Javier Marías – welcome to the funhouse
One of the books I dream of but will never write is a history of private jokes in the novel, a guide to all those concealed birthdays and vendettas. The book would be gigantic, and also an exercise in proving its own irrelevance –for in the end the only true way to read a novel is to dismiss the question of provenance: fiction is its own oddly impervious reality. There would be chapters on embedded quotations, or the names of friends– and one chapter specially reserved for the fiction of Javier Marías.
In a series of novels that includes The Man of Feeling (1986), All Souls (1988), A Heart So White (1992), Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (1994), the three-volume giant Your Face Tomorrow (completed in 2007) and now The Infatuations (first published last year as Los enamoramientos), Marías has constructed a suite of first-person narratives that delight in tricks of perspective. Nearly all his narrators share elements of his biography – from his previous jobs to his first name. His most extensive exploration of this game is Dark Back of Time (1998), which Marías once described as a “false novel”. It was published between Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Meand the first volume of Your Face Tomorrow, and its inside-out form is like a mini funhouse mirror, splintering the novels before and after it into loopy refractions. It is the only one of his books explicitly narrated by “Javier Marías”, and its surface charm is the true story it tells – about how Marías came to “inherit” the minuscule kingdom of Redonda. But its deeper interest lies in the series of digressive stories he includes – many of which concern the strangely literal ways in which friends and strangers read his books, as systems of private messages and portraits. And the reason for this exploded experiment, I think, is very simple: the more the border between the fictional and the real is emphasized, the more its irrelevance is stressed. “What I present to the reader comes from my experience and from what I have invented, but it has all been filtered by literature”, Marías once told the Paris Review. “That is what matters: the filter.”
And Marías, of course, is right. So that when one of the recalcitrant readers in Dark Back of Time, Professor Francisco Rico, the distinguished scholar and editor of Cervantes –who was first disguised as Professor Del Diestro in All Souls, then as Professor Villalobos in A Heart So White– appears in The Infatuations in the guise of himself, his presence is another warning to the literal reader. As soon as you exist in a novel you are no longer yourself, not even if you keep your own name.
The Infatuations is narrated by a woman called María (even with a switch of gender, a Marías narrator is still an abbreviated pun on her inventor). She becomes attached to a couple who, like her, go every day to a café before work. She never talks to them, just observes. And the plot begins when the husband, Miguel Desvern, is found stabbed to death by a tramp in the street. The next time María sees Desvern’s wife, Luisa, she is moved to tell her how sad the news has made her: they always seemed, she says, the model couple. Luisa invites María home, where she meets Javier Díaz-Varela, a friend of the Desverns (and also, briefly, Professor Rico); some time later María encounters Díaz-Varela by chance again and they begin an affair, in the course of which she discovers –or does not discover, because nothing is ever quite certain– a plot behind the dead man’s murder.
It looks like both a love story and a murder mystery, but the surface plot is never the true plot. A plot is just a toy for thinking, and all of Marías’s narrators –so often experts in other people’s words, whether as ghost writer, translator, spy, singer or, like María, a publisher– are mavens of conjecture. María confidently describes imaginary conversations between characters she has just met, or never met, or ascribes imaginary motives to them. The author has often noted the influence of Henry James on his snaking sentences (which have been translated with gorgeous consistency across his oeuvre by Margaret Jull Costa) but the real larceny is much grander. He has borrowed James’s “supersubtle” narrators and observers, who “convert the very pulses of the air into revelations”. And he has also inherited James’s luminous belief in art, the belief he once famously explained to H. G. Wells: “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance”. Even the most lurid events, according to this theory, achieve their true form through imagination, and this is the philosophy of Marías’s constructions. His plots are based on sensational desires – and these desires only exist through a web of recondite, elegant thinking. One of Marías’s discoveries has been to reveal the B-movie and the self-reflective novel as twin aspects of the same thing.
This makes for a reading experience that is sometimes urbanely sensual –one of María’s most brilliant riffs in the novel is an expanded meditation on the various implications of appearing with or without a bra in front of a stranger– and sometimes abstractly philosophical; or, maybe more precisely, sensual and philosophical, simultaneously. For the real pleasure is in the strange things his narrators do to the business of narration. Marías has discovered a unique form – even if he himself might deny the possibility of uniqueness in literature. He has a fastidious dislike of originality. In an essay he once wrote in praise of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, he admitted that he did not believe in the idea of literary progress. For everything in literature, he argued, exists in a state of timelessness: “Old and new texts breathe in unison, so much so that one wonders sometimes if everything that has ever been written is not simply the same drop of water falling on the same stone, and if, perhaps, the only thing that really changes is the language of each age”. But Marías is original; he cannot help it. And this originality derives from these ghostly first-person narrators, who possess an unusually double talent: for digression and transition. In a recent book of conversations, the composer Thomas Adès quoted Morton Feldman’s aphorism on Beethoven: “it’s not so much how he gets into things that’s interesting, it’s how he gets out of them”. And this is also true of Marías. Like Beethoven, he is a brilliant escape artist. His narrators can drift for giant lengths, and yet still re-emerge, calmly, on to the same stage, transformed by their reflections.
The problem is that –like so many novelistic techniques– Marías’s acrobatics between paragraphs or chapters can only be coarsely paraphrased. There is one swarming sequence inThe Infatuations in which María’s lover Díaz-Varela describes the plot of Balzac’s novella Colonel Chabert –the story of a man who is mistakenly buried after the Battle of Eylau. Years later, Chabert returns to Paris to reclaim his former life. But his wife does not want him back. She has moved on; her old self is dead. It is a realist story that is also a ghost story. Díaz-Varela tells this story at a length that seems entirely disproportionate within the novel, a disproportion made all the more exorbitant when María herself then reads the novella, and notices a mistranslation by Díaz-Varela– prompting a new cadenza, which lasts for several pages, about whether there is “a difference between preparing someone for their early ruin and death and killing them outright”. And yet, simultaneously, the reader is entering, unaware, one of the novel’s deep preoccupations.
Marías manages to convert the expectation that very little will ever happen in his novels into his own brand of suspense. The real meaning seeps through his narrator’s stalled hesitations and digressions. The melody emerges from the harmonies, and vice versa. He loves to let his plots hang suspended, the present moment of narration an absence, described through its anticipation and recollection. All his novels are experiments in time frames. Time is his basic subject. So many of his characters are “beings not made for time, for whom the very notion of time and its passing is a grievance”, as Marías wrote in All Souls. And this is true of his new protagonist, too.
Early in her affair with Díaz-Varela, María considers the humiliations a lover is happy to suffer when considering her beloved:
“When we get caught in the spider’s web, we fantasize endlessly and, at the same time, make do with the tiniest crumb, with hearing him, smelling him, glimpsing him, sensing his presence, knowing that he is still on our horizon, from which he has not entirely vanished, and that we cannot yet see, in the distance, the dust from his fleeing feet.”
Much later, after the affair is over, she meets Díaz-Varela again, and once again conjures the same image. But this time, her sentence is interrupted by two new phrases:
“It’s true that when we get caught in the spider’s web – between the first chance event and the second – we fantasize endlessly and are, at the same time, willing to make do with the tiniest crumb, with hearing him – as if he were the time itself that exists between those two chance events – smelling him, glimpsing him, sensing his presence …”
Her thinking about love has become contaminated or deepened by her thinking about death. Díaz-Varela once told her that Desvern had few qualms about dying –since both birth and death are random events: “We don’t object to our date of birth, so why object to our date of death, which is just as much a matter of chance”. This is the conversation she now distantly remembers, and it represents the final pattern of the novel. Everyone, in the end, will disappear– however lingeringly, or slowly. Not even memory will survive, not even love. That is what the murder plot investigates, through the intricacy of María’s thinking.
Even here there is a private joke. In his essay on The Leopard, which he admiringly described as a study in mortality, Marías quoted the novel’s famous ball scene, in which Don Fabrizio watches the couples dancing: “his disgust gave way to compassion for all these ephemeral beings out to enjoy the tiny ray of light granted them between two shades, before the cradle, after the last spasms”. María’s phrase about the time between “the first chance event and the second” is the author’s private homage –and therefore another test of the abstract reader. Only the filter matters, after all. In The Infatuations the phrase has multiple ramifications. Those “two chance events” are birth and death, or the birth of desire and the death of desire– but they are also, in the end, very simply, María’s two chance meetings with two separate couples that open and close the novel. All the clues the reader needs are already there, on this noirish novel’s uniquely luminous surface.
The Times Literary Supplement, 6 March 2013
A café in Madrid. From her table across the room a solitary woman watches an attractive couple share breakfast morning after morning and speculates pleasurably about their relationship. One day they fail to appear and as time passes she feels a deepening sense of loss. Later she learns that the man has been murdered, stabbed to death in the street — an apparently senseless crime.
The tragedy of the happy couple touches and disturbs her. Then, almost accidentally, she finds herself becoming involved with the widow and the dead man’s best friend. At first all is straightforward: loss, grieving, consolation. Gradually the relationship becomes more complex: she begins an affair with the friend, recognising that she is little more than a stopgap in his life. And so things continue, until, at a certain point a remark overheard, an ominous hint, sets up unease and leaves her floundering. Nothing is quite as it seems — but how could it be? We’re in Javier Marías territory. This is a novelist who doesn’t deal in the straightforward; his narratives are serpentine, his vocabulary one of ambiguity, his landscape a place of shadows.
The Infatuations is a metaphysical exploration masquerading as a murder mystery. The narrator, the widow and the best friend spend much of the book engaged in conversation, or imagined conversation, or recollected conversation, living simultaneously in a past both real and fantasy, tinged with nostalgia and regret, and a future imbued with suspicion and impossible hopes. The truth is slippery. There is action: but the killing will have taken place in the past, as will the love-making. Head-clutching stuff, but quietly addictive.
Marías is a wolf in sheep’s clothing: his ostensible subjects look seductively mainstream: his 1,600-page trilogy Your Face Tomorrow reads like Proust re-imagined by Le Carré — spying, adultery, betrayal, sex and violence. But these are devious means to other ends. Calm, labyrinthine sentences last for pages; an authorial pause button can freeze a violent act while an examination of treason or loyalty runs its course, and the action is resumed.
His novels (13 so far) have brought him prizes and an international following. There is talk of the Nobel. In Spain he spans the worlds of literature and academe, while writing a popular weekly column in El País. He has translated Shakespeare, Nabokov and Faulkner, and his past includes a spell at Oxford, lecturing on translation, an experience which inspired his novel All Souls. He followed it with A Heart so White, which won the 1992 Dublin IMPAC prize.
While critics have invoked Proust and Henry James in reviews of previous books, Marías himself claims Sterne as a major influence — he translated The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy into Spanish, and his own playfulness and tantalising side-trips are very Shandyesque, though the sinister, disturbing undertones and occasional casual violence are all his own.
At several points in The Infatuations, the male protagonist recounts snatches of a Balzac story. When the narrator asks how it ended; what happened? he replies:
It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us… Fiction has the ability to show us what we don’t know and what doesn’t happen.
Between the interstices of the fragile plot of The Infatuations are disquisitions on life and death, freedom, the consequences of love, the impossibility of ever knowing another, and the role of fiction. Marías’s books generally feature a narrator who observes the scene without necessarily understanding everything. Translation enters repeatedly into his narratives, and Margaret Jull Costa, who has provided superb translations for most of his books, including this one, says he’s like Paul Klee who claimed he ‘took a line for a walk’: Marías, she says, ‘takes a thought for a walk. He makes us think.’
Along the way we get his immaculate prose and his sardonic view of the implacable nature of time — what Larkin called the long perspectives open at each instant of our lives.
The Spectator, 9 March 2013
The only certainties in life are generally held to be death and taxes. But in this metafictional murder mystery by acclaimed Spanish author Javier Marias even the dead can’t be taken for granted.
The victim in this novel is wealthy businessman Miguel Desvern. For years, narrator Maria has taken pleasure in the sight of Miguel and his wife, Luisa, breakfasting together at the café that she too frequents. In her mind they are the perfect couple – but one day a deranged homeless man stabs Miguel to death in the street.
In the aftermath of this apparently random killing, Maria visits Miguel’s grief-stricken widow, subsequently meeting Javier, a friend of the murdered man, with whom she is instantly smitten. But Javier is infatuated with the mourning Luisa, and soon Maria is entangled in a plot so strange that even she finds it hard to credit.
‘Our convictions are transient and fragile,’ Maria imagines Javier saying. ‘It’s the same with our feelings. We shouldn’t trust ourselves.’ Wise words, it turns out. As Maria attempts to reconstruct events, she realizes how hard it is to know the truth – as, increasingly, do we.
Plotted with tremendous skill and elegance, this cerebral tale is entirely absorbing.
Dailymail Online, 7 March 2013
Even if your idea of a good time isn’t reading an emotionally complex and intellectually subtle novel that takes the tragic powers of love as its subject, and that nearly hums with latent erotic energy and mystery (and if that isn’t your idea of a good time, then you’re a miserable so-and-so), I would still recommend reading Javier Marias’s latest book, The Infatuations.
Before I try to back that up, a question: what is a romantic writer? Is it someone whose prose favours feeling over thought? Is it a writer unconcerned with theoretical questions, whose greatest ambition is to move the reader? I’m not sure. Probably the question requires hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of meticulous argumentation from a team of only the most prestigious and erudite of scholars to be answered. All the same, I’m going to go ahead and say that Marias is amongst the most romantic of contemporary novelists. Love and death, those evergreen sources of sublime literary material, are his bread and butter.
The Infatuations runs deep. The story –of a woman who falls in love with a man after an improbable and gruesome murder– is the sort of thing a more conventional writer might deal with in a novella. There are only a handful of characters, connected via a web of relationships that forms following the death of Miguel Desvern, a handsome and charming Madrileño. Marias probes leisurely and delicately at the thoughts and feelings of each. Never rushing, he teases out allusions and possibilities. Secrets abound. Marias knows how to cater for doubt and curiosity, and to engage the intelligence as well as the emotions of his readers.
The Infatuations is a holistic and atomic examination of the behaviour of those citizens that Marias takes to be the most dangerous members of society: people in love.
Readings, 21 February 2013