I’d been sceptical of Marias. His prose style -- with its endless circling, its repetitions, its pedantic tendency to descend into lists of attributes of the commonest things -- had sometimes felt ponderous, unconsciously comical. His narrators -- always fastidious, usually disengaged, or attempting to be so -- were men I felt I needed to argue with, to counter or check in some way. It wasn’t a tenable position. Even as I argued, my objections felt hollow. This writing was already under my skin. I’ve just finished reading Marias’s monumental novel Your Face Tomorrow (Tu rostro mañana 2002-7). Its three parts are a trilogy only in the sense that the manuscript seems to have been wrestled away from him occasionally and printed. It flows, in a bizarre, apparently meandering fashion, from the first of its 1500-odd pages to the last. What appears at first to be a static, almost inconsequential narration about a dull party hosted by a retired Oxford don, unfolds into an extraordinary story about violence, ethical choice, political power, history, memory, guilt, and sexuality. It’s formally extraordinary too -- single images or phrases, many of them apparently banal, are returned to again and again, picked away at like scabs, until they burst open to reveal unexpected significance. It is a painstaking, almost forensic process, in which there is often a surprising seam of comedy. Right now I can’t think of a British or American novel of the last ten years to touch it. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Elfriede Jelinek belongs to that select group of writers (Imre Kertész, Gao Xingjian and Herta Muller would be other recent examples) who remain relatively unknown to the English-language reading public, despite having been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Much of Jelinek’s work has yet to be translated, and even those of her novels which appear in English seem to have found few readers. This is a mystery to me, as she has all the makings of a cult figure a la Roberto Bolaño. Unlike Bolaño, who’s safely dead and available for mythologizing, Jelinek is still alive, if in seclusion because of her avowed "social phobia," which prevents her from engaging in most forms of public activity. Her 1980 novel Die Ausgesperrten (Wonderful Wonderful Times) was my book of 2009. The story of a group of nineteen-fifties Viennese teenagers who assault a man in a park, it’s a bleak and brutal tale, which skewers post-war Austria for what its author perceives as a kind of willful blindness to the fascist tendencies still at work in its society. I found the book remarkable for a particular tone, whose implications for my own writing I’ve yet to follow through. Jelinek’s characters are complex and compellingly drawn. She understands their desires and motivations, yet draws them without the slightest trace of sympathy. More than that – she eviscerates them without mercy. She is absolutely unforgiving of their many faults, their self-delusions, their pettiness. This gives a kind of doubleness to the writing. It’s simultaneously a broad (and sometimes very funny) satire and a piece of realism. Most satirists sacrifice realism; most realists deal in "sympathy," which draws the reader into collusion with the characters and offers some kind of explanation or excuse for their actions. Jelinek’s writing, even in English translation, is compressed, blunt. Her observations are frequently cruel. I don’t want to live in her world, but suspect that in fact I do. This is what makes her a great writer. More from A Year in Reading