The Infatuations by Javier Marías, transl. Margaret Jull Costa (Hamish Hamilton – March, 2013)
In the central scene of Javier Marías’ seductive new novel The Infatuations, the heroine and narrator María secretly overhears her lover refer to her as a ‘bird’ he has in his bed. The word, at first, jars. Could it really come from the mouth of suave, conspiratorial Javier (yes: the pair’s names are tricksy riffs on the author’s; no, not in a crappy Martin Amis way.) 'Bird' seems too naff for such an urbane figure, even when he is talking down to a ‘rogue’ – another curious description. Perhaps there is no directly equivalent word to the Spanish term that isn’t outdated and crass. In the original, the word is ‘tia’, literally meaning aunt but also an informal not quite respectful term for a woman. Can it possibly be as outdated as ‘bird’? But if this was a poorly chosen word, that would suggest a misstep on the part of the translator and anyone familiar with the work of Margaret Jull Costa can be certain that such a thing is extremely unlikely. I am not alone in choosing books simply because she has worked on them, sharing in such joys as her José Saramago, her Bernardo Atxaga and her terrific translation of Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. Her rendering of Marías has brought to English – over a dozen novels, story collections and other works – one of the most startlingly singular voices writing anywhere today.
Nobel-tipped Marías, himself a translator, writes pulsating discursive looping sentences, some of them pages long, which resound with echoing and musing musicality. His novels typically revolve around three or four set-piece events, which are prefigured and then replayed, reviewed and revised. Themes trickle through the works, submerging and emerging. Discursive, philosophical mullings dance their way through the pages, and amid the repetitions, new facts delicately emerge, startling in their subtle revelation.
María is Marías’ first female narrator, although she talks and thinks largely like all his others (this doesn't matter) and, in fact, like all the characters in this book, who are given long stretches of dialogue and longer trains of thought, imagined by the narrator. Around all that runs one long developing cogitation from María. Within a page of her overhearing that she is Javier’s ‘bird’, the choice of word is inevitably discussed and chewed over.
‘A bird,’ I thought, half-amused, half-wounded; not ‘a friend’, not ‘a date’, certainly not ‘a girlfriend’. I was possibly not yet the first or the second and would never be the third, not even in the broadest, vaguest sense of that all-purpose word. He could just have said ‘a woman’. Or perhaps his companion was one of that large band of men with whom you can only use a particular vocabulary, their own, rather than the vocabulary you would normally use, the sort of man for whom you have to adapt your language so that they don’t feel alarmed or uncomfortable or inadequate.
Everything, in this way, is precisely analysed and patiently pinned down. The psychological profundity is breathtaking. All Marías’ work is filled with long thrilling expositions which allow for exacting observations, such as when we are reminded ‘nothing is incompatible in the land of memory’ or that a wait in vain is ‘something which, without one realising it, always has a deleterious effect on one’s appearance’. Marías excels at those little moments at the heart of reading’s pleasure: fleeting moments of quotable joy. But it’s the big things he does staggeringly well. Not character as much as humans. Plot too, surprisingly… chiefly a kind of cognisant tragedy. His previous long work, the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, was a gripping spy thriller set in a shadowy imagined intersection between espionage, business, celebrity and the kind of human insight possessed only by… well, novelists like Marías. Other works centre on big plotty deaths, passionate affairs and campus time the author has spent in Oxford and the States.
Because his style is so distinctive, The Infatuations feels like the extension of one long work. The story starts with María silently observing a seemingly perfect couple. The husband dies and María is drawn into the widow’s grief and a provocative figure on the margins of the shattered family life, Javier. María works in publishing, and there is much early sport at the expense of egotistical and talentless writers, all seemingly half-based on the author. This is not just light relief though: books and authors, novels, plays and poems permeate The Infatuations. A Balzac novella, Colonel Chabert, is used over and again to discuss the dead returning to ruin the living. Keats’ phrase to ‘palely loiter’ is introduced and returned to and Shakespeare and Cervantes are drawn on as elders and sometimes as peers in the quest for knowledge of the human heart. These liberal turnings to literature are not to be confused with references in, say, Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, where the Henry James obsession is worn heavily as a kind of prettying, an ennobling, akin to the descriptions of antiques. Here, the canon is vital.
This is ambitious, high-spec literature live and in action. It is highly modern too, or rather, of-the-now – not so much in the occasional mentions of ‘the internet and Facebook and all that’ but more in the godlessness and the moral limbo this novel argues besets us all – and for which this novel is perhaps the only prescribable consolation.