Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Uncertain time in Javier Marias

The work of the Spanish writer Javier Marias is notable for its attention to the nature of the temporal, to our experience of time and our puzzlement with time, thoughts that all of us spend a great deal of time thinking. This has earned him comparisions with Proust, though, as Stephen Mitchelmore points out in this recent piece, these are often very perfunctory comparisions, simply presented rather than argued.

In Marias we feel the pressure of time upon us in two ways. His narrators often not only think, wittily and cogently, about time, but they are also shown thinking in time. That is, their thoughts are presented to us as if in real time - it is not thought recollected in tranquillity and presented in cleanly grammatical sentences, but thought picked up as it is generated, in run-on sentences that swell with clause upon clause. We feel we are watching thought taking a walk without knowing where it will go and what associations it will bring up, which is of course how thought operates, often taking its own thinker by surprise. Some of Marias's signature moves can be found in a story, "In Uncertain Time", that both replicates the trancelike patter of thought in narrative time and deals explicitly with a curious moment in time in the life of the protagonist, a Hungarian footballer called Szentkuthy playing for the club side Real Madrid in Spain.

The story (which appears in the 1999 collection When I Was Mortal) begins with the narrator, an unnamed man, recalling the first time he met Szentkuthy, in a discotheque:
It was in the Joy discotheque, very late at night, especially for him, you imagine that a footballer should go to bed really early, always thinking about the next game, or just training and sleeping, watching videos of other teams or their own, watching themselves, their successes and failures and the missed opportunities that go on being missed for all eternity in those films, sleeping and training and eating, living the life of married babies, it's good if they have a wife who can be a mother to them and supervise their timetable. Most take no notice, they hate sleeping and hate training, and the really great players only think about the game when they actually run out onto the pitch and realize that they had better win because there are a hundred thousand people who have spent the whole week thinking about the confrontation or wanting vengeance against their hated rivals.
Note already: the missed opportunities that go on being missed for all eternity in those films, the players's resistance to a timetable, and their sudden awareness of responsibility and obligation as they run on to the pitch, an alarm bell rung by the awareness of other people's perception of the moment and how long they have been anticipating it. The narrator, who admires Szentkuthy's style of play greatly, engages the player in casual conversation, but avoids the subject of football. Like many successful athletes Szentkuthy is openly boastful about his sexual conquests, joking that, "A different woman for every goal, that's my way of celebrating". But he reveals that he is still pursued by an old girlfriend in Hungary, who seems to have taken literally the promises of fidelity he had once made to her: "As far she is concerned, I will always be hers, always". Szentkuthy resents that 'always'. For him time is a cavalcade of different treats and there is a pleasure in not knowing what will come next. But the woman appears to want only one thing from time, and seems sure she will gain it.

The narrator speculates that the woman will eventually win, because - and here we are witness Marias's acute powers of generalisation - people who know what they want "will always have the edge over those who don't know what they want or only know what they don't want. Those of us in the latter group are defenceless, we are afflicted with an extraordinary weakness of which we are not always aware and so we can easily be destroyed by a stronger force that has chosen us, and from which we only temporarily escape…" His guess is later confirmed.

But the core of the story comes later, in the description of a fantastic incident - soon to become the defining image of his career - in which Szentkuthy "stops" time in an important European Cup game, by delaying and holding off what is an absolute certainty, a thing already taken for granted as having happened. His team requires a goal to win the game, and with a few minutes remaining Szentkuthy, rallying forward on his own, shakes off two defenders and rounds the advancing goalkeeper. Now all he must do is slot the ball into the empty net, but even as the whole stadium rises to respond to the goal, he refuses to shoot. Instead, he advances, and stops the ball right on the goal-line. Then, we are told, as the goalkeeper and the two defenders throw themselves at him, "Szentkuthy rolled the ball an inch or so forward and then stopped it again once it was over the goal line".

What is all this? Szentkuthy displays the arrogance that people feel, very rarely in life, when they have absolute control over a result and over time. "He had thwarted imminence," says the narrator, "and it was not so much that he had stopped time as that he had set a mark on it and made it uncertain, as if he were saying, 'I am the instigator and it will happen when I say it will happen, not when you want it. If it does happen, it is because I have decided that it should.'" Certain of his power over the moment, Szentkuthy exercises it by perversely making that moment uncertain for the thousands of people just as certain as him: "I can't remember," recounts the narrator, "a more suffocating silence inside a stadium." Szentkuthy's action is somehow intensely disturbing, for "it pointed out the gulf between what is unavoidable and what has not been avoided, between what is still future and what is already past, between 'might be' and 'was', a palpable transition which we only rarely witness".

And Marias's curious story, in which even that which appears totally certain is halted and made uncertain by a human being transformed almost into a god, beams a ray of light over our lives that seems to expose to us how fragile our hold over circumstances is - how the experience of the present and of life, for each one of us, is that of perpetually living "in uncertain time". It is only in the past, in memory, that time appears to take on a solidity and a kind of arc of inevitability, and all our lives we attempt, often erroneously, to extrapolate from the "certain time" of the past to help us confront the uncertain time in which we are perpetually wading.

Marias's novel Dance and Dream, the second highly lauded work of what is to be a trilogy called Your Face Tomorrow, has just been published in a English translation by Margaret Jull Costa (who is also the translator of "In Uncertain Time"). A good profile of Marias by Aida Edemariam can be found here, and an old Middle Stage post about his own collection of literary profiles Written Lives can be found here, with links to other pieces by Marias.

And in this recent interview with Christina Patterson, Marias remarks of the novel that it is "the genre, or even the art, in which you can do more unlikely things with time. What interests me in a novel is to make exist the time in life that life doesn't allow to exist at all".

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