Javier Marías, ‘The Infatuations’

Javier Marías, The Infatuations. Hamish Hamilton, London, 2013.

…the dead are quite wrong to come back, and yet almost all of them do, they won’t give up, and they strive to become a burden to the living until the living shake them off in order to move on.

The first dilemma facing Margaret Jull Costa, the brilliant translator of The Infatuations, by Javier Marías, was how to render the Spanish title of the original, Los Enamoramientos. There is no direct English equivalent. María, the first-person narrator of the novel, discusses the problem in the text, where she points out that most languages other than Spanish and Italian have the same deficiency; she defines the word thus –

..the state of falling or being in love, or perhaps infatuation, I’m referring to the noun, the concept; the adjective, the condition, are admittedly more familiar, at least in French, though not in English, but there are words that approximate that meaning…Some people think that being in love or infatuated is a modern invention that appears only in novels.

Several of Marías’ central concerns appear here: the nature and etiology of love (and, by implication, of the precarious human condition); the modes of narrating this in fiction – which exists in a state of uneasy symbiosis with reality.

The style is typical, too: it has the intricate, baroque complexity, with mixed registers and loping, cadenced rhythms captured unerringly by the translator, but in all of Marías’ novels this is taken to a higher level – slowly accreting clauses, loosely linked by the punctuation – the paratactic, endless commas in lengthy sentences and paragraphs often pages long, take some getting used to, but they drive the narrative relentlessly and hypnotically. There are verbal repetitions at the level of the sentence and the paragraph but also in the longer view.

Marías, Infatuations One of these crucial refrains that punctuate the narrative like a repeated musical phrase is the concept of ‘envidia’; María admires but also envies the connubial bliss of the Perfect Couple she observes, in her solitude, in the café. When the Perfect Husband, Miguel Desvern or Deverne, is murdered, the grieving widow admits she can feel hate for the ‘instigators’ of the killing, someone perhaps who resented his success, possibly a close colleague. She’d seen this definition in an early Spanish dictionary and wondered how it compared with the English word ‘envy’ (Marías is always erudite, fascinated by words and their significance, how they translate):

‘Unfortunately, this poison is often engendered in the breasts of those who are and who we believe to be our closest friends, in whom we trust; they are far more dangerous than our declared enemies.’ [Covarrubias, Dictionary of 1611]

Marías delights in slowly uncovering (never fully revealing) this murder mystery’s secrets to demonstrate the ironic accuracy of the widow’s cryptic remark, which recurs several times in the narrative: he explores how passion, love, fidelity and treachery can drive our actions and cloud our judgement. When the brutal murder of Miguel takes place, María becomes involved in the consequences in a way that compromises her integrity, her sense of justice, and her loyalty to the man she is enamoured/infatuated/in love with.

Despite these philosophical investigations and narrative digressions, Marías is still a consummate story-teller, the translator of Stevenson and Conrad (as well as the more playful, metafictional Sterne and Faulkner, and of the sonorous, meandering prose of Sir Thomas Browne).

Another refrain is from Macbeth: ‘she should have died hereafter’. Macbeth is reacting to the news of his wife’s death. What does he mean? This riddle permeates The Infatuations: when is it timely for an event to take place? And what if we aren’t ready or able to process its significance? What part does memory play as we listen to the stories our thoughts narrate internally? – ‘sometimes a memory can be a devouring thing’.

This intertextuality is also found in all of Marías’ (not María’s) novels – but it’s not a postmodern game or ostentatious trick, it’s a fundamental feature of the writer’s serious purpose. Two other characters from texts that illuminate this novel are Balzac’s eponymous Colonel Chabert, a soldier pronounced dead on the Napoleonic battlefield, but who miraculously survives and comes back to confront his less-than-thrilled ‘widow’, and Dumas’ Milady de Winter, who in an earlier guise had survived being hanged by the musketeer Athos and had come back to haunt him in another incarnation. The Infatuations is a similarly haunted and haunting novel: another refrain is ‘the dead should not return’.

A related theme is what we do when telling or listening to stories – which also pervades other novels by Marías – as María thinks what the stories she hears and is implicated in might signify (most of the novel represents her thoughts, free-indirectly or directly narrated). This is her lover’s commentary on these fictitious revenants (Chabert and de Winter), and her reflection on his pronouncement:

“What happened is the least of it. It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, 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…” That isn’t true, or, rather, it’s sometimes true, one doesn’t always forget what happened…

This musing on the fictive representation of reality (‘It’s quite shameful the way reality imposes no limits on itself’) recurs throughout the novel. This leads María to speculate on the events that take place in the story narrated here in terms that often become highly conditional, with intricate modalities:

I find it hard to believe that what should never have happened while you were alive wouldn’t happen once you were dead. Would you want to die knowing that? More than that, you would be encouraging it, procuring it, propelling us into it.

Desvern would have remained silent for a few seconds, thinking, as if he had not considered that scenario before formulating his request. Then he would have given a rather paternalistic laugh…

Her dilemma, like the translator’s over the noun ‘inamoramiento’,  is the subject of this novel: how can she determine the truth-status of the tangled story she’s involved in? Especially, as we’ve seen, as all novels’ plots are ‘imaginary’ and soon forgotten; here is her response to the story her untrustworthy lover is about to tell her to account for his role in it:

Perhaps he is going to deceive me with the truth…Perhaps he’s telling me the truth now so that it will seem like a lie. An apparent or genuine lie.

Marías is probably the most rewarding and original novelist writing today, and here we see him probing and assessing the nature of narrative and the practice of writing and reading narratives at a high level of philosophical and aesthetic cognition, while at the same time conveying a story – a novel of his own – that is gripping, wittily intelligent and exciting. I wrote several pieces about his ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ trilogy a while back; some can be found here, here, here and here.

Marías’ style can be hard work, but if you’ve never read him before I’d recommend you start with The Infatuations, which is perhaps his most accessible novel to date, and then move on to the rest of his back catalogue. There’s so much more to be said about this novel: its wicked humour at the expense of vain, vacuous writers in general, for example (‘Like so many writers, he was a mean, spineless little scrounger’, María thinks of one particularly irritating client), and of Luddites like Marías himself who still tap out their novels on a typewriter, not a computer, much to the annoyance of María, who works in publishing, and would have to scan their typescripts.

 

 

 

Geoff Dyer, ‘Out of Sheer Rage’

Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage starts like this:

Looking back it seems, on the one hand, hard to believe that I could have wanted so much time, could have exhausted myself so utterly, wondering when I was going to begin my study of D.H. Lawrence; on the other, it seems equally hard to believe that I ever started it, for the prospect of embarking on this study of Lawrence accelerated and intensified the psychological disarray it was meant to delay and alleviate. Conceived as a distraction, it immediately took on the distracted character of that from which it was intended to be a distraction, namely myself.

The grammar is convoluted – he starts with a retrospective statement then a ‘one hand’/’other hand’-‘hard to believe’/’equally hard to believe’ oppositional/parallel pair of structures, each section of which has balanced, complex multiple clauses. This signals what’s to come: it’s a ruminative, fastidiously self-investigative tone, self-deprecating and witty, meticulously and skilfully controlled. The genre, it seems, is going to be autobiography.

But as we read on we find it’s a genre-defying book. It might be a novel about a writer’s inexhaustible capacity to procrastinate; that writer is called ‘Geoff Dyer’, but he may be a fictional construct. He’s endlessly irascible about the world around him, but also about himself and his clinically delineated defects; he’s mercilessly self-accusatory (look at that wonderfully modulated phrase ‘psychological disarray’, to describe what he clearly suggests is his default mental state). When he reveals that it’s Lawrence’s ‘irritability’ that he finds most endearing about the man, it’s obvious why: they are kindred spirits.

The epigraphs at the start are illuminating:

Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid – queer stuff – but not bad.

That serves as a perfect summary of Dyer’s book: it’s not about ‘anything but’ Lawrence; it’s mostly about other things – as the second epigraph suggests:

Endless explanations of irrelevancies, and none whatever of things indispensable to the subject.

This is Gustave Flaubert on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. So we see Dyer fulminating against seafood and its resistance to being eaten and its disgusting taste when finally ingested; the awfulness of films in Italy dubbed badly into Italian; children and people who breed them; people obsessed with telephones…it’s a catalogue of grumpiness.

Then there’s this:

It must all be considered as though spoken by a character in a novel.

This is Roland Barthes, that trickster-savant murderer of the author. At one point Dyer writes:

Perhaps it is best to avoid the novel as a medium of expression.

Hence this book.

Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer RageDyer has signalled his intentions clearly from the outset then. What’s not clear from all this, though, is it’s often very funny. Not ‘the funniest book I have ever read’, as Steve Martin is quoted as saying on the jacket blurb – it didn’t make me laugh; but I did smile ruefully.

I found the stream of bile and the looping, self-cancelling vacillations (should he take this particular volume of Lawrence’s poems to Greece or not? Right, decided; no, changed his mind. Regrets it…) just a little too relentless.

It’s a travelogue of sorts, too, as Dyer and his long-suffering (and incredibly patient) girlfriend go on a savage pilgrimage of their own in search of the places Lawrence lived, replicating the miner’s son’s endless, doomed quest for a safe, healthy haven (his life was a ‘long convalescence’, said Huxley – a state Dyer characteristically claims for himself after a reckless crash on a moped), from his birthplace in grim Eastwood – become a sort of tacky literary theme park – to Sicily, Italy and New Mexico. There are other, non-Lawrentian pilgrimages mentioned in passing, like Dyer’s trip to Algeria in the steps of Camus.

There are erudite tones, too:  frequent allusions to Rilke, Nietzsche, Barthes and so on. These tend to be counterpointed jovially with earthy, scatological or sexually explicit scenes.

Occasionally among all this knockabout stuff Dyer inserts an aphorism that’s gemlike in its perfection, like this rueful reflection on a statement by Camus about accepting stoically what he is powerless to change:

Not like me. I can’t accept anything, especially things I am powerless to change. The only things I can accept are those that I do have the power to change. This, I suppose, is the opposite of wisdom.

Dyer loves these riffs in which key words are repeated, recycled, savoured in new contexts, positioned next to new verbal partners to see what ensues. The longueurs of this book are worth enduring for moments of brilliance like this.

Dyer makes new combinations of genre, tone and style look effortless and obvious. This is classy writing.

The edition I used is the handsome paperback in the illustration above – strangely there’s no title or author name on the front cover: they’re on the spine. This is in the excellent ‘The Canons’ series by Canongate, published in Edinburgh 2012; first published in 1997.

 

Chloe Aridjis, ‘Book of Clouds’

 

I read most of Book of Clouds, the first novel by Chloe Aridjis, appropriately, on a long-haul flight to Chile, mostly above the cloud cover. Clouds are the central (perhaps over-obvious) symbol in an engaging narrative about a lonely young woman called Tatiana, a Jewish Mexican linguist adrift in Berlin after five years of solitude (lonely as a cloud?).

Photo: Hartwig Klappert, New York Times 2009

Photo: Hartwig Klappert, New York Times 2009

The novel opens with her teenage hallucinatory vision of a female centenarian Hitler on the U-Bahn in 1986, three years before the fall of the Wall, that ‘intractable curtain of cement’ that divided the city for decades, and the presence of which still haunts it – one can see its trace picked out in the pavements and streets.

Every  10 or 12 months Tatiana moves apartments:  ‘Spaces became too familiar, too elastic, too accommodating. Boredom and exasperation would set in’ –  she suffers from ‘restlessness’. That usage of ‘too accommodating’ is revealing of her illogical inability to settle.  From the empty apartment above come disturbing noises. Like Caliban, she’s troubled and intrigued by them. Or is she imagining them?

She strives to fill the ‘empty, loveless hours’ by wandering the streets of the city, alert and observant, marginalised, a true étrangère (in the French senses), but with the hypersensitive antennae of a poet. Here’s a typically lyrical description of one such dérive as a storm brews:

The restless air was closing in…A plastic bag, the discarded ghost of the object it once carried, was blown toward me and clung to my leg for a few seconds before I managed to shake it off. Birds twittered nervously in the trees but were nowhere to be found, not a single beak, claw or feather when I looked up. And then they fell silent. The sky had grown a shade or two darker, a slate grey cumulonimbus blotting the horizon.

Aridjis shows here she has a poet’s ear for rhythms, and an eye for the mundane image made numinous, even disturbing, defamiliarised (those disembodied, nervous birds). It’s not all grim though; Aridjis can be quite amusing in her wryness, for example in a description of a Russian market stallholder: ‘his nose stuck out like the muzzle of a malnourished fox.’

We begin to wonder if Tatiana isn’t perhaps going slightly mad in a Berlin that’s a combination of so many literary ‘unreal cities’ full of spectral figures, past and present. But she also portrays the real Berlin very evocatively, its cafés, ice-cream stalls, tram sidings and beggars.

Along with clouds and other weather events it’s time and the ghosts of the past that permeate the novel. Decades of dirt and dust rise up through the floorboards after a storm, and she feels ‘something in the building’s very foundation had shifted, ever so slightly, revealing new fault lines’ – images of the seismic, cosmic, meteorological urban sediments of time accumulate, clouding Tatiana’s (and our) sense of place and self.

In Berlin, an ‘omphalos of evil’,  she’d become ‘a professional in lost time…The city ran on its own chronometric scale.’ On Sundays the solitude ‘hardened into something else’ – loneliness. One of her only high points is the S-Bahn announcer’s voice, which  pleases her with its mechanical inhumanity,  ‘especially on days when I felt disconnected from the city, attached by the thinnest of strings’.

This is the Berlin of peripatetic Walser and Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood, experienced by Tatiana as coeval with the Holocaust and the TV tower in Alexanderplatz.

She has bizarre, often unsettling encounters on her random journeys as a flâneuse, observing urban existence like a latter-day Baudelaire in this ‘fourmillante cité’.  There’s a mysterious Xoloitzcuintle dog (Xolo) that ‘in Aztec myth would guide human souls through Mietlan, the ninth and lowest circle of the labyrinthine underworld, to their eternal resting place.’ Berlin’s past interpenetrates its present, life and death/afterlife coexist in this visionary protagonist’s liminal consciousness. Symptomatic of this are the ‘ghost stations’ of old East Berlin.

She gets a job working for the reclusive Dr Weiss (owner of the Xolo), an eccentric historian in his 70s, with 14 books published, but nothing recent. She transcribes his antiquated cassette tapes for projected essays on

the phenomenology of space, specifically in Berlin.  Spaces cling to their pasts, he said, and sometimes the present finds a way of accommodatinig this past and sometimes it doesn’t. At best, a peaceful coexistence is struck up between temporal planes but most of the time it is a constant struggle for dominion…[also] the reverberation of objects, the resonance of things long banished or displaced…

The quietly surreal tone that permeates the narrative is also seen when Dr Weiss tells Tatiana that he knew a man in her home city,  Mexico: ‘a photographer from Budapest named Chiki Weisz…He was married to Leonora Carrington.’ She was indeed a surrealist painter and author (1917-2011), who fled the Nazis in Europe, lived in the US and Mexico; his near-namesake Weisz was a photographer who worked with Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War.

She interviews Jonas Krantz, 36 – one of the child artists who’d depicted the old East Berlin. He lives in an outer, bleak Plattenbau district on the 18th floor, ‘much closer to the clouds.’

As a meteorologist he loves clouds, which enables Aridjis to return to her central image; here he is, talking about them:

…all structures are collapsible. Just look at their own existence, condemned to rootlessness and fragmentation. Each cloud faces death through loss of form, drifting towards its death…destined to self-destruct…the fogs of time and all the obfuscation that surrounds them.

He strives to see contemporary Berlin as more than a ‘museum of horror.’ Yet Tatiana has a terrifying experience in a former Gestapo Bowling Alley, part of the spectral underground world, ‘a whole topography that lay, forgotten, twenty or thirty or forty feet down…’

Aridjis, Book of Clouds coverThere she tries to rub out the chalk scores scratched on the wall by the erstwhile bowlers, but ‘nothing can truly be rubbed away or blotted out…the more you try to rub something away the darker it becomes.’

The poetic, muted, ethereal style of this haunting novel persists until the final sentence, as she flies back to Mexico (another long-haul trip, somewhere above the clouds) after a violent encounter with neo-Nazi thugs: ‘there was little difference between clouds and shadows and other phenomena given shape by the human imagination.’

Aridjis occasionally lapses into stereotyping Berlin’s terrible Nazi legacy; her characters and slightly creaky plot are less compelling than the dissonant, vatic-magical mood and style created so deftly through the language.

I found it an intriguing novel with a highly original take on the psychogeography of a city as experienced by a sensitive individual.

 Chloe Aridjis, Book of Clouds, Vintage paperback, 2010; first published 2009

 

Michael Flay, ‘The Persian Wedding’

The Persian Wedding (Polar Books, Cheltenham: 2015) is a timely, angry novel. I’m writing this on the day after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, apparently by Islamic extremists. Over the past couple of weeks lurid stories have been published in the media alleging sexual malfeasance by a prominent English prince, famed for his involvement in aiding British trade abroad – especially the arms trade with dubious militaristic regimes.

Author of The Lord, The Watchers and a volume of short stories, Michael Flay here turns his attention to the troubled cross-cultural relationship between two young lovers, in a setting in which terrorist attacks appear to be instigated by the Western political/security forces who ostensibly protect its people. Instead they ‘keep things insecure, then you impose the order that suits you.’ Sinister trains and ships transport deadly cargos of nuclear materials and goodness knows what else. British-made tanks patrol the repressed streets of the Shah’s Persia. British ‘advisers’ train torturers, their leaders gloating and gorging themselves in scenes of sickening illicit sex and violence. All power corrupts.

Flay Persian Wedding coverAn unnamed English man meets a Persian girl at a language school in England at a time that seems to be around 1976. He’s the English teacher, she (her name is Zohre, which means ‘Venus’ in old Persian) the child of a privileged middle-class Persian family, sent to Europe to polish her education and no doubt make her a more suitable match for a wealthy Persian husband.

He follows her to her home country, still ruled by the autocratic Shah, propped up by UK and US interests (it was they who’d instigated the coup d’état which installed his family in 1953). We see the young man’s struggles to adapt to the passive, powerless position of a suitor for a woman who lives in a fiercely partriarchal world. He meets her young, westernised friends, who sympathise with the lovers’ plight and do all they can to help, but ultimately he fails to change the intransigent attitude of the Persian father.

Later things change for the better for the lovers, but this is set against a chilling account of the West’s cynical exploitation of a lucrative market for its weapons and personnel who specialise in intimidation, sedition and control.

The narrative style is pared down and restrained, in keeping with the sober subject matter. There are descriptions of the bucolic English setting at the start, which ironically contrast with the stark scenes in urban Tehran which fill the bulk of the rest of the novel.

Michael Flay habitually deploys a paratactic style, piling on adjectives and noun phrases to the main clauses, to demonstrate, for example, the random fortuitousness of events happening beyond the protagonist’s control; here’s an early description of Tehran soon after the man arrives there:

Air hung heavy with exhaust fumes, coloured blue grey. Unfinished blocks of apartments lined the road in disorder. Buildings were put up, incomplete, non embedded on scrap land…There were several limousines, chauffeur driven, running  silently, these were common like broken off parts of a US president’s cavalcade, dispersed. Everywhere space was taken up, cars, buildings, as if dumped down at random, unembedded and laid on.

This technique also adds cumulative detail to the disconcerting  narrative: there’s a dreamlike quality to the prose, which foregrounds the disturbing incongruities in the story. Tehran under the Shah is a city of a westernised, power elite, deeply corrupt and cynical; England is little better. And after the 1979 revolution and the return of Khomeini, nothing changes. Everywhere is the same. Women are used as sex objects but otherwise kept in subjection. Fathers and men are all-powerful, demanding total obedience of their daughters. Yet they commit despicable sex crimes themselves. Hypocrisy is rife.

The protagonist’s attitude throughout seems to me rather naive: he would go to Iran, he thought, at the start of the novel, ‘confident’ and optimistic that he could convince the family that he was a suitable match for this pampered but closeted daughter in a stereotypically protected environment, and spirit her away from potentially more suitable matches (as the father would see them). He was educated, decent – what could possibly go wrong?

But of course that’s what happens in life. We all believe the person we love and who loves us is all that’s needed to convince everyone that the match is right. To hell with convention, social pressures and the desire to conform to bourgeois morality (which usually involves perpetuating the system of self-aggrandisement financially); love conquers all.

This is a novel with some flaws in the style, perhaps – all those loose-limbed sentences with their odd syntax and accretions. But it’s also a searing indictment of repressive regimes everywhere, not just in Iran, and of the swaggering toxicity of power elites, and their inbuilt conviction that they have the right to do whatever they like in a world tailor-made for their own gratification.

Perversity takes many forms, and this novel powerfully melds the political with the personal: sexual depravity as an outward and visible form of inward corruption – in short, of the evil of our decadent western world. Yes, the Iranian society depicted here was corrupt, misogynistic and depraved, but ours has pretensions of superiority; it is no less depraved, flawed or corrupt. Worse, really, for we see ourselves as beacons of fairness and upright moral probity.

Yesterday in Paris fundamentalists murdered writers and artists for propagating satiric views. Novels like this play an important role in holding up a mirror to our complacent society; as was memorably said by Swift in the preface to The Battle of the Books (1704):

Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.