Constraint

14 January 2010

I began Javier Marías’ Corazón tan blanco this morning at 5 a.m., because I haven’t been able to sleep at night since I got back to Bilbao. (Here’s a quick, unrelated test: Name a single modern Spanish novelist. García Marquez or Borges or Cortázar don’t count; they’re all americanos. No, Cervantes doesn’t count either. García Lorca’s a poet. — Don’t worry. I couldn’t either. And Vendela Vida makes a good case why, in The Believer:

Increasingly, we are becoming a country of literary tourists, seeking what we want from various parts of the world, as though collecting souvenirs. We want magic realism from our Latin American writers, descriptions of poverty and castes from our Indian writers, samplings of food from Mexico and Italy, stories of love and mistresses from France. And what do we want from Spain? Stories of civil war and bullfighting, perhaps. That’s why Hemingway is, in a sense, our best chronicler of Spain as we want to know and perceive it, with Orwell coming in a close second.

I, certainly, am no exception; naive & bookish, I took For Whom the Bell Tolls and Homage to Catalonia with me when I first came to Spain, at 19. In the meantime, it may also be of interest to note that Marías is fourth king of Redonda, an island whole royal lineage is passed down “through irony and writing, never through solmenity and blood,” and that he has conferred titles to Pedro Almodóvar, Duke of Trémula; John Ashbery, Duke of Convexo; William Boyd, Duke of Brazzaville; & W.G. Sebald, Duke of Vértigo, among others. There are dukes (& duchesses) of remonstranza, tigres, malmundo, nochevieja, cocodrilos, colores. So.)

I now discover, according to John Crowley (who saw him give a reading in New Haven, & whose Ægypt I was finally able to read while I was home for Christmas), that Marías’ fiction comes from a kind of constraint:

“He writes with a typewriter, beginning with the first page, with a situation he has been brooding about, and some sense of the implications or the characters involved, but not real storyline. He probes forward with this, discovering as he goes (he pointed out the Latin root of “invent” also has the meaning “discover”), but here’s the thing: he does not ever go back and change what he has written. It’s a pact he has with himself. He must accept and work with what he has laid down as he goes. If he has had a character’s mother die at a particular time, he can’t alter that, even if it becomes clear it would be convenient if she died earlier, or later. And writing as he does he has to remember just what he did say, so that later on he won’t violate it (without a “search” function on the typewriter; the new work is a trilogy some 1200 pages long.”

Even having only begun Corazón tan blanco, I can see, or imagine seeing, the marks of this constraint on the composition. The novel begins with a concrete moment of shocking violence. I don’t have access to any English translations; this is from Venela Vida:

I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father’s gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the dining room with the other members of the family and three guests.

Marías writes baroque sentences of impossible length that double back on themselves, that are themselves a working-out, a testing, an exploration of possibility before they settle onto a final direction and lead to the next. The sentence, as long as a full page, is the essential unit of Corazón tan blanco — it situates itself against the history I imagine Marías having to continually remind himself of, has to reiterate.

And yet more than anything all I want to do, reading what Crowley has written, is ask Marías again. Does this mean that he can’t alter what has happened, or that he can’t alter what he has written? Does he prepare ancillary documents, handwritten notes or reminders, so that he can amend the typewritten automaton as it rolls forward? Is this alike or different from Kerouac’s scroll, which anyway has been shown as part pose?

I’ll decide that this compact with himself does not prohibit rewriting, exactly; just that it rules out revision. Once he has invented an occurrence, it cannot be undone; that is my understanding of the constraint. Type itself, by being set, feels different than equivocal scribbles in longhand, but it’s not that the wording cannot be altered, a misspelling corrected, an adjective removed, but rather the acceptance, for the sake of the project, of the proposition that fictional incidents, lurking somewhere in a haze of potentiality, become true by being reported. The typewriter is like a kabbalistic generator.

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4 Responses to “Constraint”

  1. John B. Says:

    [Corrected]

    Miguel de Unamuno–an early 20th-century Spanish novelist and story-writer. He wrote Symbolist-influenced things; La última niebla may be his best-known work. But yeah–I don’t know any other ones.

    • Jim Sligh Says:

      John,

      Great to see you back around these parts & commenting.

      I almost added Unamuno — who is Bilbao born & raised, incidentally; the plaza in the center of the old town is named after him — but counted him in my head as a philosopher & poet first. I haven’t read any of his stuff original & uncut, and to be honest really only know him via historical cameos — his famous standoff with Millán-Astray at Salamanca, for instance.

      As for contemporary Spanish novelists, I’m slowly but surely getting a sense of things — The Believer has a nice piece by an editor of Que Leer that gave a list of ten great recent Spanish novels as yet untranslated into English — but my notebook is at home, & I’m a locuotorio right now, so I’ll have to save other names for a future post.

      The Bilbao library, frustratingly, doesn’t let you browse the stacks. You have to go to a librarian and ask them to get the book for you. This, of course, assumes you already know what you’re looking for.

  2. Miranda Says:

    Interesting. Have you read Marias’ All Souls? It’s set in Oxford, but he includes quite a lot of sub-plot about the writer John Gawsworth, another King of Redonda. I hadn’t paid it much attention the first time around; I think I’ll look at it again, now. I like the idea of a literary bloodline, so to speak, for which the basis is not blood at all.

    • Jim Sligh Says:

      Miranda,

      Corazon tan blanco is the only Marías I’ve read so far — I hadn’t even heard of him until that Believer article — but I think that book was what got him made King of Redonda in the first place. According to Wikipedia, Todas las almas “so touched” the reigning king, Jon Wynne-Tyson, that he abdicated the throne in ’97 (the year of the photograph above).

      Marías wrote another book a year later, Negra espalda del tiempo that ficitonalized both this course of events & the reception to the earlier novel, in which, apparently, many people contacted him under the impression that they had been the source of characters in Todas las almas — including people he didn’t even know.


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