February 26, 2014
Vol: 51 No: 9

Arts & Entertainment

Eating his words

By Elliott Bronstein

Book Review - The Infatuations / By Javier Marías

A male author cooks up a female narrator and gets it all wrong

Photo by Jon Williams / Arts Editor

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Just to clarify: Real Change does not force us to review books. Assistant Editor Rosette Royale does not hold a knife to our throats and whisper, “Read the latest novel by acclaimed Spanish author Javier Marías, or you’ll never see First and South Main again.”

No, I asked for it. I volunteered.

“The idea of a male writing a female narrator and a female writing a male seems absurd,” said Marías in a 2006 Paris Review interview. “I see the world from my manhood, and that’s the way I see women in my novels.” (Thanks to author and New York Times reviewer Edward St. Aubyn for pointing me to this interview.)

Sometime after that interview, Marías abandoned the allegiance to his manhood and decided to try his hand at María Dolz, the female narrator of “The Infatuations.” María is fascinated by a couple who frequents the same Madrid cafe where she eats breakfast every morning. She watches them; she enjoys their easy, relaxed camaraderie. After the couple vanishes from the restaurant, she learns that the husband was murdered brutally in a seemingly random attack. María visits Luisa, the widow, to offer her condolences. There she meets a friend of the family. She begins an affair with this man, only to discover that he may have had something to do with the husband’s death. Was it murder?

In “The Infatuations”’ early pages, María’s voice beguiles with freshness and a sly wit. That voice doesn’t last, however, though it does pop up now and again to remind us that María started out as a living character, only to be smothered too often by the author’s lengthy and soporific digressions. Watching Marías assume the voice of “María” is like watching a ventriloquist fail to keep his lips from moving.

Marías does achieve flashes — even pages — of clarity and depth. Listen as he imagines the thoughts of the husband, standing in the street in broad daylight, who has just been fatally stabbed:

“What’s going on here, how is this possible, what is this man doing and why is he stabbing me, why has he chosen me out of millions and who has he mistaken me for, doesn’t he realize that I am not the cause of his ills, and how ridiculous, how awful, how stupid to die like this.”

Marías has the knack of revealing the depths of loss — how it slides from deep to trivial to deep again. He gives us not his characters’ thoughts but rather what one character thinks another character might be thinking. And so María Dolz imagines how Luisa’s dead husband would have asked his best friend Díaz-Varela to take care of her and their children in the unlikely event that he died suddenly:

“Nevertheless it would help her to have some living person who could take my place, insofar as that’s possible, someone she could talk to. Having a father-figure close by, someone she saw often and was used to.”

But something’s missing from this occasionally virtuoso performance. There’s no heart at the core of it: Marías cannot locate the souls of his characters, though he plunges into the water repeatedly to swim down there and find them.

Marías must have intended his long meditations on death to strike us as profound. But they didn’t impress me; after a while they simply sounded juvenile, like a teenager wondering how people would talk at his funeral. It’s all a slender thread on which to suspend a 300+ page book.

Every novel is a tale told, and Marías fails utterly as a storyteller. He digresses; he circles; he repeats. He describes the central couple within the novel “as if they had only just met or met for the first time” — the second phrase not a rhythmic addition, but simply unnecessary, an extra helping of turkey stuffing. In the book’s most dramatically charged scene, when the narrator overhears some chilling words spoken by her lover, Marías abruptly fumbles the moment and blows the scene to ruminate for a page and half about Macbeth and the arbitrary timing of death.

You’re supposed to review the book in your hands, not the one you wish the author had written. But it’s clear to me that Marías took the easy route with “The Infatuations.” He had a slender plot, but rather than develop authentic characters (that’s hard), he chose instead to churn out page after page of pretentious pontification (easy). There’s no pleasure in it. It’s all “very interesting.”

“Very interesting.” That’s what a certain type of male intellectual intones just before retreating inside his cranial crawlspace.

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