Five Dials #23: Javier Marias
Five Dials is a really cool online PDF free magazine published by Hamish Hamilton and edited by Craig Taylor. I’ve mentioned this magazine a few times in the past—it’s consistently interesting—but thought that Three Percent readers would be especially interested in this new issue, which consists of only one piece: Javier Marias’s “Hating The Leopard.”
There isn’t much in this issue of Five Dials. Sometimes – as long-time readers know – we give over an entire issue to a single writer. The bar is high. Last time we relinquished control, the issue was placed in the capable hands of Orhan Pamuk. This issue features a single essay by one of our favourite writers, Javier Marías, whose latest novel, The Infatuations, is currently being translated by the incomparable Margaret Jull Costa. [. . .]
At some point, years ago, Marías read The Leopard and, unlike some of us who
simply wandered down streets in Camden, he wrote an essay on the particular genius of the novel, and the way the book seems heavier than most, weighted with the wisdom of an entire life. I envy any of you Five Dials readers who know nothing of Marías or Lampedusa. From this humble starting point, your journey will hopefully include the following stops on its itinerary: a page from now you’ll get to the Marías essay, which will inevitably lead you towards The Leopard (as well as Marías’s own work), and perhaps The Leopard will lead you to your own dark streets, standing in front of a row of houses, wearing a too-thin coat, feeling the weight of its lessons, aware that it is so much more than a story of crumbling Sicilian aristocracy.
And from the opening of the essay:
There is no such thing as the indispensable book or author, and the world would be exactly the same if Kafka, Proust, Faulkner, Mann, Nabokov and Borges had never existed. It might not be quite the same if none of them had existed, but the non-existence of just one of them would certainly not have affected the whole. That is why it is so tempting – an easy temptation if you like – to think that the representative twentieth-century novel must be the one that very nearly didn’t exist, the one that nobody would have missed (Kafka, after all, did not leave just the one work, and as soon as it was known that there were others, as well as Metamorphosis, any reader was then at liberty to desire or even yearn to read them), the one novel that, in its day, was seen by many almost as an excrescence or an intrusion, as antiquated and completely out of step with the predominant ‘trends’, both in its country of origin, Italy, and in the rest of the world. A superfluous work, anachronistic, one that neither ‘added to’ nor ‘moved things on’, as if the history of literature were something that progressed and was, in that respect, akin to science, whose discoveries are left behind or eliminated as they are overtaken or revealed to be incomplete, inadequate or inexact. But literature functions in quite the opposite way: nothing that one adds to it erases or cancels out what came before; rather, new books sit alongside earlier books and they coexist. Old and new texts breathe in unison, so much so that one wonders sometimes if everything that has ever been written is not simply the same drop of water falling on the same stone, and if, perhaps, the only thing that really changes is the language of each age. The older work still has to ‘breathe’, despite the time that has elapsed since its creation or appearance; and some works – the majority – are erased or cancelled out, but this happens of its own accord, not because something else comes along to take their place or to supplant or eject them; rather, they languish and die because of their own lack of spirit or – more precisely – because they aspired to being ‘modern’ or ‘original’, an aspiration that leads inevitably to an early senescence or, as others might say, they become ‘dated’. ‘It’s very much of its time,’ we tell ourselves when we read these books in a different, later age, because, given the unstoppable and ever-accelerating speed with which the world moves, ‘in a different age’ can sometimes mean a mere decade later. This is the case even with stories written by some of the great modern authors, such as Kafka, Faulkner, Borges on occasions and Joyce almost always. They can sometimes seem slightly old-fashioned or, if you prefer, dated, precisely because they were so innovative, bold, confident, original and ambitious.
The same cannot be said of Isak Dinesen or of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. The latter is not in any way an old-fashioned nineteenth-century novel as some critics said at the time, misled perhaps by the century in which the action takes place. It is, without a doubt, a contemporary novel of the kind written by the authors mentioned above, and its author was fully aware of the new techniques and ‘advances’ in the genre, if you can call them that, and was even modest enough to abandon one possibility – that of describing a single day in the life of Prince Fabrizio di Salina – saying: ‘I don’t know how to do a _Ulysses._’ But he did know, for example, how to make masterly use of ellipsis, telling a story in fragmentary fashion, unemphatically, even withholding information and leaving unexplained what the reader need only glimpse or intuit, setting up illuminating connections between disparate and apparently secondary or merely anecdotal elements, adroitly bringing together what the characters say and do with what they think (all of which is much more common in the twentieth-century novel than in the novel of the nineteenth century), and, above all, he observes, reflects, suggests and qualifies.
Check it all out here.