Monday, November 28, 2011

Reading List: The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel

The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel

I first became aware of Babel through Travis Holland's superb The Archivist's Story, which features the writer as a secondary character, whose sad fate is made witness and extrapolated into a great tragedy. I immediately sought out Babel's own work, but found it harder than I'd imagined. This was the best I could do, and it includes his "Red Cavalry" series. I seem to have laid out a series of world literature that deals with deplorable government without having planned it at all.

Your Face Tomorrow: Concluding Thoughts

"[Th]ere are some obligations that can't simply be unbuckled and discarded. That's why some are so difficult to buckle on in the first place and why others must be very firmly buckled on, so that there can be no turning back."

That, in essence, is what the seven parts and three volumes of Your Face Tomorrow are really about. On the surface, it is about Jacques Deza, struggling to conform to a new life and separation from his wife, becoming an interpreter and forming strange relationships, giving the reader a constant stream of observations. But it is really about obligations.

Deza is defined by his connections, whether to his estranged wife Luisa, or his boss Tupra, or his mentor Peter Wheeler, or to any of the numerous other attachments he makes throughout the narrative. His wife represents Spain, his home, while Wheeler represents England, his place of exile, and Tupra the grey area in-between, where Deza exists throughout the story, as he struggles to determine where he actually belongs; in short, where his true obligations lie.

We learn early on that his story is not really his own (and in that sense is the signal that Marias is taking much of his direction from Tristram Shandy, though in a more mature, deliberate way), that he defines much of what he is by the fortunes of his father and by the Spanish Civil War in general, that he learned very early that life is about observations, about reporting what you know, when prompted, but always observing. When he leaves home for the first time, he meets Toby Rylands, who becomes his first mentor. When he leaves home the second time, it's Peter Wheeler. When he leaves home the third, it's Tupra.

We learn how these relationships inform each other as the third volume unfolds, Wheeler's secret history, after Deza's idea of narrative horror has been explored. We have already learned that Wheeler and Rylands were brothers, that Deza owes his relationships with Wheeler and Tupra to Rylands, always a ghost, the most clear specter of the whole narrative, never actually present, only active in Deza's thoughts and Wheeler's reflections. Deza finds his way back to his own present through his abhorrence, his growing awareness of what life would be like if he retained the wrong obligations (the answer to Tupra's question in the second volume, why people can't just go around killing and hurting each other).

That Deza's life can be condensed to a few key incidents, some of which are not even his own, is the achievement of the whole work, the reason why it is so long, and written in the way it is, that most of it is a meditation, since that's the only reason the main character is relevant, because otherwise he is a coward, impotent, not in the least bit heroic, which is what most people expect from such characters. Yet his greatness is his expansiveness, his capacity to extrapolate the extraordinary from the mundane, to create a James Bond existence out of a life that for all intents and purposes has very little meaning (Wheeler, for the record, has a clear Bond connection in having served with Ian Fleming during WWII).

Marias has written perhaps a perfect novel, a version of Shakespeare for the 21st Century, when the role of kings has been replaced by survivors, not just of wars but their own narrative horrors.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Your Face Tomorrow: Continuing Thoughts

Having now completed the second volume of Javier Marias's masterful Your Face Tomorrow, Dance and Dream, I am more confident than ever in proclaiming it to be one of the great works of literature in this or any other age.

I have no doubt that a lot of people, were they to attempt reading it, would probably very quickly set it down again in disgust and confusion over the sheer amount of space Marias devotes to the narrator's thoughts, or continue reading and dull their reaction because they don't understand why it has been written in such a fashion. The truth is (and I say this not because this is the primary style of my own writing), this is exactly how literature should be, except most readers have spent their lives reading strictly journalistic descriptions of experiences rather than introspective, probing, expansive thought, the kind that Marias excels in expressing.

That is not to say that Your Face Tomorrow is completely unrecognizable, since it is familiar, in many senses. Having recently read a number of Roberto Bolano's books, I find much that I recognize from modern world literature, the kind that is deeply enmeshed with the memories of the past century, the atrocities too many civilizations have lived through. Some critics have alluded to Marcel Proust in the book's general ambition and existential nature, but Your Face Tomorrow is so much more than that. As Marias himself briefly mentions, there's a far more relevant example to draw from, Tristram Shandy (there is even a character named Toby, if you need a direct link), a book about a man trying to reflect on the experiences and associations that shaped his life. Like Shandy, the narrator, Jacques Deza, is constantly being sidetracked, although like several characters he always circles back around, which makes Marias more disciplined, more focused, than Laurence Sterne (who in fact didn't finish his book for all his meanderings).

Your Face Tomorrow is about observation, yes, but it's about infinite reflection, about a sensitive man trying to make sense of a world that often baffles such undertakings. It is exactly the kind of literature more people should read.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Scouring Books: Lone Star Justice

Lone Star Justice: The First Century of the Texas Rangers
by Robert M. Utley

Originally published in 2002; more than any other state in the Union, Texas boast of its rich origins as a proto-nation, so I've always been fascinated to study it. The rangers are one element that most people know about, but probably not half as well as they think, so this is an invaluable primer.

Bookshelf status: unread.

Scouring Books: Pop Goes the Weasel

Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes
by Albert Jack

Originally published in 2008, this is, as its subtitle implies, an academic look at nursery rhymes, their historical origins and what they were originally intended to mean, making it intriguing cultural anthropology. There's more nursery rhymes included than I heard growing up, so there's all the more to learn.

Bookshelf status: mostly unread.

Scouring Books: The Informers

The Informers
by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Originally published in 2004, the hook for me with this one isn't so much that it's another piece of international literature, but the subject matter of a writer who unexpectedly comes to some resistance from his own family.

Bookshelf status: unread.

Scouring Books: Miral

by Rula Jebreal

Originally published in 2010, this was the basis for the Freida Pinto film that received only negative attention from American critics, mostly because it dealt with the tricky topic of the Israeli/Palestinian divide while appearing to take the "wrong" stance. As a cultural study, I have every interest in such material, no matter its interpretations.

Bookshelf status: unread.

Scouring Books: The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud of Unknowing
by Thomas H. Cook

Originally published in 2007, this was a fairly popular book, a classic mystery/thriller with strong elements of literary fiction that helped set it apart, and so was hard for me to overlook, and so I had to eventually add it to my collection, even though at the time I wasn't reading such books with any kind of regularity.

Bookshelf status: unread.
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