The fundamental purpose of the literary critic is to incentivise his audience to read books of which he approves. He has two means at his disposal. The first of those means is the recommendation by virtue of excellence, which can be reduced to the basic formula ‘look at this, this is very good, to read this will give you pleasure, excite you, improve you.’
It is very difficult, when writing about Javier Marías, a man who can lay defensible claim to being the greatest novelist above ground, to resist the temptation to simply copy out a lengthy passage of his prose and ask the reader to look at that, rather than at your stilted attempts to convey how good it is through elaborations on the formula above. After several false starts to thispiece my resistance has waned, so here is a lengthy quote from the opening to A Heart so White:
‘I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl any more and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father’s gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the living room with other members of the family and three guests. When they heard the shot, some five minutes after the girl had left the table, her father didn’t get up at once, but stayed there for a few seconds, paralyzed, his mouth still full of food, not daring to chew or swallow, far less to spit the food out on to his plate; and when he finally did get up and run to the bathroom, those who followed him noticed that when he discovered the blood-splattered body of his daughter and clutched his head in his hands, he kept passing the mouthful of meat from one cheek to the other, still not knowing what to do with it.’
This passage reads like Proust doing telenovela. It is composed in a brittle, fractured prose style that privileges ambivalence and irresolution, while laying out an irresistibly intriguing melodrama. If you just read it for technique – look for example at the placement of the phrase ‘her father at the time’ – it is possible to mark Marías out as a writer of genius within 150 words, which is more than I can do. (An aside: if every writer were capable of expressing an entire literary sensibility in two sentences that double as introductory exposition then there would, indeed, be no need for criticism. Fortunately for this profession, most are not.)
Of the two means available to the critic, this first cajoling technique is the carrot. The stick, only wielded with regret, is coercion by threat of social exclusion. This isn’t really a legitimate critical technique, but could be summarised as ‘read this, or risk a social occasion at which everyone else is enjoined in passionate discussion about the book and you are unable to join in on the side of the beautiful, mysterious stranger for fear that your ignorance will be exposed.’
Nonetheless, Javier Marías is bound to win the Nobel Prize for Literature at some point, so it’s best to make sure that you’ve something to say when he does.
A Heart so White is arguably the best introduction, if you need one, to Marías, and it is for that reason that it is featured here. Its narrator is, like so many of the author’s protagonists, a professional translator, professionally trained in how to reveal, or conceal, meanings through choice of words. Ostensibly a novel about family, faith and love, it has at its heart a secret, the divulgence of which is the starting point for an extended investigation into the possibility, advisability even, of ever fully understanding another individual. It is a novel about the reservation from loved ones of certain parts of our personality and history, about what we choose to tell them.
It is a novel, in this sense, about how we use language, and the prose tracks this ambivalence about the purpose of language. We use complicated constructions of words to explain ourselves, but we also use them to shield ourselves from others, and every flirtatious sentence by Marías promises to reveal something before switching tack, embarking on a digression or skipping backwards or forwards. The prose stutters and spools, characterised by long sentences that trip lightly, seducing by suggestion.
Instead of direct revelation, Marías uses an indirect technique of feedbacks, loops and motifs to communicate the essence of things untold. The finishing stretch sees whole sections of earlier writing regurgitated without alteration, and as his characters seem sometimes to want to free themselves of the weight of their own stories and others’, so his language too feels ready to drift away from meaning towards music, but is never quite able to. Always it is pulled back to its mooring, a meaning, a secret.
The Spectator, 13 September 2012