• Tag Archives Javier Marías
  • The 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature: My Shortlist


    In trying to nail down the genesis of my interest in the Nobel Prize, the best I’ve been able to come up with is that that when I was four years old I fell down the stairs. It was my first memorable lesson in the randomness of things. “How could this have happened?” screamed my young consciousness and in that moment I realized something had to be done about an environment disorderly enough to permit such a humiliation. In the interest of personal safety, I adopted various policies, such as refusing to listen to any one of my long-playing records until I had listened to all of them, in order. Take that, ye dark powers! The Swedish Academy often appears to obey some similarly recondite logic; the announcements, and pronouncements, are delivered, against general bewilderment, with bracing assurance, like a child explaining exactly why it is necessary to check for dandelions in his breakfast cereal. They say “This. This one here has made all the difference,” thereby holding at bay, or seeming to, or at least to their own satisfaction, the whole chaotic ocean of contemporary literature. The Nobel Prize is a hedge against a universe where, with a single misstep one can tumble down a never-ending staircase.

    There is a character in László Krasznahorkai’s novel Seiobo There Below whose passion for baroque music is so fierce that he can only view the music of any other era as inferior, Mozart and Beethoven notwithstanding. The reader wonders how it came to be that the full scope of music throughout history poses such a threat to his sensibilities that he must set this rigid limitation. Yet we are sympathetic. He’s the kind of person we would be loathed to sit next to on a flight or on the bus, but, from the safe distance of the printed page, we quietly admire his dedication, and, even more, his capacity to love something so much. Besides, we think, the world needs its quota of cranks. But he becomes an object of tragic fascination insofar as he is unable to live alone with this passion. He must share it. Which is to say, he must share the unsharable. He is profoundly overweight, because, we sense, his lone and hermetic yearning swells within him.  He gives a lecture in the library of a small town’s cultural center, entitled “A Century and a Half of Heaven”, to an audience of eight elderly men and women.  He becomes glassy-eyed as he describes the opening measures of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and a veritable Jonathan Edwards against all whom he considers comers to musical pretensions. His so-called lecture is really more of a rant, impassioned, windy, well-informed yet oddly un-informative, and so incomprehensible to his red-eyed and arthritic audience that the only thing keeping that audience in thrall is it’s collective anxiety about his suspenders. Will they hold? In the end, he leaves the podium, buttons his coat and, with tears in his eyes, walks out the door, saying at the top of his voice, from The Passion, “Mein Jesu, gute Nacht! Mein Jesu, gute Nacht!” He weeps, not for beauty, but because he has failed, as he will always fail, to show that beauty, so personal, so encompassing, to anyone else.

    The Nobel Prize often has this quality, minus the pathos, of a private passion publicly shared. Often the winner is literally the obsession of a single member of the committee who plumps for him or her for years. When, late in life, Arthur Lundkvist was offered a place in the Swedish Academy, he accepted, with reservations, largely with the intent of securing the Nobel for an Australian writer hardly anyone in Sweden had even heard of, let alone read. In 1973 he succeeded in wearing his fellow committee members down and Patrick White received the prize.

    Like the lecture delivered by Krazhnahorkai’s character, the statements issued following a Nobel announcement tend to be impassioned (in the Scandinavian sense of the word, that is, not in delivery but in the furrow-browed urgency of the content), windy, well-informed yet oddly un-informative. Take, for example, Permanent Secretary Peter Englund’s description of Patrick Modiano: “A Marcel Proust for our time.” Not only does this give no sense at all of the kind of writer Modiano is, it is actually entirely misleading; apart from writing in French, and, alright, treating of memory, his work is nothing at all like Proust’s. In fact, with his short books filled with short, perfect, if rather fazed sentences, Modiano might even be held up as Proust’s antithesis. But there is something touching in the ardency of Englund’s assertion. He clearly admires this writer.

    In a couple days a new winner will be announced. What private passion will be put forth as the perfect hedge against all that literature out there, waiting to overwhelm us?




    António Lobo Antunes (1942-)
    António Lobo Antunes (1942-)

    Antonio Lobo Antunes (Portugal)

    There’s a piano in the sand, he thought as he beheld a black and almost geometric thicket behind  a bundle of reeds, a piano in the sand circled by gulls and other ocean birds, and his straggly-haired grandmother, wrapped in the wedding dress he had kept in a chest, tapped her arthritic fingers over the caries-riddled keys, stumbling through a children’s lullaby. The low-blowing breeze made the tulle of her veil flutter. There was a dead cat in the sand, nearly covered over by the shore’s stubble. A cloud of huge flies, blue-winged and red-bodied, buzzed around it. The anchored boats lazily shifted their haunches. He stood for a moment, empty-eyed, looking at the rotted animal, then turned and went back to the inn.

    • from An Explanation of the Birds
    Julia Hartwig (1921-)
    Julia Hartwig (1921-)

    Julia Hartwig (Poland)

    How to Honor a Place

    An inscription announces that the continental divide
    between the Pacific and the Atlantic
    runs exactly here

    A river with its beginning in this region
    must think hard
    which of the two oceans it should belong to
    which mother it acknowledges
    in whose gullet it is to be lost forever
    and become nameless

    How to honor this unique place
    with a shout with silence
    I am standing over the divide
    as if on the back of a bison blinded by the sun
    with its legs spread out The rain of waters
    flows on both is shining sides

    And I
    where do I belong

    László Krasznahorkai (1954-)
    László Krasznahorkai (1954-)

    Laszlo Krasznahorkai (Hungary)

    A bird fishing in the water: to an indifferent bystander, if he were to notice, perhaps that is all he would see—-he would, however, not just have to notice but would have to know in the widening comprehension of the first glance, at least to know and to see just how much this motionless bird, fishing there in between the grassy islets of the shallow water, how much this bird was accursedly superfluous; indeed he would have to be conscious, immediately conscious, of how much this enormous snow-white dignified creature is defenseless—-because it was superfluous and defenseless, yes, and as so often, the one satisfactorily accounted for the other, namely, its superfluity made it defenseless and its defenselessness made it superfluous: a defenseless and superfluous sublimity;

    • from Seiobo There Below
    Javier Marías (1951-)
    Javier Marías (1951-)

    Javier Marias (Spain)

    How could he have spent half his life with a colleague, a close friend — half his childhood, his schooldays, his youth — without having so much as an inkling of his true nature, or, at least, of his possible? (But perhaps any nature is possible in all of us.) How can someone not see, in the long term, that the person who does end up ruining us will indeed ruin us? How can you not sense or guess at their plotting, their machinations, their circular dance, not smell their hostility or breath their despair, not notice their slow skulking, their leisurely, languishing waiting, and the inevitable impatience that they would have had to contain for who knows how many years? How can I not know today your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged beneath the face you show me or beneath the mask you are wearing, and which you will only show me when I am least expecting it?

    • from, Your Face Tomorrow, vol. I: Fever and Spear
    Michel Tournier (1924-)
    Michel Tournier (1924-)

    Michel Tournier (France)

    February 12, 1938. A woman customer came in to see me. She had her little girl with her, a child of about five or six, who got scolded when they were leaving for trying to shake hands with me with her left hand. It suddenly struck me that in fact most children under seven—the age of reason!—naturally offer to shake hands with the left hand instead of the right. Sancta simplicitas! They know, in their innocence, that the right hand is soiled by the vilest contacts: that every day it puts itself into the hands of murderers, priests, policemen and politicians as blithely as a whore hops into a rich man’s bed, whereas the humble unobtrusive left hand keeps in the background like a vestal, reserved for sisterly clasps alone. Must remember this lesson and always hold out my left hand to children under seven.

    • from, The Ogre

  • 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature — My Shortlist

    imageSocieties in which arranged marriages are still prevalent must wonder what all the brouhaha was about when Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. In some quarters (China) his win was celebrated as if he was a conquering hero on the order of, say, Genghis Kahn. Others, of which yours truly is one, felt his win to indicate, if not actual malignancy at work in the universe, then at least mindless absurdity at work in Stockholm, not least because of his slapdash writing. But societies with arranged marriages must view all this backing and forthing as a curious instance of democratic vanity. In such societies, families pair off boys and girls for marriage, often very early in life, at some point the boy and girl are told of the arrangement, and that is the end of it until the wedding day, unless, as in some cultures, the wedding day is the day of revelation. The pair is either happy about it or not, much to the indifference of those who’ve chosen for them. For it to work – and in many places it has long worked rather well – there must be a broad-based acceptance of a cosmos in which things are given or taken without much regard for the wishes or agency of the ones receiving or yielding. It’s only when love, a human universal, turns to regard itself, and in doing so steps beyond its provenance in the body to style itself as a compelling thought process capable of making vital decisions that people begin to get touchy about who’s being foisted on them.

    People who direct their love towards books tend to become deeply attached to certain authors. For such counterculturists, the Nobel Prize can feel rather barbaric. Like an arranged marriage. Once we’ve been handed our winner – because it does feel somehow like a bestowal – our feelings about Stockholm’s choice, approval or dismay, become more at issue than the choice itself. In other words, it becomes all about us.

    In about a week that famous secular conclave will meet to decide who to shack us up with this year. Busybody pundits are giving themselves little orgasms asking who, or what kind of writer, it will be. Will it be a captivating storyteller who ravishes her readers with a gorgeously over-stuffed vision of humanity, someone in the line of, say José Saramago or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or will it be someone whose rewards are cloistered behind a wall of aesthetic that will keep him a rather arcane fetish for a few, someone akin to Claude Simon or Samuel Beckett? Will it be a curiosity, like Dario Fo, or a well known literary force, e.g. Saul Bellow? Another bony Eastern European to join Herta Müller, or a non-colonial African to keep Wole Soyinka company? Will the political objective driving the choice be baldfaced, as with Orhan Pamuk, or restrained, as with Tomas Tranströmer? Male or female? Novelist? Poet? Playwright?  Someone uncharacteristically category-defying?

    These questions, while entertaining, are really of only passing interest, in the end not much different than church basement gossip. The real question, or the only one that matters to any of us inclined to take an interest, is whether or not when we lift the veil and gaze upon who has been chosen for our regard, we find the face lovely or dispiriting.

    Here is a list of five authors I would be more than happy to live with should Stockholm choose them. There are, of course, many others. Philip Roth and Alice Munro don’t appear on my list this year even though I would probably pee myself if either of them made the cut. But they’ve been on my short list for the past two years, and I decided to only put forth candidates who I’ve not put forth before. I would be fascinated if either Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o or Algeria’s Assia Djebar won, and am eager to get to know their work, but on this list you’ll find only writers I’ve actually read. The Nobel literature prize is always geopolitically interesting: On my list this year, two are Hungarian, one is Australian, one Irish, one Spanish. I’m struck that all my choices are men, and all fiction writers. Call my list one-sided, but these guys are all as good as it gets. I’ve listed them alphabetically because if I were to rank them in order of who I most want to win, they’d all have to pile into a rather ill-suited cluster in the first spot. Along with their names, I offer you a passage from each of their bodies of work. You decide who you would choose. I’m sure I can’t.


    imageLászló Krasznahorkai (Hungary)

    Rubbish. Everywhere he looked the roads and pavements were covered with a seamless, chinkless armour of detritus and this supernaturally glimmering river of waste, trodden into pulp and frozen into a solid mass by the piercing cold, wound away into the distant twilight greyness. Apple cores, bits of old boots, watch-straps, overcoat buttons, rusted keys, everything, he cooly noted, that man may leave his mark by was here, though it wasn’t so much this ‘icy museum of pointless existence’ that astonished him (for there was nothing remotely new about the particular range of exhibits), but the way this slippery mass snaking between the houses, like a pale reflection of the sky, illuminated everything with its unearthly, dull, silvery phosphorescence.The awareness of where he was exercised an increasingly sobering effect on him—he had by no means lost his capacity for calm appraisal—and as he continued to appraise, as if from a considerable eminence, the monstrous labyrinth of filth, he grew ever more certain that, since his ‘fellow human beings’ had utterly failed to notice this flawless and monumental embodiment of doom, it was pointless talking about a ‘sense of community’. It was, after all, as if the earth had opened up beneath him, revealing what lay underneath the town, or, and he tapped the pavement with his stick, as if some terrible putrescent marsh had seeped through the asphalt to cover everything.

    from: The Melancholy of Resistance

    imageJavier Marias (Spain)

    “People used to venerate them or at least their memory, and they would go and visit their graves with flowers, and their portraits would preside over their homes,” I thought, “people spent a period in mourning and everything stopped for awhile or slowed down, the death of someone affected the whole of life, the dead person really did take with them a part of the lives of their loved ones and, consequently, there wasn’t such a separation between the two states, they were related and they were less frightening. Now people forget the dead as if the dead were plague victims, sometimes they use them as shields or dunghills in order to blame them and make them responsible for the terrible situation in which they have left us, often they are loathed or they receive only acrimony and reproaches from their heirs, they departed too soon or too late without preparing the ground for us or without leaving us free, they continue being names but not faces, names to which all manner of villainies and cowardices and horrors are imputed, that’s the current tendency, and thus they do not find rest even in oblivion.”

    from: Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me

    imageGerald Murnane (Australia)

    “On that day it appeared that the whole state was alight. At midday, in many places, it was dark as night. Seventy-one lives were lost.” The previous sentences are from a report of a royal commission that followed the bushfires of January, 1939, in the state of Victoria. The day when the bushfires were at there worst was known afterwards as Black Friday. By chance, it was the day when my youngest aunt left the convent that would have overlooked, among much else, the paddock whereon would be lain down fifteen years later a certain street beside which would be built twelve years later again the house in which my aunt’s oldest nephew would live for at least forty years and would write books of fiction, one of the last of which would include a passage in which the narrator, who was wholly lacking in imagination, would report mere details in the hope that fiction truly was, as someone once claimed, the art of suggestion and that some at least of his readers might intuit or divine or suppose, if not imagine, some little of what his aunt had seen or felt on the day when she left the convent where she had hoped to live for the rest of her life.

    from: Barley Patch

    imagePéter Nádas (Hungary)

    A shipwrecked person whose feet desperately seek something solid to keep him afloat will grab at anything, anyone, the first available object, and if it buoys him up he won’t let it go, he’ll swim with it,and after a time he’ll see he has nothing else! just this? and the object will grimly concur, yes, just this, nothing else! and the implacable impulse of self-preservation, joined of course by rationalization and mystification, will have him believe that the object that drifted his way by chance was really his, it chose him and he chose it, and by the time the sheer force of unrelenting waves casts him onto the shore of mature adulthood, his faith and gratitude will have made him worship what was accidental and adore fortuity, but can his rescue from destruction be really accidental?

    from: A Book of Memories

    imageWilliam Trevor (Ireland)

    Growing up in the listless nineteen-eighties, Celia Normanton knew her father well, her mother not at all. Mr. Normanton was handsome and tall, with steely gray hair brushed carefully every day so that it was as he wished it to be. His shirts and suits gave the impression of being part of him, as his house in Buckingham Street did, and the family business that bore his name. Only Mr. Normanton’s profound melancholy was entirely his own. It was said by people who knew him well that melancholy had not always been his governing possession, that once upon a time he had been carefree and a little wild, that the loss of his wife – not to the cruelty of an early death but to her preference for another man – had left him wounded in a way that was irreparable.

    from: “The Women”