Javier Marías on secrecy and reflection
By CATHARINE MORRIS
In his recent review of the The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s metaphysical murder mystery, Adam Thirlwell described Marías’s prose as “sensual and philosophical, simultaneously . . . . His narrators can drift for giant lengths, and yet still re-emerge, calmly, on to the same stage, transformed by their reflections”. He went on to say that Marías’s “acrobatics between paragraphs or chapters can only be coarsely paraphrased”. So it was with interest that we gathered to hear Marías interviewed by James Runcie at the Southbank last week. What would he say about his own acrobatics?
The first thing he revealed was that he began The Infatuations with only a vague premiss: he was interested in the idea of a woman who would stay with a man who had caused her great harm. Doing so might be a strange kind of justice, a compensation, he said; she might wordlessly be saying: “you must make up for this by being by my side for ever . . . and my very presence will remind you all the time of what you have done”.
His next step was to consider what the man’s crime might have been. Then he recalled something a friend had told him – for years she had observed a particular couple in a café every day. But one day the couple stopped coming; the man had been killed. The Infatuations duly begins: “The last time I saw Miguel Desvern or Deverne was also the last time that his wife, Luisa, saw him, which seemed strange, perhaps unfair, given that she was his wife, while I, on the other hand, was a person he had never met . . .”. The “absolute fiction” starts 25 or 30 pages in, depending on whether you are reading in English or Spanish.
Like much of Marías’s fiction (and a speech he wrote for the Spanish Academy), The Infatuations addresses the impossibility of knowing anything or anyone with absolute certainty. Narrating is something we do all the time, said Marías; someone says “How are you?” and you reply – perhaps with an account of your journey to work. “But even that small thing is very difficult to tell . . . . You had one point of view; others had a different one . . . . It even happens with history. It’s almost impossible to tell these things with accuracy. [But] fiction does that.”
If he had to say what The Infatuations was about, he’d say that it was about secrecy and the convenience of secrecy, how "civilized" secrets can be. He recalled a line from his novel A Heart So White (1992): “ears don’t have lids that can close against the words”. “If you told me that you had killed a woman in the park last night, I’d probably wish you hadn’t told me . . . . I might think ‘James seems like a nice man. I don’t want him in prison, not immediately at least' . . . .”
Moving swiftly on, Runcie observed that the narrative of The Infatuations was full of reflection – he referred to a passage in which a single conversation is revisited again and again. “There are all kinds of novelists”, said Marías. “Some perceive what is normally almost imperceptible and see the meaning in it . . . . Say you spend the whole evening arguing with somebody . . . . It is very likely that what remains in your memory is a small detail, a gesture or a look. That’s what the novels pick up.”
Marías’s narrators tend also to make a lot of literary references – to Balzac, Dumas and Shakespeare, for example – but it is not in a metaliterary way, said Marías; it’s “more in the way we all do it: ‘I’ve seen this film and I talk about it' . . . ”. So the sequence in The Infatuations in which the narrator’s lover relays the plot of Balzac’s novella Colonel Chabert – in which a man mistakenly buried after the Battle of Eylau returns to Paris years later to pick up where he left off – was not included for the sake of it; the story is something you might dwell on naturally: “My own father died seven years ago”, said Marías. “[Say] the dead came back five or seven years later . . . . We inherited some money. Probably we’ve spent it by now . . . . And what about the house? . . . It could really be a great misfortune if they came back . . . ”.
More on Marías’s interview to come tomorrow . . . .