:: Article

Marías and Hitchcock

By Joseph Bullock.

 “I think Hitchcock was one of the most intellectual and profound filmmakers in history but he managed to disguise his depth, his intellectuality, in suspense stories”

– Javier Marias, New York Times (2014)

In A Companion to Javier Marías, David K. Herzberger writes that two particularly important concerns of Marías’ fiction are his “intertextual connections with other works of literature and film […] and the way in which storytelling lies at the heart of how we construct our understanding of the world”. Central to his novels is a search for a kind of understanding, and his anecdotal references to films help create a tone of casual investigation. He often uses cinema and individual films as cultural touchstones to delineate the ages and tastes of characters, and as artefacts that the narrator can appraise or reminisce about in a critical or even nostalgic way. And like his unpretentious yet thoughtful protagonists, Marías himself takes relish in popular cinema and literature, framing much of his fiction through the lens of detective stories and murder mysteries. Indeed, the words used as an epigraph for this piece could easily be altered and used to describe his own work. His writings are at once challenging, psychological, and highly suspenseful.

The opening of what is perhaps his most famous and acclaimed novel, A Heart so White, is a lucid description of the suicide of a girl, many years earlier, just after her marriage to the narrator’s father. The prose is meticulous, deliberately heightening haunting images such as a morsel of food that the girl’s father is still chewing when she is discovered or the “cold tap, which had been turned full on”. The design of this set-piece, this moment of stopped time, crucially evokes the romantic and tragic portrayal of victimhood in crime fiction. This event is clearly the impetus of the story, even if Juan, Marías’ protagonist, is characteristically ambivalent about the act of detection.

The novel’s opening phrase is indicative of the way Marías structures many of his books: “I did not want to know but I have since come to know”. This element of vagueness and distraction allows for the literary inflections of the texts—the long and essayistic meditations on the nature of truth—as well as the digressive reflections on popular culture and works of art. Despite the presence of films as diversions (though always enjoyable), I would like to argue that cinema is a constant spectre that looms heavily over his work. Films become not just cultural items that the narrators remember but also pluralistic symbols of memory itself.

For Alexis Grohmann, the references and extended deviations in Marías’ work connote a lineage of digressional literature descending from Cervantes and Laurence Sterne to more recent writers such as Italo Calvino and W.G. Sebald. Comparison with the latter is particularly apt, as Sebald is also deeply concerned with referencing film and literature as forms of cultural memory, a point we will return to, but the main focus of Grohmann’s essay in Digressions in European Literature, is to look at the role the digressive form plays in Marias’ actual approach to writing novels. Because he does not map out where the story will lead, narratively or thematically, digression becomes a much more natural part of the writing process, one which proceeds without a clear notion of which details will ultimately become pertinent.

Thus Bad Begins, Marías’ second most recent novel, reframes and expands upon the liminal but prescient nature of cinema in the text by firmly rooting the story within the Spanish film industry. The theme of discovery ties the acts of cinemagoing to the investigation of a dark past within the backdrop of fascist Spain. De Vere, the protagonist, is a young and low-level assistant, so the worlds of the past and of filmmaking are something for him to uncover, rather than explain.

After Muriel, De Vere’s director and mentor figure, asks him to follow an old, mysterious friend, he finds himself instead following Muriel’s wife on multiple occasions. On the first instance, he writes:

I don’t quite know why – perhaps it was the ivy-clad walls and the immaculate lawn – but I was reminded vaguely of the house in which Cary Grant both was and wasn’t kidnapped and held in North by Northwest and, at the same time, although very different and set in a different country – but then directors with real style leave their mark on everything and bring together apparent opposites – of the garden in the part of London where James Stewart went looking for Ambrose Chappell in The Man Who Knew Too Much, I had just seen both films at a Hitchcock season at the Filmoteca, to which Muriel had insisted on taking me – and to which I more than happily went – saying that you had to see his films over and over, because with each viewing you discovered and learned something new, something you hadn’t noticed before.

De Vere’s qualifying use of the word “quite” hints at the uncertain, retrospective nature of his narrational style. The association was made in the past but is tentatively questioned in the present, also subtly enforcing the idea of re-visitation that is noted by Muriel. Not only is De Vere’s past self discovering secrets of what has come before, but his older narrational voice is mediating and guiding these discoveries, accepting their mutability and possible inaccuracy. The merging of these tenses is a kind of distancing device that allows for the digressive potential of Marías’ intertextuality. By situating events as isolated from the present self, the function of the narrator widens to encompass any interests that could pertain to the character (or author) now.

What is digression is crucially also distraction. Although the aesthetic similarities between two of Hitchcock’s classic light adventure films are noted, De Vere’s incessant following of Muriel’s wife actually evokes the darker and more psychologically disturbing Vertigo, a film whose first act features long and dreamlike sequences of James Stewart pursuing Kim Novak. The similarities of the texts are heightened by Vertigo’s approximation of a first-person mode of storytelling, with Hitchcock using POV shots, as well as slow and intricate tracking shots, to mimic the investigative eye of Stewart’s Scotty.

Vertigo is a film defined by digression and, as such, is less taut than many of Hitchcock’s thrillers, leading to a rather mixed response when it was released in 1958. The plot is rather labyrinthine and silly, and yet, it presents to us some of the most lucid and emotionally effecting images in all of Hollywood cinema. Hitchcock’s fantastical camera movements and painterly compositions connote a near-fetishistic commitment to setting that is heightened by the extreme attention to mise-en-scène in the film. Importantly, a major plot point of the film is Scotty’s obsessive desire to get one woman to resemble another, buying her clothes in order to fit a certain ideal: the ideal of the past.

The pivotal scene of the film involves the success of this attempted re-creation—her emergence from a room under Scotty’s gaze. It is the emotional crescendo of the whole film, and, vitally, the image is drenched in an eerie and supernatural green haze bursting from a neon light outside. For Hitchcock, coupled with the fulfilment of desire is the gradual encroachment of the unreal; in constructing a memory, Scotty is enacting something that is inherently unreliable and in a sense, absurd.

The differences in Marías’ and Hitchcock’s perspective are numerous, with Hitchcock using a fog lens in order to falsify Scotty’s vision, subtly highlighting the illusory nature of his task. Like De Vere in Thus Bad Begins, he shows a reluctance to be drawn into his case, but he becomes obsessed with the act of following itself. Vertigo is a story of obsession, with Scotty becoming an increasingly psychologically disturbing character as a result. By contrast, De Vere is passive and benevolent, with his penchant for extended anecdotes and digressive, complex sentences providing a sense of detachment from the horrors at the heart of the story.

The ability to reference therefore alters our perspective of Marías’ narrational style. He consistently questions the concepts of eavesdropping or investigation but does not morally interrogate his own protagonists for doing these things. Instead, there is a great concern about the damage to the listener or the watcher. A Heart so White in particular emphasises the wish to avoid information. Marías’ characters anxiously consider whether or not knowing becomes a type of culpability, whereas Hitchcock’s characterisation of Scotty is that of a man who sacrifices this kind of consideration in favour of desire and manipulation. It is worth noting that the inciting events and broad narrative elements of Marías’ fiction are also frequently reminiscent of Hitchcock, like the ordinary man being dragged into extreme crime cases, and, of course, the extended scenes of voyeurism and pursuit.

Like still photography, film has often been described as having an ingrained quality evocative of memory. Vertigo evokes this through its striking and hallucinatory visual symbolism, but also through its use of repetition. Indeed, the haunting, fanatical ideal of moulding one woman to duplicate another becomes instantly recognisable to the audience as a form of recollection. Appropriately, we see the echoes of previous images throughout the film. Marías’ literary gaze is similarly hypersensitive, allowing for the impossibly detailed depictions of death in A Heart so White. In Thus Bad Begins, he is more explicitly conscious of the relationship between film and memory, tying images from reality (‘the ivy-clad walls’, etc) to his character’s faint remembrance of Hitchcock films.

The tentative claim of De Vere that he cannot “quite” remember why he is reminded of Hitchcock’s films, heightens our sense of the past as something mutable or subject to degradation. Within even the pleasant aspect of memory, be that in remembering a classic film or a friendship, there is always the subtle inverse of loss—the inability to ever “quite” remember something.

The melancholic quality of writings on photography and film can be traced back to Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, but also, to a certain extent, to  Walter Benjamin. Though less concerned with mortality than the others, he still shares the core idea that photography, by its very nature, captures something that immediately ceases to exist. It is also, he writes, a gateway into the so-called “optical unconscious”, presenting us with moments of vision that the eye does not comprehend. The photograph is therefore an alternate form of existence.

The earlier comparison to Sebald becomes more relevant here, as both he and Marías are continually fascinated with the photograph as a subject of melancholy, as well as a symbol of reminiscence and memory. A particularly distinctive episode in Sebald’s final novel Austerlitz involves the titular character describing his attempt to find the face of his mother in a Nazi propaganda film of a concentration camp. The procedural description of Austerlitz’s analysis of the film clip hauntingly affirms the futility of searching for a connection to the past.

A Heart so White explores this strange and disturbing notion when Marías writes: “it’s odd how the features of those who no longer see us and whom we can no longer see become blurred, out of anger or absence or attrition, or how they become usurped by their photographs fixed for ever on a particular day”. The isolated object of a single photograph is “odd” and dominant, ruling out or usurping the plurality of human experience. Thus, the constructed image in a Hitchcock film or a Marías novel has a distinct and dangerous strangeness simply due to its singularity: it is outlandishly and horrifically non-human.

The act of investigation and following gains a greater resonance when paired with Marías’ writing approach, as the ambiguous status of the followed person generates complex digressions into the possibilities of their lives. Setting frequently triggers thoughts and images of the past; therefore, tracing someone through a myriad of locations evokes the idea of uncovering memory in a very performative way. As with Sebald’s novel, the contemplation of the past is explored through action. To exist in a space is to continually gesture towards the past lives that may have also existed in the same place.

Vertigo traces the haunt of memory throughout its narrative, but it is Scotty’s attempt to reduce a woman to an aesthetic object that is his most disturbing action. Like photography, it is a form of artistry and perfectionism, but also restriction. Eventually, the areas of visitation that define the earlier parts of the film are revealed to be an elaborate hoax, largely artificial in their relation to Kim Novak’s character. Yet, Hitchcock’s indulgence in the psychological potential of the scenario allows him to consistently evoke an eerie sense of repetition. When Scotty kisses the woman that he has manipulated into a perfect copy, the camera circles round them, seamlessly transitioning to a setting that he had previously followed her to. For a brief moment, Stewart peers up, suggesting his recognition of this illusion — the fundamental horror of memory — but, he persists.

It is telling that Marías warns in a Paris Review interview of the dangers of writing “page five in preparation for page fifty”. By adopting a similarly unknowing role as his protagonists, digressions become a natural result of this harmony. Knowledge — like memory — becomes an often unreliable and unstable thing to embrace or to reject. The Hitchcockian dynamic of following gains a distinct functional purpose then, in that it is a generative means to create sequences that consistently deal with the theme of remembrance. As Hitchcock exposes, the pursuit frequently implies a routine: a relationship of pursued person and location that the pursuer does not understand. Thus, the structure itself is concerned with recollection and attempting to understand memory. And, it is only through the past that the narratives can progress.

Marías continues his statement by saying: “it is very likely that you’re revealing too much without meaning to”. It is clear why he is often considered as a partially autobiographical writer, as he is just as tentative in regard to knowledge as his protagonists are. To return, and to follow, are tools through which to facilitate digression, but there is also something uniquely dangerous about them. Marías’ protagonists are wary of this: they understand the haunt of the past, the dreadful step towards recreating it that Scotty takes. Hitchcock’s morally ambiguous characters cross a line that Marías’ never do, and De Vere’s evocation of Hitchcock is just what he suggests it to be: a memory. It is the dream of a life that is not his own: it is somehow more rooted in the past — more haunted.

Joseph Bullock is a Film and Literature student at the University of Warwick. He is an aspiring writer and critic who particularly enjoys classic Hollywood cinema and modernist poetry. He has previously been published in PN Review.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, August 28th, 2019.