No Valley Without Shadows #1: Javier Marías’ The Infatuations

Posted by on June 18, 2013

No Valley without Shadows (Jordan Anderson) #1

“Time obliterates the fictions of opinion and confirms the decisions of nature.” Cicero

No truer words could be written on art than these, recorded centuries ago in what we regard as a more “primitive” age than our own: in judging creative work we must guard against the falsehoods of fashion, and look more deeply for what will last. Like Nick Drake’s “fruit tree,” which “will never flourish/’til its stalk is in the ground,” the future will know the work we produce better than we know it ourselves. But the search for what is worthwhile in our own time may nonetheless merit the effort.

Through this column on contemporary literature I hope to examine the work of authors who keep to the form of what is beautiful — which is only another way of saying, as it has always been said throughout history: art that is made in good thought, and borne from proportion, duration, and variation — and to dispense with the type of criticism of our time that pretends to despise a metaphysical view of art even while subtly honoring it.

This first installment will cover the great Spanish writer Javier Marías. For those who are not familiar with his work, Marías is of real brilliance, and works in the great mode of Proust, that is, in long first-person novels on the profound theme of human memory. Proust has had many artists attempt to take on his mantle; but Marías is one of the few who have truly made it his own.

With that, let’s get started!

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The Infatuations by Javier Marías (346 pp., Knopf Books/Hamish Hamilton Publishers)

Among living writers, Javier Marías will almost certainly be one of those whose work will be widely read a century from now. He sees deeper into human nature than almost any of his peers — only authors of the ilk of Nadine Gordimer, V. S. Naipaul, Alice Munro, and Ian McEwan equal him in their use of both beautiful prose and beautiful ideas.

The Infatuations

Marías’s most recent novel, The Infatuations (originally published in Spanish as Los enamoramientos), is regrettably one of his most flat creations, however, moving in a strained way between passages of profound moral inquiry, long tirades against our age’s lack of fair conduct, strangely high-handed criticisms of clothing styles, in many instances, and dramatis personae of a type which he has already treated thoroughly in other novels and short stories.

The book is chiefly restrained by Marías’s use of spiritless crises and monologues. Discourse often serves not only to propel a story forward in the writer’s novels, but to act as a means by which the author can express philosophical ideas: think of the realpolitik behind the foreign agent Tupra’s long talks on terror with the stunned narrator in the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, for example. When reading Munro, Gordimer, McEwan, et al., we enter into the world of their characters; when reading Marías we enter into the world of Marías.

In The Infatuations this technique simply does not work — here the authorial voice is too strong to allow us into the universe the writer creates. A very long monologue on a dying man’s last thoughts, to take one of many cases, stiffly concludes by saying that the man was most likely too shocked in the moment to think much at all. The section not only reads as superfluous, but false.

The novel is written from the perspective of a woman named María Dolz, who works for an acclaimed Madrid literary agency, the pretensions of whose authors she finds a sort of gentle humor in mocking. At a cafe she frequents each morning before work, Dolz sees the same couple, a husband and wife named Miguel and Luisa, time and again. They are upper-middle class, stylish, well-mannered, and good-looking, perhaps too ideal to sustain the mirage of being perfect. One day María hears from a colleague that Miguel has been brutally murdered in the street, with no clear motivation found for the crime. In the wake of this tragedy, Dolz comes to befriend Luisa, as well as one of Luisa’s confidants, an odd man named Javier who is waiting for the chance to pursue an affair with the young widow. Among the new set-pieces of this strange milieu, María begins to piece together the story of Miguel’s death.

What follows is a story that Marías writes best, a narrative drawing from the highest realms of philosophy and literature, while taking from the cues of British genre fiction — what Orwell called with fondness the “good-bad book” – and from golden-age Hollywood films. The crossroads of Spanish, English, and American culture has greatly influenced Marías’s life. He spent a great deal of time in academic towns of America such as New Haven and Wellesley, Massachusetts, while his father was teaching in exile; and he would also come to teach at Wellesley, as well as at Oxford University, the setting for his satire of don life All Souls. Where Your Face Tomorrow was inspired by the spy novel form of writers like Ian Fleming, using the framing device as a means to parse out an age defined by terror and surveillance, The Infatutations draws from the murder mystery style of story of Arthur Conan Doyle. Its secondary influence is the ghost tale form of Balzac’s novella Colonel Chabert and American director Joseph L. Mankewicz’s 1947 film The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, as well as the haunted descent of Macbeth and his wife into madness and death.

Javier Marias

The mythological figure of the ghost, a person outside of time, so to speak, holds a special place in Marías’s books. This is perhaps because our culture’s concept of spirit serves as a deep metaphorical well of memory for the author. It is not a coincidence that The Infatuations focuses so deftly on the border between life and death that is echoed in the murder of Miguel; take for example the passage in the novel when Dolz infers Luisa’s thoughts on her relationship to her deceased husband:

“…. there is also an impulse toward death: ‘I want to be where he is, and the only place where we could coincide is the past, in that place of not being but of having been. He is past, whereas I am still present. If I were also past, at least I would be the same as him in that respect, which would be something, and I would be in no position to miss him or remember him. I would be on the same level as him or in the same dimension, in the same time, and we would not be left alone in this precarious world in which everything familiar is being taken away from us. Nothing more can be taken away from us if we are not here. Nothing more can die on us if we are already dead.’”

Marías here suggests that through memory each of us shares a chain to the world that is already ghost-like, that a ghost’s link to the present is equal to a living person’s link to the past. We are defined in other words by the constant fading away of both ourselves and the world we perceive, and every action, whether political, historical, or temporal, is in some way an attempt to record or erase the past as a way to control the past. “[In] reality there is no loss of any kind, there is no void, there are no past events,” one character intones. It is no wonder that Stalin longed so ardently to destroy the mark of his enemies’ lives from the world. Dictators often know that memory is, for human beings, reality; it is also held to us by only the most delicate thread, and otherwise lost. For those in power, that which is not remembered ceases to exist, and that which does not exist can no longer pose a threat. “[There] must inevitably be more hidden crimes than crimes that are known about and recorded,” one character in the novel says. This profound statement is chilling in its suggestion about the limits of justice.

Thus in The Infatuations, a man’s murder – the nadir of all human moral experience – is something both deeply complex and deeply mysterious, not only because of its reprehensibility, but because it is part of the past, and thus lost to an abyss of time. In the novel a character describes “a childish mistake that many adults cling to until the day they die . . . The mistake of believing that the present is for ever, that what happens in each moment is definitive, when we should all know that as long as we still have a little time left, nothing is definitive.”

Marías has pointed out elsewhere that murder is the most unjust of crimes because there can be no true justice when life is lost. We can bring a dictator to trial, but we cannot bring a murdered person back. Moreover, the memory of that person will fade, as will our feelings toward them: our past selves, as Marías suggests, are not even what we know as ourselves.

In considering these themes of memory and power it must be remembered that Marías was a first-hand witness of life under a dictatorship, having spent vast periods of his youth in Franco-ruled Spain; for him, great hardship is not simply a possibility, but a stern reality. While his criticisms of the lack of mannered bearing among today’s adults can sometimes come off as sour grapes, he is quite possibly correct that the loss of many seemingly arbitrary formal codes in behavior also lead to a loss of very solemn formal codes of justice. A wider theme in his writing is that character is no laughing matter when loyalty and goodness can save yours or a loved one’s life. I remember reading a passage once in one of Marías’s editorials for the leading Spanish newspaper El País where he stated his belief that one should not “turn the other cheek,” that one’s moral imperative is fight back when one is oppressed. I was struck by the harshness of the sentiment. But it is also true that perhaps when one has known the suppression of a tyrant — indeed, the author’s father, the philosopher and follower of Ortega y Gasset, Julián Marías, nearly faced a firing squad under Franco after being falsely denounced as a communist agent — forgiving your enemies can be akin to doing harm to others. You may survive; it is not certain your neighbor, who you gave the iron fist of an intelligence service access to, will. It is a sad fact of life that when Gandhi or Chamberlain appealed to Hitler’s human side, they did not recognize that Hitler did not have a human side to appeal to.

This is a central crux within Marías work, and it is regrettable in this instance that such profound insight into our moral life does not come off as well as it is clearly able to do. When the novel works — that is, when its juxtaposition of these diverse threads falls into place, so to speak — it shows Marías to be a genius. Simply put, the poetic and philosophical beauty of Marías’s work ranks among the greatest literature. The Infatuations in some ways adds to a list of a great works by the author; but it is more than unfortunate that it does not rise to the high water mark left by the precedent Marías has set elsewhere.