man who would, if he’d lived, have been Jaime’s uncle: he was shot in the head and left lying in the street. (Not included, though the reader can’t doubt its existence, is the “small bureaucratic photo” of the uncle’s murdered body. Coming across it among his mother’s belongings after her death, Jaime’s “first impulse was to cover it up again with the little piece of satin, like someone protecting a living eye from seeing the face of a corpse, and as if I were suddenly aware that one is not responsible for what one sees, but for what one looks at, and that the latter can always be avoided—you always have the choice—after the inevitable first glimpse, which is treacherous, involuntary, fleeting, and takes you by surprise…”) Jaime’s father barely escaped death after his best friend informed on him, recounting lies. Lies, lies, lies are the tongue of war, which everyone was either compelled to speak for self-protection or spoke eagerly from motiveless hatred; the uses these lies were put to included torture and murder. As Jaime asks, as Sir Peter answers, we follow the groping of incredulity, we hear the lulls necessary for absorbing shock. Because these terrors are told, suffused with genuine sorrow (which can only be that of an individual), savagery is restored to horrors that otherwise, through the impersonal operations of time, have grown abstract, dismissable, as if they could never happen again. How deeply human, how natural, to believe in the pastness, in the far-awayness, of unbearable terrors, to believe we could never have been either their object or their perpetrators—this, exactly this, is the irresistible lie summoning the irresistible energies of Your Face Tomorrow. The first volume alerts us to the trilogy’s interest in the re-instilling of shockingness to terror, the honing of its time- and custom-dulled blade.

But this ferocity, since it seems the opposite of charm, can take some time to reveal itself. Like the flick of butterfly wings initiating a hurricane, the novel’s 1,273 pages begin, “One should never tell anyone anything…”; and in its final line, Your Face Tomorrow offers a phrase—“‘No,’ I said, ‘nothing bad’”—so natural you could find yourself saying it in the next five minutes. (To make room for this unpretentious newcomer, my private collection of more-or-less memorized famous last lines shuffled aside, worrying they had been wrong to long so for immortality.) Yet as an ending this line is everything a trilogy could want: evocative in the work’s own terms, revelatory of character, thematically cunning. Marías’s companionability is one of those aesthetic shocks hinting at larger recognitions about the way fiction works, or might work. What if his charm is, as literature, candidly, mortally serious—what, in that case, changes?

Somewhere in Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s narrator says that once you’ve read a page of a writer’s work, you know everything that can be known about the writer, so biography is pointless. Marías’s pages have the knack of seeming consummately self-revealing, all the tricks of a gorgeous mind on full display. Taken together, his novels seem like some great tumultuous attempt to convey a real life, and compared to that, what fun are facts? But Marías sometimes courts the usual confusion, and then feels (or feigns) shock when readers mistake his urbane protagonists for him. Erudite Madrileños radiating charm, his protagonists share certain biographical facts with Marías and practice some form of his first profession, the one he says taught him how to write: translator. (As a kind of joke on translation’s compulsion to choose exactly the right word, Marías takes entire thesaurus entries and sticks them into his prose; this teasing inexhaustibility is honored by the dauntless Margaret Jull Costa, who finds an English equivalent to every arcane synonym.)

Especially in first-person, his mode is graceful persuasion, and in their sleekness and sumptous wordplay and lightly worn lack of illusions, Marías’s narrators risk seeming basically imperturbable, suave to an uneasy-making degree—what would have been called, in the midwest of my childhood, real smoothies. (This would have been said in a dubious tone: smoothness might sexily wrap itself around a tree in Eden and start whispering Hey, try this.) In their detachment and researcher’s insatiability, his narrators are occasionally accused of being cold. He can be, but he’s a lot of other temperatures too, and without a little coldness there could be no Marías: curiosity of his magnitude is a refusal to partake of the general amnesty the species grants itself, the diffuse yet ineradicable sense that at bottom we’re really all right, and can rest easy because the worst of our evil is historical, a bad dream we’ve awakened from for good. Marías dissents.

Possibly as an antidote to their imperturbability or coolness, Marías often socks his narrators with romantic longing for a distant love object; repeatedly, this desirable woman is named Luisa. The Luisas evince a femininity involving good nature, devotion to high heels, a pretty elusiveness, and a fraction of the male characters’ complexity. This gendered discrepancy in artfulness is hard to understand: it’s as if Marías gives his male characters to Goya to paint, and for his female characters hands a stick of chalk to a child.

Aside from the inevitable Luisa, Your Face Tomorrow’s other significant female character is Pérez Nuix, a colleague of Jaime’s and supposedly his equal in interpretive skill. She needs a favor from Jaime, and the nightlong conversation consisting of her attempts at connection and his evasions devolves, through exhaustion and inertia, into a forlorn, creepy sexual encounter in which her consent is never absolutely clear. Jaime enters her from behind, not much bothered by her silent passivity. Earlier, her will to establish a connection with Jaime is undermined by the long-drawn-out, involuntary striptease of a run lengthening in Pérez Nuix’s stocking, and the fascination directed at this run comes across as stiltedly lascivious. Maybe Marías means to illumine the tediousness implicit in voyeurism, or the difficulty for a woman of trying to find common ground with a man whose surveillance of her is irremediably erotic—I don’t know. Given how fascinated the fiction is by the human face (and by nuanced communicativeness in general), it’s weird that Marías’s protagonists, as lovers, favor that unreadable side of a woman, her back. (The ultimate unreadable body is a dead one, and in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, the woman the narrator is embracing from behind dies a natural—and astounding, and terrifying—death.)

Acceptance of female opacity means, for Jaime, excepting women from the ratiocination he directs at men. At the level of plot, this means that problems will be resolved around women, by male-male negotiations or violence that, naturally, illumine male but not female character. Working in Tupra’s London operation, increasingly beguiled by his own prowess in covert work (“I was aware that, with each day that passed, I was losing more and more scruples or, as Sir Peter had put it, deferring my consciousness, letting it grow dim”), spending nocturnal hours at his window with binoculars trained on a male neighbor given to exuberant displays of dancing (alone, or with one partner, or two), Jaime Deza yearns for Luisa, the wife he has separated from, who remains in Madrid with their two children. So delicately diplomatic is their estrangement, he can’t ask her honestly what is going on with her; he fears she’s involved with a lover who will “close his large hands around Luisa’s throat—his fingers like piano keys—while the children—my children—watch from a corner, pressing themselves into a wall, [hearing] the strange, long-drawn-out noise their mother makes as she dies.” Her possible affair with this spectre is the thread of plot leading the reader deeper into the maze.

It’s a fantastic maze, because Marías’s eroticization of deferral is second only to Proust’s. (Along with charm, this explains the frequency with which he’s compared to Proust—this plus the fact that they are both obsessives, labyrinthine in explanation, merciless boggers-down of the reader.) Held up to the light, a page of Marías shows the watermarks of tinkering, allusiveness, lollygagging, parataxis, etymological inquiry, quotation and self-quotation, synonym cascades, wit. The work teases the reader’s fear of going nowhere with a leitmotif about threads: Sir Peter, for instance, “never lost the thread unless he wanted to.” Yet despite its million caressing repetitions, the style seems curiously elusive. Jaime Deza is the human embodiment of this style, offering more and endlessly more of himself with no loss of inscrutability. Possessor of an “alert, detective mind,” his job is to describe what he discerns in the faces and voices and behavior of subjects offered for his assessment. “What I interpreted were—in just three words—stories, people, lives. Often stories that had not yet happened.” On the one hand, this kind of interpretation seems to be something anybody can do in the realm of life I will anachronistically call “private”:

...we usually know how things will end, how they will evolve and what awaits us, where things are going and what their conclusion will be; everything is there on view, in fact, everything is visible very early on in a relationship just as it is in all honest, straightforward stories, you just have to look to see it, one single moment encapsulates the germ of many years to come, of almost our whole history—one grave, pregnant moment—and if we want to we can see it and, in broad terms, read it, there are not that many possible variations, the signs rarely deceive if we know how to read their meanings, if you are prepared to do so…one day you spot an unmistakable gesture, see an unequivocal reaction, hear a tone of voice that says much and presages still more…sometimes you foresee what someone will do before that person has foreseen or known or even become aware of what this will be, and you can sense the betrayal as yet unformulated and the scorn as yet unfelt…we know, too, who is going to love us, until death and beyond and, much to our regret sometimes, beyond their death or mine or both…

On the other hand, nobody can do it:

But no one wants to see anything and so hardly anyone ever sees what is there before them…it is as if we often went against our own knowledge, because that is how we tend to experience it, as knowledge rather than intuition or impression or hunch, this has nothing to do with premonitions, there is nothing supernatural or mysterious about it, what’s mysterious is that we pay no heed to it. And the explanation must be a simple one, since it is something shared by so many: it is simply that we know, but hate knowing; we cannot bear to see; we hate knowledge and certainty and conviction…

These passages, which come early in the trilogy’s first novel and are taken from the same long paragraph, predict the “grave, pregnant moment,” the hateful gaze or stare that, in an incident more than a thousand pages later, threatens the relative serenity of the conclusion with violence that will take place, or not, after the last page. Look how cunningly a shard of ominousness is wrapped in the gentlest taunt: as in all honest, straightforward stories, “you just have to look to see it.” With this foreshadowing, the narration becomes a self-haunting, and with that inconclusive ending it becomes a story that can neither be finished (the ultimate outcome remains unknown) nor finished with, emotionally, because the reader continues fearing for the characters after the last sentence is read. In life, too, it is difficult to end a fear.

“No one wants to see anything and so hardly anyone ever sees what is there before them” signals the trilogy’s involvement with governmental seeing in the form of recording, informing on, surveilling, and interpreting, the ceaseless watchfulness of video cameras contrasting with the fearful resistance to seeing on the part of individual citizens. One enigma in the first volume, one question in the vast, retrospective Q & A between Jaime and Sir Peter, is how the citizens of Spain managed to live with what they’d seen. Jaime’s second mentor, the cunning Tupra, is far more interested in obtaining film footage of terror and degradation than in anybody’s surviving it. Tupra has “eyes that are never indifferent to what is there before them and which make anyone upon whom they fall feel worthy of curiosity, eyes whose very liveliness gave the immediate impression that they were going to get to the very bottom of whatever being…they alighted upon.” He deals not only in what people have done, but what they might do, and the future—the faces individuals will possess tomorrow—is the realm in which Deza becomes an expert, a member of the confederacy of surveillance and interrogation housed in the “building with no name” and serving either the British government or a melange of powerful corporations, it’s not clear which.

Neither is it clear what the interpretations—whose unnamed subjects range from politicians, diplomats, and foreign military officers to pop stars of Michael Jackson–calibre fame and weirdness, all the way down the social ladder to thugs, gamblers, addicts, and some who seem like completely ordinary people—are used for, what kind of damage they inflict, and on whom. Toward this conundrum of his dubious employment, Jaime adopts a compliant, eyes-shut agnosticism. Well, he has a family to support—plus he’s deliciously good at this stuff, and he likes gratifying Tupra’s expectations, even if Tupra begins to seem morally insane.

Here is one of the trilogy’s subtler feats of craft: through the beguilement of first-person narration, which can’t present a flaw of the narrator’s without its being instantly forgiven on the grounds that it’s remarkable that it was presented in the first place, it’s possible to view Jaime’s equivocations with increasing clarity, to gain ethical distance while equivocating right along with him (a separation that feels as strange as if the railroad tracks in a drawing illustrating perspective began to veer apart). In the second volume, Dance and Dream, he’s led lamblike into a small room and made to witness Tupra’s brutal beating of a hapless acquaintance of Jaime’s, a fellow Spaniard, de la Garza. De la Garza is extravagantly bestial, ludicrously chic. Accidentally, he cuts the face of his dance partner by flinging around his matador-like hairnet (yes, really), but the offensiveness of de la Garza’s crude flirtation with his after-all willing partner, wife of one of Tupra’s clients, has more to do with how grotesque de la Garza is than with any harm done to the intoxicated lady. Tupra’s savagery is crazily out of proportion to its “cause,” but Jaime does not or cannot intervene, and the ordeal of this beating, played out very, very, very, very, very slowly, is worsened by the nimbly exquisite notation of Jaime’s customarily recursive speculation.

When, in the third volume (titled Poison, Shadow and Farewell), Jaime is again led willingly into a room, this one a sanctuary or study in Tupra’s house, and there compelled to watch film footage of supreme brutality, the annotation of his consciousness has the simplicity of awed thought, which can seem almost childlike. It is a quiet scene, and I can’t think of a way it could be more terrible. For the reader, the revealed atrocities are at a triple remove: they are made of language, and within language they exist on film, and that film is seen through Jaime’s eyes. Often when fiction deals with violence immediacy is of the essence, soliciting the reader to forsake immunity or apartness. And because you know you can’t really do that, the consciousness of your detachment never deserts you. Well, in this scene there’s no such pretense. This is a literary experience of watching violence (as we all do x times in the course of any ordinary day in 2011). Because the “watching” element is a given and the reader can’t eliminate it through good will or deep absorption, “watching” disappears; these particular scenes are more harrowing than any violence I have read in fiction in a long while, or even watched in real-life footage. Included in this session are many things I am very sorry to have seen. It feels like seen. Reading is, at bottom, seeing. Like Jaime, we keep watching after that “inadvertent first glimpse.” As Jaime says is true for him, we’ve been poisoned.

Then there’s the novel’s last significant character, Luisa’s lover, who gets the curdled name Custardoy (another name that recurs in Marías’s various fictions, though not as frequently as Luisa). Custardoy’s profession hints at his doppelgänger potential: he is renowned for his excellent copies of famous paintings (a copyist being a translator for whom perfection is possible). He is not merely predatory; he has inflicted readable, undeniable damage to Luisa’s face, and this damage is proof of a brutality likely to escalate. Lies as transparent and clichéd as Luisa’s when she’s asked about her black eye substitute well enough for honesty in furthering Jaime’s investigations. Jaime gets his first good look at Custardoy in the Prado, in a scene gaining witty pseudo-reality from the inclusion of the Parmigianino portraits of a noble husband and wife, between which Custardoy stands, making notes. (Jaime makes rival notes, in his head, analyzing the expressions of count and countess. Probably only Marías would interrupt his narrator’s stalking of his wife’s lover for a spell of art criticism.) Covertly observing the copyist, Jaime concludes his are “eyes that grabbed, like hands, and one day or night they had alighted on the face or body of Luisa and made her his prey.” If de la Garza was clownish in his sexual predatoriness, Custardoy is proficient and amusing in his. Jaime keeps wondering who Custardoy reminds him of, and the hinted-at answer is Jaime himself, since both are smart, confident, urbane, amusing, professionally in high demand.

Convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that Custardoy will do more harm to Luisa, determined to drive him out of her life, Jaime borrows a gun from a matador friend whose iconic machismo blesses the enterprise. To a degree the novel seems to bless the assault, too, its ambiguousness for once relenting: however reliable or not his interpretation of Custardoy is, however poisoned he’s been by Tupra’s brutality tutorial, protectiveness and not savagery motivates Jaime, and Luisa’s black eye is not as hypothetical as a glimpse of Custardoy’s face tomorrow. It seems a little unlikely that Jaime (who, apart from having sex, has done nothing physical in the course of three volumes) would possess such prowess as an assailant, carrying off his savagery as skillfully as Tupra did his, and with equal elan and spur-of-the-moment resourcefulness. While he is committing violence, the face Jaime needs to divine is not Custardoy’s, but his own: the reader partakes of his prolonged and urgent suspense about whether he will shoot Custardoy or be satisfied with having used the gun to repeatedly smash his left, non-painting hand.

These two, like every other pair in the novel, talk. Custardoy turns out to be capable of grace or at least composure under mortal threat, and, accused of abusing Luisa, he’s neither guilty nor defensive but provocatively, maybe innocently, pedagogical: “‘Everyone has their own sexuality… With some people it’s straightforward and with others it isn’t. Didn’t the same thing happen when she was with you? I mean what can I say, pal, I had no idea either.’” It might be true that Luisa solicited Custardoy’s abuse; it might be true that she will seek more of it. Jaime does not know, but this suddenly insinuated uncertainty isn’t, for Jaime in his rage, mitigating factor or information or nuance enough to save Custardoy’s life. No, what halts Jaime’s skid toward murder is the sudden clarifying spectre of the neighbor whose dancing he spied on those London nights when he was alone—so that’s who Custardoy reminds him of. It was always inexplicable, that dancing. It was always sexy and vibrant and comic and welcoming. Sliding fast toward murderousness, Jaime inadvertantly sees the object of his covert looking: the anti-beating, the deep anti-violence that is dancing, the sought and trusting relation with other bodies, the flawed and joyous body freely enacting the ordained movements that, once seen, might (in future) serve as saving grace.

Audaciously, within six pages of the end, Marías metes out one more fateful complication. Well after his assault, which caused Custardoy to disappear from Luisa’s life, Jaime encounters him again in circumstances that link Custardoy to the worst and most wrenching volence documented in Tupra’s toxic films. Brief, wordless, confounding, this encounter compels one last, unwilling interpretation, whose subject is the long look of “utter loathing” directed at Jaime by Custardoy: “I saw that there was insolence in that gaze too, and a threat, not one that was in any hurry to be carried out, but one that was prepared to linger or delay as long as he chose or needed to…” Custardoy, and terror, can outwait the novel itself, its lingering and delaying almost done, almost satisfied by the reunion of Jaime and Luisa. But even once he’s got her back, Jaime can’t let Luisa know he knew about Custardoy, since she’d be quite capable of putting two and two together and attributing Custardoy’s disappearance to Jaime’s intervention. So Jaime can’t push her to tell the truth about whether she ever wanted violence to be done to her, and in her sexual proclivities she is opaque with an opacity he can’t read. (Emotionally, maritally, she has her back to him.) But, he says, “I think I know her face and I stake everything on that”—a private end to uncertainty, an avowal whose tenderness is sharper for the thousand doubting pages before.

Elizabeth Tallent teaches in the writing program at Stanford University.

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