A woman presses her ear to a door. On the other side, her lover and a strange man are talking. She has reason to suspect they’ve committed a murder, and realizes that it’s foolish to eavesdrop. What if she hears something conclusive, proof that her lover has killed someone? She’ll become a witness, responsible for what she knows. She’ll have to hide her knowledge from her lover. If he guesses that she knows, she may become a target. Yet she continues to listen, as any of us would. “The temptation,” she says, “is irresistible, even if we realize that it will do us no good. Especially when the process of knowing has already begun.”
The woman is María Dolz, the narrator of Javier Marías’s sprawling and spectacular new novel, The Infatuations. Marías is wildly successful in Spain, often called Spain’s greatest living writer, and critically venerated throughout Europe, but he remains relatively unknown to U.S. readers. Published in Spain in 2011, The Infatuations is a hefty and patience-requiring book that also seems capable of flying off the shelves. Marías has long been described as a cerebral writer, meaning that his prose showcases his intelligence, but also meaning that it satisfies a desire for sophistication thought to belong particularly to brainy readers. The opposite of cerebral, in this context, might be accessible, as we tend to call writing that aims for simplicity, which is a form of inclusiveness. This book, it turns out, is accessible. It hooks into a kind of desire that is all but ubiquitous. All men by nature desire to know, says Aristotle. To enjoy this book, and to get into trouble because of this book, all you have to be is curious.
This is in no small part because The Infatuations is a murder mystery. Who can resist a good one? We learn on the first page that a man has been stabbed to death. María Dolz happens to know this man. For years, she’s seen him and his wife at the café where they habitually breakfast. She admires their elegance and camaraderie and calls them, privately, the Perfect Couple. When she finds out that the man, Miguel Desvern, has been murdered, she approaches the woman to offer her condolences. Soon she’s invited to the couple’s home, where she meets the lush-lipped, enigmatic Javier Díaz-Varela, who was Desvern’s best friend. She becomes his lover, and their entanglement gradually sheds new light on the murder. The final plot twist begins by seeming so ludicrous as to be insulting and ends by being chillingly, thrillingly persuasive.
The image with which The Infatuations opens—a newspaper photo of Desvern “stabbed several times, with his shirt half off, and about to become a dead man”—is a glinting, unmistakable hook. Satisfying our curiosity about Desvern’s death—finding out how it was that his murderer attacked, how many times he was stabbed and in which parts of his body, how long he took to die—is a thoroughly pleasurable sensation. Of course, that’s the thing about murder mysteries: Unlike murders, they’re pleasurable, and they’re pleasurable because they’re safe. They provoke and then satisfy our desire to come face to face with the worst that could happen. At the same time, they reassure us that the only possible place for such an encounter is in a work of fiction. Close the book, and the danger goes away.
As we’re racing to find out the gory details of the stabbing, we are, of course, in the company of María Dolz, our narrator. It’s she who’s doing the investigating, Googling “Desvern murder” and scanning online newspapers. Dolz is in her late 30s and works at a publishing house in Madrid. She’s an acerbic, even supercilious narrator, prone to severe judgments of others, particularly of their sartorial choices. Good taste is the thing in the world that most impresses her. Whenever she thinks of the photo of the dying Desvern, “with his wounds on display …lying sprawled in the middle of the street in a pool of blood,” she’s disgusted and launches into a rant against people who enjoy consuming images of violence. Dolz takes a scalpel to these “disturbed individuals” fascinated by the tragedies of others and peels back their worldliness to expose their fear. She imagines their self-comforting thoughts: “The person I can see before me isn’t me, it’s someone else. It’s not me because I can see his face and it’s not mine. I can read his name in the papers and it’s not mine either, it’s not the same, not my name.” It’s hard to miss that the fear being exposed is our own.
Being dissected doesn’t feel safe, especially when the blade exposes something we didn’t know about ourselves. Late in the novel, we find Dolz listening to a story of someone’s horrendous misfortune. Her lover, Díaz-Varela, is telling the story, and Dolz, good taste gone to hell, is fascinated by its gruesomeness. But she doesn’t believe the story. Neither do we. For one thing, the suffering of the stricken person is too monstrous to be believed. For another, Díaz-Varela simply isn’t to be trusted. Realizing that Dolz doesn’t believe the story, Díaz-Varela makes no effort to prove its factuality. Instead, he tells her condescendingly, “Don’t worry, that particular [awful tragedy] is, fortunately, very infrequent and very rare. Nothing like that will happen to you… [It] would be too much of a coincidence.” We understand that he’s speaking not to Dolz but to us. What’s astonishing is the effect his words have. Condescending as his tone is, and baseless as his prognostication is (he can’t know, after all, what will or won’t happen to us), we are helplessly relieved by his words. Thank goodness, says the gut, in the split second before consciousness steps in. Thank goodness I don’t have to worry about it happening to me. Instantly, the story of the tragedy seems more plausible. It turns out that our former disbelief didn’t have much to do with a concern for truth. It was merely selfish, self-protective. For a frightening instant, we glimpse the current of denial on which we float toward death.
If this book were only a murder mystery with a hidden agenda—namely, to expose the messy nature of our relationship to the suffering of others—its project would be interesting enough. In fact, the novel’s scope is more diffuse and surprising than that. One of Marías’s hallmarks is a provocative plot, but another is the way in which plot turns out to be only a hanger for the great, luxuriant garment of his digressions. In this book, the action, crucial as it is, accounts for perhaps 10 percent of the page count. Scenes are rare. Interactions between characters, as well as movements of characters through space, exist to provide triggers—occasions for one character or another to launch into a meditation on human experience, or a response to a work of literature (Macbeth, The Three Musketeers), or a moral thought experiment.
While they’re discoursing, all the characters sound the same. It’s hard not to assume that the voice they share—sharp, erudite, capable of thinking in page-long sentences—is that of Marías himself. The tension of the narrative flags when plot falls away, and as we turn the pages, part of us is waiting for Marías to circle back to the action. Another part, though, forgets the action and becomes interested in the digression itself. We begin to wonder about our own thoughts on the topic Marías is exhausting. We want to know. This wanting to know isn’t curiosity, exactly, but a slower-burning interest; we can feed it as fuel to our patience. The real genius of this book is that it will make you shut the book, lean back in your chair, and consider an abstract and formidable question.
For example: the nature of time. Early in the book, Dolz attempts to console Desvern’s grieving widow, Luisa Alday, by reminding her that his suffering was very brief and is now over. Alday refuses to be comforted. “Yes, that’s what most people believe,” she says. “That what has happened should hurt us less than what is happening, or that things are somehow more bearable when they’re over… But that’s like believing that it’s less serious for someone to be dead than dying, which doesn’t really make much sense, does it? The most painful and irremediable thing is that the person has died; and the fact that the death is over and done with doesn’t mean that the person didn’t experience it.”
The metaphysical land mine here is the reminder that the past, like the present, is real. Think about this, and it will explode your notions of the passage of time. Day to day, we take for granted that we move forward. We’re preoccupied by the future, since we’re moving toward it, and we feel, or are told we should feel, the past drop away and recede behind us. But the past is still real, the way someone who’s far away is still real. It’s feasible that our sense of moving forward through time is only an illusion, attributable to the decay of our memories. If we cease to be haunted by our dead, it’s not because they are not real but because we have forgotten them.
Later in the book, Díaz-Varela contests what seems self-evident about our relationship to past events: that we are capable of regretting them. “What seems like a tragic anomaly today will be perceived as an inevitable and even desirable normality, given that it will have happened,” he says. “The force of events is so overwhelming that we all end up more or less accepting our story.” Surely we can all point to something in our past and say: This I have not accepted;this I regret. And yet it’s also true that everything that happens to us becomes part of our sense of ourselves.
Díaz-Varela invents an example, a man whose father was cruelly murdered in the Spanish Civil War. This imaginary man “is a victim of Spanish violence, a tragic orphan; that fact shapes and defines and determines him.” Had he not lost his father to violence, “he would be a different person, and he has no idea who that person would be. He can neither see nor imagine himself, he doesn’t know how he would have turned out, and how he would have got on with that living father, if he would have hated or loved him or felt quite indifferent, and, above all, he cannot imagine himself without that background of grief and rancor that has always accompanied him.” In a sense, we can’t wish that the past hadn’t happened, because if it hadn’t, a stranger would be standing in our shoes.
Díaz-Varela even claims we are incapable, after enough time has gone by, of missing our dead. “We can miss [them] safe in the knowledge that our proclaimed desires will never be granted,” he says, “and that there is no possible return, that [they] can no longer intervene in our existence.” Alday might counter that if missing a dead person feels safe, we are not actually missing them, but failing to confront the reality of their having died. Though her perceptions and Díaz-Varela’s seem opposed, they aren’t really incompatible. Each of them is arguing that the present is an overwhelming, all-consuming state. It’s simply that each of them is experiencing a different present. Alday is freshly bereaved, and it’s the nature of terrible grief that it feels as if it will last forever. Díaz-Varela’s cold peak of logic can only be reached in the absence of urgent emotion.
The title of this book suggests that urgent emotion is at its center—that the novel has something to teach us about what it’s like to be madly in love. In fact, the titular infatuations (“fallings-in-love” would be closer to the Spanish nounenamoramientos, but would make for an awkward title) are difficult to care about. Dolz is in love with Díaz-Varela; Díaz-Varela is in love with Alday. They exhibit warped behavior, as people in love do, but it’s hard to take their risk of pain seriously. Maybe it’s because infatuation is a physical crisis, and Marías does not trouble to locate the reader in an ardent body. Maybe it’s because he rarely allows his characters to experience conflict in scene.
Attempting to diagnose the problem, of course, implies that there is a problem—that the chief role of characters in fiction is to make us take their pain seriously. Marías wouldn’t agree. At one point in this book, Díaz-Varela claims that what actually happens in a novel “is the least of it … What matters are the possibilities and ideas.” Ideas are what Marías loves, what he works to make us take seriously. In a sense, his characters are themselves only digressions—subordinate to the idea at hand, a way of elaborating upon it.
Essayist Phillip Lopate has spoken eloquently of the digression as a formal prose technique. “The chief role of the digression,” he says (speaking of essays, not of fiction), “is to amass all the dimensions of understanding that the [writer] can accumulate by bringing in as many contexts as a problem or insight can sustain without overburdening it.” Marías’s characters serve exactly the same role. Perhaps The Infatuations is a novel that’s on the verge of being a personal essay. If there’s something unsatisfactory about the book, that’s it.
But forget the characters’ love affairs. The point of reading this book is to have a love affair with it, with the rambling, hubristic, magisterial project of it. If we think of prose itself as the surface of a book and of the ideas conveyed as its interior, then this book, like most infatuating things, possesses great surface beauty. Marías’s prose is graceful, rhythmic, and exact. His longtime translator, Margaret Jull Costa, does smart, elegant justice to his sentences. A description by Dolz of Díaz-Varela in mid-peroration perfectly describes how you’ll feel about Marías if this book succeeds in infatuating you. “While he continued to expatiate,” she says, “I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.”
NINA SCHOLOESSER TARANO
The New Inquiry, September 26, 2013
The Dead Should Not Return
Balzac’s Colonel Chabert serves as the back story for Javier Marías’ profoundly wrenching and philosophically complicated new novel, The Infatuations. In Balzac’s novella, published in 1832, a woman married to a military officer learns that he has been killed in battle. After ten years (because of numerous complications), during which time she has remarried, her first husband reappears, assuming that the passionate love he shared with his wife has remained intact. In Marías’ own novel, Javier Díaz-Varela refers to Balzac’s novel as he explains to Maria Dolz why he cannot marry her, “The worst thing that can happen to anyone, worse than death itself, and the worst thing one can make others do, is to return from the place from which no one returns, to come back to life at the wrong time, when you are no longer expected, when it’s too late and inappropriate, when the living have assumed you are over and done with and have continued or taken up their lives again, leaving no room for you at all.”
The much larger context is that Díaz-Varela is waiting to marry a recently widowed woman, whose husband he is certain will not return from the dead. Thus, María’s love for him cannot be reciprocated, as he patiently waits for Luisa to forget her recently deceased husband. María knew Luisa and her husband (Miguel) as the “perfect couple.” For several years she ate breakfast in the same café where they did every morning, observed their affections for one another without ever speaking a word to them. “The sight of them…calmed me,” she observes. They became her strength, as she began each day. Then one day, she learned from the news that Miguel has been brutally murdered on the street, killed by multiple knife wounds from a deranged, homeless man. When María puts the story together, she realizes that the last time she saw Miguel was the last time Luisa saw him, as they all departed from the café to go their separate ways on that fatal day.
María did not know the names of the couple from the café but learned them after the brutal murder. She continued to return to the place for breakfast, as Luisa eventually did after a brief hiatus, prompting María to approach the other woman and offer her condolences. María tells the widow that without knowing their names, she had though of them as “the perfect couple.” Luisa says that she and her husband had a name for María also: “the prudent young woman.” The conversation continues and Luisa invites María to visit her, which she does. It is there that she meets Javier Díaz-Varela, who is referred to as Miguel’s best friend. Somewhat later, María and Díaz-Varela meet accidentally and begin a rather casual sexual relationship. It’s no more than that because Díaz-Varela confesses that he has been in love with Luisa for years and is waiting for the woman to forget her husband. As he tells her, “Luisa’s present life has been destroyed, but not her future life. Think how much time she has left in which to move forward, she isn’t going to stay trapped in the moment, no one ever is, still less in the very worst moments, from which we always emerge, unless we’re sick in the head and feel justified by and even protected by our comfortable misery.”
There are lengthy discussions about mourning and recovering from the death of a loved one between Díaz-Varela and María, particularly painful because María is so attracted to him (and willing to have a relationship with him until sufficient time has passed for Luisa to forget Miguel, or so Díaz-Varela believes). The novel becomes more complicated when María fantasizes that perhaps Luisa will die one day soon and she’ll be able to marry Díaz-Varela. And then what has already been a dark narrative becomes much darker when María overhears Diaz-Varela speaking to another man about the way the two of them set up Miguel’s murder. Can she still be in love with him? She confesses to feelings of “utter incredulity and basic, unreflecting repugnance.” How can she love a murderer? When she doesn’t hear from him for a couple of weeks, she is both relieved and frustrated by her conflicted love for him. She is bothered by the possibility that her desire for him cancels out what she knows that he has done.
Then—in an absolutely brilliant series of revelations—Díaz-Varela calls her and asks her to come to his apartment, making the situation even more fraught with tension for María because she understands that her murderer/lover has figured out that she overheard the conversation about the murder. Is she going to her own death? If Díaz-Varela has been involved in a man’s death (his best friend’s no less), how easy is it to be involved in a second murder? Will he murder her so he can eventually marry Luisa? Miguel obviously cannot return from the dead as did Balzac’s Colonel Clabert. Will Miguel’s widow want to marry Díaz-Varela? What are María’s obligations to Luisa to prevent the woman from marrying her deceased husband’s murderer? Do strong infatuations cancel our ethical beliefs? At what stage do despicable acts cancel all feelings of love?
The discussions of love in The Infatuations (dazzlingly translated by Margaret Jull Costa) are riveting at the same time that they are horrifying, bordering on the grotesque. Do extreme infatuations destroy one’s moral center? Javier Marías keeps a few tricks up his sleeve for the last third of the novel, surprising both the reader as well as one of his main characters—but which one you will have to discover by reading this emotionally devastating account of crimes of passion. Or maybe they are crimes of infatuation.
No surprise that the novel has been a huge international success.
CHARLES R. LARSON
Counter Pounch, September 27, 2013
‘The Calculation of Probabilities by Which We Live’: Javier Marías ‘The Infatuations’
Spanish writer Javier Marías’s newest novel, The Infatuations —wonderfully translated by Margaret Jull Costa—is a heady, noir-tinged trip deep inside the consciousness of María Dolz, a book editor who finds herself dragged into the dangerous drama of a couple she is obsessively observes from afar. When the novel begins, María describes how she has come into the habit of watching Miguel and Luisa, “The Perfect Couple,” as she terms them, while she eats breakfast near them in a café. She quickly finds herself dependent on the couple’s presence for her happiness; she needs their stability and the perfection of their distance in order to bear the repetition of her own mundane life. One day, though, Miguel (whose surname alternates between Desvern and Deverne, starting in the very first clause of the novel: “The last time I saw Miguel Desvern or Deverne was also the last time his wife, Luisa, saw him”) is violently and apparently randomly killed, stabbed in the back by a “gorrilla,” a homeless man who helps park cars for tips. Soon after, with the sole source of contentedness in her life stripped away, María decides to speak to Luisa. Thus, she enters into the lives of those who were previously held in the hermetic space of the observed, and slowly learns the secrets behind Miguel’s death.
Marías’s novels are usually narrated by men, if not thinly veiled representations of the author himself. So one of the first things veteran Marías readers may notice about The Infatuations is that its narrator is a woman. In a Marías novel, the narrator is not only a point of view from which “the world” of the text is seen; it is “the world.” While thingshappen to María, the vast majority of the novel “takes place” in her head. She is constantly conjecturing and theorizing about the world around her, taking in experience and transforming it into thought, digression, and invention. These thoughts often take the form of “we” statements, a syntactic mode that dominates many of Marías’ novels. As María tries to understand the world and her place in it, she inevitably extends her interpretations to the actions and motivations of others. It is when the author’s familiar “we” becomes “we women” that the text sometimes produces a certain discomfort—not so much a cringe (the prose remains so smooth, each sentence so well crafted) as a slightly raised eyebrow, as if one is expecting (or hoping for) a misstep. When Marías writes “when a woman is in love and in the early stages of an affair […] she is usually capable of taking an interest in anything the object of her love is interested in or speaks about,” one can’t help but feel a bit uneasy.
But the “we” for most of the novel remains an amorphous grouped subjectivity, shorthand adopted by Marías to note that he will be speaking on experience, abstractly. The narrator of The Infatuations—even though she is a singular person named “María Dolz,” who acts uniquely, and is physically distinguished from the environment around her—ends up appearing as an amalgamated, multiple consciousness. The Infatuations functions not so much as a meta-narrative work—as one that couches stories-within-stories—as a meta-conscious work: it is a novel in which the deepest recesses of the consciousness of individuals are imagined in detail by others. Gaps in conversation are often filled by María’s guesses about what her companion may say next, branching off into entire imagined conversations. Almost an entire chapter is devoted to a conversation that she imagines happening between her lover, Javier Díaz-Varela, and Miguel, at some unknown time before he is murdered. (María’s relationship with Díaz-Varela develops after she meets him at Luisa’s apartment, and she immediately fashions him as a potential usurper of Luisa’s love and suspects that he is behind Miguel’s death). But this chapter, despite its conditional tense, does not appear any less “real” than most of the novel: one must constantly remind himself that what he is reading is an invention. The Infatuations is a novel of minds-within-minds, in which a person’s consciousness is essentially located within others’.
Though this mode of being in the world—one in which conjecture is essential to the individual, and relationships are a kind of probability-informed betting—appears exaggerated in Marías’s fiction, it is perhaps only the awareness of living-as-guesswork that the author pushes past “realistic” levels. It is not that the ways that people act inThe Infatuations is somehow “unrealistic”; rather, it is their awareness of the subtleties, possibilities, and meaning of their action that seems otherworldly. When something like Miguel’s death happens, something that does not “even have a place in the calculation of probabilities by which we live in order to get up each morning without a sinister, leaden cloud urging us to close our eyes again,” one is forced to confront the reality that they do live by approximation, that one determines the course of their lives based on “decisions” that are essentially bets, that human agency does exist but only within a system of play.
It’s hard to pull quotes from The Infatuations. Each of its complex clauses, each of its somehow tight yet sprawling sentences, feed off of what has come before and what will come after, lending the text an incredible expectancy and momentum. One is held in suspense not by the movement of plot points but by the thoughts and theories of the agents involved. The Infatuations seems at times like a collection of aphorisms—produced by María and those around her—bound together into an inexplicably interconnected whole, each formerly atomized thought drawn into a relationship with the myriad thoughts around it, at once multiplying and nullifying its capacity for meaning in itself. Marías’s sentences can occasionally roll on for pages at a time, and discrete ideas are often stretched to a breaking point by unstoppably curious and observant characters.
But beneath all of the cognitive work and theorization, there lurks in The Infatuations a visceral sadness. After the death of her husband, Luisa remarks, “What sense does it make that each person should have to experience more or less the same griefs and make more or less the same discoveries, and so on for eternity?” No matter how powerful our minds are, no matter how keen our ability to intuit, interpret, and prognosticate, there is no end to that process, no stable point at which one must no longer wonder about the world around him. It is only when Marías’s characters—those thinking machines, who relentlessly pursue truth and understanding, searching for predictability above all else—bump up against the unthinkable that they are able to stop imagining, however momentarily.
ZYZZYVA, September 9, 2013
In an interview with the Guardian earlier this year, the Spanish novelist Javier Marías objected to the rather well-worn idea of the novel as a vehicle for imparting knowledge. “For me,” he explained, “it is more a way of imparting recognition of things that you didn’t know you knew. You say ‘yes’. It feels true even though it might be uncomfortable.” The plots of his novels, insofar as they can be said to have any real plots at all, often hinge on the revelation of such truths. Someone hears something or learns something or is told something, and the knowledge they’ve acquired sets in motion what one character calls “the incessant beating of my thoughts.”
Rarely is this knowledge welcome. The opening words of Marías’s 1992 novel A Heart So White —“I did not want to know but I have since come to know”—betray a disposition shared by virtually all of his shadowy narrators. In the later Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, a cheating husband away on a business trip in London with this lover learns twenty hours after the fact that his wife has died suddenly and unexpectedly. The thought torments him, and toward the end of the novel he unburdens himself to the narrator (who, as it happens, was with his wife when she died). As he listens, the narrator reflects:
telling a story is tantamount to persuading someone or making oneself clear or making someone see one’s point of view and, that way, everything is capable of being understood, even the most vile of acts … we have to find a place for it in our consciousness and in our memory where the fact that it happened and that we know about it will not prevent us from going on living.
This largely internal process of trying to assimilate an incident or situation propels each of Marías’s novels. He is unique in his focus, not on the external facts of plot (his plots, when summarized, can often sound preposterous), but on the internal action those plots set in motion. As a character in his latest novel, The Infatuations, likes to remind us, it is not the plot of a novel that is important—what happens is so easily forgotten—but rather the “possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with.” What happens in a Marías novel is less important than what doesn’t happen—or what happens only in the overburdened minds of his characters. Their looping thoughts and reflections, expressed in Marías’s long sentences with their deferrals and digressions, equivocations and inquiries, constitute the real drama of this preternaturally gifted writer’s urgent fiction.
The narrator of The Infatuations is María Dolz, a disenchanted editor at a publishing house who takes her breakfast at the same café every morning, a habit she shares with a married couple whose outward displays of love and affection have become, for María, a necessary antidote to the monotony of her daily grind. She observes this perfect couple from afar—“the nicest thing about them was seeing how much they enjoyed each other’s company”—and though she doesn’t speak to them or approach them (on a single occasion they exchange nods of familiarity), the life-affirming delight of seeing them has become a necessary part of María’s otherwise tedious day.
As the novel opens, however, the unthinkable has happened: the husband, Miguel Deverne, has been brutally murdered, stabbed to death in broad daylight by a crazed man in what appears to be a case of mistaken identity (noir-like murders and acts of violence abound in Marías’s fiction). María, shocked by this senseless, violent act, follows the story until, inevitably, “the item vanished from the papers completely, as tends to happen with all news nowadays: people don’t want to know why something happened, only what happened.”
Months go by before María sees Deverne’s wife, Luisa, again and when she does she offers her condolences and is invited to drop by Luisa’s apartment. The revelation of the widow’s hopeless grieving and unshakeable conviction that she will never recover is a poignant example of what Marías has elsewhere called “narrative horror”: the disruption of the imagined, expected story of one’s life. In the third and final volume of Marías’s opus, Your Face Tomorrow, the narrator reflects: “it’s understandable really that people should hate knowledge and deny what is there before their eyes and prefer to know nothing and to repudiate the facts, that they should avoid the inoculation and the poison and push it away as soon as they see or feel it near . . .”
Luisa, though she obviously cannot deny what has happened, finds the horror that her husband’s death has injected into her life almost impossible to bear:
‘People say: “Concentrate on the good memories and not on the final one, think about how much you loved each other, think about all the wonderful times you enjoyed that others never have.” They mean well, but they don’t understand that all my memories are now soiled by that sad and bloody ending. Each time I recall something good, that final image rises up before me, the image of his cruel, stupid gratuitous death, which could so easily have been avoided. Yes, that’s what I find hardest to bear, the sheer stupidity of it and the lack of someone to blame. And so every good memory grows murky and turns bad. I don’t really have any good memories left. They all seem false to me. They’ve all been contaminated.
At Luisa’s apartment María meets one Javier Díaz-Varela, Deverne’s charming, womanizing best friend who now helps take care of Luisa and her two young children. María embarks on a love affair with Díaz-Varela despite knowing that her infatuation with him is not reciprocated. In fact, she realizes Díaz-Varela is merely waiting for Luisa to move on so that he can take the irreplaceable Deverne’s place. María imagines that something of this sort might have suited Deverne: for his best friend to become a kind of “unhusbandly husband,” to serve as a back-up father figure to the children and offer Luisa the reliability and comfort of a life partner, without any actual consummation of the relationship.
This gentlemen’s agreement is, as far as the reader is concerned, entirely a product of María’s imagination. Like her, we cannot now whether such an agreement or exchange ever took place. But there it is in María’s mind and on the page. It is the seed from which the remainder of the novel—that is, the remaining two hundred and fifty pages—sprouts toward its chilling conclusion. This growth is minutely charted: the rest of the novel is taken up almost entirely with conversations between María and Díaz-Varela—conversations that are more like monologues or lectures, delivered with glacial aplomb by Díaz-Varela while his temporary lover, infatuated, listens and reflects.
In common with all Marías’s narrators, María is an unusually perceptive observer: she seems constantly to be getting at the people she is listening to, reflecting on their word choices, their expressions, and their movements, changing and molding her impression of them. She imagines conversations they may or may not have had, thoughts they may or may not have thought. She’s like a novelist. “I had never thought anyone else’s thoughts before,” Luisa tells María, “it’s not my style, I lack imagination.” María, on the other hand, immerses herself in the minds of others. While listening to Luisa in her apartment she realizes: “I was the one who had spent most time over those borrowed thoughts, albeit incited or infected by her; it’s very risky imagining yourself into someone else’s mind, it’s sometimes hard to leave.”
This clandestine aspect of the narrative give’s the novel an extra layer of fictionality: the reader participates in María’s perception of Luisa, Deverne, and—most importantly—Díaz-Varela, which is to say that the reader participates in the creation of the novel’s characters. Our perception of them, and of their actions, is constantly changed and complicated, sometimes even contradicted. This perception is never resolved, just as our perception of people in real life never is or can be. For María, there is the added issue of Deverne’s death, about which she learns something that contradicts the official account. “Far worse than my grave suspicions and my possibly hasty conjectures was the burden of having two versions of events and not knowing which to believe,” she tells us. The true account does not necessarily efface the false:
You still heard it and, although it might be momentarily refuted by what comes afterwards, which contradicts it and gives the lie to it, its memory endures, as does our own credulity while we were listening, when, not knowing that it would be followed by a denial, we mistook it for the truth. Everything that has been said to us resonates and lingers, if not when we’re awake, then as we drift off to sleep or in our dreams, where the order of things doesn’t matter, and it remains there tossing and turning and pulsating as if it were someone who had been buried alive or perhaps a dead man who reappears because he didn’t actually die, either in Eylau or on the road back or having been hanged from a tree or something else.
The reference to Eylau comes from a novella by Balzac that Díaz-Varela compels María to read, the story of a French officer who is mistakenly thought to have died during a battle only to return many years later to reclaim his old life. Díaz-Varela says to María of this novella: “Fiction has the ability to show us what we don’t know and what doesn’t happen [...] it allows us to imagine the feelings of a dead man who finds himself obliged to come back, and shows us why the dead shouldn’t come back.”
María didn’t want to know but has since come to know something that may or may not be true. It doesn’t really matter, in the end, whether it is or isn’t—it has entered María’s consciousness and there it will remain in some form for good, true or false. “Anything anyone tells you becomes absorbed in you,” she says, “becomes part of your consciousness, even if you don’t believe it or know it never happened and that it’s pure invention, like novels and films.”
All of this is, of course, reflected in Marías’s prose, which curls toward and then away from certainties with a snakelike dexterity. His sentences, long and complex, are syntactically suspenseful; their meaning is deferred and complicated by the accumulation of clauses that qualify or contradict their predecessors. For Marías to write a short declarative sentence, one imagines, would be a violation of a style that, as the novelist Edward St. Aubyn wrote in his review of The Infatuations, is an embodiment of the author’s skeptical worldview. Of course, English-language readers are indebted to the great Margaret Jull Costa for her sublime rendering of this worldview. A serial translator of Marías’s fiction, Jull Costa must surely rank first and foremost among contemporary translators. As with W. G. Sebald, one is rarely conscious of reading a translation—such is the uncanny ability of Jull Costa to inhabit and transmit the author’s voice and style.
The Infatuations is on some level a murder mystery, but it is also, less obviously, an inquiry into the tenuousness of narrative and—even less obviously—a complex display of the inherent truthfulness of fiction. It shows us that fiction writing, consciously or not, is something we do out of necessity; we know so little and construct narratives in an attempt to make sense of our surroundings and our peers, all the while knowing that these narratives are, as María argues, full of “blind spots and contradictions and obscurities and mistakes, all surrounded and encircled by shadows or darkness, however hard they strive to be exhaustive and diaphanous, because they are incapable of achieving either of those qualities.”
Because fiction is, in this respect, so lifelike, it is the art form most ideally suited to capturing this facet of human existence and experience. Fiction eschews certainty and solidity just as human experience does—despite what we think and imagine and tell ourselves. “Everything becomes attenuated,” María says, “but it’s also true that nothing entirely disappears.” In other words even fiction, despite its being fiction, is not entirely false. Even a lie, if it is told, exists in the “hazy universe of narratives”—a universe in which Marías has created a world all his own. The Infatuations expands thematically and stylistically on the bold fictional project that began with the 1986 novella The Man of Feeling, but despite its continuity Marías continues to surprise and unsettle. Like his sentences, it is a project with no end in sight.
MORTEN HOI JENSEN
Music & Literature, September 3, 2013
‘Infatuations’ a mystery with existential questions
‘Everything becomes a narrative and sounds fictitious, even if it’s true,” thinks María Dolz, the central character in superstar Spanish novelist Javier Marías’ “The Infatuations,” his first since completing the “Your Face Tomorrow” trilogy in 2007.
The opening pages of the novel are taken up with a narrative — a pleasing one — that María tells herself morning after morning, year after year. Before work each day, she sits in a cafe, across the room from “the Perfect Couple.”
“The world is raggedy,” María thinks, but the Perfect Couple’s “brief, modest spectacle” gives her daily hope. She confides, “You could say I wished them the best in the world, as if they were characters in a novel or a film for whom one is rooting from the start …” They arecharacters in a novel, and María has already undercut her well wishes by telling us in Paragraph One that the man was stabbed to death in the street.
How María moves from her friendly feeling and couple crush to imagining the garish street scene becomes the immediate subject of the novel. “The Infatuations” is a murder mystery, but Javier Marías shrugs off the who-did-what-to-whom format soon enough in favor of existential questions.
As in other Marías novels, the stock plot seems like an excuse to set in motion a line of thought. His endlessly twisting and equivocating sentences are the real treat, as María goes deeper into the psychic burden of knowledge and confronts the contingencies that attach to a crime and its exposure.
In Marías’s telling, the very categories of guilt and innocence, thought and action, intent and fulfillment become as mysterious as a bloody body in the street. What is one’s role in the story of one’s life? Narrator? Instigator? Plaything of a master planner? How does everything connect? Are these connections real, or only in our minds?
Death is the supreme question mark, a provocation to the living. From the moment Miguel Desvern, the dead man, leaves his body, his own story is over. He shrinks and fades, becoming a catalyst for others’ stories.
María, who was only an observer while Miguel was alive, visits Luisa (Miguel’s wife), and begins an affair with Javier (Miguel’s friend, who is in love with Luisa). While Miguel is frozen where he fell, the survivors continue on, suffering “the awful power of the present” to crush and falsify the past.
As dodgy motives and suspicions pile up, Marías’s characters turn where the literary always turn: to books. Three works especially accrue meaning through repetition. Javier introduces María to Honoré de Balzac’s “Colonel Chabert,” a novella about a man who is declared dead on the battlefield. When the man, Colonel Chabert, returns, not as a ghost but as a live man, no one is happy. By undoing what is done, he disturbs the universe.
Another response to death, Macbeth’s line, “She should have died hereafter,” when he’s told in Act V that Lady Macbeth is dead, captures a recurring sentiment in “The Infatuations”: that death is always untimely (Marías, by the way, is a Spanish translator of Shakespeare).
Marías’ third literary mascot is Alexandre Dumas, from “The Three Musketeers,” with the line, “A murder, nothing more.”
Marías so effectively honors his source materials that a crime of passion or calculation begins to seem like an act of chance. The instigator who causes “a murder, nothing more” might have won the action in a raffle.
By the end of “The Infatuations,” Marías has branched far from simple questions of cause and consequence. Instead, he traces the crude force of an action once it’s begun and brilliantly dramatizes moral confusion.
Who has clean hands? Who qualifies to judge? What does one death matter, when everyone dies sometime and no one is innocent ever?
Marías’ brainy detection leads us to a standoff, what he calls a “hazy universe of narratives, with their blind spots and obscurities and mistakes, all surrounded and encircled by shadows or darkness.”
The Post and Courier, September 15, 2013
Spanish novelist explores ambiguities of murder
One of Spain’s most widely known novelists, Javier Marías, has another international bestseller out in English for U.S. consumption, titled “The Infatuations.”
The story is told by a female editor at a Madrid publishing house, María, who has breakfast every morning at the same café where a couple is always seen. María fixates on their happiness as a sign of hope in relationships. The couple notices her interests, but nothing is said between them and María.
The husband, on his 50th birthday, suddenly is murdered in a stabbing by a crazed man on a Madrid street, an event María learns about belatedly. When the widow resumes visits to the café, María speaks to her to offer condolences. The widow invites María to her house for a visit, revealing that her husband and her thought of her as “the prudent woman.”
While at the widow’s residence, María meets a friend of the couple, Javier. María eventually falls in love with him, despite Javier’s reputation for having multiple girlfriends and knowing Javier is deeply infatuated with the widow, Luisa.
Nothing should be revealed about the plot after this point except that María learns surreptitiously that Javier knows more about the murder than a family friend should.
From there, ambiguity takes over. The truth becomes blurred in María’s mind. The problem tests María and her “prudence.” It’s a fabulous story, but is it well told?
Marías’ unusual narrative style is challenging at first. Characters speak in long, deeply philosophical soliloquies about the nature of death and grief. It is almost a stream of consciousness, with single sentences running for more than a page sometimes. It seems highly unnatural. When the plot does move, however, the dialogue becomes normal with characters speaking directly to the point.
Marías, to his credit, deepens the novel’s appeal by setting up parallels for the philosophical points of death and grieving to Shakespeare, namely “Macbeth,” and to a short novel by Honoré de Balzac. Marías also makes fun, through María’s job, of the pretentious literary and publishing scene in Spain, even though that seems outside the novel’s main plot.
The novel itself succeeds in its treatments of its themes even though some loose ends remain.
The San Antonio Express-News, September 19, 2013