Monday, October 08, 2007

Javier Marias: Dark Back of Time

It is very difficult to describe what Javier Marias' Dark Back of Time ("a false novel" as he himself calls it) is all about. Half of the book, certainly the most entertaining section is about the publication and subsequent reception of his Oxford-set novel All Souls in English (I had earlier written about it here). As he claims quite a few real-life people in and around Oxford took it to be a roman a clef and found themselves portrayed as fictional characters, even to the extent that started behaving like the characters in the novel. A few were satisfied and happy but most others not so much. He also clarifies that he doesn't have a wife named Luisa back in Madrid as the narrator claimed in the earlier novel, much less he is the father of a small baby. He basically writes about his encounters with these real-life people and records their observations and comments and muses about the nature of fiction and representation of reality.

Rest of book is a bit tedious and I frankly lost track of the whole thing quite a few times reading it. It may appeal to geeks, trivia hunters and obscure books enthusiasts but it doesn't work entirely on its own as a work of literature. He basically recounts the biographies of a number of eccentric Englishmen (Marias seems to a passionate anglophile) punctuated by his own commentaries about the nature of time and fiction and its relationship with reality. All of these people and their histories are actually real, Marias even has newspaper clippings, photographs and maps as if to "prove" that what he is talking is indeed real and he is not making them up, though in the end the whole thing becomes even more mysterious that it was before. In this the book invites comparisons with W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn which also had the same structure but which is a much more interesting work because Sebald's ideas and his style give the anarchistic musings a deep, though still somewhat mysterious, sense of unity and purpose.

Marias, again like Sebald, comes back repeatedly to the nature of time, specially the lost time, people forgotten and taken over by oblivion. At one place in the book he explicitly says that he comes back repeatedly to:

What I've called in several books "the other side of time, its dark back", taking the mysterious expression from Shakespeare to give a name to the kind of time that has not existed, the time that awaits us and also the time that does not await us and therefore does not happen, or happens only in a sphere that isn't precisely temporal, a sphere in which writing, or perhaps only fiction, may -who knows -be found.

I had come across this phrase in his All Souls and at that time I didn't know that he took it from Shakespeare. It is actually a somewhat modified version of the phrase used by Shakespeare in The Tempest, where Prospero is asking Miranda of the time before she came to the island, "What seest thou else/ In the dark backward and abysm of time?" It is a very evocative phrase. Marias interprets it to mean not just the irretrievable past but also the future which will never come, signifying our own mortality and finitude of our lives.

This section where he tells the story of these forgotten writers and adventurers I found a bit tedious as I said earlier. Much of it revolves around John Gawsworth, a forgotten writer of fantastic fiction, who died in utter destitution and was also the reigning poet-monarch of the kingdom of redonda. As it turns out Marias has now taken over the kingship and has also awarded various dukedoms, most notable to people like Coetzee, Almodovar and Pinter. He also writes about a writer who died in Mexico of an accidental gunshot at a new year revelry and a spy who was executed by the Germans. He also talks about his elder brother who died before Marias was born and so many other things that I have, I think, already forgotten. All this meanderings and seemingly random excursions drive the same point, at least that's what I think, that there is no order in the facts of the world, time is an all powerful force of destruction and in the end fiction and the faculty of imagination is our only hope for resistance against this anarchy and inevitable oblivion.

Some more information about the book is there on the complete review which finds it "odd but well done" which seems pretty accurate to me.


As a bonus a hilarious extract from the book about "The Podium Effect" (this is after he reveals that he is not married, much less has fathered a baby)

"So it isn't true?" a student insisted. "Because we were all convinced you had a small baby." I remember she said "convencidas todas" in the feminine--"we women were all convinced"--perhaps not so much because of the large number of women in the class, always the case in literature classes, as because the discovery had been discussed only among those of her gender. And on the face of one of those female students I thought I noticed an expressions of contentment at hearing that I was not married. Nothing to feel boastful or conceited about, given that all the world's professors, male and female, enjoy what could be called "the podium effect," due to which even the ugliest and most squalid, horrible, tyrannical and despicable among them arouse spurious and delusional passions, as I know all too well. I've seen dazzling women barely out of their teens swooning and melting over some foul-smelling homunculus with a piece of chalk in his hand, and innocent boys degrading themselves (circumstantially) for a scrawny, furrowed bosom stooped over a desk.

Those who take advantage of this podium effect are generally contemptible, and they are legion. What I didn't understand, though, was the contentment of that student whose colors were the same as my briefcase (eyes blue, hair black), because she, in any case, was married. Perhaps it was a purely literary satisfaction, and she was happy to confirm that what she had read as a novel was indeed a novel.


Cheshire Cat said...

"It may appeal to geeks, trivia hunters and obscure books enthusiasts"

That's the strongest recommendation I've ever heard you give to a book.

Alok said...

lol! And I thought I had managed to dissuade people from embarking on that second section...

I am trying to find some way to clean up all the meaningless junk I have got in my head. Reading this book only added to it.

delhidreams said...

coming to zembla from a readers words... and forgot what i had to say initially :) felt, u shud have been in literature rather than technology, all with the russians, austrians, germans and kafka etc.
m reading mr. sorel's adventures these days. good to find it in ur list.

Alok said...

glad you found it interesting.

the red and the black is a great literary entertainment. It gets even better towards the end.

j.b.s. said...

Thanks for the post on that. I liked the inclusion of the quote at the end. On that note, just read Tessa Hadley's "Married Love" story:

Throughout, I thought "isn't her name supposed to be Lolita, not Lotte?" But I think the story hinges on the fact that she is in fact called Lotte here-- Lotte of Goethe's Werther and others has become Lolita? Or is that Clarisse of MOE? BTW, the best article I found on these issues is Ann Pelligrini's Critical Inquiry piece... Schlink's The Reader, Eliot's Mill on the Floss and Coetzee's Disgrace also of note.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I meant Tania Modelski's response to Ann Pellegrini:

Alok said...

Thanks Jenny for the link. There was something in the title of the paper, ("Pedagogy's Turn: Observations on Students, Teachers, and Transference-Love") that made me laugh so hard :)

I had no idea these things were being discussed and debated in such a serious manner by academics. It is quite a common phenomenon though, no doubt there are so many literary treatments. There is something i find comic in these situation which I thought Marias captured very well.

Alok said...

Thanks for the New Yorker link too. Saw it in the magazine but haven't read it yet. Will check as soon as I get some time.

Alok said...

just wanted to clarify that I didn't want to belittle or make fun of cases of actual sexual harassment or the abuse of power involved in such situations... It is of course a serious issue.