The Man of Feeling by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

When Richard and Stu decided to host Spanish Lit Month in July, it seemed like the right time for me to read another Javier Marías (you can find my thoughts on the others I’ve read here:  The Infatuations, A Heart So White and All Souls). First published in Spanish in 1986, The Man of Feeling would make a good introduction to Marías; it’s a short, hypnotic novel in which Marías’ long looping sentences add to the slippery feel of the narrative, a feature that seems so characteristic of much of his work.

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As The Man of Feeling gets underway, the narrator, an opera singer named León de Nápoles, is travelling by train to Madrid where he is to perform the role of Cassio in a production of Verdi’s Otello. Sitting opposite him in the compartment are three other people, two men and a woman, possibly travelling together (although it is a little unclear at first). As he observes his fellow passengers, the narrator begins to hypothesise about their lives: their personalities, their potential situations, and what they might do for a living. In particular, he is intrigued by the woman whose face, at least initially, is shielded by her hair.

Her hair, arranged with a single, much-practiced toss of the head, did not even allow one to build up an image of the whole face from a single feature, falling as densely as an opaque veil. (pg. 8)

When a sudden jolt in the movement of the train allows the narrator to catch a brief glimpse of the woman’s face, he senses in her features a kind of melancholy disposition, a look that stays with him as he continues his journey.

A few days later the narrator spots one of the men from the train in the bar at his hotel. The two men recognise one another from the journey, so they strike up a conversation. The man’s name is Dato, and by a strange coincidence he and his two travelling companions happen to be staying in the same hotel as the narrator. On the face of it, Dato is employed as a private secretary to the other male traveller, a Belgian banker named Manur. However, in reality, he serves as a near-constant companion to Manur’s wife, the melancholy Natalia, accompanying her on visits to shops, trips to the theatre and suchlike while her husband goes about his business. In effect, Dato’s role is to keep Natalia amused, a challenge that has become increasingly difficult of late as strategies for maintaining the lady’s interest are rapidly running low. Furthermore, Dato is there to protect Natalia from the advances of any potential admirers, men such as the narrator himself should he be so inclined.

Before long, the narrator finds himself spending much of his spare time with Natalia and Dato. As Manur is tied up with work from morning till night, Natalia and Dato are free to do what they choose during the day. They watch the narrator rehearse at the opera house, take all their meals with him, and include him in their various trips around the city. Somewhat inevitably, the narrator finds himself deeply attracted to Natalia, but to reveal anything more about what happens next would be a little unfair of me. What I will say, however, is that Manur is a self-confident, imposing and commanding man, someone who seems to exert a rather strange hold over his wife, the true nature of which is only revealed once events take their natural course.

Marías uses a very interesting structure to frame his narrative. In telling us his story, the narrator is recalling the details of a dream he experienced the previous night, a dream which replicates (more or less exactly) the events that happened during his trip to Madrid. Everything I have described above – the train journey and the various meetings between the narrator and the three travellers – all took place some four years earlier.

And last night I dreamed about what happened to me four years ago in the real world, if such a term serves any purpose or can usefully be contrasted with anything else. Of course there were differences, because although the facts and my vison of the story all correspond, I dreamed what happened in another order, in another tempo and with time apportioned and divided differently, in a concentrated, selective manner and – this is the decisive and incongruous part – knowing beforehand what had happened, knowing, for example, Dato’s name, character and subsequent behaviour before our first meeting took place in my dream. […] But it is also true that now I do not know to what extent I am recounting what actually happened and to what extent I am describing what happened in my dream version of events, even though both things seem to me to be one and the same. (pg. 25-26)

There is a sense that the narrator is not necessarily revealing everything he knows, prompting the reader to look between the lines, filling in the gaps, searching for meaning where necessary. Once again Marías blurs the margins between dreams and reality, between what is experienced, what is remembered and what might be imagined. At the heart of the novel is the idea that in some respects, much of the power of love stems from its anticipation and its recollection. In other words, it is not necessarily the present moment itself which is the key focal point here, but rather the anticipation of what might be experienced in the future or the memory of what has been experienced in the past.

Alongside the novel’s central thread, the narrator takes time to reflect on other aspects of his life, most notably the somewhat solitary existence of an opera singer, forever moving from one lonely city to the next. In some respects, it is not unlike the life of a commercial traveller, a comparison that allows Marías some scope to demonstrate his rather dry sense of humour. Moreover, there are one or two priceless glimpses into the eccentricities of the leading opera singer, someone the narrator performs with during his tour.

As with the other Marías novels I’ve read, certain themes are revisited during the novel, echoing earlier notes and references. It all makes for a spellbinding reading experience, the narrative almost coming full circle towards the end. This is another very fine novel by this writer – not simply a love story, but a beautiful meditation on memory too.

The Man of Feeling is published by Penguin Books; personal copy. (#TBR20 Book 1)

49 thoughts on “The Man of Feeling by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

  1. MarinaSofia

    I have to get back to reading Marias again – you are right, his looping sentences are hypnotic, and his humour can be as dry as straw left out in the sun, ready to catch a blaze.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a great way of describing his humour. It caught me somewhat by surprise when I read A Heart So White as I hadn’t noticed that sly wit in The Infatuations (my first Marias). Nevertheless, it is most definitely present and correct in this one!

      Reply
  2. Col

    I really enjoyed the two Marias novels I’ve read this far and have latest novel on my pile! This sounds just as enjoyable as Heart So White and Infatuations were so will look out for it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I have the new one as well, but I’m trying to save it for a while (famous last words!). The Man of Feeling is in a similar vein to A Heart So White, especially in terms of the style and the mood Marias creates. I think you’d like it, Col.

      Reply
  3. naomifrisby

    Great review, as always, Jacqui. I read this two (three?) years ago and thought I couldn’t remember anything about it but it did come back as I was reading your review. It was my first (and so far only) Marias and I don’t recall being that enamoured. Now I wonder if I’m missing something.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Naomi. He’s not for everyone, that’s for sure. I guess I’ve fallen for his prose style which I find so beguiling and seductive. It’s more about atmosphere and mood rather than narrative and action (which might be why it has slipped away in your memory). A little like our dreams, I suspect!

      Reply
  4. 1streading

    Great review – Marias almost a necessity for Spanish Lit Month. You sum it up perfectly when you talk about the power of love being in anticipation and recollection – not entirely unlike books! Are you planning to read the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Grant – means a lot coming from a Marias aficionado such as yourself. Absolutely, it wouldn’t be Spanish Lit Month without one or two of his novels appearing in the mix. I am planning to read the YFT trilogy, it’s just a question of timing. In fact, the more I hear about his new one (Thus Bad Begins), the more I think it might be better (or possibly necessary?) to have read the trilogy first. You’ll have to tell me what you think when you get around to it!

      Reply
  5. Tredynas Days

    He’s one of the finest modern authors. I wasn’t sure about A Heart SW, read some years ago, but the YFT trilogy was superb. Some of my first blog posts covered them – inadequately. He’s so hard to pin down. Lovely review, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cheers, Simon. Yes, I’m with you in thinking he’s one of the finest writers of our times. As far as I understand, he writes each of his novels in one single draft without any editing as such. It’s incredible when you think about it as they feel so cleverly structured and accomplished. I’m not sure how he manages to do it.

      I’m looking forward to reading the YFT trilogy at some point (I have the first two books on the shelves at home) – hoping to save it for a little while as I know it’s considered to be his masterpiece.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s fair enough as I don’t think his style will appeal to everyone. Not sure which Marias you’ve read, but I’d say this novella is fairly similar to A Heart So White in terms of style and mood (maybe The Infatuations too, although there are some differences).

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I found The Infatuations very intriguing, although it’s fair to say that it might not be his best novel (reactions to it were somewhat mixed, especially among long-standing fans of Marias).

          Reply
  6. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always Jacqui.

    I like the structure of this book as you describe it. Perhaps telling a story through a remembered dream is a way to cast even more doubt on the details.

    The characters also sound very interesting.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      In some ways, I think that’s what he’s trying to do here as you’re never quite sure how much of this reflects the narrator’s memories of something that actually happened vs his fantasies for want of a better word. Having finished the novel, I’m still not entirely sure, (although I don’t want to say any more as in case of spoilers). It is fascinating – he does this a lot, this blurring of boundaries between reality and the imaginary.

      Reply
  7. madamebibilophile

    Sounds fascinating Jacqui. I must read some Marias, he’s a huge hole in my reading! I have A Heart So White on the TBR pile, but this also sounds intriguing – I imagine his style particularly lends itself to consideration of memory/dreams etc.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it does. Memory seems to be a running theme in much of his work (as far as I can tell from the Marias novels I’ve read to date), and his hypnotic prose style only adds to the dream-like feel. A Heart So White is my favourite of the four I’ve read so far — I hope you enjoy it too, would love to hear what you think.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! It would be a good one to try as it should give you a feel for his style. Plus it’s short, so if you don’t click with it you won’t have wasted too much time. :)

      Reply
  8. bookbii

    I haven’t read Marias, but can tell from your reviews that he’s a writer you very much enjoy. Where would be a good place to start for a new reader? I love how you describe his writing as hypnotic, I love that style. Great review, as always.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. This would be a good one to start with as it’s fairly tight and beautifully structured. Some of his other novels (A Heart So White, for instance) are more complex and wide ranging, so they might be more challenging as a first read. Oddly enough, I fell for Marias in a big way when I started with The Infatuations, so that might be another option. It touches on several of Marias’ favourite themes: love, death, loss, grief and the keeping of secrets, I loved it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      My favourite remains A Heart So White (which I’ve read twice). I couldn’t help but be reminded of your reviews of Patrick Modiano’s novels as I was reading A Man of Feeling. It sounds as though there are similarities in terms of style and themes – the slippery nature of memory, the dreamlike mood/atmosphere. Possibly other parallels too.

      Reply
  9. roughghosts

    I loved A Heart So White but have not had the energy to engage again with Marias for some reason. I’ve never heard of this one but I think it might just be the ticket.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      In some ways it feels like a precursor to A Heart So White as the two novels are relatively similar in terms of style. It’s an earlier novel than Heart, but the English translation came much later, some 17 years after the original publication. (I suspect it ended up being translated off the back of the response to Heart.) I think you’d like it, Joe. And as it’s very slim, it won’t take up too much of your reading time. :)

      Reply
  10. gertloveday

    Oh dear Jacqui, I really liked your review and when you mention similarities to Modiano it makes me think I should give this a go, although I have had my issues with Javier’s way of viewing women before.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Glad you like the sound of this one. I think I know what you mean about his way of viewing/portraying the female characters in these novels (I noticed that slightly unsavoury undercurrent in both Heart and All Souls, especially the latter). That said, I think it’s less apparent in this one. Would love to hear your perspective on it. Modiano I still need to get to, but he came to mind while I was reading The Man of Feeling (purely based on what I’ve read or heard about his work).

      Reply
  11. Richard

    Glad to see you review this, Jacqui. It was the first Marías I ever read – about 10-12 years ago now, I think – and yet I remembered little about it other than I really enjoyed it. Your post brings a lot of good memories back, though!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Glad to hear it, Richard. Thanks for co-hosting another Spanish Lit Month – I’d been saving this novella for the summer just to join in with the event. It’ll be interesting to see how this novella settles into my memory. Given that so much of the power stems from the mood and atmosphere Marias creates here, I wonder whether my grip on the narrative will fade over time. I fear it might slip away fairly quickly…

      Reply
  12. Violet

    I’ve tried a few of his books, but have never managed to stick with them for long. His writing is rather an immersive experience, I think, and one probably needs to be in the right frame of mind to dive in. I enjoyed reading your review, and I feel a tiny bit tempted to give him another go.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I agree with you when you say his prose is rather immersive – it’s a style that demands a certain amount of concentration from the reader. I know he’s not for everyone, but then again life would be very dull if we all felt the same way about every writer or every book. I like the way he explores different philosophical ideas in some of his novels (it’s one of the things that hooked me when I read The Infatuations), so I guess he makes me look at the world in a slightly different way. If you ever feel like giving him another chance, The Man of Feeling would be a good one to try, especially given its brevity.

      Reply
      1. Violet

        I have the attention span of a gnat these days, which certainly doesn’t help when I try to concentrate on reading something a bit more demanding. :/ I feel as though Marías is probably one of those authors I would really like if I managed to shift my mind a little to one side and allow him in, so I *will* give him another try. I’ve requested The Man of Feeling from the library.

        Reply
  13. Amateur Reader (Tom)

    I enjoy Marías a lot, and would like to read more of him, but I read him quite differently. The “hypnotic” or “seductive” qualities of his style make it all the more important to resist him. Marías is like a con man, and much of the fun for me is resisting the con job. Magician is perhaps a better, or at least more positive, metaphor than con man.

    As a result, I have found his best book, by far, to be Dark Back of Time. You’ve read All Souls – you’re ready!

    Marías does not write the entire novel in a single first draft, and he edits like crazy.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, very interesting! A literary magician, that’s a good way of thinking of him. I’m sure I didn’t *get* everything on my first reading of this one – maybe 50% at a guess, so a re-read would definitely be in order one day.

      Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about Dark Back of Time! It’s just that I seem to have ended up with so many of his other novels…there are another two or three on the shelves at home, so I feel I ought to read those first. It’s on the wishlist for the future, though…

      Ah, thanks for the New York Timers article. That’s my misinterpretation of some comments he made during a recent edition of Bookclub on Radio 4 when he talked about the fact that he doesn’t write second versions/drafts of the novels. (The comments are in the last 5 minutes of the programme if you’re interested in listening.) Taking these comments together, it sounds as though he finesses each page…but once he has moved on to the next one, he doesn’t go back and re-edit as such (unless there is a continuity error or something of that nature). He doesn’t change the plot or significant events.

      http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b078wqz0

      Reply
  14. Alice

    This sounds like a very tempting read, I was sad when you didn’t share the conclusion – I got quite involved in your description. Haha. I think the only thing that puts me off is the mix of reality and dreams, and having to differentiate.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I’m afraid you’re going to have to read the book to discover how it ends. :) The blurring of the margins between reality and the imaginary might be my personal impression of what’s happening here. Another reader may well have a different interpretation or take on the book…as such, I would love to hear another opinion!

      Reply
  15. Séamus Duggan

    I need to pick up a couple more Marias novels. It’s been a while since I read one and I have yet to read one of the ones that gets pushed to the front when recommendations are sought. Short and hypnotic both sound good to me. I the moment I’ve started a long, and thus far, non-hypnotic novel.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Even though I have plenty of unread Marias on my shelves I still find myself tempted to buy more! The stories are on my wishlist too – I seem to recall a review over on your blog a year or so ago. The brevity of the narrative suits this one; in some ways it sort of adds to the intensity of the experience. As Grant said above, I wouldn’t be Spanish Lit Month without a Marias or two. :)

      Reply
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  18. Scott W

    Thanks for this review. I’ve heard less about this novel than about any of Marias’ other works, but I’m eager to start filling in the gaps in my reading of him – I still have so many to go! I was so taken with the latest one, Thus Bad Begins that I’m now determined to read everything else.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It doesn’t seem to have received as much attention as some of his other works. Not sure why, as it’s a great little book – and it would make a pretty good into to Marias’ style and structure for those who are new to his work. That said, I’m not unhappy that it came a little later in my reading of him – there are pros and cons each way, I suspect. Would love to hear what you make of this one – it’s very short, so you could knock it out in an afternoon!

      Reply
  19. Mary

    Wonderful review Jacqui.
    A new author to me and I’m wondering if this would be a good one to start off with or could you suggest one?
    Another to add to my Christmas list.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Mary. I think this would be a good one to start with as it seems fairly representative of the author’s style. Plus it’s short, so if you don’t take to it you won’t have wasted much time. I hope you do enjoy it though – he’s one of my favourite contemporary writers.

      Reply

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