The Infatuations by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

When someone tells us something, it always seems like a fiction, because we don’t know the story at first hand and can’t be sure it happened, however much we are assured that the story is a true one, not an invention, but real. At any rate, it forms part of the hazy universe of narratives, with their blind spots and contradictions and obscurities and mistakes, all surrounded and encircled by shadows or darkness, however hard they strive to be exhaustive and diaphanous, because they are incapable of achieving either of those qualities. (pg. 310, Penguin Books)

When something happens in life, how do we ever know if someone is telling us the truth, that their version of events is accurate? Or do we just have to accept the impossibility of ever knowing anything (or anyone) for sure? These questions are central to The Infatuations, the latest book by Javier Marías.

The Infatuations

The novel is narrated by María Dolz, a woman in her late thirties, who works for a publisher based in Madrid. Every day, María has breakfast at the same café where she sees a married couple who also take breakfast together on a daily basis. María can see how much this handsome man and woman enjoy each another’s company, as they talk, laugh and joke ‘as if they had only just met or met for the very first time’. María never speaks to her ‘Perfect Couple’ (as she thinks of them) but simply seeing them together and imagining their lives lifts her mood at the start of each day.

One day, the couple (Miguel and Luisa) are absent from the café; at first María assumes they have gone away on holiday and, deprived her morning fillip,she feels a little bereft at their absence. Later, she learns from a colleague that Miguel has been stabbed repeatedly and murdered by a homeless man in what appears to be a tragic case of mistaken identity. In fact, María had already seen the newspaper report of the murder (coupled with a photograph of a man lying in a pool of blood) without realizing that the victim was the husband from her Perfect Couple.

A few months later, María sees Luisa at the café again, accompanied this time by her two young children. After a while, the children depart for school leaving Luisa alone and María decides to offer the widow her condolences. She soon learns that Miguel and Luisa had also noticed her at the café; indeed they even had their own name for her, the ‘Prudent Young Woman’. Luisa is keen to talk, so she invites María to come to her home that evening where María meets the intriguing Javier Díaz-Varela, one of Miguel’s closest friends. Although María doesn’t see Luisa again for some time, she bumps into Javier purely by chance during a visit to the museum and the two become lovers. As María continues to see Javier, she learns a little more about his relationship with Luisa and uncovers other information which causes her to question Javier’s true motivations and desires…and these discoveries cast a different light on events and circumstances surrounding Miguel’s death.

What Marías does brilliantly in The Infatuations is to use the events surrounding Miguel’s murder to weave an elegant meditation addressing fundamental ideas about truth, chance, justice, love and mortality. There’s a philosophical, meandering, almost hypnotic quality to Marías’s writing. His extended sentences seem to capture a person’s thought process by giving us their initial perceptions or ideas, often followed by qualifications or even an alternative theory. And he softens the boundaries between thoughts and speech, too; once immersed in the middle of an extended passage, it isn’t always easy to tell whether you are listening to a character’s inner reflections or observing their conversation with another. This technique might sound a little confusing, but it isn’t at all; Marías pulls it off with tremendous skill and style, and Margaret Jull Costa’s translation is simply wonderful.

During this meditation, Marías offers us reflections on a number of existential themes. For example, how we cling to the dead, feeling ‘an initial temptation to join them, or at least to carry their weight and not let them go’; how the dead should never come back, however much we would like them to; how an unexpected or a particularly dramatic death can dominate our memories of that person, almost stealing part of their existence from them:

You could say that those who die such a death die more deeply, more completely, or perhaps they die twice over, in reality and in the memory of others, because their memory is forever lost in the glare of that stupid culminating event, is soured and distorted and also perhaps poisoned. (pg. 75)

Marías is particularly insightful when it comes to grief and how the death of a loved one affects those who remain. In this passage, María Dolz observes Luisa’s daughter, Carolina, with her mother in the café. It’s almost as though mother and daughter have swapped roles as Carolina tries to look after Luisa:

She kept one eye on her mother all the time, watching her every gesture and expression, and if she noticed that her mother was becoming too abstracted and sunk in her own thoughts, she would immediately speak to her, make some remark or ask a question or perhaps tell her something, as if to prevent her mother from becoming entirely lost, as if it made her sad to see her mother plunging back into memory. (pg. 41)

And the following passage on grief reflects some of my own experiences following the sudden death of my mother (many years ago now). There’s no finer example of why The Infatuations resonates so deeply with me:

And so, sooner or later, the grieving person is left alone when she has still not finished grieving or when she’s no longer allowed to talk about what remains her only world, because other people find that world of grief unbearable, repellent. She understands that for them sadness has a social expiry date, that no one is capable of contemplating another’s sorrow, that such a spectacle is tolerable only for a brief period, for as long as the shock and pain last and there is still some role for those who are there watching, who then feel necessary, salvatory, useful. But on discovering that nothing changes and that the affected person neither progresses nor emerges from her grief, they feel humiliated and superfluous, they find it almost offensive and stand aside: ‘Aren’t I enough for you? Why can’t you climb out of that pit with me by your side? Why are you still grieving when time has passed and I’ve been here all the while to console and distract you? If you can’t climb out, then sink or disappear’. And the grieving person does just that, she retreats, removes herself, hides. (pg. 64-65)

I loved The Infatuations (its Spanish title is el enamoramiento’the state of falling or being in love, or perhaps infatuation). It’s intelligent, thought-provoking and superbly written; one to savour and revisit in the future. I don’t want to say very much more about the novel’s plot or Miguel’s death, but Marías sustains an air of mystery and ambiguity through to the finish leaving María Dolz to contemplate: ‘the truth is never clear, it’s always a tangled mess.’ (pg 326)

This review was originally published as a guest post on Winstonsdad’s blog (23rd April 2014) and Stu has kindly granted his permission for me to republish it here. With Stu and Richard’s Spanish Lit Month fast approaching, I thought it a timely post in the run-up to July.

The Infatuations (tr. Margaret Jull Costa) is published in the UK by Penguin Books. Page numbers refer to the paperback edition. Source: personal copy.

26 thoughts on “The Infatuations by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Yes, I think the difference between perception and actual reality is one of the key themes of this book. As I guess you know, Stu, there’s so much in this novel that speaks to me, and I’m sure I’ll read it again at some point in the future.

      I’m looking forward to Spanish Lit Month – I’m sure I’ll end up with another stack of recommendations from your reviews!

      Reply
  1. Brian Joseph

    Very insightful commentary, I really like your review.

    This one sounds right up my alley as I tend to love books that explore such weighty issues through fiction.

    The nature of truth and reality verses the way we recount such things is something that I sometimes think about and is so interesting. Even when we try to be sincere we humans often get it very wrong.

    The writing style also sounds very interesting. I like it when authors try to write a little differently.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Brian. Based on your comments, I think you’d like this one very much as it delves deeply into some of life’s big themes: mortality, grief, truth.

      Yes, Marías’s prose style is very interesting. He writes long, looping sentences, which I find quite hypnotic. He’s definitely worth a look, and I can also recommend ‘A Heart So White’.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Helen. Yes! ‘A Heart So White’ is exceptional, isn’t it. I really need to read more by Marías as I just love the way he writes – I could get lost in those long meditations, but lost in a good way!

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Max. Yes, it was my first experience of Marías. I read it last year, and then again this year for Stu’s IFFP shadow group. I was so taken with it last year that I ended up reading ‘A Heart So White’ shortly afterwards – if you do decide to try him, this might be the one to go for. I love his prose style.

      Reply
  2. Col

    Loved the review so thanks for pointing me in the direction of it. I’d read the blurb on The Infatuations and it had somehow put me off a bit – it was one of the first books I got for my plan to read some Spanish Literature this year but I’ve kept by-passing it and choosing others from the shelf! Your review makes me realise I’ve been an eejit – the passage you quote above about grief is so astute and so accurate. The Infatuations will be moving up the “what’s next” list pretty rapidly!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Oh, thank you so much for your kind words! It’s so difficult to read everything on the shelf, and there are times when other books call to us for various reasons.

      The passages on grief really hit home with me and resonate with my own personal experience, and it’s one of the reasons why I love this book. I do hope you enjoy ‘The Infatuations’, and I’d love to hear what you make of it at some point.

      Meanwhile, I’m off to investigate your recommendations from the ‘Nada’ thread. Thank you, again!

      Reply
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  4. Seamus Duggan

    I came to this (having read it before) after your comment on The Sound of Things Falling. I had read the review before without commenting – just wanted to say that the review has stayed in my mind since, although I couldn’t remember where I had read it! This is very much on my tBR but probably not very soon as I have mountains of books that I need to start getting through.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you for dropping by again, Seamus; that’s great to hear! I know that feeling of having many books on the tbr pile. I hope you enjoy The Infatuations whenever you get a chance to read to it.

      Reply
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  9. Scott W.

    Your review has succeeded in bolstering my admiration for The Infatuations, which I read when it came out in English but did not like as much as the other Marías works I’d read (Your Face Tomorrow, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me). Partly that’s because your choice of quotations is outstanding – the one on grief is really spot on. Marías gives the reader such a steady stream of dense, reflective thought that I find it difficult to pull out nuggets like that. I also love your comment that “he softens the boundaries between thoughts and speech, too; once immersed in the middle of an extended passage, it isn’t always easy to tell whether you are listening to a character’s inner reflections or observing their conversation with another.” I’m tempted to add that to that last phrase “or reading Marías’ own thoughts which he’s trying to work into his novel in any way possible.” At first – in reading Your Face Tomorrow (my first Marías) – it took me some time to adjust to that style, but that’s really the writer’s prerogative, isn’t it? It’s not so different from using metafictional elements, and I like that Marías has something to say and says it. As a friend said when finishing Your Face Tomorrow, “It’s not about nothing.”

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thank you, Scott. The Infatuations might not be Marías’ best novel, but I think I connected with it on a personal level, primarily because of what he has to say about mortality and grief. That quote reminded me so much of how I felt following my mother’s death – how others expected the grieving process to last only a matter of weeks when in reality it took me several months to find a way through.

      I love your addition to my point on how he softens the boundaries between speech and thought. You’re right, one does get the sense that these are Marías’ own inner reflections. (I hope you’ll develop this line of thinking in your review of A Heart So White, that’s assuming you feel it’s relevant to this novel too.)

      He does have a very distinctive style, doesn’t he? It took me a while to catch his rhythm too, but once you’re in the zone you just want to stay there (or at least I do!). I like his themes and philosophical approach, and yet his novels never feel too ‘heavy’ or ponderous. His use of humour is very effective (although it is perhaps less evident in The Infatuations).

      All this leaves me eager to get hold of the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (once I’m allowed to buy books again). And I still have Tomorrow in the Battle to look forward to as well.

      Reply
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  12. crimeworm

    That last quote was indeed so accurate; I can see why it resounded with you – I think it would with anyone whose lost someone close. I think I will have to get to this one soon. The cover photograph had been annoying me, as it was really familiar, and when I bought the book I remember putting it on Facebook. A lot of my friends are musicians or big music fans and they identified it as having been used on the cover of Fairground Attraction’s album from the late 80s, The First Of A Thousand Kisses. It’s a lovely image.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Spot on, isn’t it? That’s exactly how I felt when I lost my mother very suddenly when I was in my mid-twenties, totally unprepared for the wave of grief that engulfed me for many months.

      It’s a very intriguing book, especially in the way Marias uses the central plot point of Miguel’s murder to explore all these different themes and experiences. I would love to hear what you think of this book. It was my first Marias, and I ended up falling for him in a big way. I’ve read four of his novels now, all intriguing in their own individual ways. I guess he has become one of my favourite writers.

      Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      I forgot to add a comment about the cover. Thanks for that – I knew I recognised the photo from somewhere! I agree, it’s a very beautiful image – there is a timeless quality to it.

      Reply

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