My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I should like Javier Marías. I read this novel, my first by the celebrated Spanish author, after reading and admiring Mark de Silva’s call for “putdownable prose,” for fiction that poses linguistic and conceptual challenges rather than speeding the reader through the story, and de Silva treated Marías’s work as exemplary of such sophisticated writing. Moreover, in his Paris Review interview, Marías echoes some of the claims I have been making about the importance of writing as discovery, as opposed to “world building”:
The verb to invent, or inventar in Spanish, comes from the Latin invenire, which means to discover, to find out. That is what I like to do in writing: find out what I am writing about as I write it. I decide on the spot. If I had decided the whole story from the start—how many characters there will be, what will happen to them, etcetera—I probably wouldn’t write it. In a couple of short stories, I knew the whole story before I started writing and then I was a little bored. It seemed to me like I was making a report. I suppose you think the reader doesn’t know the whole story and you try to write it in a way that moves him or her or interests or thrills or whatever, but then you’re applying mere technicalities. You know the whole story and you try to use this or that for effect, but that effect is not coming along at the same time as the writing. If you write page five in preparation for page fifty, it is very likely that you’re revealing too much without meaning to. Then the book can become predictable.
But I do not like The Infatuations very much. Its formal conceit, which I believe is common to many or most of Marías’s novels, is promising: the novel’s events are those of a pulpy thriller—we have a murder mystery animated by erotic jealousy—but the telling of the story is not designed to expertly deliver the commercial genre novel’s drip-feed of calculatedly intermittent surprise; rather, the action is slowed down and sometimes entirely immobilized by the endless introspection and speculation of the narrator and the philosophical dialogues of the characters. This simultaneous use of and rebuke to the materials of the thriller, this exploration by novelistic sensibility of the landscape of romance, is a brilliant device, and it has roots in the Anglophone modernist tradition that the translator Marías admires: James, Conrad, Faulkner. But those novelists took pains to create particular figures in memorable settings, whereas Marías links long philosophical disquisitions to characters who have only names and a few distinguishing features (one character has full lips, another has eyes mismatched in size, etc.) without having complex personalities or even distinct voices. The novel’s first-person narrator, María, would be more impressive if she were the only character in The Infatuations who thinks and speaks in endlessly recursive loops of indecision, but the other major characters who talk at length talk just as she does.
Scott Esposito claims that Marías’s “virtue as a novelist rests not on the architecture of his sentences, but rather on his ability to fashion a prose that, in its anxious, haphazard inelegance, makes palpable the incessant prevaricating endemic to bourgeois neuroticism.” While I appreciate Esposito’s acknowledgement that Marías’s long sentences—which are often slackly paratactic, mere rambles among the comma splices—are not much like those of Henry James, I am less convinced of the historical significance Esposito attributes to the novel’s style. Granted, the narrator contrasts the passions of an earlier period, or at least an earlier literature, with the supposed tameness of the present. Maris signals this theme with lengthy allusions to earlier texts: Macbeth, The Three Musketeers, and Balzac’s novella Colonel Chabert. But the novel’s sea of indiscriminate perseveration drowns this compelling motif, a flood that washes away not only theme, but character (only the comic secondary characters have any life), setting (hardly any room or street or place is described), and plot (the novel’s point is that the truth about its central event—a man’s murder—is ultimately unknowable). This seems less an intelligent comment on bourgeois neuroticism and more an unwitting display of it.
(I would quote from the novel, but it would not really convey the prose’s effect, unless I reproduced several whole pages of the narrator’s rumination on a particular theme; Marías’s basic unit of composition seems to be the chapter-long divagation.)
I was impressed with the novel’s beginning. The opening pages depict an experience most city-dwellers will be familiar with: speculating about the lives of the strangers we see regularly in public spaces. But the literalization of this commonplace mystery into the extravagant mystery of an unsolved murder seems too easy, and, in any case, Marías’s prose muffles the intensity of such a violent story. In his Paris Review interview linked above, Marías speaks of his distaste for Joyce, Woolf, and Dostoevsky. But Joyce and Woolf wrote the books (Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway) on urban alienation and on the verbal texture of the urban bourgeoisie’s inner life; and Dostoevsky wrote the book (Crime and Punishment) on the symbolic role of murder in the modern individual’s desire to escape modernity’s prison. Marías, with neither the modernists’ command of language and psychology nor the Russian novelist’s mastery of character, atmosphere, and philosophy, can by contrast only show his characters dithering among superficial “ideas”: people change with time, murderers find ways to protect themselves from guilt, it is hard for any one person to know the truth of events, erotic obsession is a motive in crime, etc.
It is just possible that I have missed something—I skimmed some of the dithering, even though I rarely skim—or that the novel has planted a seed that will grow in my mind. But for now, I find this a novel of tedious, because insignificant, verbosity, its ostensibly artistic prose a mark of “the literary” without any of literature’s originality or complexity. The Infatuations, like its character who may or may not be a cold-blooded killer, may or may not be literature, in the normative sense of great writing: both novel and murderer display signs on the surface, but these days it is hard to know for sure.