Friday, October 18, 2013

The Infatuations by Javier Marías - a musical instrument that does not transmit meanings

A couple of days of notes on the newest Javier Marías novel, The Infatuations (2011), translated with panache by Margaret Jull Costa.  Marías has his narrator, a woman who works in publishing, describe his own novel:

He had a marked tendency to discourse and expound and digress, as I have noticed to be the case with many of the writers I meet at the publishing house, as if it weren’t enough for them to fill pages and pages with their thoughts and stories, which, with few exceptions, are either absurd, pretentious, gruesome or pathetic.  (131)

So Marías is still working in the style he adopted* for the Your Face Tomorrow novel or novels back in 2002.  I would not mind if he knocked it off.  Excess is cheaper than restraint.

He, and she, then says how he (just he) would like me to take the novel:

… I didn’t mind his digressions…  I couldn’t take my eyes off him and delighted in his grave, somehow inward-turned voice and the often arbitrary syntactic leaps he made, the whole effect seeming sometimes not to emanate from a human being, but from a musical instrument that does not transmit meanings, perhaps a piano played with great agility.

Now this is actually the narrator describing the way her boyfriend talks, but anyone who talks or speaks or writes this way when telling a story – “arbitrary syntactic leaps” – is awfully inward-turned herself.  I enjoy the voice Marías uses here quite a bit, his piano attack, to extend his metaphor – why else would I read his book – but I share his doubts about meaning.

The boyfriend rephrases the concern further on in the book:

But Díaz-Varela was in no mood to discuss Balzac, he wanted to continue his story to the end.  “What happened is the least of it,” he had said when he spoke to me about Colonel Chabert.  “It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten.”  (276)

Truer words was never spoke.  Marías here justifies my usual practice of ignoring the plot of the novel in favor of the memorable parts, like the discussion of Balzac.  No mood to discuss Balzac!

About a third of the way in, Marías begins a long** summary and exegesis of Balzac’s 1832 novella Colonel Chabert, one of his best works, I think.  The boyfriend, Javier, is doing the exegeting while the girlfriend, María, the narrator, asks questions.  I know, Javier and María, very funny.

Mookse Trevor says that at this point he “had a devil of a time getting through about thirty pages of it,” so fair warning, although it was exactly at this point (p. 131, after the quotation up above) that I began to find the novel interesting.  A man María knows by sight is murdered by a madman; she meets the wife; through the wife she meets and begins an affair with Javier.  So little in 130 pages, but see above: discourse, expound, digress. 

The matter includes the narrator’s insight on, for example, the strange ways people are connected or the process of mourning, as on page 74, where the narrator imagines the debris, once meaningless and now poignant, left behind by the murdered man, “the novel with the page turned down, which will remain unread, but also the medicines that suddenly have become utterly superfluous and that will soon have to be thrown away,” in other words the kind of thing that has appeared in a thousand novels and that I have read a dozen times myself.  The legitimate stuff of fiction, certainly, but when, I wondered, is The Infatuations going to turn into a Javier Marías novel?

Then: thirty pages on Balzac.  Finally.

That will give me something to write about tomorrow.  Or I will just catalogue some of the novel’s best jokes.

*  I am guessing.  The novel previous, Dark Back of Time (1998), is not written this way, nor is All Souls (1989), nor, for that matter are the newspaper pieces in Written Lives (1992).  I originally found Marías attractive for his lightly Nabokovian precision.  He seems to have come to distrust the idea of precision in language.

**  Long is relative.  In Your Face Tomorrow, the Balzac discussion would have lasted a hundred pages.


  1. Hi Tom,

    I look forward to more of your thoughts on the novel! I started reading it in the original Spanish but had to give up halfway through... I liked the intertextual references but the plot just seemed so slow. Maybe I'll pick it up again at some point.

  2. I am somewhat fascinated by "arbitrary syntactic leaps". I find that when applied by authors they lead to all sorts of interesting tidbits as well as insights into character. In real life they are of course annoying. Personally, I think that in my real life, if I were to forgo all mental discipline, I would be prone to them ☺

    This also sounds like a book that I might enjoy.

  3. The plot is not just slow, but small. It's just a murder story - what looked like a random murder turns out to be something else, as every single reader not only guessed but knew with certainty, because that is what happens in novels about murders.

    Insights about the character, Brian - yes, that's it, as we trace out the leaps they seem not arbitrary but meaningful. I suppose this is a definition of psychology.

    Have either of you read other Marías books? Earlier ones are quite different, in style, story, and purpose.

    1. I for one never read Javier Marías, but I've enjoyed reading your two posts about him so far.

  4. You should read Marías, Miguel. Roberto Bolaño says he is "By far Spain's best writer today." W. G. Sebald says "Marías uses language like an anatomist uses" blah blah blah. I am, obviously, quoting the book jacket.

    Please note that I have gotten the tenses wrong - Sebald and Bolaño were not talking about this particular book.