Taken to Heart
When a writer chooses to express something in a particular way, all the other approaches he might have chosen are usually encouraged to disappear in the hope of creating an atmosphere of authority and precision. Javier Marías, the masterly Spanish novelist, follows the opposite policy and, even after he has filled a descriptive vacancy, continues to interview other candidates for the job. The rival formulations turn up one after another, in sub-clauses that offer everything from subtle qualification to flat contradiction. Here is the narrator of “The Infatuations,” Marías’s new novel, contemplating the memory of Miguel and Luisa, the husband and wife she grew to think of as the Perfect Couple, if only on the thin basis of observing them have breakfast each morning in the same cafe:
“They became almost obligatory. No, that’s the wrong word for something that gives one pleasure and a sense of peace. Perhaps they became a superstition; but, no, that’s not it either. . . . ”
Marías has pointed out that the Latin root of the verb “to invent,” invenire, means to discover or find out. His special gift is to bring these two processes, inquiry and narration, into a conjunction, making things up as he discovers them and discovering them as he makes them up. He never works to a plan, and so his prose stays close to the thought processes of a writer working out what to say next and responding to what he has, perhaps mistakenly, just said. “The Infatuations” goes on to explore the narrator’s relationship with the widow and with the best friend of the murdered Miguel. At first he appears to have been killed by a stray madman. The plot, several times changing our perspective on the murder, works very well as a thriller, but it is essentially a pretext for advancing the skeptical worldview embodied by the style.
The very first sentence of “The Infatuations” is provisional, offering alternative versions of a central character’s name: “The last time I saw Miguel Desvern or Deverne was also the last time that his wife, Luisa, saw him. . . . ” Death is certain, but identity is not; even after it appears to have been sealed by death it continues to mutate in the treacherous memories of the living. People are not only made up of what they are, but also of what they are not, what they lack, what they might have been, wished they had been, are uncomfortable with having been, and so on; Marías invites all the ghosts to the table. His sentences often contain a tangle, or an explosion of tenses that do everything to undermine the majestic simplicity of the past, present and future in favor of remembered anticipation or fevered speculation. Here is the narrator imagining the calculations of a usurper:
“There’s still time for him to die tomorrow, which will be the yesterday of the day after tomorrow, assuming I’m alive then.”
This is of course not quite true: it will still be the yesterday of the day after tomorrow whether the person having this thought is alive or not — but it is typical of Marías’s method that bare facts are instantly colonized by subjectivity. In “Your Face Tomorrow,” the monumental trilogy that preceded “The Infatuations,” the narrator puts it this way: “Consciousness knows nothing of the law, and common sense neither interests nor concerns it, each consciousness has its own sense, and that very thin line is, in my experience, often blurred and, once it has disappeared, separates nothing.”
Marías’s punctuation tells the same story as his arguments: his long sentences, full of thoughts that other writers might separate with a paragraph break or a full stop, often run on, punctuated only by flimsy commas. Chapter breaks, conversely, appear to create a large gap between sentences that could have followed each other without a break. Both approaches play with the sense that the categories we take for granted have fragile or nonexistent borders. Marías also puts the thoughts of his characters in quotation marks, blurring the distinction between what is said and what is only thought. The main impact of this technique is to emphasize that thoughts are stories we are telling ourselves. Identity rests on the continuity provided by memory, and memory depends on turning experience into narrative. We remember our stories long after our sensations have disappeared. These stories are highly problematic in themselves, and even if we manage to make sense of anything, which is not very likely, our understanding takes place in the context of “the darkness that surrounds and encircles any narrative.”
Given his fascination with uncertainty — inherent uncertainty as well as copiously manufactured doubt — it is no surprise that Marías, after saying in The Paris Review that he could not countenance the radical inauthenticity of narrating one of his novels from a woman’s point of view, has a female narrator in “The Infatuations,” his next project. She is, thank God, called María: sharing the first five letters of the author’s last name may do something to muffle the scandal of the gender gap. Marías can say of María, without the affirmative baldness of Flaubert’s claim about Madame Bovary, “María, c’est presquemoi.” The narrator is almost the author, but not quite; just as her sentences have a stab at telling the truth but often, like Miguel’s murderer, have to strike again and again to achieve their objective. Precision is elusive and so is love. All the characters in “The Infatuations” are in a chain of romantic frustration, sleeping with substitutes for the person they really love, sketching relationships they hope to improve later on, if only by disposing of the person they imagine stands in their way. It’s true that there was once a Perfect Couple, but the narrator could observe them only from an idealizing distance, and the story begins only after one of them has been murdered.
Few things attract evil’s indignation more than a Perfect Couple, whether it’s Adam and Eve or Miguel and Luisa. The particular form of evil that preoccupies Marías in “The Infatuations” (as it did in “Your Face Tomorrow”) is envy turning into betrayal. The definition of “envidia,” or “envy,” in Covarrubias’s dictionary of 1611 is quoted three times in “The Infatuations” (the reappearance of the same blocks of prose is another signature effect of Marías’s novels: prose aspiring to the condition of music, bringing back a theme, not in a vague or allusive sense, but in exactly its original form): “Unfortunately, this poison is often engendered in the breasts of those who are and who we believe to be our closest friends, in whom we trust; they are far more dangerous than our declared enemies.”
“Macbeth,” Shakespeare’s most horrifying play, which provided the title for Marías’s earlier novel “A Heart So White,” also haunts his new one. Although “The Infatuations” is based on a murder and “A Heart So White” begins with the daughter of the house committing suicide during an elaborate lunch party, it is not that the atmosphere of Marías’s books is horrific, but rather that horror is their premise: in the beginning there was horror, now let’s think about it. “Macbeth” reminds us that Shakespeare did not draw fastidious distinctions between murder mysteries and high literature, and there is no reason for Marías to do so either. Murder turns narrators into detectives, and since novelists are essentially spies, why not have novels with spies in them?
As a meditation on crime and punishment, “The Infatuations” takes up a shifting position somewhere between leniency and despair. So many crimes go unpunished, it would be unjust to punish any particular one; on the other hand, so many minor crimes go punished even as murderous dictators like Franco die peacefully in their beds, it’s enough to make you despair; on the other hand — when it comes to “other hands,” in Marías’s case it is best to visualize a Hindu deity. The son of a philosopher, he shows a philosopher’s desire to clarify the way we think about things; he wants to communicate a mentality, not just a story:
“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 and infuses us with.”
Such a high level of reflection and digression (let’s not even get into the amount of literary allusion) might easily become too cerebral, but Marías’s powerful awareness of indecisiveness and delusion is born not only of a speculative frame of mind but of a penetrating empathy. At one point the narrator gives voice to Miguel’s bereaved possessions, the clothes hanging in his cupboard and the novel with the page turned down and the unfinished medication in the bathroom cabinet, to consider what they might make of his death. This feeling of emotional generosity tempers the literary thinking, as do the scenes of pure comedy, like the Oxford high-table dinner in Marías’s novel “All Souls,” with its Buñuel-like degeneration of absurd formality into violence and contempt. The narrator of “The Infatuations” works in publishing, and so most of the comedy in this novel is generated by her contact with vain, self-serving writers, especially the preposterous Garay Fontina, who is used to successfully extorting favors from María’s boss on the basis of the self-propagated rumor that he is about to win the Nobel Prize. One day he confidently asks María to send round two grams of cocaine so he can describe its color in his forthcoming novel. When she tells him that cocaine is white and that there’s no point in describing it because everyone knows what it looks like, he is withering:
“Are you telling me how I should write, María? Whether I should or should not use adjectives? What I should describe and what is superfluous? Are you trying to give lessons to Garay Fontina?”
Javier Marías himself is frequently mentioned as a potential winner of the Nobel Prize, and creating this caricature of an expectant laureate may have eased the boredom and the tension of the waiting room. Garay Fontina, at any rate, is well prepared for his summons to Stockholm: “I’ve memorized the speech I’m going to give to Carl Gustaf at the ceremony — in Swedish! He’ll be flabbergasted, it will be the most extraordinary thing he’s ever heard, and in his own language too, a language no one ever learns.”
Marías discovered his analytical and digressive style with his 1986 novel “The Man of Feeling.” The consistency of the style in the novels he has written since then, as well as the similarity of tone between his first-person narrators, and the countless connections between those books, means there is a high degree of unity to his later work. For established fans, “The Infatuations” will be another welcome shipment of Marías; for new readers it is as good a place to start as any. Whatever else we may think is going on when we read, we are choosing to spend time in an author’s company. In Javier Marías’s case this is a good decision; his mind is insightful, witty, sometimes startling, sometimes hilarious, and always intelligent.
EDWARD ST. AUBYN
The New York Times, Sunday Book Review, August 8, 2013