Review: The Infatuations by Javier Marías

A signal danger with reading or reviewing books from a long-time favourite author is the risk that it will disappoint, and in doing so colour our perception, slowly built yet ever fragile, of both the author and their previous work, both of which we had hitherto admired. And so it was with Javier Marías, and his latest work, The Infatuations. I needn’t have worried.

In this brilliant novel, María Dolz has her daily routine of gentle observation of a happily married couple thrown into disarray by the brutal murder of the husband. Drawn into their world, what follows is her discovery of the possible reality behind his gruesome death.

This is by no means the first of his novels to begin with a death, and yet the subsequent, original development shows us that the interesting story is not the event itself, but rather the effect it has on the people involved, and the efforts they make to accommodate this new and unwanted situation. This is accomplished through verbose, yet never prolix, characters, whose every sentence is a pleasure, and indeed constitute much of the point of a Marías novel. Their exquisitely detailed considerations and peregrinations, forensically examining each potential action, both past and future, reveal much about their own psychology, and that of the reader too. Wordplay suggests María, the first-person narrator, is really Marías, but in a sense, all the characters are him, or at least their opinions are his. For a less-gifted writer, or one possessed of lesser insight, that could be a flaw indeed, but not here.

As far as one can judge without the Spanish original, Margaret Jull Costa is in fine form yet again, handling with aplomb the page-long sentences of an author who inhabits a world of the future and conditional tenses, his moods those of the subjunctive. “That is the awful power of the present, which crushes the past more easily as the past recedes”, by extension, possible future events might possess even greater power than the present, which might explain his fascination with the hypothetical. Or perhaps this is the salient quote, “What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us.”

If Marías’ humanistic streak isn’t immediately obvious from this grim fascination with death, then phrases such as, “What sense does it make that each person should have to experience more or less the same griefs and make more or less the same discoveries, and so on for eternity?”, draw it out. His novels, while never strident, attempt to show ourselves as we really are, and are perhaps his way of gently encouraging us to mend our ways. “That’s the worst thing about losing our old codes of conduct… We have to be guided by ourselves and then it’s very easy to make a blunder.” It’s not necessarily a pessimistic view of our inconstant natures, merely realistic, and one that’s consistently held throughout all his novels.

An admirer of Proust, in a recent interview with the Guardian, he declares, “He says terrible things, but in such a way that you know that you have experienced those thoughts too.” It’s a tradition Marías fully embraces in his own work, but through all the deep exploration of our inner motivations, he never forgets his storytelling instinct, never lets the narrative drive disappear completely. In this there’s something not dissimilar to Kafka, both have a way of building tension through the lengthy and potentially hazardous calculations that their characters make. The basic considerations of his plots, of man as an animal – morality, love, death – is another thing they have in common. Here it is the things that we both do, and don’t do, for love, or because of love, and further, the things we can believe would be done in the name of love, which are the principal target.

As in many of his books, a quote from Macbeth – from which play came the title for his novel, A Heart So White – makes an early appearance. Macbeth, upon learning about the death of his wife and Queen, exclaims, “She should have died hereafter.” Once introduced, this phrase becomes something of a motif, to which the narrator repeatedly returns throughout the novel, each time re-examining its meaning in the light of new revelations. It can’t be mere coincidence that it’s a Shakespearean tragedy from which Marías continues to draw inspiration.

However, perhaps the most telling aspect of his literary philosophy is revealed near the end of the book, when the truth is normally on the verge of being revealed, but no, “The truth is never clear, it’s always a tangled mess. Even when you get to the bottom of it. But in real life almost no one needs to find the truth or devote himself to investigating anything, that only happens in puerile novels.”

Marías has not written one of those, and even if in this book we never quite attain the truth of the story with complete certainty, this doesn’t stop us learning some truths about ourselves. And how very enjoyably unsettling it is.

Don’t Only Think, Feel Too

What is the hardest thing to write about? Or to be seen to be writing about, if such a statement makes any sense?

In an interview with Michael Silverblatt of Bookworm, the late, great author David Foster Wallace (DFW) argued that, in his experience as college professor, it was sentiment that his students had the most difficulty producing in their work. To express weird, twisted and abnormal thoughts was nothing but the norm to them. Sentiment, however, was to be avoided at all costs, lest the student risk being perceived as naive, corny or soppy. I’m sure a desire to appear clever was another key motivation.

These observations of DFW were brought back to me by a recent conversation I had, in which a friend, commenting on my blog, said that they wanted to know what something made me feel and not only what it made me think. I accept the criticism gratefully.

First, let’s acknowledge that it is hard to write and talk about these things. Certainly in today’s postmodern world, where knowing-parody and the ironic are staples of our cultural diet, the straightforward emotion is often viewed as simplistic and unsophisticated, and displaying it almost impolite to the point of offence.

Further, a society that values the intellect and wealth perhaps sees a diminished role for emotion, except in the cynical exploitation of it that organisational behaviourists refer to as emotional labour. You’ve all experienced it, take the last time you bought a cup of coffee for instance – the forced-smile greeting and the exhortation to have a great day as you leave. Occasionally genuinely felt I’m sure, but that would just be a happy coincidence. This misuse of false emotion must surely colour our impressions of the genuine article, a Pavlovian training to be wary of it, lest that person harbour ulterior motives.

Perhaps it’s difficult to write about because the felt-emotion can be fleeting and difficult to reproduce, whereas the thought seems longer term, more permanent. The emotion only persists for about as long as we read the book, in the best cases perhaps a little longer. But its intangible nature makes it harder to record and to analyse, and so we don’t bestow upon it the same permanence.

A few days ago I watched the film 50/50, a loosely-autobiographical dark comedy-drama about Adam, a 27-year-old radio journalist who develops a rare form of cancer. The film charts his struggle, and those of his friends and family, to come to terms with the diagnosis and subsequent treatment of his condition. Certain elements of the film appear to be on the verge of becoming corny, but the writing and classy acting help it veer away from this, and the end result is a very good film. Although it is sad in parts, it isn’t unremittingly so, and even the sad moments are generally handled through humour, that is, apart from a scene near the end, which was played straight, and was enough to leave me weeping for several minutes.

That this happened, and the intensity of it, took me quite by surprise, and I’m not exactly certain why it affected me so strongly. The risk of what I think of as “narrative self-delusion” – the way we fool ourselves by telling neat Just So stories to explain our behaviour – is ever present here, but it’s reasonable to suspect the following factors: one of my relatives is unfortunately currently in hospital; the very similar ages of myself and the protagonist, and the sense of tragedy that accompanies his young age; finally, the brilliantly-subtle acting of Adam’s father, an Alzheimer’s sufferer, as he looks on confused, not quite understanding but still somehow touched, when his son tells him he loves him. Even remembering and writing about it now isn’t very easy, as sure a sign as any that it is necessary.

Maybe one explanation for our unwillingness to write about these things, is that they either seem too simple – base states of happy, sad or angry – to be worth the bother of writing about, or they are too complex – the reasons for feeling how we do, and the concurrent, paradoxical feelings we seem able to hold in a single moment – mean that it’s simply easier to talk about abstract thoughts, which can be logically connected and analysed.

Then consider that it’s possible, even probable, that the scene won’t have the same hold over me the next time I see it. The perfect storm of circumstance might no longer be present and, this time prepared for it, I’ll be able to watch it more calmly. This is another problem of putting emotional content in art; it’s difficult to control the response of the reader or viewer, there are too many variables at work.

The rejection of this, by a cynical culture, is a defence mechanism. A sign of our unwillingness to face pain because, by talking about what we feel we can induce in others similar sensations, we are at risk of a kind emotional infection. In everyday life, this might be an unwelcome imposition, but in art, in literature, surely it is what we desire. And if not desire it, we probably need it. In fact, we need both new, original thinking and strong feelings.

I had been previously persuaded by DFW’s interview that it was necessary and right to inject sentiment into writing, and wanted to do so, but in the main I suspect I had failed. The recent conversation, and watching the film 50/50, has reconfirmed this suspicion, and I am encouraged to try again.

That said, looking back over this piece it seems I’ve only partially succeeded in trying to talk about how I felt; inevitably a whole lot of thinking resulted. Still, it’s a better ratio than before, and no matter my level of success, I shouldn’t stop trying. And if I do, then readers, feel free to call me on it.

A Lifetime of Metamorphosis

Chapter 1

‘A mantra is a sentence where every word is where it should be’, said Boris Akunin, giving the 2013 Sebald Lecture at Kings Place, London. By its own definition, this sounded very much like a mantra. But mantra or not, surely we all wish to write sentences which meet this criterion, to organise our thoughts so that every word is where it should be. I wonder if there is an equivalent for the structure of a book: where every sentence is where it should be. Meta-mantra, perhaps.

Chapter 2

Preceding this lecture was the awards ceremony for The Society of Authors’ Translation Prizes 2012, which rewarded the efforts of translators working on novels from French, through Arabic, to Swedish. Margaret Jull Costa, longtime translator of Jose Saramago, Javier Marias, Eca de Querios and many other key figures of Iberian literature, went home with almost a clean sweep, taking commended prizes for translations of Portuguese and Spanish novels, plus the Calouste Gulbenkian Prize for her translation of The Word Tree by Teolinda Gersão. A very impressive achievement, and many congratulations indeed!

Chapter 3

Everything in my life is now broken-up into chapters.

It was the perfect opening to the lecture, a personal revelation, humorous and quirky, literary. Ever since he began to write, Boris Akunin has been unable to let something pass without deconstructing it into chapters; his novels, short stories, his Sebald lecture and even his day, none of them are immune to this sub-division. It’s quite possibly contagious.

Chapter 4

B. Akunin, so the blurb blurbs, is a Russian author, very widely read, and who has been compared to Gogol, Tolstoy and Arthur Conan Doyle. His critically acclaimed series of detective novels, starring the character Erast Fandorin, are rendered into English by Andrew Bromfield.

Chapter 5

For Boris to live a hygienic lifestyle was the principal desire of his mother, and for that there were only two professions which were suitable, medicine or literary translation. Lacking the particular aptitude for science, a life of literature beckoned. To save a real life or translate a fictional one, that would be one way to view it; either way, one can see her point, as both careers aim only to improve lives. Curious though that the act of literary translation is pure, whereas creating the source material is not.

Chapter 6

Grigory Chkhartishvili is a literary translator and academic, who, with pure intentions, diligently transforms Japanese works into his native Russian. The pride of his mother then, who declared, on the occasion of his first translation, that Grigory’s wife had made a good choice.

Chapter 7

In Javier Marias’ novel A Heart So White, the narrator Juan, an interpreter, begins a private conversation with his professional counterpart during one particular assignment, changing the words uttered by his politician client into something far more interesting. It could well be a common phenomenon in those circles. Certainly Grigory became increasingly annoyed with how the writers were telling the story, privately exhorting them to get the preliminaries over with and commence the story, or wishing that the material were structured differently. To maintain his professional integrity, and possibly not trusting that he would leave the text unaltered, Grigory took the cleaner path and instead began to write his own novels. The risk of discovery taken by Juan was averted for the time being.

Chapter 8

Grigory Chkartishvili is Boris Akunin, a man who was born to be a sacrificial lamb, to bear the brunt of the disapproval imposed by Grigory’s colleagues. The metamorphosis was not as easy as it could have been, possibly no better than it was for Gregor Samsa; he, and his novels, had to endure the criticism of his colleagues in literary translation, and delivered in his company at that! Akunin is apparently a Japanese word that translates roughly as villain, it seems to have been a prescient choice given this unfavourable reception.

Chapter 9

The writer is never off-duty he said, referencing Chekhov’s The Seagull. I am beginning to understand.

My eye falls on that cloud there, which has the shape of a grand piano; I instantly make a mental note that I must remember to mention in my story a cloud floating by that looked like a grand piano.

Funny though that clouds are always thought to look like something else, and not merely themselves. Why does no-one ever look at the grand piano and remark that it looks exactly like a cloud? Surely that would reveal just as much about a character as would their interpretation of those airborne inkblots.

Chapter 10

The first book Boris translated, as a teenage amateur, was Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Unfortunately for him, the frustration of referring to the English-Russian dictionary fifty times per page ruined the experience to such an extent that all the works of John Steinbeck became no-go areas. And so they remain today. It’s a salutary lesson for all language learners who are motivated by a desire to read foreign literature.

Chapter 11

If the writer is never off-duty, then continuous working hours are not the only sacrifices to be made. A more surprising sacrifice was his enjoyment of music. Whenever Boris hears a piece of music that evokes a particular mood, he labels it appropriately and then stores it away. Some time later, when writing a scene that requires that particular mood, he re-plays that piece and others similar, a sort-of sonic mood board, to help the process along. Effective it might be, but those pieces, like Steinbeck, is ruined thereafter. It seems that clouds are not the only objects in jeopardy from an author’s attentions.

Epilogue

I wonder how Boris Akunin feels to be on the other side now that his own novels are translated into other languages. Does he ever worry that his translators will undergo their own personal rebellion?

New Finnish Motivation

For a while now I’ve been preoccupied by thoughts of language, the preservation of language, and identity, sure that the kernel of an idea that I had for a novel could be made to work. But I worried that it would be an idea that only I would find interesting. Even though advice is given to not write for a specific audience and to write only for oneself, for a project that might be 100,000 words long and occupy several years, it becomes hard to put these worries from your mind completely.

And so I was very grateful to receive for Christmas New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani (translated from the Italian by Judith Landry), which in many ways was a gift of more than just a book, it was a gift of inspiration, of reassurance and motivation.

New Finnish Grammar became somewhat popular in the UK eighteen months ago, when, after an 11 year exile, it was finally published in English. It was a particular favourite of Nicholas Lezard, whose excellent review of it can be found in the Guardian, and was in fact quoted on the cover.

Set during the Second World War it tells the story of Sampo Karjalainen, a soldier who is found unconscious in the street, apparently the victim of a vicious assault. His head injuries are so severe that an almost total amnesia has overcome him, including the loss of his language. With the few clues about him pointing to a Finnish identity, the neurologist caring for him encourages Sampo to work hard at relearning his Finnish, with the eventual aim of him returning to Helsinki. The doctor believes that both his Finnish language and identity will re-emerge once he’s embedded in a familiar environment.

The central mystery of Sampo’s true identity, and the foreboding introduced in the prologue, provides the narrative foundation to the novel, allowing Marani to build atop it a discussion of the Finnish language and its inherent relationship to the Finnish book of epic mythic poetry, The Kalevala. The experiences of Sampo mirror the struggle of Finland to determine its own national identity and language, an issue that was forced by the Kalevala. In fact, so compelling is the novel’s narrative drive, that I had to actively slow down so as not to miss all the details. I’m sure I was unsuccessful, but at least it gives me an excuse to read this fascinating book a second time.

After having spent some time relearning Finnish Sampo is asked to name his favourite Finnish word or phrase, and replies that it’s the abessive case, and after reading his reasons perhaps you might be inclined to agree.

Yes, a declension for things we haven’t got: koskenkorvatta, toivatta, no koskenkorva, no hope, both are declined in the abessive. It’s beautiful, it’s like poetry! And also very useful, because there are more things we haven’t got than that we have.

This reference to absence could be applied to many things in the book, to all the things for which Sampo is searching. The key hypothesis of the neurologist is that both the Finnish experience and the recovery of his language would help Sampo in this search for his old personality and memories, and that developing each would reinforce the others. A pastor who instructs Sampo in the Kalevala seems to agree:

When you can read the Kalevala you will be a real Finn; when you can feel the rhythm of its songs, your hair will stand on end and you will truly be one of us!

With words like these, and similar from rest of the book, from all the persuasion and instruction that is delivered to Sampo, and that could equally well be being delivered to the reader,

So the shortest words are also the oldest, the most worn away by time. In Finnish, the word for war is sota, and these two syllables are eloquent pointers to how many we have indeed waged.

you might find yourself wanting to learn Finnish! The author certainly seems to possess a fondness for it, a language which is almost without relatives, Estonian and Hungarian being the only two.

However, the intellectual, linguistic side of the novel slowly gives way to sadness, when Sampo, despite his efforts to regain his identity, and no matter how much his Finnish improves, never really regains a feeling of inner peace. And I will leave things at that for fear of revealing too much. To find out more, I recommend that you read the book!

And yet, perhaps a little selfishly, as sad as I felt for Sampo, at the end of the novel I was heartened and encouraged. If a novel like this, which is rooted so heavily in the topics around language, can be so interesting and likeable, then perhaps there is hope yet. I can tackle once more my own idea, not with expectation, but at least with a little confidence. That said, the final lesson to take from the novel is cautionary, as, just like Sampo, I shouldn’t count on any certainties; there can be no guarantees that anyone will like my novel when it is finished, myself included.

Hidden Haiku, Hidden Depth

Perhaps this is what Guy Debord and the Letterists were trying to achieve with dérive, purposefully using an incorrect map to artistically navigate a city – to arrive at a destination, other than the one desired, but that might prove to be of equal or greater artistic value than the intended original. If it has a literary equivalent, then it happened to me when I was reading a book about Arvo Pärt (Oxford Studies of Composers: Arvo Pärt by Paul Hillier), and learning about all the things I had expected to from such a book: his biography, music theory, minimalism. What I hadn’t expected to read was:

The sound is clear
And reaches the Big Dipper-
Someone pounding cloth.

Simply stunning.

The contrast in scales between the galactic and the solitary human, and the percussive linking of the two into the ending of perfect abruptness, floored me, and I sat silently for a couple of minutes trying to digest those three simple lines.

This particular haiku was written by Matsuo Bashō, master of the form, and the translation is by Ueda. I tried to find a link to it online and came across this alternative version instead:

so clear the sound
echoes to the Big Dipper
the fulling block

It’s elegant, yes, but I feel it lacks the power of the Ueda version. The first two lines seem virtually interchangeable, but it’s in that last line, in the final three words, that the difference lies. Three words, such fine tolerances, but actually, the margins are even finer than that; I think it’s a single word that has it.

Someone.

You or I, him or her, one person who could be any one of us, performing a task so mundane and, because of that, universal, so that it opens communication to the universe, to the entire history of humanity. Take away the human actor, and it reduces to a remote observation of dispassionate significance.

And so it was that I set out to learn about one man and his music, and ended up learning about writing, and a great deal more besides.

Note: a fulling block is a wooden mallet that was used to beat the cloth to help dry and soften it.

First Light, Final Thought

Over Christmas, whilst visiting my parents, I spotted the book First Light by Geoffrey Wellum on my bookshelves at home. I first read this WW2 memoir a few years ago, and it is an excellent, moving portrayal of life as an RAF pilot during that period. In 2010 the book was turned into a drama-documentary shown on BBC2 . I highly recommend both of them, however, rather than now, somewhat belatedly, giving a detailed review of the book, I instead want to relate a key impression of his extraordinary story that has lingered with me.

The memory I have is a quote that, oddly enough, isn’t actually from the book, but rather from an interview with Geoffrey Wellum that appeared in the Independent newspaper. When asked, by journalist Julia Llewellyn Smith, why he had written the memoir, he gave the following reply:

“I just wanted to sit quietly and convince myself that at some point in my life I had been of use.”

Having read his account of his extraordinarily intense military service of several years, including fighting in the Battle of Britain, it is incredible to think that he could ever have had any doubts on this point. These haunting words have stayed with me almost verbatim ever since, a testament to their power, and, even now, I struggle to think of a more raw or poignant summary of the question of life than them.

Note: the interview in the Independent seems to be currently unavailable online, but the quote is reproduced in this blog, Place to Land.

K. rolls the dice

So, it’s the New Year, a time for ambitious undertakings. Here’s one: what is the power of literature? Perhaps that’s a little too ambitious. Slightly less ambitious then: what is the power of a novel? Just how much influence can one wield?

Let’s put aside political or religious tracts, those books explicitly designed to advance arguments and convert the minds of those opposed (or bolster those of the already converted), and consider only novels. Of course, works of fiction can still be constructed to assert (or through satire, to subvert) positions and thereby persuade, through whispers and allegory, reader to concur with author. They must do so by subtle means though, if they wish to succeed in that first and necessary aim of being a ‘good novel’; necessary of course if it is to be a novel that is read, without which there will be no deployment of its arguments.

We might think of Kafka, and the morphing of his name into the adjective ‘Kafkaesque’. His depictions of unyielding, inhumane yet man-made bureaucracy have led to the labelling of similar, less extreme examples in real life. And yet the pithy designation of them has not, it seems, reduced the likelihood of such systems occurring. They still repel, confuse, and control us, and mankind suffers to relive analogous, edited versions of K.’s bewildering experiences. One might argue then that the fate of The Trial was to become one extended dictionary entry. An even longer one, if we include in it The Castle too. And this extensive dictionary entry could in turn be replaced by a few short words, and nobody need read Kafka ever again.

This seems unfair to Kafka, and indeed it is, and yet I feel it’s not a complete exaggeration to say it. Depressing, for all the obvious reasons, to those who care about the rich variety of the written form and the artful expression of imagined scenes, it is surely even more so to the aspiring writer. If this is the fate to befall Kafka, that strange, original, and brilliant author, then what hope for the rest of us? In attempting to engage with the world we become K. evermore completely.

Perhaps the solution is to remove our aim from society, and focus on the individual reader. And with that focus, give ourselves up to chance, forsaking our hoped-for influence.

In the post Thoughts at Intervals? I wrote that Saramago has been a big influence on me, and that continues to be true. The source of this inspiration can be traced back to the first book of his that I read, Death at Intervals. And this is the thing, it was not through advancing arguments, but the shear brilliance of the writing, the form of the expression, the gentle, incisive wit delivered with a warmth for humanity, that persuaded me to act. This writing style, and the revelation of greater and more appealing possibilities in literature, moved me to enrol on a creative writing course and try my own hand at fiction (to be uploaded to this blog in future posts).

Some months later, I happened to read an interview with Saramago in which he claimed that his sentences were constructed not just to carry meaning, and not even just to be elegantly structured, but that they were to possess a musicality that could be heard, so that by reading sentence after sentence something of a symphony would be produced. As excellent as Margaret Jull Costa’s translations are, I couldn’t help but feel that I was missing this musicality that the sentences had possessed when in their original Portuguese. To hear the music then, there was no other solution but to begin learning Portuguese.

The third, but probably not the final, act of this story? Well, you are reading it now, without the creative writing, it is unlikely that this blog would ever have come into being. And what is more, the truly exciting thought regarding all of this is: what further influence on my life will this all have? The contemplation of future possibilities brings to mind the proverb For Want of a Nail .

A final point, or caveat, to make is that the book found, in me, a receptive reader who was minded to act, without which state of mind the book would have been just that, and I would have gone about my life unperturbed. The corollary of this is that the same book read at a different time would likely not have had the same impact, our tastes and personalities changing and maturing as they do, so that it could well be a different author who is now my favourite, and a completely different language that I would now be learning.

And so returning to my earlier suggestion. Writers, having no control over who it is that purchases their books, nor requiring assessments as to their sensibilities or suitability for the book at that time and at that place, really have no choice but to give up their own aims and instead retrospectively adopt those accomplished by their audience. In influencing then, chance is the thing, and possibly the only thing.

And now for some audience participation: if asked to pick the single most influential book (in terms of changing your outlook and particularly your actions) that you’ve read so far, and you are permitted to select only ONE, what would it be and why?