29 April, 2013Issue 22.1FictionLiteratureTranslation

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The Mind at Work

Christy Edwall

The InfatuationsJavier Marías
Trans. Margaret Jull Costa
The Infatuations
Hamish Hamilton, 2013
352 pages
ISBN 9780241145364




In 1928, Morris W. Croll wrote that the Baroque style, which he called anti-Ciceronian or purposefully inelegant, exposed the “mind at work”. Croll’s argument has since been called into question by critics like Brian Vickers, but the idea of style as a cross-section of the “mind at work” is a fitting description of Javier Marías’s fiction. Marías, who has supplemented his writing career with translations of Thomas Browne, Shakespeare, and Lawrence Sterne, writes in a jagged, toiling, and, paradoxically, paralysing Baroque reproduction. His novels make love to the comma and the semi-colon; his narrators multiply digressions by digressions, swerving on verbal tangents patiently and smoothly, ruminating over the plot as though it were a five-course meal eaten over as many hours.

Here’s the first sentence of his spy trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow (2005):

One should never tell anyone anything or give information or pass on stories or make people remember beings who have never existed or trodden the earth or traversed the world, or who, having done so, are now almost safe in uncertain, one-eyed oblivion.

Pages of this kind of winding, flaccid, conjunctive writing can feel, at the wrong moment, like the ramblings of a solipsist you can’t interrupt. But at its best, when the reader’s attention strains against its demands and is rewarded with an apt metaphor or a reflex of recognition, Marías’s laborious style—the result of a compositional method of constant accumulation and barely any preparatory notes—becomes a feat of tenacious, even fixated, authorial attention. His narrators—who, despite their various avatars, are of a kind—speak on behalf of a universal humanity with the confident generality of the third-personal plural, but delight in the irregularities and obsessions of the individual mind. Clauses are appended to clauses, not for qualitative development, but for emphatic revisiting.

The Baroque style of Marías’s latest novel, The Infatuations, arises through allusions to the works which serve as its narrative compost. Macbeth, Sebastian de Covarrubias’s 17th century dictionary, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and Dumas’s Three Musketeers (which is the 19th century’s flamboyant dash through the 17th) are digested and leave behind assassination, envy, and cursory justice as bone-meal. Books are used as dictionaries and maps, to define and chart human nature and experience. One character meditates on several phrases from the Three Musketeers which she heard in her childhood, recollecting in detail the first and last execution of the femme fatale, Milady de Winter. (No one who reads it at an impressionable age will ever forget the shiver of horror at the revelation of the vicious fleur-de-lys branded on Milady’s shoulder.) Another character uses Balzac’s Napoleonic novella Colonel Chabert to explain the rightful but tragic relation between the living and the dead, a persistent theme in the novel.

The publisher’s blurb hails The Infatuations as “a metaphysical murder mystery”, but this flippant tag is extraordinarily short-sighted. Lovers of murder mysteries are likely to become quite frustrated at the pulse of Marías’s writing, which is ruminative, contemplative, interested in hypothesis, and marked with a style of forked indeterminacy from the first sentence, in which a character’s name is spelt two ways. But the novel’s intellectual considerations are not abstract, however much the characters try to think they are. Instead, they bear upon the plot.

Which is this: María Dolz breakfasts daily at a café she shares with a couple she’s never met, with whom she gradually develops an anonymous and illusory intimacy. This pleasant familiarity is shattered when María is baffled to read in a newspaper of the husband’s stabbing to death in the street by a maniac. Unable to stave off her curiosity about his widow’s well-being, María introduces herself and is integrated into the story.

The rest is rhetorical; or rather, the rest is how the story tells itself, the voices which compose it, and how they persuade each other and themselves. Marías is consistently taken by the human need to tell stories. As he says elsewhere, “People are ceaselessly relating and narrating without even realising that they are.” The novel reads languorously, even when the narrative swerves towards the sinister, when the ostensibly random stabbing bears the weight of half-disclosed suspicions. The leisurely pace of the prose undercuts this narrative compulsion, and indeed Marías’s novels often play on their potential to turn into brooding potboilers, keeping it at arm’s length so that the effect trickles down but never immerses. Even Your Face Tomorrow, vaster than The Infatuations in scope and ambition, frequently digresses from its trappings as an espionage thriller, and from the secret assassinations of the Spanish Civil War, to ruminate on the mournful inevitability of being “replaceable” in love and friendship.

Marías has certain writerly tics. One is the near-ubiquity of wives named Luisa. Another is hyper-surveillance: a predilection for watching, seeing, observing, reading. Marías is fascinated by rational characters who are, or become, or border on the obsessional: the melancholic Spanish lecturer in All Souls; the fat videographer in “While the Women are Sleeping”; the man who meets his doppelgänger in “Gualta”. Disregarding the possibility that the obsessive mind is the common mind, it is an ideal subject for a man with Marías’s particular talent for holding onto an object or thought, turning it over in order to inspect it from all sides, and then dismissing it. The obsessive mind has an autochthonous system of motivation, a self-justification of cause and effect. It is always operative and therefore particularly suited to the Baroque. The reader dares the narrator to convince and fascinate him with the same idée fixe from which the character suffers and delights.

In this novel, María’s “infatuations” are discrete and modest. She is less obsessed than she is continually curious. She is, in effect, the perfect reader: alert, self-effacing, and slightly suspicious of overly tidy delivery. She is an eavesdropper and a voyeur, as all good readers (and writers) are. Despite having a pretty healthy disregard for writers as a breed—her work at a publisher’s teaches her skilfully to eviscerate their pretensions and egoism—María exercises her perception continually, foraying into the minds of those around her, trying out their voices and the things which they say to convince and to console themselves.

The consolation of Marías’s fiction, however, is absent—as elsewhere—from this novel’s finale. Like the writer’s Baroque syntax, truth is not easily unravelled, nor is life a “puerile novel” in which one discovers the truth or “devotes” oneself to investigation. The race of amateur detectives is thus disposed of, not because it belongs to a genre, but because in reality no one has the energy to follow their hunches or suspicions to the end. You are left—you leave yourself—in ignorance. Marías’s characters prefer to dwell in shades of possibility and doubt, contented in their own way to live in the comforting twilight of ambiguity, undisturbed by the eruptions of fact. As one of his characters in The Infatuations says (twice, just to make sure you pay attention):

What happened is the least of it. It’s a novel, and when 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, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.

This is Marías’s programme: fiction which derives its force from its almost tortuous power of suggestion rather than event. His novels particularise this tendency by leaving behind a series of cloudy impressions which return at irregular moments, “infused” with a particular Marías-like way of observing or perceiving, making strange the previously mundane without the bizarre comfort of absolute surrealism.

Christy Edwall is reading for a BA in English at Harris Manchester College, Oxford.