Marta gone

Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me by Javier Marías 1994 (French title: Demain dans la bataille pense à moi. French translator: Alain Keruzoré.)

This month our Book Club had picked Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marías. It’s my second Marías after Todas las almas (Le Roman d’Oxford in French). I wasn’t enthralled by Todas Las Almas but I was intrigued by the blurb of Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me and I had heard so much good about Marías in the bloggosphere. So I was quite happy to start this novel.

Marias_DemainVíctor is a ghost writer and screenplay author. Tonight he has a date with Marta Téllez. They had met previously and flirted a bit, enough to meet again. Marta’s husband is away on business and as she doesn’t have a babysitter for her two-year old son Eugenio, she invites Víctor at her house. Eugenio doesn’t want to go to bed, the diner lasts longer than expected and it’s already late when Víctor and Marta start to have sex. They are hald-dressed, half-undressed when Marta feels unwell. She wants to rest, asks Víctor to stay with her but refuses than he calls a doctor. Her malaise doesn’t fade away and she dies quietly in Víctor’s arms. What to do? Víctor is not supposed to be in this apartment; calling for help would mean revealing Marta’s infidelity. What about the child? What about the husband?

Víctor chooses to leave the apartment without saying anything to anyone. He tries to erase the traces of his presence but leaves food and drink within Eugenio’s reach. The rest of the novel will disclose Víctor’s feelings after the event and the consequences of his leaving Marta and Eugenio on their own.

I’ve had ups and downs with this novel. The first chapter blew me away because of its style and its way to describe Marta’s death and Víctor’s reaction to it. Then I got bored in the chapter where Víctor meets the Only One, a prominent politician for whom he’s supposed to write a speech. I nearly abandoned the book after the chapter where Víctor recalls his night across Madrid in the company of a prostitute who looks like his ex-wife. I was interested again to see how things went with the Marta affair and I was totally blown away by the last chapter. Clearly, it’s a book for militants of the never-abandon-a-book committee.

Overall, Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me is a brilliant novel. The idea of Marta’s death in the arms of her fling is excellent. Marías muses about death, memories and what remains of us after we die. His style is proustish, if I may say so. He’s into long introspective sentences, lacy phrases and all kinds of digressions. Marías explores the same topics as Proust. Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me reminded me of a condensed and modern In Search of Lost Time.

Several moments, themes and characters brought me back to Proust. The narrators have things in common. It’s a first person narrative and Víctor is a second zone writer. His screenplays find a drawer more often than they reach a camera, his speeches are told by others. Like Proust’s narrator, he’s not a famous author but writing is his calling.

Then you have Eugenio who doesn’t want to leave his mother and go to bed while she socializes; that’s in Swann’s Way. Víctor digresses about the meaning of names; that’s in The Guermantes Way. The Only One, the politician reminded me of the ridiculous M. de Norpois; that’s in In The Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. Ruibérriz, Víctor’s friend reminded me of Bloch, mentioned in several volumes. The awful chapter where Víctor chases the image of his ex-wife Celia in a prostitute because Ruibérriz told him that acquaintances have reported that Celia became a prostitute sounds like The Captive and the narrator’s obsession about Albertine’s doings. Is Albertine cheating on the Narrator? Is she a lesbian? I think this volume of In Search of Lost Time is long, claustrophobic and rather unpleasant. The Narrator is not in his best behaviour and the same thing can be said about Víctor. The last chapter is a masterpiece, worth suffering the boring ones, just like Time Regained is worth suffering though The Captive (La Prisonnière) and The Sweet Cheat Gone (Albertine disparue), the volume where the Narrator grieves after Albertine’s unexpected death. I wonder if Marías wrote this novel with Proust in mind.

I love Proust but I’m not sure I love Marías. He’s excellent, thought-provoking and literary but I’m not in a rush to read another book by him. He lacks the irony that makes Proust funny and his style does not allow the plot to shine as it should. The plot and its conclusion are absolutely brilliant. I just wish it had been written by Philippe Djian, Pascal Garnier or Jean-Patrick Manchette, in other words by someone with a darker side and a wicked sense of humor. In my opinion, their style is a better fit for that kind of plot and it has enough depth to explore the feelings and turmoil generated by Marta’s death.

Now I’m curious to see what the other book club members thought about it and to read other reviews. So please leave links to yours in the comment section if you’ve reviewed it.

  1. August 26, 2014 at 10:23 pm

    Welcome back from the highway.

    I believe Marías always writes with Proust in mind, although I have not read a book of his that so closely parallels Proust’s big structure. How interesting.

    I am surprised by the lack of humor. Almost everything I have written about Marías is about his humor, which I have found to be a dominant feature, his irony sometimes overwhelming everything else. But I often find his plotting trite. I seem to be reading him backwards.

    What does “second zone reader” mean?

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    • August 28, 2014 at 9:02 pm

      I’m back on highway 69 (That’s Lyon’s department number)

      I’m the only one in the book club to see a parallel with Proust. Maybe it’s in my imagination.

      I’m not lucky with the Marias I picked, then. Le roman d’Oxford wasn’t funny either. Which one do you recommend, then?

      I think I wrote “second zone writer”. Am I not the only one with a bad case of jet lag? 🙂

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      • August 28, 2014 at 9:18 pm

        Oops, right, “writer.” What is a “second zone writer”?

        A difference is I remember All Souls as funny. More importantly, I remember it as comic – so maybe you don’t find the jokes funny, that’s a separate issue. The used bookshops, a lot of the academic stuff, the guest lecturer from Spain, who is a recurring character in Marías novels, all comedy, or comic in tone. Paging through what is available at Google books,I am coming across actual jokes.

        I recommend the All Souls / Dark Back of Time combination – you need the first for the second – but this recommendation may not be much help. Dark Back of Time is more like those middle chapters of Tomorrow in the Battle.

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  2. August 26, 2014 at 11:51 pm

    Yes, welcome back!

    One of the things I’ve most liked about Marias is what seems to be a relative indifference to plot, rather contrary to so much contemporary fiction. He conceives of a situation, an event, but it’s hardly what one could even call a plot. In the Your Face Tomorrow books, stretching to some 900 pages, only one thing happens in each of the three volumes.

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    • August 27, 2014 at 12:14 am

      I want to add that I too would be curious to see what other writers might do with the situation presented in Tomorrow in the Battle.

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    • August 28, 2014 at 9:05 pm

      I actually like books with a plot. Sure, an event every two pages like in Sara Paretsky is a bit too much but still, I enjoy when I can feel that the writer is going somewhere.
      Here Marias goes somewhere, but he doesn’t choose the shortest way.

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  3. August 27, 2014 at 3:11 am

    I’ll probably read this just because the premise is too good to pass up. One thing: I could see this too w/a very nasty dark humour but I’m guessing from the sounds of it that this is without humour. Tom brings up humour in the first comment but it’s truncated and I can’t read the comment in its entirety.

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    • August 27, 2014 at 5:11 am

      I thought this was quite a humorous book. Man goes to bed with stranger, finds that stranger has died in his bed. What to do? One could easily imagine this situation, with its comic potential amplified and exploited, in a play by Michael Frayn, or even Georges Feydeau or Arthur Schnitzler. With a different author or a different age, it could have lapsed into classic bedroom farce. Maybe it is bedroom farce at heart. I think Marias is interested in possibilities. He’s a realist, but one who wants to keep several balls in the air at once, who wants to take that basic situation and explore – comically and/or not – what might become of it, but who also won’t go straight for the crude joke.

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    • August 28, 2014 at 9:08 pm

      The idea is your kind of book, isn’t it? It’s mine too. Imagine what Duane S. could do with that.
      I didn’t see humour in it and I’ve read it in French. It’s not like I missed some subtle British inside joke while I was reading. The only chapter where there could be a slight hint of humour is the one with the politician and I thought it was boring. So maybe boredom clouded my vision of Marias’s brand of humour.

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  4. August 27, 2014 at 5:08 am

    Truncated! All that hard comment writing for nothing. I was just saying that usually Marías is quite funny.

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    • August 28, 2014 at 2:29 am

      Ok, thanks Tom. Well humour is sometimes hard to predict, so perhaps that explains why you fin the author funny whereas Emma did not.

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    • August 28, 2014 at 3:37 am

      I feel it is entirely possible that this particular novel is not funny – that I would agree with Emma – even if the author is usually funny.although I have my suspicions about the chapter where the narrator meets the politician. From a one sentence description, I smell satire.

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      • August 28, 2014 at 9:12 pm

        I think you may be right with the satire in this chapter. The problem is this chapter doesn’t fit well in the book, in my opinion.

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    • August 28, 2014 at 9:11 pm

      Oh come on, you can’t complain: you don’t have to prove you’re not a robot when you leave a comment here and worse, start thinking maybe you ARE a robot because you can’t decipher the letter you’re supposed to type. 🙂 And not once, but several times.

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  5. August 27, 2014 at 11:17 am

    I’m very interested to read of your ups and downs with this novel, Emma. I haven’t read Battle, but it’s in my ‘to-read’ pile as I fell for Marias in a big way last year with The Infatuations and A Heart So White. I love the meditative style of his prose, all those long looping sentences, the way he seems to blur the margins between thoughts and speech. The premise sounds so very intriguing…

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    • August 28, 2014 at 9:14 pm

      I think he has a wonderful style and that he will be read in the future. His prose is good enough to grant him immortality.

      Which one is the best between The Infatuations and A Heart So White?

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      • August 29, 2014 at 10:29 am

        I loved both, but A Heart So White is the better of the two. The Infatuations resonated with me on a personal level as I read it as a meditation on grief and morality (among other things). If you’re interested, there’s a review of The Infatuations at mine, but I read A Heart So White pre-blog.

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        • September 2, 2014 at 8:48 pm

          Thanks Jacqui,
          I’ll keep A Heart So White in mind. (I’ve already recommended it to someone who loved Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me)

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  6. August 27, 2014 at 10:37 pm

    I somehow never seem to get on board with Marias, and while I love the premise I’m not sure this will be the one that pushes me over the edge. Interesting that it came apart for you but then came together again so well at the end.

    Will you let us know what your book group made of it?

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    • August 28, 2014 at 9:27 pm

      We had our meeting yesterday night.

      So, we all found the prose breathtaking and loved his thoughts about time, remembrance, death and these fleeting thoughts that inhabit us and that we never fully grasp. His prose envelops you in a melody.

      We all had ups and downs with this novel and the two downs where the same chapters : the politician and the ex-wife.

      Victor is not a likable character. One of us even thought Victor was infuriating because of his passivity (To me, he’s a bit like the male character in The Wind-up Bird Chronicles) and his immorality. She thought that the characters were all fakes in the sense that none of them let their genuine self interact with the world. They play a game, are in disguise.

      The last chapter is definitely a masterpiece in its prose and the way it closes the book. The novel is longer than it should have been.

      On second thoughts, for me there’s a discrepancy between the premise of the book (it sounds like Noir and see how it appeals to Guy) and the style which is not the style a Noir writer would use.

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      • August 28, 2014 at 10:10 pm

        Thanks. I’m not ruling out Marias in my future, but if he is I don’t think this’ll be the one I start with.

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        • September 2, 2014 at 8:46 pm

          I think you’d like him and I’m sure curious to read what you’d write about this one.

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  7. leroyhunter
    September 2, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    I liked everything I’ve read by him so far (haven’t read this one), but I get what you mean that there’s a certain ambiguity about that enjoyment – there are times I feel my response could go either way. My next ones will be the All Souls / Dark Back of Time combo as suggested by Tom. I do think he is a comic writer, and serious about it.

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    • September 2, 2014 at 8:49 pm

      What’s your favourite one among the ones you’ve read?
      I enjoyed this one too, you know. Some passages were too long for me and too far from the main plot, that’s all.

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      • leroyhunter
        September 3, 2014 at 3:50 pm

        I read A Heart So White last year and thought it was very good. Otherwise have mostly read short stuff – and the curio which is Written Lives.

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  8. September 7, 2014 at 2:58 am

    Reblogged this on Gunnar Sewell.

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