Thursday, January 08, 2015

Time, Uncertainty, and Desire

The InfatuationsThe Infatuations 
by Javier Marías

“We cannot know what time will do to us with its fine, indistinguishable layers upon layers, we cannot know what it might make of us. It advances stealthily, day by day and hour by hour and step by poisoned step, never drawing attention to its surreptitious labours, so respectful and considerate that it never once gives us a sudden prod or a nasty fright. Every morning, it turns up with its soothing, invariable face and tells us exactly the opposite of what is actually happening: that everything is fine and nothing has changed, that everything is just as it was yesterday--the balance of power--that nothing has been gained and nothing lost, that our face is the same, as is our hair and our shape, that the person who hated us continues to hate us and the person who loved us continues to love us.”   ― Javier Marías, The Infatuations

It is not only time that is a theme of this book but also uncertainty. That is the uncertainty we have in the evidence of our senses due to both our own point of view and lack of evidence. With a dramatic opening, a murder on the first page, the reader is drawn into a mysterious narrative. It is also a personal narrative told from the perspective of Maria Dolz who by happenstance, due to her habit of stopping at the same cafe each day before work, recognizes the newspaper photo of the man who was killed. We are given his name in the first sentence of the book, "Miguel Desvern or Deverne", and we are also introduced to uncertainty for Maria is not entirely sure of his exact name. It seems that her acquaintance with Miguel and his wife began as she shared breakfast each day with them, but only "at a distance". Somewhat voyeuristically she would study them each morning as she sipped her coffee, but had never actually met them. Dolz has “only ever caught fragments of their conversation, or just the odd word or two,” and she is compelled enough by their presence and manner to wish them “all the best in the world, as if they were characters in a novel". Thus the mystery grows and the reader is left wondering, at the end of the first chapter, where do we go from here?

Gradually she comes to know the widow, Luisa, after approaching her months later, at the same café, to offer condolences, albeit as a stranger. As it turns out, the “Perfect Couple” were watching too, perhaps less obsessively, as Luisa welcomes her back to her apartment and reveals they had both referred to the solitary Dolz as the “Prudent Young Woman.” Marías reveals all of this efficiently, then sets it aside in the early pages of his four-part Infatuations. Death is not the spoiler here. The novel’s remaining three acts provide new directions, digressions, and fodder for those readers with patience for Marias' sometimes Jamesian prose.  Introduced on the first page, the idea of death is pervasive throughout, for example:
"not having been born is not the same as having died, because the person who dies always leaves some trace behind him and he knows that." 
These traces of life that are left by the dead play an important role in the narrative, but there are also ruminations on time, truth, memory, envy, and infatuation, especially the last which is what sweeps Maria into an affair of a sort with a friend of Luisa.

There are long expository passages devoted to Balzac’s novella Colonel Chabert, whose plot commands almost as much detective work as Miguel’s murder. There are recurring passages from Macbeth, Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers, and some Keats for good measure. There is also a tendency for María to speculate about pages-long scenarios only to yank them away (after the reader’s imagination has been fully invested) with a dismissive, “Not that any of those things would happen,” or, “I didn’t actually think all this.” In fact, for much of The Infatuations,the action doesn’t so much happen as get discussed.

This is not to say that the novel does not have a denouement and resolution. But as one character contends, during a discussion of Balzac’s Chabert: “What happened is the least of it… What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot we recall more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.” As this is true in reading Balzac it is also true in the narrative presented as The Infatuations; a bit of meta fiction. This is done so well that life and fiction seem like inventions often made from the same materials. The prose style plays with time again and again and the uncertainty lasts through the last twist of interaction between the characters. This is a novel that, as I mentioned, requires investing in patience, but for the reader who perseveres its rewards make that investment worthwhile.

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Parrish Lantern said...

This is one of those writers, who sit on my bookshelf waiting for their work to grab my attention, so far this writer hasn't got past the acknowledgement that they are still there. I hope to remedy that this year.

James said...

Four years ago I was impressed with The Man of Feeling and compared it with Proust. This novel, his most recent (in translation), is better and has a touch of James, but many other levels of meaning.

Brian Joseph said...

Great review as always James.

Also as usual the books sounds very good. However I am thinking that I would want to read Balzac first.

James said...


Thanks for the comment. The Balzac book, at least the relevant plot points, are thoroughly described in Marias' novel.
The structure is strange with the murder on the first page which after many digressions remains the center of the novel till the end. In some ways it is a catalyst, yet it is also the particular instance of the universal idea of death.