A Heart So White by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

I often reread a favourite book during the dark days of winter. It’s usually something like The Great Gatsby, but this year I chose A Heart So White by Javier Marías (first published in Spanish in 1992) with a view to writing about it here.

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A Heart So White is narrated by Juan, a translator and interpreter living in Madrid with his new wife, Luisa, also a translator/interpreter. The novel has one of the most intriguing openings I can recall from my recent reading. Here’s how it begins:

I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father’s gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the dining room with other members of the family and three guests. (pg. 3)

Juan is talking about the death of his father’s wife, Teresa, shortly after the couple’s honeymoon some forty years ago. Juan’s father, Ranz, was not present at the moment of Teresa’s death, and at the time, no one appeared to know why she took her own life. Following his wife’s suicide, Ranz married Teresa’s sister, Juana (Juan’s mother).

At this point in the novel, we don’t know exactly when or how Juan learned of the circumstances surrounding Teresa’s death, and this hints at one of the book’s main themes: our desire to keep secrets from those closest to us.

This theme is developed as Juan reflects on his own wedding day. (The timeline moves backwards and forwards over the course of the novel but many of the scenes are set within the first year of Juan and Luisa’s marriage.) Juan has never had a particularly close relationship with his father, and when Ranz calls him to one side after the ceremony to offer a little advice, the conversation turns to secrets:

“…The world is full of surprises and of secrets. We think we know the people close to us, but time brings with it more things that we don’t know than things we do, comparatively speaking we know less all the time, there’s always a greater area of shadow. Even if the illuminated area grows larger too, the shadows still win…” (pg. 84)

At first Juan wonders if his father has discovered something terrible about Luisa only to reveal it after the wedding, but this does not appear to be the case. If anything Ranz appears helpless and a little fearful. Once Ranz recovers his composure, he leaves his son with the following advice but fails to offer any explanation for this enigmatic statement:

“I’ll just say one thing,” he said. “If you ever do have any secrets or if you already have, don’t tell her.” And smiling again, he added: “Good luck.” (pg. 89)

When Juan and Luisa return from their honeymoon, a family ‘friend’ lets slip that Teresa took her own life all those years ago. This revelation raises questions about Ranz’s relationship with Teresa, but when Juan asks his father about his past, he chooses to remain silent. Ultimately, it falls to Luisa to encourage Juan’s father to talk.

By the end of the novel the uncertainties surrounding Teresa’s suicide are resolved, but as with The Infatuations (Marías’s most recent book), A Heart So White offers so much more than a conventional mystery. It seems (at least in part) to be a meditation on some of Marias’s favourite themes: truth, secrets, relationships, communication and death.

During the course of Heart, Marías touches on the nature of marriage, whether it signals the end of an abstract future and a curtailment of choice. Despite his love for Luisa, Juan is troubled by feelings of doubt both during and after the honeymoon. There is a sense that Juan initially sees marriage to Luisa as an ending as opposed to the beginning of a new phase. It is entirely possible that he is experiencing some kind of existential crisis, a deep feeling of unease precipitated by his conversation with Ranz at the wedding ceremony:

I realized that I found it very difficult to think about her and utterly impossible to think about the future, which is one of the greatest conceivable pleasures known to anyone, if not the daily salvation of us all; to allow oneself to think vague thoughts, to let one’s thoughts drift over what will or might happen, to wonder without too much exactitude or intensity what will become of us tomorrow or in five years’ time, to wonder about things we cannot foresee. On my honeymoon it was if the future had disappeared and there was no abstract future at all, which is the only future that matters because the present can neither taint nor assimilate it. (pgs. 11-12)

Another of Marías’s themes concerns itself with how relationships lead to obligations and coercions, how these feelings may influence our actions. These ideas prove central to the mysteries surrounding Teresa’s death (as do the novel’s title and epigraph which come from Shakespeare’s Macbeth):

“Everyone obliges everyone else, not so much to do something they don’t want to do, but rather to do something they’re not sure they want to do, because hardly anyone knows what they don’t want, still less what they do want, there’s no way of knowing that .” (pg. 175)

All this might sound rather deep (and it is), but there is humour in this novel too. In particular, Marías has great fun with the world of translators and interpreters, an arena that Juan and Luisa know very well. During the course of his work Juan must travel to New York, Geneva and other cities where he spends eight weeks at a time in the company of organizations ‘gripped by a veritable translational fever.’  Here’s Juan on his role as an interpreter at a typical international congress or meeting:

Some idiot has only to fire off some idiotic remark to one of these organizations for it to be instantly translated into all six official languages, English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Arabic. Everything gets turned into French and into Arabic, into Chinese and Russian, be it the foolish thoughts of some enthusiast on the sidelines or some other idiot’s bright idea. Even if nothing is ever done about them, they get translated. (pg. 49)

The novel also includes a very funny scene where Juan deliberately mistranslates and twists the words of a high-ranking Spanish politician during a private meeting with his British counterpart. (The British politician is almost certainly Margaret Thatcher.)

At first this topic might seem unconnected to the novel’s other themes, but I think Marías is drawing a link between the process of translation and the communication of information – how secrets are never revealed or translated, and the real truth remains concealed:

…the only truth is that which is known to no one and which remains un-transmitted, that which is not translated into words or images, that which remains concealed and unverified, which is perhaps why we do recount so much or even everything, to make sure that nothing has ever really happened, not once it’s been told. (pg. 186)

Heart is a novel to sink into and savour. Marías’s themes are deep, and there’s a philosophical, meditative quality to his writing. His long, looping sentences seem to capture a person’s thought process by giving us their initial perceptions or ideas, sometimes followed by qualifications or even an alternative theory. I love the writing in Heart and The Infatuations: the style is reflective and the tone quite seductive at times.

I feel this review is somewhat disjointed, and it might be a reflection of the episodic nature of Heart’s plot. The experience of reading Heart feels a little like observing a sequence of scenes from a play – each one conveying a very vivid picture, a scene from a life, but the narrative itself is not straightforward.

Particular images and ideas recur and reverberate throughout the novel: the image of man observing a woman from a distance; a man watching an apartment window; murmurs and whispers overheard in part; a hand on a shoulder; a head on a pillow…there are more, including the repetition of certain phrases or passages of prose. Each time an image or passage recurs, the context is different, but we know the scenes are connected in some way. For instance, there are parallels between an adulterous couple Juan and Luisa encounter on their honeymoon and other relationships in the narrative. It’s a novel brimming with reflections.

The plot is very cleverly constructed; it feels layered, and I noticed additional connections on this second reading. In the closing chapters, Marías goes for a resolution, and Juan discovers the reason for Teresa’s suicide. It’s a great ending and a very satisfying one.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I absolutely love this book, and Marías is fast becoming one of my favourite writers.

Other bloggers have reviewed this novel – they include Richard (at Caravana de Recuerdos) and Tony Malone.

A Heart So White (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa) is published in the UK by Penguin Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 9/20 in my #TBR20.

60 thoughts on “A Heart So White by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

  1. lonesomereadereric

    Wow, this sounds like such an engaging and clever novel. I like how you describe how Marias gets the levels of complex psychology involved in relationships. I’ve wanted to read his novels for a while and can’t belive I haven’t got around to them yet. You’ve done an excellent job at capturing the major themes of the novel and conveying how much you respond to his writing. Do you think this is a good Marias novel to start with if you haven’t read anything else by him or is there another one that would be better to read first?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is a very clever and thought-provoking novel, beautifully constructed too.

      I’m still fairly new to Marias myself (as I only started reading him a couple of years ago). I probably haven’t read enough of his work to advise on the best place to start, but other commenters may well have some thoughts on this. That said, A Heart So White does seem to capture several of this author’s favourite themes: secrets, truth, how well we know those closest to us, mortality, the mysteries of life. If you’re thinking of reading one Marias novel to get a sense of his style (and to see if he’s a writer for you) then Heart would certainly fit the bill. It’s a much-loved novel and unlike his Your Face Tomorrow trilogy its a standalone work. I think you’d like him, Eric!

      Reply
      1. lonesomereadereric

        Thanks! I hope to get to it soon. It was partly the thought of the trilogy which has kept me back I think – difficult to invest in reading a trilogy when you don’t know if you’ll really like the author so this novel would be a good place to begin. I think I first came across him when I heard Ali Smith raving about his writing – an opinion I always trust. Your considered review only reinforces my feeling I’ll take to his writing.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          You’re very welcome, Eric. I’m glad Helen chipped in with another suggestion for you. I agree, it’s a tall order to commit to a trilogy if you’ve never read an author before.

          I didn’t know Ali Smith was a Marias fan. Well, she’s clearly got great taste in writers (not to mention frescoes!). I hope you enjoy Marias – do let us know how you get on.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Helen! I had a feeling Heart was your favourite. Yes, there’s so much to this book, and it certainly rewards rereading. I have three unread Marias novels on my shelves: All Souls, The Man of Feeling and Tomorrow in the Battle… Have you read any of these? I thought I might try All Souls next as it sounds a little different to the others.

      Also, do you have any thoughts on Eric’s question on a good place to start with Marias. I probably haven’t read enough, but my sense is that Heart would make a good entry point. What do you think? You might be able to suggest a better one?

      Reply
      1. hastanton

        I have read Tomorrow In The Battle …that was the first Marias I ever read and I think that it heart are the best place to start . Battle is prob more ‘free standing ‘ than the other ones where a lot of characters appear and reappear .

        Never read All Souls ….looks amazing so I will await you review in due course . I have read the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy ….quite an undertaking but hugely rewarding .

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s great – many thanks, Helen. I’m thinking of reading All Souls later this year, maybe in the summer if Richard and Stu hold another Spanish Lit Month.

          The Your Face Tomorrow trilogy does sound excellent. Glad to hear it repays the investment. One day…

          Reply
        2. lonesomereadereric

          Great, Helen. I’ll start with either “Tomorrow” or “A Heart so White” Thank you.

          Reply
  2. gertloveday

    I’m so glad to read this. I just love this book and re-read it every couple of years. I don’t know why it is, but one of the things that stays with me most is the episode when he hears the woman in the next room in the hotel singing, “Mother in law, she lyin, yen yen yen”. What do you make of that?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s nice to hear! There’s so much this book, all those themes and layers; it certainly rewards rereading.

      Ah, yes – I can see what you mean about that scene. It’s quite disturbing, isn’t it? Mind you, I found that whole section very eerie and mysterious as there’s a sense of foreshadowing to it. Difficult to discuss here without getting into potential spoilers…

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    Deep themes involving relationships, social structures, and psychology sound like my cup of tea.

    The writing and humor sound really good too.

    I think that rereading is an important thing to do. I wish that I had more time to do it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s great, Brian. There’s so much to think about here.

      The quotes should give you a good feel for Marias’s prose style. He writes such beautiful long, immersive sentences…as a reader, you just want to sink into his novels. He uses humour to very good effect here. I didn’t notice it so much in The Infatuations, but it’s there in Heart.

      I’m with you on rereading – I wish I had more time to do it too!

      Reply
  4. realthog

    Golly, I’ve never even heard of this novel yet you make it sound so mouthwatering! I must put it on the (alas, near-infinitely long) list. Many thanks!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. It’s a very cleverly constructed novel with a psychological mystery at the centre – there’s so much more to it though. I think you might like it…

      Reply
  5. Caroline

    I’ve owned this for years but never get over that first stunning paragraph. Not sure why. I know I would love it. I didn’t think your review was disjointed but sometimes when we like a book a lot we always feel the review falls short.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline. I think you’re right. It’s often the way with books we love; we want to do them justice.

      That first paragraph is brilliant, isn’t it? It must be one of the best openings I’ve come across. You’ll have to go back to it at some stage as I’m sure you’d love it! I think you’d enjoy Marias’s writing.

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Wonderful review Jacqui – I have The Infatuations on the TBR but have never got into it. I must try again… :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Oh, do try again with The Infatuations. Maybe it just wasn’t the right book for you at the time. He is a wonderful writer, but you have to be prepared to immerse yourself to a certain extent. I find it easier to read his novels in chapter-sized chunks as it’s possible to lose the thread if you have to stop in the middle of a section. Let me know how get on if you do go back to it,

      Reply
  7. Col

    I read this last year for the first time – though rather than a dark winter I read it in the summer sun on a beach in Barcelona. And I loved it! The writing has a depth and seductiveness exactly as you described. Even though I’d loved it I. had no idea how to review it – think you’ve captured it perfectly!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s very kind of you to say, Col. Well, I did have the benefit of reading it twice before gathering my thoughts together! I’m so glad you enjoyed Heart, too. A beach in Barcelona sounds like the perfect setting (or perhaps a bar in Madrid).

      I think Marias has the potential to become one of my favourite writers; I just want to read everything he has written.

      Reply
  8. Scott W.

    I have found the Marías novels I’ve read so far fascinating – especially the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy. This one is so high on my list, and your review so encouraging, that I think I’ll read it next.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Fantastic. I thought you might be a Marias fan (in fact, I had a quick look at your blog before I posted this piece to check if you had reviewed Heart). It’s the combination of his themes and beguiling prose style that fascinates me; I just find his books completely immersive.

      I wonder how this one will compare with the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy? I’ll be very interested to hear what you think of it.

      Reply
  9. MarinaSofia

    I haven’t read Marias yet at all and feel like I’m missing out hugely. It sounds like the sort of writer and book to interest me. Also like your choice of The Great Gatsby to reread, though – that’s a perennial favourite of mine, along with Jane Austen’s Persuasion (which I can always reread).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Marina, I can only encourage you to give Marias a try! I think you have to give yourself over his books as they’re quite immersive but very rewarding. I love the way he writes; I just want to sink into his prose. His themes are interesting too, all the big subjects in life, and I like the way he uses mystery and uncertainty within his stories.

      A Heart So White would be a good one to try as it seems to capture many of Marias’s favourite themes…it would give you an excellent feel for his style. Alternatively, Helen has suggested Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me as another possible entry point.

      Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      I forgot to say…Gatsby’s great, isn’t it? I don’t think I’ll ever tire of reading that book. It’s been several years since I read Persuasion so I’ll have to put it on the reread list!

      Reply
      1. MarinaSofia

        I want to reread ‘Tender Is the Night’ soon, as it’s been years since I read it and loved it, and I think I’d have a different take on it at my age now.

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Seamus. I enjoyed The Infatuations very much; it contains some beautiful writing on grief, passages that really resonate with me. Heart is even better, a more complete novel in some ways. The Your Face Tomorrow trilogy is on my wishlist too, but I ought to read at least one of the three unread Marias novels I already own before buying any more!

      Right, I’m off to read your All Souls review now – many thanks for the link. I think it’ll be my next Marias.

      Reply
  10. Richard

    Belated thanks for the link, Jacqui, and for sharing your enthusiasm for Marías. Such a satisfyingly intelligent and humorous writer. And I love your comment about the seductive quality of those “immersive sentences” of his. Spot on. The Your Face Tomorrow trilogy is probably my favorite Marías of them all, and I actually prefer Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me to A Heart So White if truth be told. Both used to be thought of as the best one-volume Marías novels before The Infatuations, which was also warmly received, but the slightly more humorous All Souls is also pretty great and what people like Rise and Tom have said about the anti-novel Dark Back of Time make me realize what an idiot I am for having started it but never finished it due to my perennial short attention span. I’m ready to go for another Spanish Lit Month this summer; those of you who also want another one will just have to keep the pressure on Stu to make sure he wants to do it again (it’s his baby, after all). Cheers!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Richard – not belated at all! Many thanks for your comments. I feel as though I may have found my desert island writer (or one of them at least).

      I’m delighted to hear that you prefer Tomorrow in the Battle to A Heart So White. It’s nice to know I have a great book to look forward to – perhaps I’ll save it for a while. The Your Face Tomorrow trilogy is sounding increasingly like a must buy, I’ve heard nothing but praise for it. I’m curious about All Souls as it sounds a little different to Heart and The Infatuations.

      Well, I’m all set for another Spanish Lit Month too so we’ll have to encourage Stu to set it up…and it’ll give you an opportunity to return to Dark Back of Time!

      Reply
  11. 1streading

    I thought you review was excellent, Jacqui – a great introduction to Marias. I think this was the first of his novels I read and I’ve also read it twice. He’s one of those writers where I’ve gone on to read everything else available in English!
    I’ve also quoted that opening as one of the best ever!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Many thanks, Grant. I’m tempted to follow in your footsteps as I just want to read them all!

      Did you review Heart? I looked at your blog on Tuesday morning but couldn’t see it. Let me know if you have, and I’ll add a link to yours. That opening is pretty stunning, isn’t it? I wondered if you ever use it in your teaching.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      His style is very distinctive! The observations about translating and interpreting are very amusing, aren’t they? I liked the way he captured the rivalry between translators and interpreters, the sense of disdain they have for one another.

      I might try All Souls as my next Marias – it sounds as if it contains more on the theme of translation/mistranslation.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Lindsay. It’s a great opening, isn’t it? The image of Teresa aiming the gun at her is powerful enough on its own, but the mention of her recent return from honeymoon raises questions about the marriage. And then there’s the way Juan opens the sentence: ‘I did not want to know but I have since come to know…’ It just adds to the intrigue.

      Reply
  12. Guy Savage

    This sounds good Jacqui which is just as well as I own a copy. I have yet to try Marais though, so it’s good to know that he’s becoming a favourite. Books that are part mystery and philosophical can be very rewarding.
    Sorry for not replying earlier–for some reason I didn’t get notification. I was thinking it was weird that it was such a quiet week with NO ONE writing posts on the blogosphere. Annoying.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely no need to apologise, Guy. Comments are always welcome anytime. The lack of notifications is frustrating though – I hope it’s all sorted now.

      Marias has quite a distinctive style so you’ll probably either love him or hate him. I like how he uses uncertainty in his stories as there’s usually something sinister or an element of deception involved. I think he’s interested in the following question: how well do we know those closest to us?

      Heart would make a good starting point, so it’s great to hear you have a copy. I think you’d enjoy the passages on translators and interpreters, they’re very funny.

      Reply
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  14. Emma

    Great review.

    I wasn’t thrilled by the two Marias I’ve read but everyone says this one is great. I’ll read it someday.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. It’s worth a look if you ever want to give Marias another try. I think you liked his prose style in Tomorrow in the Battle….

      All Souls seems rather divisive – I’ve heard positive and negative things. It’ll probably be the next Marias I try so we’ll see…

      Reply
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  16. Tredynas Days

    Just picked this up from your archive, Jacqui. I wrote about the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow & began with a ref to HeartSW – he’s one of the finest writers of our time, I believe. Infatuations is also excellent. Great review, thanks

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Simon. I agree – I think Marias is a wonderful writer. His prose is sublime – I just want to lose myself in those long, looping sentences. I keep trying to encourage Max to give him a try. One day, I hope.

      Heading over to your blog to read your review of the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, a series I really must read at some stage. Thanks for letting me know about your posts.

      Reply
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  20. Scott W

    Finally I get to re-read this thing after having read the novel and written up something about it! I wholly sympathize with your feeling “disjointed” in trying to get a handle on it. You touch on several aspects of the work I failed to address – Juan’s ambivalence about his marriage to Luisa, the humorous manner in which domestic and diplomatic secrets get juggled, the repetition of certain motifs that create these echoes and reverberations through the novel. Given the density of some of Marías’ lengthy digressions, I’m astounded to recognize all of those quotations; they’re tenacious. Thanks so much for providing here the impetus for me to tackle this as my next Marías.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! You’re very welcome, Scott. I’m just delighted to see such an insightful, thoughtful and eloquent review of Heart over at yours! I loved your commentary on the scene in which Juan overhears the conversation in the adjoining bedroom and how he behaves with Luisa during that evening. I didn’t even mention that entire section of the narrative, never mind the links to Macbeth.

      Isn’t it interesting how we’ve all seen something different in this book? The sign of an excellent and rich novel, don’t you think?

      Reply
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