Friday, January 4, 2013

Javier Marías / A Heart So White / Reviewed by Samantha Schnee and others

by Javier Marías

A Heart So White, probably Javier Marías, best-known novel, chronicles with unnerving insistence family secrets -and the relentless power of the past. Juan knows little of the interior life of his father Ranz; each has always seemed comfortable with their friendly but distant orbit. Only when Juan marries (and his new wife begins to find much to talk about with Ranz) does his son consider the past anew, and yet he doesn´t really want to know. Secrecy, its possible convenience and even civility, hovers throughout the novel -it is a sort of anti-detective story of human nature The sins of the father; the fraudulent and the genuine; marriage and strange repetitions of violence: Marías elegantly send shafts of inquisitor light into shadows. At the center of A Heart So White are the costs of ambivalence. ("My hands are of your colour; but I shame/To wear a heart so white" Shakespeare´s Macbeth )

"There is nothing like this in contemporary literature. A book of genius" Das literarische Quartett

"As quirkly as it is brilliant... An entertaining and intelligent novel" Washington Post

"The writing shows enormous cunning and a fiendish degree of patience! Nouvel Observateur
"Immense talent... a landmark (by) a genuine artist" Le Monde

"The work of a supreme stylist... The two protagonists´ civilized but complex marriages recall the compelling intricacies of Henry James... It is brilliantly done." James Woodall, The Times (London)

Family secrets are the prime elements of A Heart So White, perhaps the greatest novel by "the most talented Spanish author alive" (Il Messagero)

"A Heart So White" is a breathtaking novel about family secrets, winner of the 1997 Dublin IMPAC Prize for the best novel published worldwide in English, and arguably Javier Marias's masterpiece. Javier Marias's "A Heart So White" chronicles with unnerving insistence the relentless power of the past. Juan knows little of the interior life of his father Ranz; but when Juan marries, he begins to consider the past anew, and begins to ponder what he doesn't really want to know. Secrecyits possible convenience, its price, and even its civilityhovers throughout the novel. "A Heart So White" becomes a sort of anti-detective story of human nature. Intrigue; the sins of the father; the fraudulent and the genuine; marriage and strange repetitions of violence: Marias elegantly sends shafts of inquisitory light into shadows and on to the costs of ambivalence. ("My hands are of your colour; but I shame/To wear a heart so white"Shakespeare's "Macbeth.")

Reviewed by Samantha Schnee

Image of “A Heart So White” by Javier Marías
In A Heart So White Javier Marías examines the commonplace yet peculiar institution of marriage and all its attendant secrets and betrayals. Juan is a newlywed translator who shuttles between the UN in New York and the Hague for six to eight weeks at a time, while his young bride Luisa, also a translator, remains behind in Madrid to establish their home together. In Juan's absence she develops a close relationship with her enigmatic father-in-law, a charismatic art dealer named Ranz who, though in his seventies, has not lost the charm that enabled him to marry three times despite the fact that his first wife died mysteriously and the second committed suicide upon returning from their honeymoon.
Juan has never enjoyed a particularly close relationship with his father, and though he cannot put his finger on exactly why, he has great misgivings about the friendship developing between his father and his spouse. Juan's feelings of unease and his difficulty accustoming himself to the conventions of conjugal life are refracted through many lenses: a conversation between a Spaniard and his Cuban lover that Juan and Luisa overhear while they are on their honeymoon in Havana; a one-night-stand that Juan facilitates for his friend and former lover, Berta, while he is staying in her apartment on one of his stints at the UN in New York; and descriptions of Juan's own family history, specifically his father's marriages. Juan is dogged by feelings of dread which seem to become more acute rather than abate the longer he is married.
Marías, the son of a prominent Spanish philosopher, ponders not only the curiosities of matrimony, he waxes philosophical on all matter of topics, and his digressions may lose the less patient reader. These asides, however, are always pertinent, building toward and culminating in an examination of passion so intense that it can drive a man to kill. As Lady Macbeth says to her husband shortly after Duncan's murder, "My hands are of your colour; but I shame/To wear a heart so white."
Margaret Jull Costa is at the height of her powers here, rendering an excellent translation of what many of Marías's followers deem his best work--indeed, it received the 1997 Dublin IMPAC Prize for the best novel published worldwide that year in English. Marías, too is a translator, and not only of Conrad, Sterne, Hardy and others into Spanish; he is, to quote his own most recent novel to appear in English (Your Face Tomorrow: Volume I, Fever and Spear), "…a translator or interpreter of people: of their behavior and reactions…their inconstancies, their limits, their innocence, their lack of scruples and their resistance; their possible degrees of loyalty or baseness and their calculable prices and their poisons and their temptations." It is this unerring insight into the infinite variety of all things human and its faithful translation onto the page that makes A Heart so White, in fact all Marías's work, so great.

Read more:

A Heart So White by Javier Marías

Once I read some praise for this novel, and I also liked its title very much, so I’m sure I would have read it sooner or later. Then a couple of months ago I came across another blog post about this novel in which the blogger mentioned that A Heart So White is full of eight-line sentences and highly irritating parenthetical interjections. Well, you may or may not have noticed, but I am prone to write eight-line long sentences and parenthetical interjections myself, so I thought that these irritating features might in fact prove quite enjoyable to me. Therefore I asked my sister to borrow this book for me from the library, as I felt a great urge to find out about Marías’s long sentences as soon as possible.
The protagonist and narrator of the novel is Juan, a recently married thirtyish translator, and A Heart So White is basically a long series of his musings, his reflections on the past and his attempts to explain the world to himself. The center of the virtually non-existent story is that after his own wedding, Juan becomes interested in the story of his father’s three marriages, and even though he is not sure he really wants to know what kind of secrets are concealed in his father’s past, his curiosity gets the better of him and he cannot hide from the unpleasant and perhaps even dangerous truth.
As it usually happens in this kind of soul-searching, past-revealing novels, by the end of the story we learn the long-concealed secret of Juan’s father. But as it is, the secret itself is not that very important, and what mattered forty years ago doesn’t really matter now. The secret only serves as a convenient referential point which makes it possible for the narrator to muse (under the pretext that he is working hard to reveal the big secret) about as diverse topics as the changes that occur in the relationship of a couple after they get married; the need to understand everything and the impossibility of not understanding and not knowing; the way hearing and knowing something relates to guilt and innocence; the recurring events and the chance coincidences which abound in everyone’s life; the role language plays in our understanding and deception of the other person; or the way something becomes a secret.
These topics are simply wonderful by themselves, and the way Marías covers them in the novel makes them even more so. I was both fascinated and entertained by the constant digressions of the narrator (everything reminds Juan of something else, so it can easily happen that one character asks a question, and we only get the answer after a two-page long interjection or a description of something that’s just come to the narrator’s mind upon hearing the question), and I admired his efforts to understand and explain everything perfectly (it’s easy to see that he writes so many complicated sentences and parenthetical interjections because every explanation can be refined further, and this constant refinement is exactly what the narrator is after).
The narrator can talk interestingly about anything, but still, I enjoyed his ruminations about the nature of language, understanding and deception the most. This also happens to be one of the most important topics for the narrator, which may come as no surprise, given that he works as an interpreter, therefore it is his job to pay attention to language, voices, choices of words, shades of meaning – no matter whom he is talking or listening to. On the one hand, his job makes his life more difficult, as he is accustomed to listening to and interpreting everything so he cannot let go even in his free time, and if he hears anyone speaking in a language he understands he cannot help but listen and interpret. So Juan sometimes suffers from his need to understand everything, on the other hand, however, he is well aware of the power his ability to understand and translate words endows him with – and he doesn’t hesitate to use this power either.
My favorite example for this is the story of Juan’s first meeting with his wife, Luisa. Luisa works as an interpreter as well, and once she is present as an observer at a meeting of a Spanish and an English politician where Juan interprets. Seized by a sudden impulse (and risking his job), Juan decides that he spices up the boring meeting, so he deliberately mistranslates some sentences in order to steer the conversation to a more personal and exciting direction. And even though it would be Luisa’s task to interrupt Juan at this point, she decides to overlook Juan’s deliberate mistakes. This way the two of them become accomplices in the deception and decide to use their linguistic abilities to influence and deceive others, and in a way change the world according to their whims.
This was only a single example, and the novel abounds in such beautiful episodes. But as I already implied, A Heart So White is just as fascinating when nothing happens, thanks to the structure and language Marías uses: sentences and even whole paragraphs keep recurring in the novel, and all the repetitions (not only of words, but symbols, metaphors, and human interactions and relations) have quite a hypnotic and bewitching effect in the end.
Of course you don’t necessarily have to agree with the narrator’s philosophy – but it’s for sure that you will find it hard to ignore the sheer beauty and pervasive force of his trains of thought.

Javier Marías: A Heart So White

BY Serafin G. Leon

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

My hands are of your colour, but I shame to wear a heart so white. Lady Macbeth says to her shaken husband, inmediately after he murdered the king, his hands full of blood from the regicide.

Marias likes giving his novels titles taken from Shakespearian lines. And the title chosen usually refers to something esencial in the narration, playing with the possible meaning(s) of the original line, though re-interpreting it according to his own purposes.

In the Macbeth line above, we deal with hands and hearts, that could be white or coloured.Coloured here means guilty, or having done the deed, as Macbeth himself states to his wife, or having been finally bold enough to carry out the villainy. Or, in Ladymacbethian terms, having gathered the resolution to go beyond traditional human moral. Even if that implies a bloodbath, as is the case.

And hands may be coloured, as Macbeth´s after de (mis)deed, but the heart may remain white. That is the lady´s accusation. Her husband´s heart remains white, after the murder, which she finds shameful. He is shaken, he fears even the surrounding shadows, devastated by apparent guilt. His hands (and hers, as she helped him to disguise the slaughter) are coloured, but the heart is still a prisoner of a narrow, small morality.

In Marias´s narration, a white heart could also mean a heart that doesn´t know or doesn´t wish to know. One that chooses not to know. Since knowledge is a path of no return. One that can colour your heart (darken it), and you will never be able to wash it away, the colour of knowledge. Darkening one´s heart, knowing, is a serious decision, because once we make it, we will have to co-exist with knowledge for the rest of our lives. As total oblivion is impossible. And our view of reality may change accordingly.

I first read A Heart so white in its original Spanish, in Barcelona, many years ago. The novel has haunted me ever since. Written in a rich and hypnotic language, full of nuances, insights, philosophical especulation. And all within the frame of a smart noirplot.

The novel is about secrets, old family misteries, misunderstandings, silences within the couple, esential material "lost in translation". The decision to know, to colour one´s heart, will never be pondered enough. Pity our ears have no lids like our eyes. The consequences. To know or not to know. A matter of the same entity of that hamletian to be or not to be. Though perhaps, carefully considered, they are both one and the same thing.

A heart so white, 1992. Javier Marías

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