Ten years ago next August the Gerts and their Silent Travelling Companion were in China. We had few books with us, this was before the days of e-readers, but the one book we all read which completely captivated us was A Heart so White by Javier Marias.
I can still remember being in a little camphor-wood lined hotel near a river immersed in this book. Here is an excerpt:
I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father’s gun at her heart…
He is writing about his father’s second wife, a girl of eighteen. Before this there has been another wife who has died, but the circumstances are not disclosed. Violent death is a continuing theme in all Marias’ novels. He invites our curiosity about the genesis of these acts, and it makes for absorbing reading, but he is really more interested in exploring the moral and ethical ramifications of these acts. And he does so in long repetitive sentences that have caused his writing to be compared to that of Proust or Henry James.
The Infatuations was published in 2013. The narrator is a woman, let us say a youngish woman, although Alberto Manguel refers to her in his review as ‘middle-aged.’ She seems older, perhaps because her life is very much one of routine. Part of her routine is taking breakfast at a certain café every morning and it is here she sees and becomes somewhat overly interested in the two people she names to herself The Perfect Couple. Not a great deal happens. The male part of the perfect couple is murdered and the narrator manages to wangle her way into the home of his wife, just for a short time, but long enough to meet and fall for the murdered husband’s best friend.
Right from the start we experience those long repetitive sentences, but they did not beguile me, in fact at times I found them intolerable. I’m clear as to why this is. In A Heart so White events happened, we were engaged in developing relationships, in different aspects of the story showing through bit by bit, in discovering secrets. Anyone who has done even the most basic writing class knows about showing and telling. We can all name writers who break this rule, but Proust and Henry James are not among them. In this book Javier Marias tells and tells. He rarely follows the other maxim, ‘description and detail are the life blood of writing’, either. I can enjoy telling if it’s mixed with other writing styles but telling that spins itself out in long musing and conjectures about what someone might have thought or might have said palls very quickly. You don’t believe me? After all, Marias has won many prizes. What would I know? The following is taken from a three-page speech by the dead husband’s best friend who, it quickly becomes clear, has designs on his friend’s widow.
The bad thing about terrible misfortunes, the kind that tear us apart and appear to be unendurable, that those who suffer them believe or demand that the world should end right there, and yet the world pays no heed and carries on regardless sand even tugs at the sleeve of the person who suffered the misfortune, I mean, it won’t just let them depart this world the way a disgruntled spectator might leave the theatre, unless the unfortunate kills him or herself. That does happen, I don’t deny it.
And from the narrator as she speculates about the nature of grief:
That’s another of the problems when one suffers a misfortune: the effects on the victim far outlast the patience of those prepared to listen and accompany her, unconditional support never lasts very long once it has become tinged with monotony.
The first is a spoken reflection, the second internal, but the voice in both is very similar, and both go on and on for pages. The only humour comes when the narrator, Maria Dorn, who works in publishing, speaks about the writers she has to deal with. Garay Fontina rings her at night to send her out to buy cocaine for research for his latest novel. Maria launches into a diatribe,
‘What do you take us for, Senor Fontina ? Drug pushers? I don’t know if you realize it but you’re asking us to break the law. As I’m sure you can’t buy cocaine at the local tobacconist or your local bar….’
A more lively Maria shows herself here. Generally with her lover she is passive and accepting of his off-hand treatment. She has his number though:
He had a marked tendency to discourse and expound and digress…
In modern parlance we could add, ‘and not in a good way.’
Thus we have here one murder with three different explanations (each one of which is harder to believe than the one before), one affair, and a great deal of speculation and discourse (see above).
There is also discussion of a novella by Balzac, the tale of Colonel Chabert who married a young woman and then was lost in the war, buried deep in a trench below piles of bodies He is pronounced dead but by some miracle comes back to life. The lover likes this story and speculates a great deal as to its meaning. Its relevance to this story is never clear. The dead husband is never going to come back.
I found this book disappointing and very tedious at times. Just so you know it’s not just me, here is a quote from Scott Esposito in The American Reader 2013:
When Mr. Marías is off his game, he is wholly capable of luxuriating for far too long in his mock-philosophical contemplations, burdening his texts with an unpleasant bloat: at least one hundred pages of ‘The Infatuations’ amounts to a sort of literary cock block…