Tuesday, July 31, 2007

F is for Fortune, the Ambiguous Skill

I have been back, for some time now, from reading The Dark Back of Time by Javier Marias--my 'holiday from the infinite'--but I only now find myself writing this piece. Why the delay? Was it the weather? Ill health? Ennui? Was it perhaps due to lack of exercise, or, one too many digestive biscuits with my tea? No, I believe the delay was due to my having neglected my diary.

My diary would be tedious reading to anyone; the recording, however, of mundane occurrences and thoughts, impressions and feelings of my uneventful life seems to help clear the thought processes of mental sediment; or perhaps it is more like a yoga for the mind, keeping the brain limber and flexible, working out the knots and tension that can build up due to the general anxiety and stress of living. More importantly perhaps, is that this record of facts, thoughts and impressions is an aide memoire, an attempt to preserve times' passage as it so quickly slips by us, day by day, month by month, until we find ourselves another year older, trying to remember the past, and our other past selves, which are now in the shadow of time, seen darkly through the anxiety of our forgetting.

James Boswell wrote a monthly essay for the London Magazine between 1777 and 1783 under the byline The Hypocondriak; in his essay No. 66 (March 1783), 'On Diaries,' he writes:

For my own part I have so long accustomed myself to write a diary, that when I omit it the day seems to be lost, though for the most part I put down nothing but immaterial facts which it can seem no purpose of any value to record. For instance, the diary of this day will be little more than that 'I sat quietly at home, and wrote The Hypocondriak, No. LXVI, On Diaries.'

Perhaps diaries attempt to trap lost time, memory, the past, the shadows and ghosts of the ifs and what might have beens which all seem to have a place in what Javier Marias calls 'the dark back of time,' a phrase he has adapted from The Tempest (1, ii, 38-50) ; this phrase and title of the book, appears, along with another Shakespeare adapted phrase from Othello, 'put out the light, and then put out the light,' throughout the text like leitmotifs, whose reappearances guide the narrative of this 'false novel' through the digressions and meditations on the ambiguities of death and meaning, identity and significance, fate and destiny.

It is a book born of a previous book, All Souls, published eight years prior, a book taken for a roman a clef by numerous readers. Marias in Dark Back of Time begins rather straightforwardly and at times humorously with the reactions to this book by the various Oxonians and Oxfordians, and even his students in Madrid, and then develops the narrative, weaving in digressions of more complexity and depth as he explores the multiple strands, both historical and imaginative, personal and fictitious:

It was after the book's publication in England that the tempo of events and coincidences and confirmations I hadn't sought began to accelerate, and it hasn't yet slowed and may never stop, and I sometimes have the feeling that you must be careful about what you make up and write down in books because occasionally it comes true. {Dark Back of Time- translated by Esther Allen (New York: New Directions, 2001) p. 248.

By having included in All Souls, his fictional novel set in Oxford, references to real people, the obscure and forgotten and perhaps ill-fated author John Gawsworth being central, it elicited responses from readers which created such ramifications that to this day, the life of Javier Marias is for ever changed; the most extraordinary being his inheritance of the Kingdom of Redonda because of his treatment of Gawsworth in the novel. In the Dark Back of Time he explores these responses and ramifications which are informed, however, by Marias' perception of life, a perception ultimately coloured by the experiences of his father, Julian Marias, a future Professor of Philosophy, slandered, traduced and informed against by a colleague to Franco's Regime. Marias gives us clues on page twenty-four, clues that hint at this view of life, a view which he clearly and finally states near the end of the book.

As a reader, I feel I did my part, and followed his elaborate narrative, his explorations of coincidences, "inchoate combinations," responses, curses and blessings, and yes, many deaths, so many deaths. The strange sad fate of Odon von Horvath in Paris; the bizarre death of Wilfred Ewert; the unusual life of Oloff De Wet; the death of his brother at the age of 3 1/2, a brother he never knew; the death of his mother, a friends suicide and numerous other deaths, all these stories and more creating a sense of fate, a perception of destiny, of seeing a figure in the carpet. But it is near the end of the book when Marias' perception of life, and death, is revealed:

Everything is so random and absurd, it's incomprehensible that we can grant any transcendence whatsoever to our birth or our existence or our death, determined by chance combinations as fickle and unpredictable as the voice of time when it has not yet gone by or been lost, when it is not yet ambiguous, when it is not yet even time, that voice we all know and hear murmuring as we move forward, or that is what we believe, because really it is the voice that moves forward; how can any importance be conceded to our fragile and insignificant passage which could so easily not have occurred because of a lie or some false testimony , or could indeed occur because of the excessive fancifulness and hatred of two of Franco's informers . . . who fabricated accusations that were finally too improbable and novelistic about the man who couldn't yet even dream of being my father . . . Yet all we can do is grant ridiculous importance to the products of these inchoate combinations, to each one and to our own--or rather, the one that we are--to those already obliterated and to those that are present, and even to those that are fictitious, if we don't want our passage through time to be entirely idiotic as well as fragile and insignificant. So we spend our lives pretending to be unique and chosen when in fact we're interchangeable, each the random outcome of a spin of the wheel of fortune at a dank, decrepit carnival. (p. 314-315)

Perhaps this is the source of my having neglected my diary and hence my delay in writing this piece. Perhaps I have been maundering about with these thoughts, spun around and set off-kilter onto a variant path or perception of life; such is the power of a book. I console myself by looking back upon having had the Duchess of Ontario visit our little bookshop on various occasions all without knowing of her title bestowed upon her by Javier Marias, an author unknown to me at the time, and my running up the street after her with a copy of a Laurence Sterne she was looking for, an author Marias admires and has translated, and it restores a sense of the interconnectedness of humans, and that can help me find, perhaps not meaning, but at least solace in the strange, and perhaps ambiguous nature, of fortune's wheel.

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