Tag Archives: Spain

Your Face Tomorrow trilogy by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

Regular readers of this blog may be aware of my fondness for the novels of Javier Marías, widely regarded as one of the preeminent writers of our generation. So, it was with a strong sense of anticipation that I picked up his epic trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, generally considered to be his greatest work.

That said, I wasn’t sure about this series when I read the first volume, Fever and Spear, back in November last year, so much so that I didn’t write about it at the time. While thoughtful and philosophical (perhaps more so than some of the other Marías novels I’d previously read), this opening instalment was fairly slow going throughout, especially in terms of narrative drive. Nevertheless, I preserved with the series, returning to it during my recovery from a fracture earlier this year (big chunksters being very much the order of the day at that point). Now that I’ve read the other two books in this masterful trilogy, I can see what that first volume was setting out to achieve in laying the essential groundwork for the revelations to come.

In brief, the overarching story revolves around Jacques Deza, a Spanish man who has just moved to England following the recent split from his ex-wife, Luisa, and their two young children. (Those of you who are familiar with Marias’ earlier novel, All Souls, will recognise Deza from there.) Back in the UK, Deza reconnects with various former colleagues from a previous stint at Oxford University, through which he is introduced to the shadowy surveillance expert, Bertram Tupra – a man who appears to be linked to, or possibly employed by, MI6.

Tupra believes Jacques has a particular gift or sense of intuition – more specifically, an ability to assess a person’s inherent character and predict how they are going to behave in the future. In short, by looking at a person’s demeanour today, Deza can ‘foresee’ their face tomorrow.

With this in mind, Deza is recruited into Tupra’s organisation, a nameless group whose overall objectives remain something of a mystery. Ostensibly, Deza will be called upon to assess various individuals in the public eye – typically politicians, celebrities and other figures in positions of power. However, as the true nature of Tupra’s operations become increasingly apparent, Deza is drawn into a deeply sinister world, one where violence and torture are second nature and manipulative deceptions are frequently employed.

The state needs treachery, venality, deceit, crime, illegal acts, conspiracy, dirty tricks (on the other hand, it needs very few acts of heroism, or only now and then, to provide a contrast). If those things didn’t exist, or not enough, the state would have to invent them. It already does. Why do you think new offences are constantly being created? What wasn’t an offence becomes one, so that no one is ever entirely clean. Why do you think we intervene in and regulate everything, even where it’s unnecessary or where it doesn’t concern us? We need laws to be violated and broken. What would be the point of having laws if everyone obeyed them? We’d never get anywhere. We couldn’t exist. (p. 128, vol 3, Poison, Shadow and Farewell)

Almost without realising it, Deza finds himself intimately involved in Tupra’s dirty work, both indirectly as a hapless witness to scenes of a brutal assault and more directly as an active participant. His transformation from horrified onlooker to aggressive perpetrator is one of the trilogy’s key masterstrokes. Along the way, the narrative touches on incidents from the deeply personal, such as Deza’s ex-wife and her current relationships, to the broadly political – the latter including a devastating betrayal of trust from WW2 and horrific episodes from the Spanish Civil War.

Many of Marías’ familiar trademarks are present here, from the long, looping sentences and extended meditations that form a key part of his reflective style, to the key symbols and motifs which recur throughout – for instance, the image of a drop of blood on the floor, the rim of which proves particularly stubborn to remove. (The need to erase the final traces of a ‘taint’ or ‘stain’ crops up again and again, each time in a different context, resonating and reverberating with increasing power.)

The ongoing fascination with listening and surveillance is there too – an element which appears in some of Marías’ earlier books, perhaps most notably, A Heart So White. In some ways, the art of assessing character can be viewed as a form of interpretation or translation – another recurring theme in this writer’s work. Marías’ own particular brand of humour is also in evidence, providing some nicely judged moments of levity amidst the darkness of Tupra’s empire. Volume two of the trilogy, Dance and Dream, contains a fabulous disco scene, complete with wild dancing and some outrageously indecent behaviour before the violence kicks in. in this scene, Deza is observing an associate, the licentious attaché De la Garza, who appears to be taking quite an interest in , Flavia Manoia, the wife of an important contact.

He was clearly a man who had no time for good taste, or in whom bad taste was so pervasive that it crossed all frontiers, the clear and the blurred; more than that, he was someone capable of taking a lascivious interest in almost any female being – a rather smutty interest, verging on the merely evacuative – at Sir Peter Wheeler’s party, he had been capable of taking a fancy, and quite a large fancy at that, to the not-quite-venerable reverend widow or Deaness Wadman, with her soft, straining décolletage and her precious stone necklace of orange segments. (I mean, of course, an interest in any female human being, I would not like to insinuate things I know nothing about and of which I have no proof.) Flavia Manoia, who was of a similar age, but with considerably more style and dash (a dash of her former beauty, I mean), could easily turn his head after the couple of drinks he already had inside him or was planning to drink in the next few minutes. (pp. 65-66, book 2, Dance and Dream)

(For more wild nights at the disco, see the earlier Marias novel, All Souls.)

Overall, the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy is a tremendous achievement, a thought-provoking treatise on truth, betrayal, coercion and culpability. As a whole, the narrative raises some key questions about the nature of violence, particularly whether the final outcome can ever justify the means. It also forces us to question our own likely responses were we to find ourselves in Deza’s precarious situation. How can any of us ever know just how we would react in the face of extreme adversity? How far would we go to protect the life of a loved one or the safety of our children? It’s almost impossible to tell. The prediction of future behaviour or ‘your face tomorrow’ is more challenging than you might think.

Final notes: If you are thinking of embarking on this trilogy at any point, I would highly recommend you read both All Souls and A Heart So White first – the former to gain an appreciation of Deza’s backstory and earlier time at Oxford University (many of the individuals he encountered in his academic days are referred to again here); the latter for an insight into Custardoy, a rather brash copier of famous paintings who plays a key role in YFT volume three, Poison, Shadow and Farewell.

Also, do persevere with the trilogy even if you find it slow going at first – it really does pay off by the time you get to volumes two and three, I promise!

(This is my contribution to Stu’s Spanish and Portuguese Literature month – you can find out more about it here.)

My edition of the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy was published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

Pazo de Villarei Albariño, 2015 – a wine for #SpanishLitMonth

Seeing as July is the month for all thing Spanish (see here for a link to Richard and Stu‘s Spanish Lit Month), I thought I would take the opportunity to post a short note on an Albariño I tasted recently. It doesn’t take much for me to get excited about Spanish whites as they constitute much of my summer drinking along with Italian whites and Provençal/Corsican rosés.  The wine in question is the Pazo de Villarei Albariño, 2015, from the Rías Baixas region in north-west Spain. (I’ve already written about a previous vintage of this wine, but the 2015 is the latest release.)

It’s a lovely wine; lemony, minerally and very refreshing. Plus it has a slight spritz that gives it a sort of joie de vivre which seems perfect for this time of year. If you’ve never tried Albariño before, the Villarei would make a good introduction to this grape variety, a staple of the Galicia area of Spain. This is a fresh, zingy, unoaked white wine which is light on its feet yet satisfying too. Shellfish or sea fillets would make a nice partner. As for a suitable book match, I have just the thing in mind: The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán, a Spanish classic set in Galicia. A review will follow later this month.

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Most of my favourite Albariños seem to clock in at the £12-14 level – Pazo de Señorans and Fefiñanes are terrific quality, but at > £10 pb they might not be everyone’s idea of an everyday wine. Up to until last year, I’d struggled to find a reliable Albariño at the sub £10 level, but the Villarei is keenly priced at £8.50. I think it’s great value for money.

I bought this wine from The Wine Society (I have a link to The Society, so the vast majority of my wines are purchased there). Alternatively, you can use Wine Searcher to look for stockists. If you can’t find the Pazo de Villarei, then the Pazo de Señorans and Fefiñanes are truly excellent wines, albeit a little more expensive.

My notes on another couple of favourite Spanish white wines can be found here, The Gaba do Xil is an unoaked Godello from Galicia while Las Olas is a Verdejo from the Rueda region. Enjoy.

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)

Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Jonathan Dunne)

Taking advantage of the extension of Spanish Lit Month into August, I turned to Bartleby & Co., a clever and engaging piece of metafiction from esteemed Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas. First published in Spanish in 2000, with an English translation following in 2004, Bartleby & Co. is a celebration of ‘the writers of the No’. Or, to put it another way, those authors who succumb to Bartleby’s syndrome by entering an extended, often permanent, period of literary silence. The name of this condition references Bartleby, the clerk in Herman Melville’s novella, Bartleby, the Scrivener, who when asked to do something or to reveal anything about himself, responds by saying “I would prefer not to.”

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Bartleby & Co. is narrated by Marcelo, a solitary office worker and stalled writer who is struggling to write a follow-up to his first book published some twenty-five years earlier, a novel on the impossibility of love. (The narrator appears to be a thinly-veiled version of Vila-Matas himself. In his 2003 novel, Never Any End to Paris, the author refers to his quest to complete one of his first books, The Lettered Assassin, a story featuring a novel that will kill the reader seconds after he or she finishes reading it.)

Pretending to be suffering from depression, Marcelo, the narrator of Bartleby & Co, takes extended sick leave with the intention of working his way through ‘the labyrinth of the No’. By doing so, Marcelo believes he can find a way forward by opening up a path to authentic literary creation.

Only from the negative impulse, from the labyrinth of the No, can the writing of the future appear. (pg. 3)

Marcelo sets about compiling a set of footnotes to a text that does not exist. Each footnote contains details about one of many literary Bartlebys, their reasons for silence and snippets about their lives. Here’s an excerpt from the footnote on Mexican writer, Juan Ruflo; when asked why he no longer wrote, Ruflo would say:

“Well, my Uncle Celerino died and it was he who told me the stories.”

His Uncle Celerino was no fabrication. He existed in real life. He was a drunk who made a living confirming children. Ruflo frequently accompanied him and listened to the fabricated stories he related about his life, most of which were invented. The stories of El llano en llamas almost had the title Los cuentos del tío Celerino (Tales of Uncle Celerino). Ruflo stopped writing shortly before his uncle’s death. The excuse of his Uncle Celerino is one of the most original I know among all those concocted by the writers of the No to justify their abandonment of literature. (pg. 7)

The footnotes present a wide variety of reasons for not writing. These range from the commonplace and understandable (illness; writer’s block; drug addiction) to the downright bizarre – one writer remains convinced that José Saramago has stolen all his ideas by way of some strange telepathic powers.

Lack of inspiration is a familiar reason for not writing anything, even the great French writer Stendhal experienced it as he notes in his autobiography:

“Had I mentioned to someone around 1795 that I planned to write, anyone with any sense would have told me to write for two hours every day, with or without inspiration. Their advice would have enabled me to benefit from the ten years of my life I totally wasted waiting for inspiration.” (pg. 31)

Thinking about Stendhal’s situation reminds the narrator of another case, that of the ‘strange and disturbing’ poet, Pedro Garfias, friend of the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Here was a man who spent many months not writing a single line simply because he couldn’t find the right adjective. Whenever Buñuel met the poet, he would ask him:

“Have you found that adjective yet?”

“No, I’m still searching,” Pedro Garfias would reply before moving off pensively. (pg 32)

There are references to several famous writers through the ages: Guy de Maupassant, Rimbaud, Andre Gidé, Robert Walser, John Keats, and Julien Gracq, to name but a few. Other cultural figures also feature: Marcel Duchamp, the great artist who shunned painting for over fifty years because he chose to play chess instead; and Michelangelo Antonioni, who wanted to make a film, L’Eclisse (The Eclipse) about a couple’s feelings drying up, in effect they become eclipsed as their relationship dissolves.

In presenting these literary vignettes, Vila-Matas adopts an ironic tone. There is a dry, self-deprecating humour running through Bartleby & Co., a tone not unlike the one he uses in Never Any End to Paris. Perhaps the best example of this wit is encapsulated in the footnote on the notoriously reclusive author J.D Salinger, a hilarious anecdote in which the narrator is convinced he has spotted Salinger on a New York bus. It’s too long to cover here, but its inclusion alone makes Bartleby & Co. worth reading.

Overcome by the plethora of literary eclipses he has discovered, Marcelo takes a moment to reflect on the tension between yes and no, to focus the mind on a reason to write. He ends up seeking solace in the first thing that comes to mind, a snippet from the Argentinian writer, Fogwill:

“I write so as not to be written. For many years I was written in my life. I acted out a story. I suppose I write in order to write others, to operate on the imagination, the revelation, the knowledge of others. Possibly on the literary behaviour of others.” (pg. 98)

By assembling this series of footnotes on writers of the No, there is a sense that Marcelo (a stalled author himself) is holding on to Fogwill’s words. In effect, the narrator is commenting on the literary silences of others ‘so as to be able to write and not be written’.

And does Marcelo achieve his aim of finding the centre of this labyrinth of the No, the source of all the negative impulses that prompt so many talented writers to abandon literature? I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself should you decide to read this book. Either way, by collecting these vignettes, the author has in fact written his next novel, one that is fresh, inventive and very enjoyable indeed.

I’ll finish with one final example, that of the esteemed Catalan poet J.V. Foix, whom Marcelo used to see standing behind the counter of his patisserie in Barcelona. A long-time admirer of Foix’s lyrical poetry, the narrator is curious to learn what prompted the poet to declare that his work was finished. It saddens him to think that Foix may have decided to wait for death. The answer comes by way of an article by the Spanish poet and novelist, Pere Gimferrer – writing on the cessation of Foix’s work, Gimferrer comments:

“But the same glint sparkles in his eyes, more serenely; a visionary glow, now secret in its hidden lava […] In the distance is heard the dull murmur of oceans and abysses: Foix continues to dream poems at night, even though he does not write them down.”

Poetry unwritten, but lived in the mind: a beautiful ending for someone who ceases to write. (pg 110)

For other reviews of Bartleby & Co, click here for posts by Richard and Seamus.

Bartleby & Co. is published in the UK by Vintage. Source: personal copy. Book 8/20, #TBR20 round 2.

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.

Spanish Wines for #SpanishLitMonth: Albariño from Galicia

Last summer I wrote about a couple of favourite Spanish white wines to tie in with Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month: an unoaked Godello from Galicia and a Verdejo from the Rueda region. This year I thought I would focus on another favourite from Spain, wines made from the albariño grape variety grown in the Rías Baixas DO (Denominación de Origen) in Galicia, north-west Spain. Albariño wines taste of stone fruits, typically peaches, with a squeeze of lemon juice; sometimes there’s a slightly salty, mineral note from the sea air.

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Most of my favourite albariños tend to fall within the £12-£14 per bottle price range, but earlier this month I discovered a new one, slightly more modestly priced at £8.95 pb. It’s the Pazo de Villarei Albariño from the Salnés Valley in the heart of Rías Baixas. The Pazo de Villarei is textbook albariño: pure, clean and refreshing with plenty of lemony citrus flavour. This is an excellent introduction to the albariño grape, a wine that would suit lovers of unoaked white wines who are looking to branch out from Chablis, pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc.

As far as food matches go, albariño is the perfect partner for simple seafood dishes, but there’s enough richness here to cope with slightly stronger Mediterranean flavours too (garlic and olives, for instance). Seared tuna, paella or seafood risotto would also make excellent matches.

Wine stockist: I bought my bottle of Pazo de Villarei Albariño, 2013 from The Wine Society, priced at £8.95 per bottle. (No longer available, but the 2014 vintage is in stock, priced £8.50.) Or you can check alternative stockists via wine-searcher.

For the record, my other favourite albariños are made by Pazo de Señorans and Palacio de Fefiñanes, both come highly recommended.

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 Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman (tr. by N Caistor and L Garcia)

A year or so ago I read Andrés Neuman’s epic novel Traveller of the Century and its ideas coupled with an abundance of grace, charm, wit and intelligence just blew me away. And then came Talking to Ourselves, a shorter but no less compelling novel; it’s a meditation on the proximity of death and grief, a kind of literary collage comprising three distinct voices each adding different tones to the narrative. So, imagine my excitement when I received a copy of The Things We Don’t Do, Andrés’ collection of short stories. Early versions of a few of these stories, in different translations and often under another title, have appeared in literary magazines (such as Granta), but all the stories in The Things We Don’t Do are newly translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia.

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The thirty-five stories in this collection are divided into five groups entitled The Things We Don’t Do, Relatives and Strangers, The Last Minute, The Innocence Test and End and Beginning of Lexis. While I can see connections between some of the stories in each section, the collection as a whole touches on a number of different ideas. One of Neuman’s main themes is how a closeness to death gives us a growing sense of our own mortality, and several (although not all) of the stories in the Relatives and Strangers and Last Minute sections deal with this aspect, or with death itself. In A Mother Ago, a man accompanies his mother to the hospital, her illness is advanced and he knows the outcome depends ‘on the toss of a coin’:

I offered my arm to my mother, who had so often given me hers when the world was very big and my legs very short. Is it possible to shrink overnight? Can someone’s body turn into a sponge which, impregnated with fears, gains in density while losing volume? My mother seemed smaller, thinner, and yet more weighed down than before, as though prone on the floor. Her porous hand closed around mine. I imagined a little boy in a bathtub, naked, expectant, clutching a sponge. And I wanted to say something to my mother, and I didn’t know how to speak.

The proximity of death squeezes us in such a way that we might be capable of losing our convictions, of letting them ooze out like a liquid. Is that necessarily a weakness? Perhaps it is a final strength; to arrive somewhere we never expected to arrive. Death multiplies our attention. It wakes us twice. (pgs. 43-44, Pushkin Press)

Other stories touch on the subject of our identity. In one of the most playful stories in the book, Juan, José, we meet a man undergoing counselling following the death of his parents; unable to move on, he believes and behaves as if his parents are still alive. As this tale progresses, the boundaries between the identities of the two characters begin to blur, and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell which of the two is the patient and which is the counsellor. Interestingly, another therapist – a different one this time – crops up again in a darkly humorous story, Outside No Birds Were Singing, played out as a frantic telephone conversation between a counsellor and her seemingly suicidal patient.

Another clutch of stories explore the relationship between guilt and innocence. A man tells of his presence at the scene of John Lennon’s murder at the Dakota; we see how feelings of guilt stealthily corrode the relationship between two friends after they are mugged in the street one night. And in After Elena (one of the highlights of this collection for me), Neuman explores the theme of forgiveness; following the death of his wife, a man decides to forgive each of his enemies, and we see the differences in the source of their animosity and reactions to this gesture.

Perhaps my favourite stories in The Things We Don’t Do focus on relationships. A Terribly Perfect Couple tells of the pitfalls of having too much in common with your partner, the dangers of ‘an excess of symmetry’. In A Line in the Sand (another highlight) the dynamics in a relationship tilt as we are left considering how to understand a partner’s feelings, territories and boundaries. And in Second-Hand, a woman s discovery of a coat in a thrift shop leads to a re-examination of her relationship with her husband. The coat looks suspiciously like the one she gave her husband the Christmas before last, the one he insisted looked ‘really great’ :

She studied the coat once more, then put it back. It was that one. It wasn’t that one. She didn’t know if it was that one. She felt the dagger twisting in her stomach again, and a pain encircling her head and pressing down on her vertebrae. She had spent all day – all her life – on her feet. When had they last gone on a trip? A real trip, just the two of them? They hadn’t had enough money. Or, above all, any reason to go. But that dark suede coat, where on earth had it come from? She searched the inside pockets, hoping to find some evidence to confirm her suspicions. They were empty. (pg. 23)

The Things We Don’t Do is an excellent collection of stories, one that illustrate Neuman’s considerable range and skill as a writer. These stories vary in tone, mood, style and length; some are playful, others more sombre in tone; some include metafictional elements while others are more conventional (but never ordinary) in terms of style. One of the things I love about these stories is their ability to surprise – one never quite knows what might be coming next.

On the whole, I would say these short stories are closer in style to Talking to Ourselves than the richness and generosity of Traveller of the Century. That said, I recognise the writer of Traveller in some of the stories, especially those in the final section: Piotr Czerny’s Last Poem, The End of Reading and The Poem-Translating Machine. The latter story focuses on another of Neuman’s favourite themes, that of translation; not simply the need to translate language, but the idea that we are constantly translating and interpreting feelings and gestures in our communications with others.

The collection ends with a series of Neuman’s reflections on the short-form narrative; not a set of rules as such, but a ‘playful way of approaching the essay,’ and they make interesting reading.

I’ll finish with a quote from the title story The Things We Don’t Do, which reads like a prose poem:

I like that we don’t do the things we don’t do. I like our plans on waking, when morning slinks onto our bed like a cat of light, plans we never accomplish because we get up late from imagining them so much.

[…]

I like all the proposals, spoken or secretive, which we both fail to carry out. That is what I most like about sharing our lives. The wonder opened up elsewhere. The things we don’t do. (pg 31)

This is my first review for Richard’s celebration of Argentinian (and Uruguayan) lit which starts today.

The Things We Don’t Do is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.