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In Javier Marias’ The Infatuations, all is not what it seems

Is adultery a kind of murder that causes ex-spouses and old lovers to be expunged from our lives, as if they’d never existed? Are novelists akin to rogue detectives or perhaps morticians, possessed with godlike powers: creating make-believe people, killing them off, then exhuming their corpses for clues about their character?

These unsettling thoughts may creep up on you as you read “The Infatuations”,  the precise, haunting new novel by Spanish author Javier Marías.

Asymmetrical love affairs, sudden (often violent) death, the wobbly nature of identity and the curious link between the fictions we read (or write) and the shaky narratives we fabricate from our own lives are the recurrent fixations of this witty, urbane and acutely perceptive writer. Superficially, “The Infatuations” is a romantic fable inside a crime story, focused on a thirtysomething Madrid single, Maria, who may be a namesake for the author. (Or is it, with a nod to Borges and Cervantes, the other way around?)

For reasons she herself never wholly fathoms, Maria becomes obsessed with a seemingly blissful wife and husband, Luisa and Miguel. Initially, she knows them only as the mysterious Perfect Couple — affluent, attractive, manifestly in love — who breakfast every morning at her favorite cafe.

But Maria, who works in book publishing and possesses an exceptionally active imagination, embroiders elaborate mental fictions about Luisa and Miguel. (She reads people like books, almost literally.) The couple, in turn, are making playful conjectures about Maria, whom they’d dubbed the Prudent Young Woman.

Yet the novel’s strategy is to reveal these roiling thoughts for what they mostly are: stories we invent to snatch at what Melville called “the ungraspable phantom of life.” Through interlacing internal monologues, the novel switches seamlessly between the minimal action that occurs, which may or may not jibe with its characters’ fantasies, projections and rationalizations about what occurs.

“When someone tells us something, it always seems like a fiction, because we don’t know the story at first hand and can’t be sure it happened,” goes one such musing of Maria’s. “… It forms part of the hazy universe of narratives, with their blind spots and contradictions and obscurities and mistakes.”

Maria’s psychological stalking takes a shocking turn when Miguel is brutally murdered. In the tragedy’s aftermath, Maria and Luisa become acquainted. Maria also gets introduced to a previously off-stage character hovering in the shadows of Miguel and Luisa’s picture-perfect life: Miguel’s best friend, Javier Díaz-Varela, described in Maria’s shrewdly ironic first-person voice as “a very calm fellow … virile and handsome” and clean-shaven but with “a hint of beard, a slight bluish shadow … like that of a comic-book hero.”

As Maria’s involvement with Javier deepens, Marías draws his readers into a labyrinth of tenuous beliefs and tantalizing speculations, threaded with resonant literary allusions (“Macbeth”, “The Three Musketeers”, Balzac’s “Le Colonel Chabert”). Dialogue and plot frequently pause for paragraphs, even pages, to make way for the characters’ inner soliloquies.

These digressions, despite their occasional  longueurs, are an essential component of Marías’ self-consciously literary sensibility, well-rendered in Margaret Jull Costa’s excellent translation (although her handful of British-isms — “wide boy” for wheeler-dealer, “grassing” for snitching — may land flat on some North American ears).

But Marías also undercuts the idea that literature can serve as a conduit to enlightenment rather than as merely another veil of uncertainty. One of the novel’s secondary characters is a pompous author, so vain that he has already written out his Nobel Prize acceptance speech — in Swedish.

Masquerading as melodrama, “The Infatuations” gradually unmasks itself as a philosophical crime-scene investigation, in which Marías’ scalpel-like prose and microscopic observations lay bare the fragmented, indeterminate nature not only of our most intimate relationships but of everything we think we know about why we behave as we do.

All is contingency in Marías’ cool, clear-eyed worldview. By savoring obscure motives and absurd turns of fate, he dispels facile explanations of why people commit extreme acts of love, anger, mercy, betrayal. His slippery prose keeps his readers struggling for mental traction.

The author’s work, including “All Souls” (1989), “A Heart So White” (1992) and “Dark Back of Time” (1998), has been compared with Paul Auster’s existential whodunits. His literary gamesmanship evokes verbal puzzle-makers like Borges, and his ingenious chessboard plots bring to mind the 20th century’s grand-master strategist, Vladimir Nabokov.

Yet his style is uniquely his own as are the discoveries he makes while rummaging around in the basement of the human heart. His readers needn’t shun the dark corners: Marías’ trembling lantern is at hand.

REED JOHNSON

Los Angeles Times, August 16, 2013

A tinge of blood
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Reading Javier Marías is like a conversation that you didn’t want to have. But the speaker is so elegant, so puissant beneath his Old World clothes, so innocently macho with all his philosophical conundrums, that you let him talk. You let him tell you things you wish you’d never heard. He could be the devil himself but for something generous in his address, a focus outside himself. He is not dangerous. And yet his sobriety—a sobriety that sits unmoved amid endlessly unfurling sentences, sentences that in any other writer’s hands might foam into frantic sub-Dostoevskian ranting—betrays lethal knowledge. Or lethal tastes, at least, an aficionado’s relish for gore, for poise, for heroism. Beneath the dilating, open-ended, inquisitive, and self-contradicting sentences there may even be a boyish eagerness.

It is characteristic that in the perennial Nobel candidate’s latest novel, The Infatuations, the three works constantly alluded to are The Three MusketeersMacbeth, and Balzac’s Colonel Chabert. These three works are chosen for precise thematic reasons, but if you are new to Marías, pause just for a moment to consider how dashing these works are, how prone to mustaches and passementerie, how almost camp their idea of evil is.

The unspoken romance at the heart of Marías’s work is the recuperation of old-fashioned adventure within perfectly serious, cerebral contemporary fiction. This has been true since the Spanish author’s breakthrough novel, A Heart So White (1992), and certainly applies to the monumentally satisfying Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (2002–07), a combination spy thriller–modernist masterpiece. As Marías himself has admitted, the action in his books often comes to a complete stop, and whole chapters are filled up with nothing but what he calls “literary thinking.” A character ruminates, turns a problem over and over, comes like a mesmerized tourist onto unanticipated vistas, or, just as frequently, pauses where he is and considers the forking paths before him.

And yet the new book, like many of his best, begins with action. A Madrid man, innocent and well liked, is stabbed to death by a homeless man in an apparently random act of violence. The book’s first sentence, though ripe with the questions and qualifications that fill out Marías’s books, has a hook worthy of an airport crime novel.

“The last time I saw Miguel Desvern or Deverne was also the last time that his wife, Luisa, saw him, which seemed strange, perhaps unfair, given that she was his wife, while I, on the other hand, was a person he had never met, a woman with whom he had never exchanged so much as a single word.”

María, the book’s scrupulous narrator, works at a Madrid publishing house and every morning at the neighborhood café observes Miguel with his wife, Luisa, both known to her at first only as “a perfect couple.” She reads of Miguel’s death in the papers. When Luisa finally makes a reappearance at the café, the narrator approaches and offers her condolences—and learns that the perfect couple had a name for her, too: “the Prudent Young Woman.”

She will, by book’s end, know far more about Miguel’s death than the widowed Luisa—and will keep it to herself less out of prudence than out of some deeper, darker, more profoundly Marías-esque ambivalence. Who am I, she asks, “to impose a revelation on someone”?

Considering the revelations that have been imposed on her, this is an understandable scruple. First, Luisa sets her down and talks for a few hours. Since her husband’s death, she tells María, she has acquired “an unfamiliar, alien mentality,” and can’t stop reimagining the murder. She offers a pages-long transcript of what her husband might have been thinking as he died.

She complains that people too often discount the past: “Yes, that’s what most people believe. That what has ceased to happen is not as bad as what is happening, and that we should find relief in that cessation.” But for her the past is on repeat, like an animated GIF. “They mean well, but they don’t understand that all my memories are now soiled by that sad and bloody ending … I don’t really have any good memories left. They all seem false to me. They’ve all been contaminated.” In María’s mind, the cud-chewing mind of the quintessentially ruminative Marías narrator, this line of thought reaches a pitch of existential keening:

“What’s the point of this and why bother with that, what’s the point of money or a business and all its complications, why a house and a library, why go out to work and make plans, why have children, why anything? Nothing lasts long enough because everything ends and, once it’s over, it was never enough, even if it lasted a hundred years.”

Against this astonishing logic, Miguel’s best friend Díaz-Varela speaks up for being realistic. He wants Luisa to get over her loss—indeed, as he lets María know, he wants to marry the widowed Luisa himself, once she is ready. Yet his philosophy of life is the opposite of the widow’s. “That’s the mistake most people make,” he tells the narrator.

“The mistake of believing that the present is forever, that what happens in each moment is definitive, when we should all know that as long as we still have a little time left, nothing is definitive. We have all experienced enough twists and turns, not just in terms of luck but as regards our state of mind. We gradually learn that what seems really important now will one day seem a mere fact, a neutral piece of information.”

The consolations of this philosophy begin to feel a little sinister after María begins to suspect that Díaz-Varela may have arranged Miguel’s murder. He may be not only asking Luisa to forget her husband, but he may also be asking María to forget certain suspicious facts. It won’t be giving too much of the plot away to say that there is even a moment when the reader is allowed to imagine that Miguel himself, perhaps terminally ill, had asked to be assassinated, that his final thoughts might not, as his widow imagines, have been directed toward her but toward the absurd gratification of a favor done him in the form of multiple stab wounds, delivered him by his best friend through the medium of a homeless man’s butterfly knife.

All of this will sound constructed, too full of symmetries and plot twists and staged confessions. What makes The Infatuationsmore than a thought experiment dressed up with daggers and wicked liaisons is its irresolution. Díaz-Varela, who steals the book much as the Grand Inquisitor steals The Brothers Karamazov, puts it this way when discussing Balzac:

“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 and infuses us with.”

So if, at the novel’s end, the widowed Luisa were to forget Miguel and happily remarry, it might theoretically prove Díaz-Varela right. But such a tiny scene, at the end of such a deep, thoroughgoing novel, would hardly replace or supplant the many vistas on life and death opened during the (hopefully unhurried) experience of reading it.

The Infatuations may not have the grandiosity of his preceding book, the three-volume Your Face Tomorrow. That book, in its first and second volumes, felt grandly like it would never end. The Infatuationsis more formally balanced. It feels like Marías is headed toward a late style, brainy and lean and a little dry. The tinge of blood that flavors all of Marías’s novels is here, but the use of a female narrator slightly inhibits Marías’s boyish relish. Perhaps that is for the best. The book teaches us to somehow dread the idea that life belongs to the living—that transcendental moments do not exist, that time is on the side of murderers.

BENJAMIN LYTAL

The Daily Beast, August 16, 2013

el-coronel-chabert-seguido-de-el-verdugo-el-elixir-de-larga-vida-y-la-obra-maestra-desconocida-9788490322352The Infatuations

Everyone’s done it: looked across a room, noticed a particular couple, imagined their lives, and created a fiction out of the pair of lovers that—depending on mood or particular circumstance—might quickly devolve into an ugly sort of envy. Despite the fact that little to nothing is actually known about the couple, a summation is derived from a glance that says more about the onlooker than the looked-upon. Those familiar with the work of Spanish writer Javier Marías might recognize how such a commonplace occurrence can become the stuff of entire novels (or trilogies, as was the case with his epic series Your Face Tomorrow), and so it is with his latest, The Infatuations.

The novel’s narrator/inveterate-gazer, María Dolz, visits the same Madrid café each morning, where she has given the focus of her eavesdropping the honorific “Perfect Couple.” Though she has “only ever caught fragments of their conversation, or just the odd word or two,” Dolz is compelled enough by their presence and manner to wish them “all the best in the world, as if they were characters in a novel or film for whom one is rooting right from the start, knowing that something bad is going to happen to them.”

Her mornings spent watching them, before heading to work as a literary agent—by now, the reader can smell the fresh fertilizer for metafiction in the air—become increasingly important to María. Any feelings of inadequacy in their presence (“They didn’t need me or, perhaps, anyone: I was almost invisible, erased by their contentment.”) are remedied when that inevitable “something bad” happens.

She learns the husband’s name (Miguel Desvern) from a newspaper photo, after the couple fails to show one morning, and discovers he has been randomly stabbed to death by a transient on the afternoon of his birthday. Gradually she comes to know the widow, Luisa, after approaching her months later, at the same café, to offer condolences, albeit as a stranger. As it turns out, the “Perfect Couple” were watching too, perhaps less obsessively, as Luisa welcomes her back to her apartment and reveals they had both referred to the solitary Dolz as the “Prudent Young Woman.”

Marías reveals all of this efficiently, then sets it aside in the early pages of his four-part Infatuations. Death is not the spoiler here. Anyone equipped solely with the curiosity of a whodunit aficionado will be sorely disappointed, probably bored, and likely frustrated by the novel’s remaining three acts. Similar to Marías’ earlier novel, Tomorrow In The Battle Think On Me, the dead body is often theleast interesting element. What follows are signature Marías digressions, with ruminations on death, time, truth, memory, envy, and infatuation—the great themes get turned over again and again, like soil in a graveyard.

There are long expository passages devoted to Balzac’s novella Colonel Chabert, whose plot commands almost as much detective work as Miguel’s murder. There are recurring passages from Macbeth, Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers, and some Keats for good measure. There is also a tendency for María offer up pages-long scenarios only to yank them away (after the reader’s imagination has been fully invested) with a dismissive, “Not that any of those things would happen,” or, “I didn’t actually think all this.” In fact, for much of The Infatuations,the action doesn’t so muchhappen as get discussed.

This is not to say there is no satisfactory payoff. It is a novel that can tug conventionally with the promise of revelation and deliver on the most obvious questions: What happened? Who did it? Why? But as one character contends, during a discussion of Balzac’s Chabert: “What happened is the least of it… What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot we recall more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.”

Marías’ noveloperates on so many levels simultaneously, it becomes a piece of evidence itself, an artifact that proves its own argument. It is a dizzying feat that relegates “metafiction” to that dreary province literary terms go should they fail to articulate, as The Infatuations does so artfully, that life and fiction are inventions often made from the same materials.

GREGG LAGAMBINA

A.V. Club, August 12, 2013