Friday, July 1, 2016

Under My Skin

The Infatuations by Javier Marías

I have now been reading the novels of Spanish writer Javier Marías on and off for about seven years, and it has taken me this long to truly begin to appreciate them, to warm to his cool, aloof, expressly cerebral style. It has taken me nearly seven years to grasp just what an extraordinarily fine writer he is (mind you, most of Europe has known this for decades), nearly seven years of patient reading for his novels to really get under my skin.

Surely a part of my preoccupation with his work (too impatient to wait for the American edition of his latest, I have just this morning ordered it in its British edition) springs from the anxiety, the despair, I often feel, living here in the U.S., at the prospect of not being able to regularly replenish my supply of the dense, unapologetically intellectual sort of novels I love, those artistically uncompromising, often tryingly original tales that have not only defined the novel for me as one of the highest forms of human and aesthetic expression but have literally made me who I am.

More and more I crave the work of writers (and characters) who really like to think—and to think hard, those who make no excuses for their obsession with character and language and form, whose idea of plot (to paraphrase a popular criticism of Proust) is often just some man or woman turning over in bed. 
"Self-discovery is above all, writes Octavio Paz, "the realization that we are alone: it is the opening of an impalpable, transparent wall—that of our consciousness—between the world and ourselves." It is exactly this, this recognition of the fundamental loneliness of human existence, that sits at the heart of so much of my favorite fiction. In fact the kind of novels I most admire, those I read and reread, those I study some days like scripture, are often little more than the stories of a man or woman thinking, usually in isolation or grief. While I am no misanthrope, in fact every day more grateful for the people in my life, little is plainer (and perhaps more significant) to me than the fact that far and away the majority of my time here on earth is spent in silent communion with myself, with my own joys and sorrows, with my own fictions, plaints, and fears. Think about it: is there anything more quintessentially human than this private daily grinding we do, this Sisyphean sentence to think—and without respite, to live like monks, like nuns, within the confines of our own small heads?

It is this painful, often reluctant solipsism that lies at the heart of so many of the greatest modern novels I’ve read, from (here comes a list, for those of you who are interested) those of Conrad, Woolf, Proust, Dosotevsky, Melville, Joyce, Kafka, Roth (Joseph), Goncharov, Musil, Forster, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Svevo, and Mann to Pessoa, Lowry, Barnes, Cela, Ellison, Castellanos, Bellow, Qian, Saramago, Camus, Carpentier, Oe, Böll, Dorfman, Niwa, Voinovich, Manea, Ishiguro, Rushdie, Gordimer, Saghal, Jin, Brink, Malamud, Cortázar, Gao, McCarthy, Styron, Amado, Pamuk, Vargas Llosa, Jelinek, Klíma, Wright, Grossman, Mistry, Gombrowicz, Lispector, Morrison, Sabato, Silko, Pavese, Coetzee, Nabakov, Kahout, Olesha, Oz, Levi, Okri, Appelfeld, Platanov, Bernhard, Farah, Aksyonov, Fuentes, Bolaño, Ulitskaya, Emecheta, Sebald, Unsworth, Martin, Trevor, Kaniuk, Petry, Naipaul, Szabó, Hong, Chacel, Borges, Bowles, Yehoshua, Sōseki, Tišma, Walser, Ford, Head, Greene, Duffy, Abish, Cohen. Ghalem, Agnon, Baldwin, Handke, Ivo, Rulfo, Benet, Mahfouz, Ali, Megged, Murdoch, Hrabal, Novakovich, Bowen, Houllebecq, Ocampo, Zhang, Rodoreda, Asturias, Sábato, Soyinka, Müller, Fox, White, Adler, Vollmann, Ford, Lenz, Garcia Márquez, Platonov, Toer, Narayan, Schulze, Pekić, Carey, Wallace, Bedford, Ying, Nooteboom, Achebe, Arenas, Desai, Páral, Énard, Robbe-Grillet, Lamming, Kraznahorkai, Machado de Assis, and Gass. It is a condition, a syndrome, that also lies at the heart of Marías’s fine novel The Infatuations

Set in contemporary Madrid, The Infatuations explores, with elegant intelligence (and with more than a passing nod to the masterworks of Shakespeare, to Othello and Macbeth), the experience of a single woman, an editor in a local publishing house, named María Dolz who finds herself eavesdropping on the life of a handsome young couple near whom she sits each morning in her favorite café before work. At first just a passing fancy, of which she hardly thinks once she leaves the café, her interest in the couple takes a significant turn when one day they fail to appear, a disruption in the quiet, pensive routine of her life that is soon exacerbated by the news—detailed in all of the daily papers—that the man, the husband, was brutally murdered in an act of apparently random violence by a demented homeless man armed with a butterfly knife. From there the story  traces María’s growing, ultimately fateful obsession with the dead man’s wife, Luisa. Finely, eloquently told, the novel is at heart a metaphysical inquiry into the timeless issues of love and death, a catechism of betrayal and obsession and truth. It is wonderfully heady stuff.

Javier Marías has written thirteen novels, three story collections, and nineteen works of collected articles and essays. The Infatuations was translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

Peter Adam Nash

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