I was twenty-two years old and living in Madrid teaching private English classes when I first read Beckett’s trilogy of novels—Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. The job, or what it was of a job, entailed traveling back and forth across the city to meet my students, from hospitals to office buildings to apartments and back on the underground metro, and so I like to say that I read those books underground and moving through tunnels on the inside of trains, enclosed within enclosures, at the interior of interiors, which very much seems like the place that one should read those books. I don’t know if that boast is entirely true, but I know for certain that I was underground, on a moving train, at the interior of an interior, when I read the more-than-twenty-page final sentence of the final novel of the trilogy, The Unnamable, and I take pride in that. When a workday is punctuated by travel of any sort, those periods become time outside of time, strange lacunae within which time passes only in relation to itself. That is where I was when I read the last twenty pages, a single sentence, of The Unnamable, and though I read it in its entirety on my first try, I wonder how many clauses I would have skimmed or skipped if I had been in daylight instead; I wonder if, in a place where the ground was beneath me and space stood still while time moved forward, I might have wanted to do what we usually want to do in a story, which is skip to the end, find out, once and for all, what happens.
I have been invited to comment on Javier Marías, who I think is probably the greatest living and widely known writer in the world; however, I do not do so without reluctance and trepidation. There are certain things so tender, so precarious, that you are afraid that simply by mentioning them you will make them go away. They are the things that you can hardly believe are there. If, for example, you are working on a book, and it is not yet finished—it has not yet become an object separate from the process of its making—you may think to yourself, when somebody asks you to tell them about the book, that it would be best to avoid the question, that simply to speak the name of that which exists but does not yet exist, that whose existence has not yet been confirmed by its presence, could cause it to disappear, and so you change the subject or shrug and say things like, I don’t know, it’s a book, or, it’s about this and that, and then you feel nervous and unclean for the rest of the day or night until you can sit down again and work and remember what it feels like and know that it is still there. I feel reluctant to talk about Javier Marías, and a little unclean actually doing it, because even now, two years after I first read one of his books, I can hardly believe that he exists, that his books have sold over five million copies, and that despite the fact that I have spent a good deal of time in Spain, his home country, I discovered him by accident, thinking that he was someone else, in a bookstore in Los Angeles.
The illusion that is propagated by writers’ workshops and a publishing industry that favors efficiency and short-term profit is that writers write in order to make something: a book, a story, a commodity. We don’t. Writers who are really writing are not writing toward anything, but rather away from something. We are writing out of fear. A friend once told me that Dostoevsky was publishing The Idiot in serial form as he was writing it, having received a healthy advance, and as he got on with the book, and as the writing became slower and more painstaking, serial publication and the deadlines imposed by his publisher started to catch up to him. This idea of Dostoevsky has always stuck with me, as my image of a very particular kind of writer: the writing animal: pursued, in flight, afraid of being unable to finish in time. And Beckett, when he wrote that twenty-page final sentence of The Unnamable, was also writing out of fear, but a different kind of fear, and perhaps more terrible yet: the fear of what lies ahead, the fear of what comes after the language has stopped. I can imagine that when Beckett finally came to that last sentence, when he could not put it off any longer or delay it because despite himself he had arrived, because there was nothing left to say to keep it at bay, he must have trembled, he must have shuddered, I imagine that there was nausea and fever but that the only option, at that point, other than going on, was to stop, and this is what he feared in the first place; I imagine that he began that sentence and then couldn’t end it, could not bear to end it, could not face what came after he ended it, and so he went on, for twenty pages in the edition that I was reading in that lacunae, twenty pages of clause after clause on top of clause within clause, clause enclosed within clause like a body within a train within a tunnel beneath the ground, inside a cocoon of cocoons, until finally he found a different tunnel, a way out, or a way back in, in the form of a promise or a declaration or perhaps a lie: “I’ll go on.”
In the end, Beckett was cowardly. He was afraid to face what came after, when the language and the telling were over, and so finally he did not. Dostoevsky, publishing serially as he wrote, was pursued by the beginning, by that implicit promise of an end, and I find some satisfaction in thinking of the writer this way, writing on the run. Real action writing. But Beckett, either the last modernist or the first postmodernist depending on which scholar you ask, marked a new kind of flight: flight backwards, or toward the interior, away from the terrible silence that succeeds the end.
Javier Marías’s books do not move forward, or in any event, they do not move forward very quickly, and when they do, the movement forward is not the movement that truly matters but rather the movement that marks a kind of compromise, a nod to convention and practical constraints. Marias’s books move toward the interior, constantly diving into the lacunae that open up between moments in time, embarking on narrative digressions of such incredible depth and breadth that eventually, reading them, you realize that these are what matters, the digressions which are in fact not digressions, the lacunae within which time passes only in relation to itself and not in relation to the story-world of solid ground and daylight where one moment always follows immediately upon the next. Marías does not want the story to continue, and why would he? Why would anybody who is really writing? Every step forward is a step toward the end. In an industry which presupposes that readers do not have the time or attention span to entertain an author’s reluctance to go on, that story serves a purpose for the people who go to work every day and wait for their vacations and feel tired on the weekends, it is incredible to me that somebody like Javier Marías, somebody whose books are like the last sentence of Beckett’s The Unnamable, somebody for whom the lacunae are everything, has had so much success; and I am reluctant to talk about it for fear that it will disappear, for fear that in naming the unnamable, in speaking the name of that which is holy, I will eradicate it.
There are two kinds of writerly fear that I am trying to describe: the fear of Dostoevsky, whose book was catching up to him as he was writing it, who wrote forward, away from what already existed behind him; and the fear of Beckett who, coming to the last sentence of his great trilogy of novels, could not do it, could not write himself into the silence and whatever that entailed, and so finally decided to take the easy way out, the coward’s way out, with an end/no end: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
Your Face Tomorrow I: Fever and Spear, which has just been released in English translation, is the first volume of the novel that Javier Marías, although he is only in his fifties, has indicated will be his last, and when it was originally published in Spanish, as Fiebre y Lanza, he had not yet written the remainder of it. So Marías has placed himself in between these two fears, the fear of Dostoevsky and the fear of Beckett: on the one hand, he is pursued from behind, by a Volume One which has already been published, which cannot be taken back and demands completion at the price of failure; and, on the other hand, by an end, an end he must now flee with the same commitment and conviction with which he flees the beginning, because he has promised that this will not just be an end/no end, an “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” but a real ending, the last word of the last volume of the last book, after which there will be only the terrible unnamable silence which those who are really writing cannot bear to face. And he has put himself in an unenviable position: he has said publicly, to a world in which five million copies of his books have been sold, that this will be his last novel, and now, if he chooses not to face the silence that comes after the end, or cannot, he must betray his word, which could be an end of a different sort for a writer. It should come as no surprise that now that he has released Volume Two, Dance and Dream, in Spanish, he has already said that in spite of his initial predictions, Volume Three might not in fact be the last volume of the novel. But for how long can he run? For how many volumes? How many digressions which are not digressions can he put in between the moments which will inevitably and mercilessly become other moments? Eventually, he will come to the end—the end of the end—an end at which, by his word, he will not be able to say “I’ll go on.”
Or perhaps this is the book that will last forever; perhaps, after all, for once given the choice, we do not always want to skip to the end.
Your Face Tomorrow I: Fever and Spear reads and feels very much like a first volume: establishing parameters, setting up conflicts, outlining themes. In it, Jaime, or Jacobo, or Jacques, or Jack Deza—the first name is very much in play—Marías’s long-time literary alter-ego, returns to England, a country in which he spent time in the novel All Souls. In that novel, he was teaching in the Spanish department at Oxford. In this, years later, having just separated from his wife in Madrid, he is in England simply because it was a place to go, away from a life that had come apart and the city in which it came apart. During a party at the house of Sir Peter Wheeler—an old colleague from Oxford and former member of the MI6, Britain’s covert intelligence service—Deza is introduced to Bertrand Tupra, who heads up a rather mysterious group of people, operating out of a mysterious building without a name in a mysterious district of London, whose primary job is to determine ahead of time what people will do; or, in other words, what their faces will be tomorrow. Wheeler, himself a former member of the group, has steered Deza in Tupra’s direction because he detects in Deza that rare ability to know people not only for what they are but also for what they will be. Deza, who is looking for some kind of momentum in a life that has recently lost its form, signs on, but the job he assumes remains as vague as the precise nature of the group. Tupra presents him with videotapes of interviews and then asks him questions about what the person interviewed would or will do in hypothetical or foreseeable situations. Deza never knows who those people are, or who wants to know about them, and so he is working in something of a vacuum, without any knowledge of the ramifications of his hypotheses and predictions, hypotheses and predictions in which he himself has less faith than Tupra and Wheeler. In Volume One, predictably, this novelistic situation develops and ripens, but little comes to fruition. The book ends with Deza, on his way back to his apartment, followed through the rain by a shadowy character walking a three-legged dog, and we will have to wait until volume two to find out who that shadowy character is, and what she wants out of him.
But none of that is what is most important, or perhaps what is most important is everything but that, everything but what this or any of Marías’s books happens to be about. Narrative, at this point in the history of literature, is just a code, or a vestige, or an old habit dying hard, or perhaps nothing but an excuse, and what our books are about, now, what is essential in them, will always be something other than what they are about. For me, what is most essential and affecting in Your Face Tomorrow is the fear. It is a novel that is filled with fear: fear of the beginning, which is pursuing us like Faust’s black dog, and fear of the end, which will swallow us into one final silence. It drowns out the story, or overtakes it. It spills over into the margins and seeps through the covers and then through other covers onto the pages of the books he has written already, and those he never will.
Like all of the books that Marías has written, and all of the books he never will, the fear in this novel is endless; and like the narrator of The Unnamable, packed inside a jar in the window of a Paris restaurant, it is as beautiful as it is putrid.