Tag Archives: Margaret Jull Costa

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)

My Books of the Year, 2015 – favourites from a year of reading

For me, 2015 was another year filled with great reading. I read around 90 books in 2015 (mostly older books), and only a handful turned out to be disappointing in some way. Once again I found it very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, but I’ve managed to whittle it down to a final thirteen: a baker’s dozen of excellent books, plus a few honourable mentions along the way! These are the books I love, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day. I’ve summarised each ‘winner’ in this post, but you can click on the links should you wish to read the full reviews.

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First up, five category winners:

Reread of the Year: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Considered by some to be Yates’ best, this novel follows two sisters who take very different paths in life. Their story taps into a familiar theme in this author’s work: the search for happiness and fulfilment that always seems to elude his characters. Despite the deep sense of sadness running through the novel, this was my favourite reread of the year. A superb book (I doubt whether it gets much better than Richard Yates).

Honourable Mentions (All of these are winners in their own right): After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys; A Heart So White by Javier Marías; The Long Good-Bye by Raymond Chandler.

Crime Novel of the Year: The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri (tr. John Cullen)

Set against the backdrop of Argentina’s Dirty War, the story focuses on the bond that develops between a clerk in the Buenos Aires investigative court and the husband of a murder victim. This is a first-rate novel—part psychological mystery, part exploration of corruption in the Argentine criminal justice system, but always engrossing.

Honourable Mentions: Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac; Topkapi – The Light of Day by Eric Ambler

Autobiographical Novel of the Year: Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan (tr. George Miller)

To be honest, I’ve only read a couple of autobiographical books this year, but the de Vigan was so good that I had to find a slot for it somewhere! Virtually impossible to summarise in a couple of sentences, this remarkable story focuses on a woman’s quest to gain a deeper understanding of her mother following the latter’s death by suicide. A genuinely absorbing book, beautifully written – de Vigan’s prose is luminous. 

Novella of the Year: The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Poor Florence Green is up against it at every turn as she tries to open a bookshop in the (fictional) Suffolk town of Hardborough. The town is the kind of microcosm where everybody knows everybody else’s business, a place where gossip, hierarchies and class systems all play an important role. Fitzgerald writes with great insight about life’s failings and disappointments, but she is a humorous writer too – every scene is so finely observed. Of the three Fitzgerald novels I’ve read to date, this is my favourite.

Honourable Mentions: Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós; Madame de___ by Louise de Vilmorin; Agostino by Alberto Moravia.

Short Story Collection of the Year: Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

I love the stories in this edition of forty-two pieces drawn from a lifetime of Ocampo’s writing, the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory. Several of her stories point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday. An unusual and poetic collection of stories that blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. Highly recommended, especially if you’re looking for something different.

Honourable Mentions: Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile; Subtly Worded by Teffi.

And now for the novels, eight favourites from a year of reading:

Run River by Joan Didion

It was a tough call between this book and Didion’s iconic Play It As It Lays; in the end, Run River was the one that stood out for me. I love the melancholy tone of this novel which explores the disintegration of the relationship between a husband and wife living in California. There is a sense of things dying here: Lily and Everett’s relationship; the traditional rancher’s way of life; people die too. I can’t imagine it being set anywhere other than California. In some ways, it’s a lament for a time that has all but disappeared. One for fans of Richard Yates – there are similarities with The Easter Parade.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

This novel follows a recently widowed elderly lady, Mrs Palfrey, as she moves into the Claremont Hotel where she joins a group of residents in similar positions – each one is likely to remain there until a move to a nursing home or hospital can no longer be avoided. This is a beautiful, bittersweet, thought-provoking novel, one that prompts the reader to consider the emotional and physical challenges of old age: the need to participate in life, the importance of small acts of kindness, the desire to feel valued. Taylor’s observations of social situations are spot-on (there are some very funny moments). A real gem.

A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien

Part compassionate satire, part touching coming-of-age story, this semi-autobiographical novel was inspired by O’Brien’s experiences of growing up in Los Angeles in the 1940s and ‘50s. The boy’s father used to be a famous actor, but his career has faded over the years. By the time he is twelve, the boy is living with his melodramatic, alcoholic mother, acting as her confidante and helping her through the bad times. This is a wonderful book – funny, sad, ironic and sympathetic. In many ways, it reminds me of early-to-mid-period Woody Allen (you know, the good ones before things went astray).

Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker

Dorothy Baker makes my reading highlights for the second year running, this time with Young Man with a Horn, a novel inspired by the music of jazz legend, Bix Beiderbecke. The story focuses on the life of a fictional character named Rick Martin, a jazz musician whose passion for music is so great that he struggles to keep pace with his own ability. This is good old-fashioned storytelling strong on mood, atmosphere and the rhythm of the music. Baker’s writing is top-notch.

Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross

Set in the 1940s, this novel is narrated by Richard Fanshawe, a young man who finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to eke out a living by selling vacuum cleaners to sceptical housewives. The story is shot through with dark humour, much of which stems from Maclaren-Ross’ wonderfully sharp observations on Fanshawe’s experiences as a salesman and life at the boarding house where he rents a room. Probably my favourite read of the year – a must for Patrick Hamilton fans.

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Set in New York in the late 1960s, this short novel follows a weekend in the lives of Sophie and Otto Bentwood, a childless upper-middle-class couple living in Brooklyn. When Sophie is bitten by a cat, the incident is the first of a number of disturbing events that threaten to destabilise the Bentwoods’ seemingly harmonious existence. This is a subtle and very effective character study; slowly but surely Fox peels away the layers to expose Sophie’s vulnerability and Otto’s failings. A novel that has grown in my mind over time.

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Set in Enniscorthy (the author’s birthplace), a small town in the south-east of Ireland in the late 1960s, Tóibín’s latest novel is the touching story of a woman who has to find a new way to live following the death of her husband. This is a novel that speaks to me on a personal level; so much of Nora’s story reminds me of my own mother’s experiences following the loss of my father. A subtle character study of a woman’s inner life. As one might expect with Tóibín, the sense of place is wonderful, too.

Carol / The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith’s ‘underground’ novel centres on the development of a relationship between Therese, a young aspiring designer and Carol, an older woman in the midst of a divorce and custody battle for her child. I really love this book; it is beautiful, insightful and involving. The central characters are so well drawn – the longing Therese feels for Carol is portrayed with great subtlety. While Carol is quite different to the other Highsmith novels I’ve read, it contains moments of real tension, both sexual tension and flashes of fear and anxiety. Familiar Highsmith themes such as obsession, desire and morally complex scenarios are here, albeit in a different context. This is the source novel for Todd Haynes’ recent film, Carol – both the novel and the movie come with a high recommendation from me.

Thank you to everyone who has read, shared or commented on my posts over the last year, I really do appreciate it. Wishing you all the best for the festive season and the year ahead, may they be filled with many wonderful books!

Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

Set in Madrid in the late 19th century, Tristana, by Spanish writer Benito Pérez Galdós, is a classic story of a love triangle. As the novel opens, we are introduced to Don Lope Garrido, a handsome lifelong womaniser now living in somewhat reduced circumstances in rented rooms in the Chamberí district of Madrid. At fifty-seven (although he thinks of himself as perpetually aged forty-nine), Don Lope still cuts a dashing figure with his noble face, slim figure and his distinguished goatee beard. Here’s a great description of this gentleman:

He dressed as smartly and impeccably as his slender means permitted: a well-buffed top hat, a good-quality winter cape, dark gloves at every season of the year, an elegant cane in summer, and suits more appropriate to youth than to maturity. Don Lope Garrido – just to whet your appetite – was a skilled strategist in the war of love and prided himself on having stormed more bastions of virtue and captured more strongholds of chastity than he had hairs on his head. True, he was somewhat spent now and not fit for very much, but he could never quite give up that saucy hobby of his, and whenever he passed a pretty woman, or even a plain one, he would draw himself up and, albeit with no evil intentions, shoot her a meaningful glance, more paternal than mischievous, as if to say: “You had a very narrow escape! Think yourself lucky you weren’t born twenty years earlier…” (pg. 4)

Don Lope is aptly named as while ‘Garrido’ can mean ‘handsome and elegant,’ it also carries a suggestion of ‘garras’ meaning ‘claws’.

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Living with Don Lope are two women: his maid, Saturna, and a twenty-one-year-old girl named Tristana. The inhabitants of the neighbourhood enjoy speculating on the nature of Tristana’s relationship with Don Lope. Various theories are bandied about ranging from daughter to niece to wife. But in reality the young girl is Don Lope’s ward. As the orphaned daughter of a close friend of her Don Lope’s, Tristana is entirely dependent on her guardian’s generosity, a status which this serial seducer has exploited. Within two months of Tristana’s arrival, Don Lope has added her to his very long list of conquests; she is, in effect, his plaything.

The problem was that the good gentleman’s moral sense lacked a vital component, and like some terribly mutilated organ, it functioned only partially and suffered frequent deplorable breakdowns. In accordance with the fusty old dogma of a knight sedentary, Don Lope accepted neither guilt nor responsibility when it came to anything involving the ladies. While he would never have courted the wife, spouse, or mistress of a close friend, he considered that, otherwise, everything was permitted in matters of love. (pg. 17)

At first Tristana accepts this way of life almost without question, failing to appreciate the reality of her situation. She is young, pretty and innocent. But as her twenty-second birthday approaches, Tristana begins to experience an awakening, a longing for independence and a sense of freedom.

Then there came a time when, like the shoot of a perennial plant that pushes its way up into life on a warm spring day, her mind suddenly flowered and filled with ideas, in tight little buds to begin with, then in splendid clusters. Indecipherable desires awoke in her heart. She felt restless, ambitious, although for quite what she didn’t know, for something very far off, very high up, which her eyes could not see; (pgs. 20-21)

As a result, there are signs that Tristana is starting to find life as Don Lope’s mistress more than a little distasteful. An ambitious and intelligent young woman, she dreams of learning a skill or profession, of living life as a painter, a writer or a teacher. Meanwhile, Don Lope is beginning to feel the effects of his advancing age. Sensing Tristana’s growing appetite to spread her wings, he begins to tighten the net around his young captive fearing she may deceive him or flee the nest forever.

Sensing that he was now an old lion, he, who had never considered any other man his rival, was suddenly filled with anxieties and saw robbers and enemies hiding in his very shadow. Aware of his own decrepitude, he was devoured by egotism, like a kind of senile leprosy, and the idea that the poor young woman should compare him, even if only mentally, with the imagined exemplars of youth and beauty, soured his life. His good judgement, it should be said, did not desert him entirely, and in his lucid moments, which usually occurred in the morning, he recognized the inappropriateness and irrationality of his behaviour and tried to calm his captive with trusting, affectionate words. (pgs. 29-30)

One day while out walking, Tristana meets and falls for Horacio, an attractive young artist and kindred spirit. The two young lovebirds continue to meet on a daily basis, a romance nurtured through afternoon strolls and, in time, secret trysts in the painter’s studio. Horacio, too, has experienced a difficult childhood. Orphaned at a young age and poorly treated by his tyrannical grandfather, he has found an outlet for his creativity through art. Horacio encourages Tristana’s eagerness to learn and the two feed off one another in a sense of mutual fascination and desire. Their love affair is teasing and playful.

Inside her, emotion was kicking and stamping, like a living being far larger than the breast containing it, and she vented this emotion by laughing wildly or bursting into sudden, passionate tears. It was impossible to say if this feeling was a source of joy to them or a lacerating sorrow, because they both felt as if they had been wounded by a sting that plunged deep into their souls, and were both tormented by a desire for something beyond themselves. (pg. 48)

With her spirit fully awakened, and scarred by Don Lope’s predatory behaviour, Tristana longs for the day when she can make her own way in life. Despite her love for Horacio, she is keen to reach a state of ‘honourable freedom,’ unwilling to accept dependency upon any man however much she idolises him.

And what of her home situation?  Although she does not love her guardian, Tristana still feels tied to Don Lope in some way; she experiences a strange mix of emotions towards him. There are times when Tristana loathes Don Lope for taking away her virginity, but she also feels something bordering on affection as a daughter would for her father. In reality, Don Lope’s character is far from black and white; he is a curious blend of altruistic qualities and terrible failings. He seems to have two opposing consciences: one very pure and honourable in certain respects, the other rather reprehensible. In effect, he chooses which to apply depending on the situation putting them ‘on and off like shirts’.

Don Lope wielded such power over her, such mysterious authority, that in his presence, even though she had ample reasons to rebel, she could not dredge up so much as a breath of willpower. (pg. 60)

Don Lope soon guesses that Tristana has a suitor. The evidence of love is there; he can see it on her face and hear it in her voice. That’s about as much as I’m going to say about the plot of this wonderful novel, but there are a number of moves and counterplays to come which keep the reader guessing.

Tristana is a joy to read, a subtle story of love, power, liberty, and creativity. As you may have gathered from my opening quote, Don Lope is a cunning strategist and not to be underestimated. At times, he behaves like a jealous lover, at others a watchful father or doting grandfather. He is a tricky character to pin down as we see various different facets of his personality. Tristana, too, is a complex individual, and her wishes change as the story moves forward. Even Don Lope’s maid, Saturna, is painted in a vivid and lively manner. She is Tristana’s confidante, and the conversations between the two women are one of the book’s many pleasures. The writing is sublime too: Galdós’ prose is elegant and sprightly; Margaret Jull Costa’s translation reads very smoothly.

This is my second contribution to Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month, and I must thank Guy and Scott for recommending Tristana, which I suspect will make my end-of-year highlights. You can read their excellent reviews by clicking on the links.

Tristana (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa) is published by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 2/20, #TBR20 round 2.

All Souls by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

First published in Spanish in 1989, All Souls is my third Marías (you can read my thoughts on the other two here: A Heart So White and The Infatuations).

The unnamed narrator of All Souls is a man in his late thirties recently married and living in Madrid with his wife and young son. The narrative is comprised of a series of reflections on the two years the narrator spent in Oxford as a visiting lecturer in translation, a fairly recent period in his life but one that seems to belong to another time.

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As with Heart, the experience of reading All Souls feels a little like observing a sequence of vignettes – each one conveying a vivid picture, a scene from a life, but the narrative itself is somewhat episodic. Perhaps the strongest thread running through the narrator’s recollections is his affair with fellow tutor, Clare Bayes, a somewhat careless, nonchalant and at times, indifferent woman whom he meets at a college dinner.

Clare had few scruples, but then no one who knew her would ever have expected anything else, for her charm lay in large measure precisely in her lack of consideration both for other people and for herself. (pg. 23)

It’s a relationship with no future, an affair mostly played out in the brief intervals between classes. They meet in hotel rooms, at the narrator’s house and in Clare’s home where they run the risk of being ‘discovered’ by Clare’s husband, Edward, another lecturer at the University.

As his teaching duties amount to very little, our narrator spends most of his time meandering around the streets of Oxford, visiting second-hand bookshops where he develops an interest in the work of Arthur Machen, author of supernatural and horror fiction. In time, this interest extends to the life and work of another writer, John Gawsworth. There is a mischievous undercurrent to some of the passages in All Souls, and you can see it here in this description of Oxford bookseller, Mrs Alabaster:

Mrs Alabaster was a smiling, authoritarian woman, with one of those very English smiles that you see adorning the faces of famous stranglers in films as they’re about to choose their next victim. She was middle-aged with greying hair, fierce eyes and capped teeth and, wrapped in a pink woollen shawl, she would sit at her desk, writing incessantly in an enormous accounts book. (pg. 75)

By way of a neat counterpoint, Mrs A’s husband ‘was equally smiling, but his smile was more like that of the strangler’s anonymous victim just before he realises his fate.’

Now that I’ve read a few of Marías’ novels, I am beginning to notice some common themes in his work. One of the most noticeable is a preoccupation with the passing of time or, to put it another way, a growing awareness of one’s own mortality. In this story, the title All Souls could be seen as having a dual meaning – not only the name of the University College but also a reference to the souls that haunt the pages of the novel. The narrator’s closest friend and confident, fellow-lecturer Cromer-Blake, is seriously ill and not long for this world. (We know this from the outset.) Moreover, during his time at Oxford, the narrator comes into contact with Professor Emeritus Toby Rylands, a respected literary scholar. Rylands too feels his own death is not very far away, the only difference being that unlike Cromer-Blake he has had plenty of time to get used to the idea.

For years now I’ve watched the days pass with that slow downhill feeling we all experience sooner or later. It doesn’t depend on age really, some people experience it even when they’re children; some children already have a sense of it. I felt it early on, some forty years ago, and I’ve spent all these years letting death approach and it still frightens me. The worst thing about the approach of death isn’t death itself and what it may or may not bring, it’s the fact that one can no longer fantasize about things still to come. (pg. 136)

The ability (or not) to keep secrets is another Marías theme. In The Infatuations and Heart, the focus is on our desire to conceal information from those closest to us. There is an element of this in All Souls, with a ‘reveal’ in the closing stages that took my breath away, but there are whispers of other covert activities too. Rylands is rumoured to have been involved with MI5 in the dim and distant past. With his mastery of Russian, another academic by the name of Dewar (aka the Inquisitor) is called to London to assist in interrogating Soviet citizens seeking political asylum in the UK. In one of the novel’s many wonderful set-pieces, the narrator imagines Dewar interrogating a nervy, freshly escaped ballet dancer still wearing their ‘Peter Pan outfit’ with ‘that look of Robin Hood’ they all seem to have. And on his arrival in Oxford, the narrator soon learns that the gleaning and trading of information is a major form of currency within the colleges.

Giving information about something is, moreover, the only way of not having to give out information about oneself, and thus, the more misanthropic, independent, solitary or mysterious the Oxonian in question, the more information about other people one would expect him to provide in order to excuse his own reserve and gain the right to remain silent about his own private life. The more one knows and tells about other people, the greater one’s dispensation not to reveal anything about oneself. Consequently the whole of Oxford is fully and continuously engaged in concealing and suppressing itself whilst at the same time trying to winkle out as much information as possible about other people… (pgs. 26-27)

Like the other Marías novels I’ve read, All Souls meanders around. The style is philosophical, reflective and at times surprisingly funny too. There is more sly humour here than in Heart (which contains a few darkly comic scenes involving translators and interpreters, another recurring theme in Marías’ work). All Souls contains three glorious set-pieces: the interrogation of Russian ballet dancers I mentioned earlier; a marvellous high table dinner featuring a drunken, lecherous warden and an insufferable college bore whose only topic of conversation is an obscure eighteenth-century cider tax; and finally, our narrator’s recollections of nights lost to the local discotheque, a place frequented by loose women, young Oxfordshire dandies and the occasional bachelor don.

…but on my fourth night there I spotted my own boss Aidan Kavanagh, the author of the horror blockbusters, performing a wild, loose-jointed dance out of time with the music. I couldn’t see very well – amongst all those bodies lit by that feverish light – and at first I thought with some alarm that his usually sober, anodyne clothes had given way to an eau de nil waistcoat and little else, but I realised immediately afterwards – with only a modicum of relief – that only his arms were in fact bare albeit to the shoulder: that is, he was as usual wearing a shirt and tie (apricot and bottle green respectively) beneath the eau de nil waistcoat, but it was a strange kind of shirt comprising only a shirt front. I wondered if he wore the same model to the faculty and determined to have a good look next time I met him in the Taylorian to ascertain whether or not his shirtsleeves were visible beneath his jacket cuffs. (pgs. 116-117)

Heart remains my favourite of the three Marías novels I’ve read so far, but there is much to enjoy in All Souls. Once again, particular images and passages recur and reverberate throughout the novel in a slightly different context each time: a woman glanced in passing; a hand tugging at a companion’s sleeve; the light of a fickle, mellow moon…there are many more.

There is some wonderful writing here too, not least in the narrator’s recollection of a chance encounter with a woman one night. Never before has Didcot railway station sounded more atmospheric or romantic.

In England strangers rarely talk to each other, not even on trains or during long waits, and the night silence of Didcot station is one of the deepest I’ve ever known. The silence seems even deeper when broken by voices or by isolated, intermittent noises, the screech of a wagon, for example, that suddenly and enigmatically moves a few yards then stops, or the unintelligible cry of a porter whom the cold wakes from a short nap (rescuing him from a bad dream), or the abrupt, distant thud of crates that the invisible hands quite gratuitously decide to shift despite the complete absence of any urgency, at a time when everything seems infinitely postponable… (pg. 15)

For alternative views of All Souls, which I read for Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month, here are links to reviews by Richard (Caravana de recuerdos), Seamus (Vapour Trails) and Victoria (Tales from the Reading Room).

Please feel free to comment on All Souls, Marías or any of his novels, all are welcome – I’m convinced I want to read pretty much everything he has ever written.

All Souls is published in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 1/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile (review)

Medardo Fraile, an eminent Spanish writer of short stories, was born in Madrid in 1925. Following a period of work in the theatre, he turned to short-story writing and his first collection of stories was published in Spanish in 1954. In the 1960s, he left Spain for the UK eventually settling in Scotland to teach at the University of Strathclyde. Things Look Different in the Light consists of twenty-nine of his stories taken from a range of collections first published between 1954 and 2010. This book represents the first selection of Fraile’s stories to be translated into English and what a little gem it is.

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Several of Fraile’s stories focus on the everyday: small occurrences that take on a level of significance; fleeting moments with the power to resonate and live long in the memory.

In Restless Eye, we follow a married couple over the course of one Saturday night. As they walk home from the cinema, the woman seems happy yet wistful, ‘filled by a pleasant sensation, by the playful, flickering flame of a vague desire, the savour of a different world, a world of carefree amusing people.’ As the couple approach their apartment, the woman hears the footsteps of a lone man following close behind. While her husband unlocks the door, she grasps the grille of the street door and looks out towards the pavement. It is as if she is transfixed by the sight of this stranger. He seems to represent a sense of freedom, excitement, perhaps even danger…something different to life with her husband:

The man following behind passed at precisely that moment. He was a dark, stocky young man, who, oblivious to her presence, glanced casually in through the door. She was standing motionless behind the grille, nonchalant, apparently distracted, a glint of boldness and fear in her restless eyes, following the man as he passed, following the wake left behind by his slow, deliberate swaying walk, by the sound of his sudden rasping cough. She felt the cold iron beneath her hand and saw the closed door. There was Saturday striding off down the street. She realized that her husband was holding the glass-panelled door open for her to pass… (pg 105)

Fraile manages to convey a range of moods through his stories. Several are sad or melancholy in tone. In other stories the mood shifts from one moment to the next; what starts as a happy occasion turns into an uncomfortable one. In Berta’s Presence, the opening story in this collection, a young man, Jacobo, is visiting friends as they celebrate their baby’s first birthday. The baby likes Jacobo, and she gurgles away as he produces a box of sweets from his pocket. But the situation changes when a young woman named Berta joins the gathering. Berta is imaginative and assured – she knows how to talk to children. Her mere presence appears to disturb Jacobo’s equilibrium; he worries that his efforts to amuse the baby will seem stilted and pointless by comparison.

In the title story from the collection, a painter is working underground on a sign for a metro station. Despite a lack of help from his surly boss, the man takes pride in his work, and he leaves the tunnel believing he has done a good job. His emergence into the sunlight signals a change in mood – his anger and frustration with the foreman are replaced by a more cheerful aura.  But there’s a twist in this tale; things really do look different in the light, but to say any more would only spoil this simple yet memorable story.

Given the title of this collection, it is perhaps not surprising that a number of these stories feature light, or more specifically, the ability of light to enliven or to enhance a particular mood. In Child’s Play, one of my favourites in the collection, two elderly sisters combat the darkening of their world by dialling up the light in their sitting room. As the sisters grow old, their desire for light increases; they need a little more each day to erase the years, to recapture the shine in their hair and the sparkle in their eyes. They continue to add more pendants and bulbs to their crystal chandelier. As the installation grows, the furniture has to be reduced in size to make room for the fittings. The chandelier seems to have assumed a life of its own:

So vast and intricate was the crystal chandelier that its arms touched the four walls of the room and nearly reached the floor, stopping only half a metre away. In the evening, it was a veritable forest of glinting crystals, a bag of light, a labyrinth, a hanging city. It had to be secured to the ceiling by five chains when it reached its prime, its peak, when Flora and Martita were old, too old, and sat beneath the chandelier like two transparent raisins filled with light. (pgs. 51-52)

Full Stop (another favourite) is one of the most poignant stories in the collection. This tale features a teacher who sets his class a dictation exercise based on a passage from one of his own letters. One student is asked to note the text on the classroom blackboard while the others must write the passage in their exercise books. Once the exercise is complete, the pupils seem eager to clear the board – they are in a rush to move on to the next thing. As he watches his words disappear from the blackboard, the teacher becomes aware of the transient, impermanent nature of life itself. It’s almost as if his own life has been erased:

He was left alone, putting on his gloves. He thought: “They didn’t even erase me slowly.” He was looking at the black rectangular board, like a precise, deep, dark hole. The now silent blackboard. He had been written on that board and now he had been erased. And with such rancour, such haste! His heart, he sensed, was clouding over. “How many others like me,” he thought, “lie behind that board, forgotten, lost, erased for ever, just like that?” (pg. 137)

Fraile grew up in Madrid and lived through the siege of the city during the Spanish Civil War. This experience appears to have seeped into An Episode from National History, one of the most powerful stories in the collection. Set in Madrid, it features a young boy of twelve and his school friend, Plácido. One day in 1938, Plácido and his mother call at the boy’s apartment in search of refuge. The boy is out at the time, and his stepmother and aunt turn Plácido and his mother away. It’s a poignant story tinged with sadness and regret; I wondered if it was semi-autobiographical or inspired by someone known to Fraile at the time.

It’s not all heartache and sorrow though; some of these stories are playful or humorous in tone. This passage from What’s Going On in That Head of Yours?, for instance, offers a glimpse of Fraile’s talent for wry humour. (The narrator is describing his time at University):

It was a curious world full of very pompous people, whom one gradually got used to. The girls weren’t like that. They were ordinary and pretty and often burst into tears. Generally speaking, the girls led a life of leisure in the afternoons, quite different from ours. We gave ourselves over to scepticism, getting chilled to the bone and talking. Many of us spent the afternoons recovering from colds. Everyone hated the textbooks. (pg. 28)

Things Look Different in the Light is an excellent collection, one of the best I’ve read for a while. Fraile’s stories are subtle, nuanced and beautifully observed. I love how they highlight situations or moods that turn on the tiniest of moments. Fraile’s focus is in the minutiae of everyday life, but these are no ordinary stories – they sparkle, refracting the light like the crystal chandelier in Child’s Play.

I must thank Grant at 1st reading and Scott at Seraillon for introducing me to the delights of Fraile’s writing – just click on the links to read their reviews.

Things Look Different in the Light (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa) comes with an excellent foreword by Ali Smith.

Published by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy. Book 13/20 in my #TBR20.

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.

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.