My first clue to the structure of this novel, or the first one that I twigged to, was the recurrent untied shoelace. Untied shoelaces kept popping up, for no apparent reason. What is the significance of untied shoelaces that appear on pages 38, 80, 88, 112, 113, 131, 132, 136, 230, 238? I still don’t know, except that they prompted me to start reading the book in an entirely different way.
The narrator is a ghostwriter, who ghosts for another ghostwriter, and he is often invisible or strives to disappear from consciousness of others, even if it just in an awkward social setting (“discreet to the point of invisibility”
). Ghostly themes haunt the book, beginning with the first line in which a woman dies in his arms, and in the repeated memories and stories of that event and its sequelae, blending in with the motifs of the “Richard III” quotes and references permeating the book.
But he is a storyteller and as he repeatedly tells us throughout, the storyteller gets to decide how to tell his story, how to convince and persuade, and the world depends on its storytellers. “It is the person telling the story who decides to tell it or even impose it on another, the person who opts for revelation or betrayal, the person who decides when to tell, and that usually happens when the weariness brought on by the silence and the shadow becomes too great, sometimes it is the only thing that drives people to recount facts that no one has asked for and that no one expects….”
Variations on this passage are repeated throughout the novel, some of it verbatim, some altered slightly (pp 154, 228, 235, 236, 249, 301, 308, at least).
The weariness of the shadows (249, 252, 284) and the state of enchantment (66, 67,135, 162, 195, 242, 253, 284, 294 and more). “Travelling towards dissolution”, inaugurated on p 18 (“…everything travelling towards its own dissolution with the passing of the days and even the seconds that appear to sustain things but, in fact, suppress them…”
) appears at least 11 times.
There are numerous small little repetitions that seem inconsequential or minor and yet are conspicuous by their reappearances. The shoelaces. “Inside-out” sleeves on the arms or caught on the wrists (pp 64, 152, 160, 199,242, 310). “Slippery as compacted snow”
— an interesting description, for ‘compacted’ is not quite the word one would expect, but those three words are repeated in some form in at least 5 spots throughout. “When you first get hold of a telephone number, you always feel tempted to dial it at once.”
Reading that the first time produced a tiny note of recognition, so it stood out in its own very small way. Then it reappears at least 3 more times. There are the “kisses of the one who is leaving”
(p 18, 49, 300).“The mother believes she was born to be a mother and the spinster to be single, the murderer to be a murderer and the victim a victim, just as the leader believes that his steps led him from the very beginning to hold sway over other people’s wills…”
(P129). Later, p 228, “…we end up seeing our life in the light of the latest or most recent event, the mother believes that she was born to be a mother and the spinster to be single, the murderer to be a murderer and the victim a victim, and the adulteress an adulteress if she realizes, in the middle of an adulterous act, that she is dying…”
And again this shows up on p 288 with another slight variation.
I gradually realise that these echoes are carrying the novel, they are part of the structure, forming an intricate web. There are so many once they are noticed. They are breathing through the novel.
This was my first Marias novel, so I didn’t appreciate that this is his style. He discusses this technique in a wonderful interview in the Paris Review: “In my novels there is what I call a system of echoes or resonances. A sentence reappears, sometimes with a variation. I try not to make it just a repetition but an illumination of the previous occasion in which it appeared. If I foresee that something will be used again in the book, then I write the page where it appeared.”
(http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5680/the-art-of-fiction-no-190-javier-marias) I loved the intricacy and reverberations that result from this — reading the book becomes a more active and dynamic process. It engages the inner OCD, looking for all the echoes! He says, “If I close a book and there are no echoes, that is very frustrating. I like books that aren’t only witty or ingenious. I prefer something that leaves a resonance, an atmosphere behind.”
(That Paris Review interview is strewn with many similar pearls — highly recommended).
It is a demanding novel, but in a simple and direct way: “Give me your attention, pay attention, you will be rewarded.” In the Paris Review interview, Marias says, “ I try the reader’s patience on purpose but not gratuitously.”
The reward at the end is of a thundering cascade of echoes.
Thanks to Goodreads friends Fionnuala and Karen for recommending this book, I would never have discovered it otherwise.
This was one of the best books of the year.