Pillow talk

7 February 2010

Yesterday on the bus, I came upon a wonderful passage in Corazón tan blanco (wonderful, at least, when I read it in Spanish) that displays Marías’ penchant for the sinuous & piled sentence, for narrative catalogues, for listing, & also reminded me — to the point of being almost, it seemed, a direct reply (the last sentence in particular) — of a passage from Georges Perec which I’ll affix below everything else:

Estar junto a alguien consiste en buena medida en pensar en voz alta, esto es, en pensarlo todo dos veces en lugar de una, una con el pensamiento y otra con el relato, el matrimonio es una institución narrativa.

[…]

Por amor o por lo que es su esencia — contar, informar, anunciar, comentar, opinar, distraer, escuchar y reír, y proyectar en vano — se traciona a los demás, a los amigos, a los padres, a los hermanos, a los consaguíneos y a los no consaguíneos, a los antiguos amores y a las convicciones, a las antiguas amantes, al propio pasado y a la propia infancia, a la propia lengua que deja de hablarse y sin duda a la propia patria, a lo que en toda persona hay de secreto, o quizá es de pasado. Para halagar a quien se ama se denigra el resto de lo existente, se neiga y execra todo para contentar y reasegurar a uno solo que puede marcharse, la fuerza del territorio que delimta la almohada es tanta que excluye de su seno cuanto no está en ella, y es un territorio que por su propia naturaleza no permite que nada esté en ella excepto los cónyuges, o los amantes, que en cierto sentido se quedan solos y por eso se hablan y nada callan, involuntariamente. La almohada es redondeada y blanda y a menudo blanca, y al cabo del tiempo lo redondeado y blanco acaba sustituyendo al mundo, y a su débil rueda.

Corazón tan blanco, Javier Marías p. 184-85

I’ll try now to give you a translation, with apologies — I’m piecing it together myself, lacking an easier way.

Being together with someone consists to great extent in thinking out loud — that’s it — in thinking everything over twice instead of once, first as a thought and later as a story — marriage is a narrative institution.

[…]

Out of love or that which is its essence — to recount, to inform, to announce, to comment, to opine, to entertain, to listen & to laugh, & to make futile plans — we betray all else, our friends, our parents, our siblings, those we’re related to & those with whom we have no relation, our old loves & our convictions, our former lovers, our own past & our own childhood, our own tongue that ceases to be spoken & without a doubt our own homeland, that which in every person is secret, or perhaps long past. To flatter who we love we denigrate the rest of existence, we negate and detest everything else in order to reassure & make content the only one who can leave; the force of the territory marked out by the pillow is such that it leaves our hearts when we’re not upon it; it’s a terroritory that by its own nature does not permit anything on it except lovers or spouses, who feel in a certain way that they are alone and so speak and are never quiet, involuntarily. The pillow is soft & rounded, usually white, and over time its roundness & whiteness replaces the world & its weak orbit.

Anyone with the English translation on hand is invited to correct my errors or offer other version of sentences. Actually, reading this earlier, I’d forgotten almohada meant pillow & thought it meant bedspread, which would make placing Perec side by side even more apropos — but what I like about this isn’t just the quality of the observation, but the way that a relationship becomes analogous to fiction itself (el matrimonio es una institución narrativa), not just a narrative that is created but also a form of betrayal (we could equally write that the author in certain ways betrays everything else when he weds himself to the blank page, a territory delimited & someone private, made to be enjoyed by one other person at a time, so that the act of reading what someone else has written — love letters are proof of this — is a kind of union or relationship, a being alone with someone else). Perec, in a metaphor he extends but doesn’t quite close:

We generally utilize the page in the larger of its two dimensions. The same goes for the bed. The bed (or, if you prefer, the page) is a rectangular space, longer than it is wide, in which, or on which, we normally lie longways. ‘Italian’ beds are only to be found in fairy tales (Tom Thumb & his brothers, or the seven daughters of the Ogre, for example) or in altogether abnormal & usually serious circumstances (mass exodus, aftermath of a bombing raid, etc.). Even when we utilize the bed the more usual way around, it’s almost always a sign of catastrophe if several people have to sleep in it. The bed is an instrument conceived for the nocturnal repose of one or two persons, but no more.

Species of Space & Other Pieces, Georges Perec, trans. John Sturrock

And finally, because writing this has reminded me of it & because I’m quilting this together out of pieces of this & that anyway, here’s a poem by Tennessee Williams:

Life Story

After you’ve been to bed together for the first time,
without the advantage or disadvantage of any prior acquaintance,
the other party very often says to you,
Tell me about yourself, I want to know all about you,
what’s your story? And you think maybe they really and truly do

sincerely want to know your life story, and so you light up
a cigarette and begin to tell it to them, the two of you
lying together in completely relaxed positions
like a pair of rag dolls a bored child dropped on a bed.

You tell them your story, or as much of your story
as time or a fair degree of prudence allows, and they say,
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh,
each time a little more faintly, until the oh
is just an audible breath, and then of course

there’s some interruption. Slow room service comes up
with a bowl of melting ice cubes, or one of you rises to pee
and gaze at himself with mild astonishment in the bathroom mirror.
And then, the first thing you know, before you’ve had time
to pick up where you left off with your enthralling life story,
they’re telling you their life story, exactly as they’d intended to all
along,

and you’re saying, Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh,
each time a little more faintly, the vowel at last becoming
no more than an audible sigh,
as the elevator, halfway down the corridor and a turn to the left,
draws one last, long, deep breath of exhaustion
and stops breathing forever. Then?

Well, one of you falls asleep
and the other one does likewise with a lighted cigarette in his mouth,
and that’s how people burn to death in hotel rooms.

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2 Responses to “Pillow talk”

  1. Cliff Burns Says:

    Wow, a blog that references Georges Perec and Tennessee Williams in the same post. That’s mighty impressive, especially in a blogosphere known for its vapidity.

    How I envy people who can move between different languages; the ability to read a fine author in their native tongue. I fairly swoon at the notion. Instead, I have to rely on people like Edith Grossman and John Felstiner. I’ve been poring over Felstiner’s translations of Paul Celan and as I read of his superhuman efforts to render the poet’s words as close to his intent as possible, I am mesmerized.

    Thanks for your post; a refreshingly smart read…

  2. Jim Sligh Says:

    Cliff,

    Translation in poetry is infinitely trickier than prose, I’ve always thought — you have so much less space to work with; every word is freighted with rhythm & timbre. I’d love to learn French & read Perec in the original.

    To defend my own vapidity, it doesn’t take much to place two heterogeneous things next to each other.

    I used to think the blogosphere was vapid too (it is an ungainly word at best), but now I think it just depends on how you slice it. I’m more and more delighted to find the world filled with people smarter than I am.

    Thank you for reading, & for leaving a note.


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