"OF ALL THE SEVERAL WAYS of beginning a book which are now in practice throughout the known world," Laurence Sterne writes in Tristram Shandy, "I am confident my own way of doing it is the best — I'm sure it is the most religious — for I begin with writing the first sentence — and trusting to Almighty God for the second."
Javier Marías, whose Spanish translation of Tristram Shandy won Spain's Luis de León Award in Translation in 1979, likewise entrusts the creation of his novels to something higher. "I work without a map," he has said. "I work only with a compass.” Trusting his imagination, Marías seems less to invent than to discover each page's potential. "The blank page is best of all," he has written, "the most eternally believable and the most revealing, precisely because it is never finished, on it there is eternally room for everything.” This belief not only distinguishes Marías’s style (digression is his progression) but it is also evident in the fact that, while he favors certain themes — history and language, truth and violence — he just as gladly lets his mind play over the mundane. Such intellectual excess lends his novels their often overlooked humor: "[I]t was as I realized at once, Babe […] the little pig was a great actor, I wondered if perhaps he had been nominated for an Oscar that year, but I doubt he would have won […]”
Born in 1951 to Julián Marías, a renowned philosopher persecuted by the Franco regime, Javier Marías has sold millions of books and been translated into more than 40 languages, yet North American popularity has proved elusive. Since the English translation of 1992’s A Heart So White won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 1997, each new release has been hyped as his potential North American hit, with adulating critics routinely asserting that the given volume serves as the best introduction to his work. But until The Infatuations, the new novel expertly translated by Margaret Jull Costa, readers have lacked a convenient approach to an otherwise sprawling and self-referential corpus. Novels such as All Souls (1992), A Heart So White, and the three-volume opus Your Face Tomorrow (2004, 2006, and 2009) share characters and plot-lines, not to mention what Marías terms the "system of echoes and resonances" which truly comprise his aesthetic. The Infatuations, however, which won Spain's National Novel Prize (a prize Marías declined), is his first to be published by a major American house (Knopf), and may just be the stand-alone exemplary work critics have long prophesied.
María, the novel's narrator, works for a Madrid publishing house, where she services the egos and absurd requests of its vaunted authors, and takes her breakfast each morning at the same café. There, she regularly observes an ideal married couple:
At an hour when almost no one is in the mood for anything, still less for fun and games, they talked non-stop, laughing and joking, as if they had only just met or met for the very first time, and not as if they had left the house together, dropped the kids off at school, having first got washed and dressed at the same time — perhaps in the same bathroom — and woken up in the same bed, nor as if the first thing they'd seen had been the inevitable face of their spouse, and so on and on, day after day, for a fair number of years […]
But the occasion of María's narration is a murder. After all, the man and woman are characters, both in her life and in our novel: "You could say that I wished them all the best in the world, as if they were characters in a novel or a film for whom one is rooting right from the start, knowing that something bad is going to happen to them, that at some point, things will go horribly wrong, otherwise there would be no novel or film." It is typical of Marías to dispense with any fact/fiction distinction: as he wrote in All Souls, "When true knowledge proves irrelevant, one is free to invent," and in any case, as Your Face Tomorrow suggests, "our infinite imaginings belong to life too."
When María learns that the husband has been gruesomely stabbed to death by a misguided, insane man — "a cruel, stupid, gratuitous death" — she decides to approach the woman, Luisa, and learn about the couple. "[S]o often we only find out that someone has existed once they have ceased to do so, in fact, because they have ceased to exist,” María muses. Through Luisa, María is introduced to Javier (the names, both Javier's and María's, are surely no coincidence), one of the murdered man's closest friends. María embarks on an affair with Javier though she suspects he is ultimately in love with the now-widowed Luisa.
The first half of The Infatuations comprises the most mature meditation on death and dying in Marías's corpus, perhaps a result of Julián Marías's passing in 2005. Like the speaker of Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts," Marías is unusually sensitive to the "human position" of suffering: "[H]ow it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Although even to a stranger Luisa was clearly in love, María realizes "she'll get over this.” As Javier theorizes,
[T]he despair will become less intense, the sense of shock will diminish and, above all, she will get used to the idea: 'I'm a widow' […] That will be the fact, the piece of information […]And when Luisa marries again […] that fact, that piece of information, will have changed, while remaining the same as before, and she will no longer say of herself: 'I've been widowed' or 'I'm a widow,' because she won't be, and will say instead 'I lost my first husband, and he's moving further away from me all the time.'
These words are part of a remarkable monologue which confirms Marías as Thomas Bernhard's successor in the form. Marías goes on: "[U]ltimately, life prevails over us, so much so that, in the long run, it's almost impossible for us to imagine ourselves without the sorrows life brings […]" Disturbingly but perhaps consolingly, the survivor may even find herself happier in the outcome:
There is no death that is not also, in some way, a relief, that does not offer some advantage […] We might mourn a wife or a husband, but sometimes we discover, although this may take a while, that we live more happily and more comfortably without them.
Indeed, María has become Javier's lover, and we've become readers of this novel, as a result of murder. The Infatuations invites us to acknowledge injustice, from private accidents to national catastrophes, as ultimately vital to our pleasure and peace. While there is something almost ruthless in such a nuanced outlook, its opposite is equally true (the blank page has room for everything): Marías alerts us to the corpse by the wayside of every happy plot; he sees the grinning skull in the easy smile.
In an interview with The Paris Review in 2006, Marías said:
The idea of a male writing a female narrator and a female writing a male seems absurd […] I find books like that a little unbelievable. Only once have I written from a female perspective and that was in a short story. I would not be able to sustain it for a whole novel.
This was only a handful of years before he commenced work on The Infatuations. Whatever the reason for his change of heart, the shift is a happy one, with several bright advantages. For one, it has seemingly freed him to lampoon men in the novel's most acerbically comic sections, as when María catches an acquaintance of Javier’s glimpsing her partially nude body:
[…] I saw only surprise and a flicker of male appreciation, which is easy enough to spot and which he doubtless made no effort to conceal, for some men's eyes are very quick to make such evaluations, a reflex action they can't avoid, they're even capable of ogling the bare thighs of a woman who has been involved in a car accident and is still lying, all bloody, on the road, or of staring at the hint of cleavage revealed by the woman who crouches down to help them if they happen to be the injured party, it's beyond their will to control or perhaps it has nothing to do with will at all, it's a way of being in the world that will last until the day they die, and before closing their eyes for ever, their gaze will linger appreciatively on the nurse's knee, even if she's wearing lumpy white tights.
Elsewhere in that same interview, Marías argued,
One of the best possible perspectives from which to tell a story is that of a ghost […] someone who still cares about what he left behind, so much so that he comes back. You could say that my narrators are ghosts in that particular sense. They are passive, but they are still curious, they are observant.
When he went on to state, self-critically, "my female characters are a bit in the shade," he may not yet have realized that therein lay the female voice’s advantage. María is the most ghostly narrator in an oeuvre populated by eavesdroppers, stalkers, and lingerers.
Like the ghosts of the dead, "which exercise a powerful attraction when they are still recent, as if they wanted to drag us after them," María phases in and then out of the lives of Javier and Luisa. At the outset of the novel, she is "unnoticed," "mingling with — but invisible to" the action, only to become entangled via her affair with Javier, and her final dematerialization begins after first overhearing and then learning Javier’s terrible secret. Burdened by his confession —"He […] has passed a weight on to me" — María faces a new dilemma: Is it her responsibility to act? "It sounds strange and even wrong,” she says, “and yet it can happen: [we] would sometimes prefer to act unjustly and for someone to go unpunished than see ourselves as betrayers, we can't bear it — when all's said and done, justice simply isn't our thing, it's not our job." No, she decides, she will not play the role of revenging ghost: "The worst thing . . . [is] 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." Marías’s novel weaves an intricate web, but its triumph is in the power of its narrator. By transforming a female into a kind of shade, Marías found the ideal voice — detached, inquisitive, and vigilant — for one of his finest novels.
The Franco regime casts a long shadow over the work of Javier Marías (whose full name is Javier Marías Franco), but in The Infatuations, Javier's crime, and María's reaction to it, lays to rest a conversation about the dictator’s legacy heretofore most powerfully treated in Your Face Tomorrow 2: Dance and Dream. "Keeping a distance from actual events and being privileged enough not to have to witness them,” says Javier,
all provide scope for a high degree of autosuggestion […] You manage to convince yourself that you have nothing to do with what is happening on the ground, or in the head-on confrontation, even if you provoked or unleashed it […]
Surely this was Franco's method, as well, enabling him to "[die] happy — if such a thing is possible — believing that everything would continue as he had ordained."
But while "it's clear who pulled the strings and who wrote the plot and who gave the order," in the case of both the husband's fate and Spain's, María's subsequent inaction points to a new urge toward restitution in Marías's work. In Your Face Tomorrow, letting the past recede in favor of the present was seen as "another symptom of the infantilization of the world," but now we sense moral resilience in María as she decides,
I [do not] want to be like the wretched books among which I spend my life, whose time stands still and waits inside, trapped and watching, begging to be opened so that it can flow freely again and retell its old and oft-repeated story.
Where has the imaginative compass of this novel delivered us? Through all the cruel, stupid, gratuitous crimes of history, we end serenely in the shade, oriented toward tomorrow with renewed generosity, curiosity, and humanity. In this powerful, morally nebulous space, the likes of which only Marías's fiction can conjure, we are unafraid, even invincible: "Nothing more can die on us if we are already dead."
Michael LaPointe is a writer and literary journalist in Vancouver, British Columbia. He contributes to the Times Literary Supplement.