By Javier Marias
What is the point of a novel? Of any fiction? For many readers, the story is the point. It's a universal desire -- tell me a story! -- that first occurs to us when we are very young and which carries through our entire lives, to the tales told to a dying person to provide what little comfort they may impart.
Joan Didion says it very well: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." To make sense of our world, to put an overlay of narrative on the chaos of life, to give it a semblance of order. We crave stories, we need them.
But not according to Javier Marías in his novel, The Infatuations, which was translated from Spanish into English last year. The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winner has produced a work of art that is more about conclusions and feelings than the actual plot.
The story part of the novel is slight but is the kind that is most often seen in fast-paced thrillers, in noir tales, in dark, psychological whydunits. A young woman notices a happily married couple who have breakfast at the same restaurant where she eats every morning. Their delight in each other's company is the bright spot in Maria's daily routine.
The husband is slain one day, the victim of a homeless man who hears voices. He is stabbed out on the street in the middle of the day, on his birthday, and leaves the widow with two children.
A chance encounter leads the narrator to finally speak with the widow. Maria visits Luisa's apartment, listens to her and is present when family friend Javier and an acquaintance, a pompous professor, stop by.
Another chance encounter later, Maria runs into Javier at a museum. They begin a shallow affair in which she is basically on call whenever he decides he wants some company. Her feelings are a bit deeper, but she knows they are not as deep as his feelings for the widow.
And, one night, she wakes up in his apartment after a tryst to hear him talk to a stranger in the living room.
What she hears could have sent the story in so many directions, and most of us have read and seen those directions in books and movies. But that's not the way Marías goes. Just as earlier, he tests the most ardent and open of readers by pages and pages of disgressive conversations that are little more than long soliloquies by their participants, he drops any pretense at narrative being propelled forward by events. He does this on purpose.
Because what happens is not the point of his novel:
What happened is the least of it. It's a novel, and once you've finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matter are the possibilities and ideas that the novel's imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.
The importance of "possibilities and ideas" are reinforced within the narrative by Javier recounting to Maria Balzac's tale of Colonel Chabert, who comes back from the dead to reclaim his remarried wife, and Milady de Winter, that evil woman in The Three Musketeers who comes back from the dead to torment Athos and his colleagues.
Maria can't quite agree with Javier's premise about plot:
That isn't true, or, rather, it's sometimes true, but one doesn't always forget what happened, not in a novel that almost everyone knew or knows, even those who have never read it, nor in reality when what happens is actually happening to us and is going to be our story, which could end one way or another with no novelist to decide" what happens.
Marías demonstrates in The Infatuations that what happens is not as important as how we feel about what happens and how we carry on after something happens. Every character in his novel is true to this point he makes about "what happened is the least of it" -- and in an audacious work about a killing, to be true to this point is quite an accomplishment.
The Infatuations is a brilliant work but not an enjoyable one to read if narrative pull matters. The short chapters made it easier to set the book down and take a breath, important in a work with long, convoluted sentences. The novel is more nearly a chapbook of philosophical asides, even though the asides are consistent with each other, than it is a story.
If, on some occasion down the road, you find a Tumblr account of quotes from The Infatuations, it's likely I've made it. The ideas are beautifully written and gorgeously translated (by Margaret Jull Costa) and worthy of consideration. To large measure, those ideas are about how we feel about the people we love, especially when they have died. How long do we mourn them, how do we keep their memory alive, how do we honor them in our continuing to live? Or do we allow them to go, do we let go of them and carry on with new loves? What do we wish for those we love who we leave behind when we die? when confronted with the knowledge that someone is not who he seems to be, what should one do? What chances should anyone take when reaching out to others?
These are the things that will linger for me about The Infatuations, not the plot.
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