Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Infatuations by Javier Marías / Review by Alberto Manguel

Clifford Harper/

The Infatuations by Javier Marías 


Is there such as thing as chance, asks Javier Marías's masterly new novel

Alberto Manguel
Friday 1 March 2013 17.30 GM

he strict sequence of events that makes up our lives seems to us, as it takes place, haphazard. A chance encounter, a sudden death, love at first sight, an overheard conversation, all belong, we imagine, not to a tightly plotted thriller but to the erratic jottings of a distracted dreamer. A woman might notice a couple meeting every day in the same cafe, discover later that the man has been stabbed to death by a demented beggar, and decide to speak to the widow the next time she sees her. Each of these events seems whimsical and arbitrary and yet, as Javier Marías shows in this masterly novel, chance is nothing but the result of our own negligent reading. Read in the proper order, from the first to the last chapter, everything we do and everything we witness, however unlikely or disconnected, fits into a story in which we are both narrators and protagonists.
Such is the case of María Dolz, a middle-aged woman who works for a Madrid publisher, who witnesses the couple's meetings, and then their absence; who discovers in the papers the murder of the husband, a certain Miguel Desverne; and who seeks out the widow, Luisa Alday, to offer her condolences. As it happens, Dolz meets Alday's new companion, a handsome man called Díaz Varela, who was Desverne's best friend. Dolz becomes infatuated with Díaz Varela and, shortly afterwards, they begin an intermittent sexual relationship.
"Infatuations" is the only possible English translation for the "enamoramientos" of the original title. Margaret Jull Costa, with her habitual skill, has rendered Marías's precise, somewhat laconic Spanish into graceful and equally laconic English, but the title necessarily defeats her. "Enamoramiento" is the act of falling in love, briefly but not less passionately; "infatuation" (the dictionary tells us) is to become inspired with intense fondness, admiration, even folly; unfortunately, in the English term, love is absent. As Dolz's lovely last words have it, after the end of an "enamoramiento" we continue to sense the loved one's presence, "knowing that he is still on our horizon, from which he has not entirely vanished, and that we cannot see, in the distance, the dust from his fleeting feet".
Dolz's narrative is studded with questions: What is her new lover's involvement with the widow? What are his true feelings towards both women? Did he have a hand in the husband's murder? And above all, what is her own role in the convoluted plot into which she seems to have fallen? Who, in fact, is she?
The classical themes of love, death and fate are explored with elegant intelligence by Marías in what is perhaps his best novel so far. The story's literary underpinnings are Macbeth (as is usual in Marías), Balzac's Colonel Chabert and, more surprisingly, Dumas's The Three Musketeers, all glossed by Díaz Varela, who paternalistically instructs Dolz on the importance these three books have for him. Central to Marías's novel is Balzac's colonel, a man supposed dead who returns among the living, much like the dead Desverne returns to haunt the minds of the survivors. Over this literary chorus echoes a grisly observation quoted by Díaz Varela from the Musketeer saga: "A murder, nothing more." For Dolz, the banality of murder implied in Dumas's words becomes translated as murder's monstrous immutability. "A thief can give back the thing he stole, a slanderer can acknowledge his calumny," Dolz thinks to herself. "The trouble with murder is that it's always too late and you cannot restore to the world the person you killed." She adds: "And if, as they say, there is no forgiveness, then, whenever necessary, you must continue along the road taken." Except that, eventually, the murderer will no longer think of his crime "as a monstrous exception or a tragic mistake, but, rather, as another resource that life offers to the boldest and toughest." He will feel as if he has simply inherited the terrible action, or won it at a raffle "from which no one is exempt". And this feeling will lead him to believe "that he didn't wholly commit those acts, or not at least alone". In these extraordinary words, Marías has defined the ethos of our time.
Marías is an old hand at hoodwinking the reader, layering his novels with plots that seem, each one, final, but then suddenly blossom into something unexpected. In The Infatuations, Marías may have been thinking of Macbeth's address to the witches: "If you can look into the seeds of time,/ And say which grain will grow and which will not,/ Speak then to me." Neither the reader nor the protagonists are capable of such foresight, but the clear knowledge that every event, however minuscule, might develop into a sprawling web of roots and branches, lends every detail in the novel (as it does in detective fiction) a possibly dangerous meaning. Over the events in the The Infatuations, this other, untold and latent story casts an ominous and uneasy shadow.
"Once you've finished a novel," says Díaz Varela to Dolz, "what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel's imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention."

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Infatuations by Javier Marías / Review by Robert McCrum

The Infatuations by Javier Marías


Javier Marías's haunting murder mystery, embracing all the big questions about life, love and death, is an instant Spanish classic.

Marías’s study of fatal obsession begins with an encounter at a breakfast cafe.

Robert McCrum
The Observer, Sunday 10 March 2013 00.04 GMT

A fine murder story is like a great love affair: an infinite catacomb of excitement, sorrow and desire. Apart from tales of love and death, what else matters to mankind's stone-age brain? While we continue to push back the frontiers of knowledge, most recently in digital technology, our consciousness remains hard-wired with some very primitive storylines. The lasting challenge to literature is to achieve a satisfying marriage between high art and the low drives of a simple plot. The latter is usually much more demanding than the former. To find such a rapprochement in the pages of a novel is indeed a rare treat.
This is where Javier Marías, one of Spain's greatest contemporary writers, steps into the picture. The son of a victim of Franco's dictatorship, Marías is a characteristically European version of the literary man. He works as a distinguished translator, has a column in El País, and runs his own publishing house. He is also the author of two short story collections and 13 novels whose lyrical, conversational, and even errant, style has sponsored widespread literary admiration. There's an irony here because, rather appealingly, Marías writes fiction as if there were many other, better things to do. At his investiture into the Royal Spanish Academy in 2008, he confessed that the work of the novelist was "pretty childish", a teasing line of thought derived from Robert Louis Stevenson. His other exemplars are Joseph Conrad and Laurence Sterne. So it's no accident that he went on to argue that the writer "can only tell stories about what has never happened, the invented and the imagined".
The Infatuations is just such a novel, a murder story of archetypal simplicity whose slow unravelling becomes a vehicle for all the big questions about life, love and death. There are passages on almost every page that cry out for quotation. This may be a literary and metaphysical fiction, but it's never boring. Marías plays with perception, memory and guilt like a toreador. With every flourish of his literary cape, the enthralled reader is never allowed to forget that, in the end, the author will make a killing. Just as Macbeth is a thriller that's also a great tragedy,The Infatuations is a murder story that's also a profound study of fatal obsession.
A story that might have been torn from a crumpled page of Home News starts with el enamoramiento, a Spanish term for which there is no English equivalent – the state of falling or being in love, or perhaps infatuation. María Dolz, a publisher's editor, has become fascinated by the glamorous couple she sees every day in the cafe where she takes breakfast on her way to work. "The nicest thing about them," says María, "was seeing how much they enjoyed each other's company." Then, one day, they are no longer there, and María feels lost without them. Later, when she sees a newspaper photograph of the husband, lying stabbed in the street, she begins to learn more about this mysterious couple and to uncover their story.
She becomes infatuated by the infatuees. When her own romantic life, brilliantly imagined by Marías, links her to the murdered man's widow, Luisa, an apparently random killing becomes, inexorably, a much darker tale of calculated homicide. In the process, María the narrator becomes an unwitting accomplice to a dreadful crime, a young woman trapped in a prison of guilt. "No one is going to judge me," she says at the end with a doomed insouciance, "there are no witnesses to my thoughts." It's a terrifying conclusion to a haunting masterpiece of chilling exposition.
The Infatuations has already been showered with awards and acclaim. With this exemplary translation, Penguin adds a European master to its distinguished list of contemporary international fiction. Great Spanish novels don't come along too often, but they sometimes find a place in the hearts of the British reading public. The full text of Don Quixote was first published as long ago as 1620. I wouldn't be surprised if The Infatuations soon acquired an equally devoted following.


Monday, December 29, 2014

A life in writing / Javier Marías

Javier Marías

Javier Marías: a life in writing

'Falling in love has a very good reputation. But I have seen kind and noble people behave very badly because they are in love

Javier Marías
Javier Marías: regularly tipped for the Nobel prize. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian
When Javier Marías was a student of English Philology in Madrid in the 1970s he says it was with a sense of "awe and reverence" that he would buy copies of "the then grey-spined Penguin Modern Classics. The authors ranged from Conrad to James, Faulkner to Joyce, Thomas Mann to Ford Madox Ford, Woolf to Camus. Not even Nabokov was allowed to be there." Last year Marías himself became one of just a handful of living writers to join that same list. "I must assume, therefore, that these are much less demanding times than the 1970s," he explains modestly. "But, still, I feel very honoured, even if I can't help thinking I must be a fraud."
  1. The Infatuations
  2. by Javier Marías

    Far from being a fraud, it is difficult to think of many other living writers who are such an obvious fit for the list. In brute commercial terms, as was noted at the time, you could say his inclusion is not a bad hedge bet from his new publisher Penguin in the event of his winning the Nobel prize, something he is regularly tipped to do. In purely literary terms there is an even more compelling case. Few writers have sustained such an engagement with the classic (Anglophone) canon. As a translator he has rendered into Spanish work by Hardy, Yeats, Conrad, Nabokov, Faulkner, Updike, Salinger and many others. As a novelist, he has threaded his work with traces of these writers, and is explicitly underpinned by an empathy with Shakespeare and Sterne, as well as Cervantes and Proust.

    The 100 best novels / No 67 / All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946)

    The 100 best novels: No 67 – All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946)

    A compelling story of personal and political corruption, set in the 1930s in the American south

    Robert McCrum
    Monday 29 December 2014

    Robert Penn Warren was a southern poet and novelist, the only writer to win Pulitzer prizes for both his fiction and his poetry. In 1986, he was appointed America’s poet laureate.
    All the King’s Men is one of American literature’s definitive political novels, as well as a profound study of human fallibility in politics. Set in the 1930s, it describes the dramatic rise to power, as state governor, of Willie Stark, a one-time radical attorney.
    The novel is narrated by Jack Burden, a political reporter who comes to work as the governor’s most trusted aide. The passage of Stark’s career is interwoven with Burden’s life story and philosophical reflections. As he says: “This has been the story of Willie Stark, but it is my story, too. It is the story of a man who lived in the world, and to him the world looked one way for a long time and then it looked another and very different way.”
    Stark, or “the Boss”, is shown becoming transformed from an idealistic lawyer into a powerful state governor, who quickly adopts all kinds of corruption to build a political machine rooted in graft and intimidation.

    Stark’s politics earn him many enemies, but his constituents love his fiery, populist manner. The governor is surrounded by a typical southern political gallery of allies and thugs, as well as Burden, who had turned his back on his genteel upbringing to become Stark’s amanuensis.In the process, Burden betrays both his ideals and his career as a historian, and loses the love of his life, Anne Stanton, the daughter of a former state governor.
    All the King’s Men has a complex narrative structure: events are described out of sequence to demonstrate the relationship between the past and the present. By showing how and why the characters developed as they did, and how events were shaped, the novel gives the reader the means by which to measure the characters and the events they shape.
    Robert Penn Warren’s great novel is at once a political tragedy, a study of individual corruption, and a compelling southern drama with a long afterlife. In Primary Colors, by “Anonymous” (1996), homage is paid to its influence in the character of Governor Stanton.

    A note on the text

    All the King’s Men, the novel, began life in 1936 as a verse play entitled Proud Flesh. One of the characters in Proud Flesh was named Willie Talos, referring to the brutal character Talus in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.

    All the King’s Men was published in 1946, in a 464-page hardcover edition from the New York imprint Harcourt Brace & Company, and took its immediate title from the children’s nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty. Among various critical responses, the New Republic praised it as a novel “in the tradition of many classics”, and compared it favourably with Moby-Dick (No 17 in this series).
    The New York Times critic snootily observed that it wasn’t “a great novel or a completely finished work of art. It is as bumpy and uneven as a corduroy road, somewhat irresolute and confused in its approach to vital problems and not always convincing. Nevertheless, [it] is magnificently vital reading, a book so charged with dramatic tension it almost crackles with blue sparks; a book so drenched with fierce emotion, narrative pace and poetic imagery that its stature as a ‘readin’ book,’ as some of its characters would call it, dwarfs that of most current publications.”

    Willie Stark was possibly inspired by the life of senator Huey Long, the aggressively populist governor of Louisiana and the state’s senator in the mid-1930s. Long was at the peak of his career when he was assassinated in 1935. A year earlier, Penn Warren had been teaching at Louisiana’s state university. Stark, like Long, is shot to death in the state capitol building. The title of the book was possibly inspired, in part, by Long’s populist motto, “Every man a king.”
    Penn Warren, however, was always troubled by the identification of Willie Stark with Huey Long. He once complained that this had led to nonsensical and “contradictory interpretations of the novel”. He continued: “On one hand, there were those who took the thing to be a not-so-covert biography of, and apologia for, Senator Long, and the author to be not less than a base minion of the great man. There is really nothing to reply to this innocent boneheadedness or gospel-bit hysteria. As Louis Armstrong is reported to have said, there’s some folks that, if they don’t know, you can’t tell ’em...
    “But on the other hand, there were those who took the thing to be a rousing declaration of democratic principles and a tract for the assassination of dictators. This view, though somewhat more congenial to my personal political views, was almost as wide of the mark. For better or worse, Willie Stark was not Huey Long… The difference between the person Huey P Long and the fictional Willie Stark may be indicated by the fact that in the verse play [Proud Flesh] the name of the politician was Talos — the name of the brutal, blank-eyed ‘iron groom’ of Spenser’s Fairie Queene, the pitiless servant of the knight of justice. My conception grew wider, but that element always remained, and Willie Stark remained, in one way, Willie Talos. In other words, Talos is the kind of doom that democracy may invite upon itself. The book, however, was never intended to be a book about politics. Politics merely provided the framework story in which the deeper concerns, whatever their final significance, might work themselves out.”
    Half a century after the first printing of All the King’s Men, a southern academic, Noel Polk, undertook a “restored” edition. This version proved almost as controversial as the original. Writing in the New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates declared that “the 1946 text, for all its flaws, is superior to the ‘restored’ text, which primarily restores distracting stylistic tics and the self-consciously mythic name Willie Talos, which Warren had dropped in favour of the more plausible Willie Stark.

    “That Robert Penn Warren, novelist, poet, essayist, and shrewd literary critic, not only approved the original 1946 edition of his most famous novel but oversaw numerous reprintings through the decades, including a special 1963 edition published by Time Inc with a preface by the author, and did not ‘restore’ any of the original manuscript, and did not resuscitate ‘Willie Talos,’ is the irrefutable argument that the 1946 edition is the one Warren would wish us to read.
    “That Noel Polk should make a project of ‘restoring’ a text in this way, and that this text should be published to compete with the author-approved text, is unconscionable, unethical, and indefensible.”
    For some critics, Robert Penn Warren remains hard to categorise (an otherwise comprehensive recent study of Anglo-American fiction, The Novel: A Biography by Michael Schmidt, almost ignores him), but his work lives on in the minds of his devoted readers, including this one, who first read him on an Amtrak train between Washington and Philadelphia in the autumn of 1974.

    Three more from Robert Penn Warren

    Night Rider (1939); At Heaven’s Gate (1943); Promises (1957).


    007 Emma by Jane Austen (1816)
    014 Fair by William Thackeray (1848)  

    031 Dracula by Bram Stoker  (1897)
    035 The Call of the Wild by Jack London (1903)
    036 The Golden Bowl by Henry James (1904)
    039 The History of Mr Polly by HG Wells (1910)
    040 Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (1915)

    041 The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915)

    042 The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)
    043 The Rainbow by DH Lawrence (1915)
    044 Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Waugham (1915)
    045 The Age of Innocence by Edith Warthon (1920)
    046 Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
    047 Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis (1922)
    048 A Pasage to India by EM Forster (1922)
    049 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loss ( 1925)
    050 Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)

    051 The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

    052 Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1926)

    Sunday, December 28, 2014

    A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard / Review

    A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard 
    – review

    Rachel Cusk admires an autobiographical account of mid-life and 'the most significant literary enterprise of our time'
    The novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard became a household name in his native Norway with the publication, between 2009 and 2011, of six successive volumes of autobiography – each of considerable length – in which he embarked on a comprehensive and truthful recollection of his own life. His audience was scandalised by his honesty; the cultural establishment, however, recognised Knausgaard's project as a work of the highest artistic ambition. As each volume is translated into other languages, Knausgaard's literary fame increases while his notoriety becomes somewhat more theoretical: in his own (small) country, his intimate descriptions of friends and family and of his social and professional milieux were regarded as invasive and brought him in for much criticism. Elsewhere, the specifics have less currency and the moral status of the project itself – which in its entirety bears the title My Struggle – can be approached more objectively.