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

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.

Constraint, ii

26 January 2010

For those of you who were interested the last time I wrote about Javier Marías’ reading at New Haven & the constraint (at least that’s what I called it) that he employs, here’s another account of the same event by Andrew Seal at Blogophia Literaria:

Finally, he [Marías] offered an interesting account of how he writes. After a page is finished—I don’t believe he said “perfected,” but he could have, not because he was less than humble, but because that would be an appropriate verb for his writing—he will not add new material or subtract anything from it to restructure the shape of the narrative. He says he will make continuity corrections (switching a Thursday to a Tuesday), but he doesn’t change what he has written if doing so might make things more convenient for the novel at a later stage; if Marías didn’t think of it the first time, he has to write his way around it at the point in the narrative when it becomes necessary to do so. If it might help, for instance, that a character knew something 20 pages earlier than when Marías thought about it, all the worse for the character—and for Marías—he described this method as “suicidal!” He sticks to this principle, he says, because he wants to parallel the conditions of knowledge in real life. Not knowing something when you’re twenty has actual consequences, no matter how much you might wish you had known that thing now that you’re thirty.

I’d wished before I could have been there to ask Marías in more detail, but a stereoscopic report of the answers he gave is the next best thing. It’s fascinating to see two people give such different accounts of the same thing — I know I’m reinventing the Rashomon wheel here, but still.

Seal doesn’t mention the typewriter, which honestly was the first thing that caught my eye in Crowley’s version, but his account is a nice answer to my nagging skepticism over what had before sounded to me a little like a Kerouackian scroll, writing without revision. I wrote before that the essential unit of Marías prose was the long, baroque, redoubled sentence; later I emended that to the paragraph; but now, knowing that he ‘perfects’ or ‘finishes’ a page & then moves on, it’s easier to read the long paragraphs as ‘pages,’ & the effect of the way he writes that I keep trying to describe is the same, a kind of working-out or working-through of a thing, turning it around & around in hand & reconsidering it & then setting it down & moving on to the next. And I still think the typewriter is an especially good vehicle for this kind of writing, the way the sentences are set down immovably & you have to work out what you want to say before diving into them.

All of this, at any rate, reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend a few days ago that turned to the idea of writing in darkness. A couple of lines from a letter Diderot wrote always come to my mind —

“This is the first time I have ever written in the dark . .. not knowing whether I am indeed forming letters. Wherever there will be nothing, read that I love you.”

— Diderot, letter to Sophie Volland, June 10, 1759

— but also got me thinking about Nicholson Baker, who told the Wall Street Journal that he writes essentially the same way that his protagonist writes in A Box of Matches, at 4 a.m. on an old laptop with the background black & the letters dark blue, the screen lowered so that it’s grazing the tops of his knuckles, staring into a fire; darkness writing. For The Anthologist, though, he’d recorded a few hundred hours of tape narrating as the titular poetry anthologist & then transcribed it, to try to get the voice right.

Method of composition leaves its mark on writing — whether we write it out in longhand, whether we assemble on notecards, whether we dictate or record our own voices or type out & refuse to change pages once they’ve been perfected. I remember reading once, years ago, Walker Evans’ introduction to an edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that talked about James Agee’s ‘night writing’ . . . ah. Here it is, from google books:

Night was his time. In Alabama he worked I don’t know how late. Some parts of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men read as though they were written on the spot at night. Later, in a small house in Frenchtown, New Jersey, the work, I think, was largely night-written. Literally the result shows this; some sections read best at night, far in the night. The first passage of A Country Letter (p. 34) is particularly night-permeated.

— “Forward,” p. vi

You could make method a kind of performance art, define in advance a method of composition for each novel, suited or at odds with the project, to capturing the voice or produce something different from what you’d written before. Dictate one novel via telephone, assemble the other out of napkins, type the third on Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter, bought at auction, write the fourth with nothing but a quill pen, the fifth into your second language & then retranslated. I don’t know if constraints of writing method are the same as constraints as in Georges Perec — but aren’t the rituals of our national writers, reported on wide-eyed by journalists in the Wall Street Journal, already performative?

(Speaking of that article, headlined — really? — “How to Write a Great Novel,” here’s Margaret Atwood treating the question with the appropriate level of seriousness:

“Put your left hand on the table. Put your right hand in the air. If you stay that way long enough, you’ll get a plot,” Margaret Atwood says when asked where her ideas come from. When questioned about whether she’s ever used that approach, she adds, “No. I don’t have to.”)