Sunday, January 6, 2013

Javier Marías / A Heart So White / JDP

Javier Marías / 1995 / Spanish / 279 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa 

This concise and exceedingly well-crafted meditation on marriage and love manages to throw in equally trenchant sidebars on memory (think W. G. Sebald) and psychology (think Henry James). Many of the novel's scenes have been so carefully and compassionately rendered that I believe A Heart So White easily qualifies as a masterwork. 

I've been thinking about Roberto Bolaño a lot recently. Not only did the man bequeath the literary world with two nearly perfect novels -- The Savage Detectives and 2666 -- but he also left behind a fascinating life story and endless pages, interviews, and speeches full of literary criticism. Just the other day, my friend Cristian and I were trying to gather information about a number of authors Bolaño had lauded in one of his last interviews before he died. Bolaño was infamous for meting out praise or firing off condemnations of other writers working in the Spanish language (he offered advice about how to navigate the dense landscape of Spanish-language poetry at the same time that he decried the writings of more mainstream authors like Isabel Allende). While many of the authors he recommended are disappointingly difficult to find in English translation, Cristian and I narrowed in on one author and, in particular, one notable novel: A Heart So White by Javier Marías. It ended up being a fantastic choice. 

No doubt Marías is well-known in many Spanish literary circles, but I'd never heard of him before (the fact that he refused to set foot within the States while Bush was president between 2000 and 2008 probably contributes to his relatively vague status in my Midwest literary excursions). But his books were easy enough to locate in a Scottish bookseller here in Glasgow (indeed, Waterstones, as it's called, had copies of no less than seven of his novels) and I tore through A Heart So White in record time. Marías writes with a style that is highly reminiscent of a few English-language authors and this is not so terribly surprising -- the man is a well-regarded and award-winning translator of authors such as Nabokov, Sterne, Conrad, Faulkner, and James. These are not trivial antecedents and their influence, although light, flits in and out of the pages of A Heart So White. Taken together with Bolaño's endorsement of Marías as being among the foremost talents currently working in Spanish prose, and the conclusion basically states itself: Marías comes from good stock. 

I have to admit that a favorable predisposition will aid you in reading this novel. Although it begins with a dozen or so truly electrifying pages, the novel's structure seems like a lengthy psychological meander that is infrequently punctuacted with slightly more concrete (and brilliant) episodes. Marías is a patient writer and the stlye demands a commensurate level of patience from the reader. It takes some time for the full thematic scope of the work to emerge and the action, such as it is, is highly circumscribed in nature: we get 20 or 30 pages of an overheard conversation in a hotel room, another two-dozen pages about the ins and outs of translating political speeches, lengthy disquisitions on art forgery, and so forth. But Marías writes what he knows and his "Jamesian" sentence structures are penned in sufficiently engaging fashion that the text does not bore. I would bet that you have never read about the niceties of verbal translation at an international political forum. In Marías' hands, this is something to behold substantively, stylistically, and symbolically.

More broadly, I find myself being drawn toward this style of writing; that is, a style at once both meditative and punctuated by well-constructed,  almost encapsulated episodes. For whatever reason, I've come to associate this style with Spanish-language authors (but perhaps this speaks more to my limited scope than some truly taxonomical characteristic). It's not that Marías (or, for that matter, Cortazar or Bolaño) writes frame stories along the lines of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Rather, these authors are just quite adept at the self-contained, drop-in anecdote that both stands alone and contributes to the broader development of the story. I will never forget the account of the death of La Maga's infant child in Hopscotch or the literary duel of swords on the beach in The Savage Detectives. There are similarly singular episodes in A Heart So White and these brilliantly punctuate the otherwise cloudy narrative that trucks in memory (think W. G. Sebald) and psychological hair-splitting (think Henry James). When I talk to people about these novels, we end up rehashing these episodes specifically. They demand your attention.  

I should speak to the novel's content. A Heart So White begins with a middle-aged man who is recently married. This prompts separate bouts of retrospective and prospective musing. The narrator wonders at the series of events that brough him to this point -- to the decision that it was time to completely and thoroughly share the most intimate and mundane aspects of his life with a spouse. He also wonders, with not an insubstantial about of trepidation, where their shared future is likely to take them. Now that the romantic race is over, what are they to do with themselves? In a short period of time, he is confronted by a number of ... let's call them "alternative romantic arrangements" whose juxtaposition to his own status causes food for thought. First, he witnesses an anguished exchange in Havanna between a woman (more specifically, a mistress) and a married man who keeps his ailing wife back in Spain. The interchange is not pleasant. Next, he begins to learn more about his father's previous marriages (of which there were three) and these, also, reveal the complexities of emotional attachment. Third, while staying with an unmarried friend in New York, he witnesses the uncomfortable lengths she must go to in answering "lonely hearts" want ads in the local newspapers. Her suitors' motivations are not always so pure and he begins to worry about his friend's short-term safety and long-term happiness. 

By the end of the novel, the narrator has passed through a substantial transition. Now satisfied with married life (or, perhaps, grown accustomed to it by comparison with the aforementioned alternative arrangements) he begins to understand the delicate dance of sharing, withholding, and creating experiences with another person. As a middle-twenty-something myself, I tracked rather well with the different points of his experience. The past really is difficult to sort out, the prospects of the future really are strange to parse, and settling into more traditional patterns of living -- rather than exhaustively working to push forward, accomplish, and develop -- really does seem like something of a sea change.

Admittedly, this is not a perfect novel. Some of the connective tissues that exist between the more critical episodes are meandering, abstract, and vague. The narrative style often folds back on itself, recycling bits of observation and phrases in new contexts and it's not long before the novelty (and perhaps utility?) of this device wears thin. If you were previously frustrated by the psychological niceties of, say, Austerlitz or The Sea or The Portrait of a Lady, you may well find yourself similarly flummoxed here as well. And all the talk of romance can get downright melodramatic at points.   

But I learned things about life from A Heart So White. I learned something about the relationship between fathers and sons, between husband and wife, between the past and the present. I was taken on a ride of transition and adjustment with which anyone my age would sympathize and understand. I would almost describe the novel as a "primer in commitment" and -- were it not quite so challenging a read -- distribute it freely as gifts to newly-weds in the years to come. I highly recommend it.    

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