Friday, August 23, 2013

Javier Marias

Javier Marias's new novel, The Infatuations, opens like this:
The last time I saw Miguel Desvern or Deverne was also the last time that his wife, Luisa, saw him, which seemed strange, perhaps unfair, given that she was his wife, while I, on the other hand, was a person he had never met, a woman with whom he had never exchanged so much as a single word. I didn't even know his name, or only when it was too late, only when I saw a photo in the newspaper, showing him after he had been stabbed several times, with his shirt half off, and about to become a dead man, if he wasn't dead already in his own absent consciousness, a consciousness that never returned: his last thought must have been that the person stabbing him was doing so by mistake and for no reason, that is, unremittingly, with the intention of erasing him from the world and expelling him from the earth without further delay, right there and then. But why do I say "too late," I wonder, too late for what? I have no idea, to be honest. It's just that when someone dies, we always think it's too late for anything, or indeed everything--certainly too late to go on waiting for him--and we write him off as another casualty.
And on and on it goes: the first paragraph takes up more than a page.

I first encountered Marias via his collection of opinionated, amused mini-biographies of writers, Written Lives, which I'd recommend to any fan of the brief life. In the years since that collection was published in English, Marias's reputation has only grown: his trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, adventurous and dramatic and rich in ideas, is one of the great achievements of our era. A new Marias novel has become a reason to rush to my local bookstore.

What I'm looking forward to, more than anything, is those sentences, to sinking into their extravagance. No other writer writes like that; no one else is so profligate with commas, so unashamed about repetition, so interested in offering slightly different perspectives on every thought, like a fly's eye turned into prose. It's a stylized representation of thought, to be sure, but it's an effective one once you surrender to it: at times reading a Marias novel feels almost like reading a single, inconceivably long sentence from a mind whose turnings we can't help but recognize. Marias spins out thoughts like no one else, giving them the space, obsessive and repetitive, that we accord them in our own minds, and the effect is hypnotic.

Fortunately for new readers, if the passage above tempts you, there's an easy way into Marias's work: pick up Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico, a 57-page New Directions Pearl that I think is among the best things Marias has written. It presents the themes and questions that animate all of Marias's books: questions of action and responsibility, fate and death, the unknowability of the future and the mutability of the past, and the power of narrative to control, rearrange, and change our idea of what just happened--especially when that narrative is deliberately used to deny, explain away, or shift culpability. And, as Marias is one of those rare non-genre writers who has characters appear in different roles in multiple books, Bad Nature offers the bonus of featuring a character who appears in other books, including The Infatuations.

Marias is a gem, folks. Give him a try.


  1. I've been keeping an eye out for Your Face Tomorrow but maybe I'm going to have to find it online. It's not too likely to turn up second hand. Having read Bad Nature and All Souls I need no convincing that he's a great writer but feel that I've only nibbled when I should have had a banquet.

  2. Agreed that Bad Nature is a great place to start. I read it after the story collection When I Was Mortal, and though I liked some of the stories, the collection as a whole did less for me than I'd hoped. Bad Nature, on the other hand, manages to be both ruminative and thrilling in a way that I've rarely, if ever, seen attempted.