The Infatuations by Javier Marías

ISBN: 978-0-241-14537-1

ISBN: 978-0-241-14537-1

The Infatuations is the title of Javier Marías’s latest novel. It tells the story of María Dolz, a middle-aged woman who works in publishing. María is a habitual loner who gets drawn into a web of intrigue when a murder occurs. The victim is an innocuous seeming businessman who takes breakfast daily with his wife at the same restaurant as María.

The handsome couple seem to be exceptionally well matched, and due to this have become a subject of interest to María. Despite the fact that María has never communicated with them, the couple occupy a background position in the everyday routine of her life, their routine providing a sense of reassurance and constancy.

This sense of reassurance is shattered when one day while reading the newspaper María is shocked to discover the husband, whose name she learns was Miguel Desverne, has been stabbed to death by a homeless man for no apparent reason. When she next meets with the widow, Luisa Alday, she decides to introduce herself and offers her condolences. This results in an invitation to the grief-stricken Luisa’s house. Here María is introduced to the deceased husband’s former best friend, the handsome and charming Díaz Varela.

Diaz Varela has offered himself as a shoulder to cry on for Luisa in accordance with the wishes of his departed friend, as it transpires.  María is quite taken with this suave gentleman, and after a chance meeting in a museum they become lovers. Alas the affair is rather one-sided, its progress driven on by María’s infatuation with Diaz Varela rather than by any initiative on his behalf. Over the course of their one-sided courtship María overhears a snippet of conversation which reveals that Desverne’s murder may have not been the random tragedy it initially seemed.

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed his Your Face Tomorrow trilogy and various collections of his short stories, I picked up this book with high expectations which unfortunately were dashed. It is not that the novel is a complete failure. There is much to commend in it, but rather it fails in comparison to the high quality of the author’s previous work. If presented by a less illustrious author it would no doubt be hailed as a career highlight.

My main problems with the novel lie in the narrator María Dolz. For some reason her voice didn’t convince. I constantly felt I was reading the thoughts and opinions of the sixty-two year old author rather than those of the character, a woman in her mid-thirties. This seemed particularly apparent in the passages where María muses on mortality. The tone feels wrong, a little too jaded for a woman with so much ahead of her. This left me with the rather disturbing mental image of an elderly author trying squeeze himself into the body of a younger woman, wearing her as a costume in order to perform an unconvincing literary drag act.

While some authors have no problem representing a range of ages and genders, the singularity of Javier Marías’s voice, its distinctiveness, renders it hard to separate it from the author. This is reinforced by the characters often becoming a mouth piece for what seem to be the authors’ views. Chapters are taken up with long exchanges between characters where they expound on the author’s favourite themes such as memory, mortality, the banality of violence, and literature.

Much room is also given to characters interpretations of Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, and inevitably in a Marías novel, Macbeth. These dialogues are unconvincing as they are too coherent to have merely occurred in spontaneous conversation. At times the novel feels like an essay with a story tacked onto it at the last minute.

These flaws however are not fatal. If I am going to read large passages about memory, mortality and literature etc… there are not many people I would rather hear expounding on these topics than Marías. The author is a master of his craft, even if he does err occasionally. His treatment and subversion of tired genre tropes is a pleasure to behold. He expertly leads a reader through the story, his set ups unfolding in unexpected ways. He is also an expert at depicting the selfish sides of attraction and romance, and the potential barbarity which exists just beneath the surface of society.

The Infatuations is an imperfect novel. It belongs to the interesting literary tradition of the relative failure. That is, it is a failure, but only in relation to the authors previous work. There is still much to engage the reader and provide an enriching literary experience. I would have no problem recommending this book to anyone who enjoys literary fiction, but would urge that they also read the authors other work in order to contextualise this flawed but still worthwhile novel.

The Valentine’s Post.

We are approaching that time of year again, Valentine’s day, when romantically unimaginative couples convene to eat overpriced meals and express their mutual affection via materialism. Personally I find it depressing to observe such individuals conducting their liaisons according to the dictats of the romantic industrial complex, aka Hallmark. Perhaps you will think me a cynic for expressing such views but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The spectacle of Valentine’s day appals me precisely because I am a 365 days a year romantic, 366 on leap years. Oh yeah. The idea of one day put aside for romantic gestures seems a little stingy to me. My disillusionment with Valentine’s day may also be traced back to time spent working in the service industry where I had the opportunity to observe the grim spectacle first hand while waiting tables.

A Valentines card from your grandmother. The only thing worse than not getting any cards.

A Valentines card from your grandmother. The only thing more depressing than getting no cards.

I’ve seen it all, the harried looking couples eating joyless meals while speaking through clenched teeth, the drunken boyfriends looking longingly at every other woman in the room rather than the one they are sitting across the table from, the bored couples who grunt rather than communicate. Even if your relationship is reasonably healthy you have booked a meal on one of the busiest days of the year. The service is going to be terrible and you will be expected to vacate your seat as soon as the last spoonful of dessert has passed your lips.

That’s why I quit the service industry; I was unable to stand the sight of love’s young dream being steamrollered by the heavy weight of expectation every February. It felt like watching a cherub being mauled by pit bulls .Sometimes I still wake up at night in a cold sweat as the question which haunted me every Valentines plays over in my mind: How many of these people are actually in love? While I’ve no doubt that a lot of couples believe they are in love, in most of the relationships I observe I see little evidence of anything beyond a kind of vaguely reflected mutual narcissism. I’m sure most people in relationships would quickly answer “of course we’re in love!” But the value of love depends on how the person using the word means it.

Unfortunately our contemporary culture has a very superficial understanding of the term which has intrigued philosophers and artists for generations. Inquiries into love and its many varieties forms a sizable portion of Greek philosophy with distinctions being made between Eros, a passionate love filled with sensuality and desire, Philia, a virtuous dispassionate form of love which encompasses friends, family and community and Agape which is an idealised non-physical love or love of the soul, to name but a few.

The Greeks. a very wise culture. But don't follow ALL their suggestions.

The Greeks. a very wise culture. But don’t follow ALL their suggestions.

Our contemporary definition of love is rather less nuanced and seems to be a hybrid of Eros and Agape with some wishy- washy notions of fate and finding “the one” thrown in. This rather basic conception of love inspired by movies, songs and badly written books can even cause us to reshape historical literature in order to suit our rather limited mind-set. The most famous example of this may be found in how we interpret Romeo and Juliet. These star-crossed lovers have often been used as exemplars of the meaningless maxim, “love conquers all”. it doesn’t.Well-equipped armies with access to good supply routes do.In reality these rich entitled brats illustrate the tragedy which can happen when individuals place their happiness over the demands of society.

Their lust for each destroys everything around them. Rather than showing us the wondrous power of love to overcome obstacles Shakespeare shows us the dangerous side of powerful emotions and co-obsession. Because of their selfishness four others namely, Mercutio, Tybalt, Lady Montague and Paris all die. These are friends and extended family members! Then to top things off they both kill themselves! Absolutely nothing positive can be taken from this situation. Only a sociopath could find this in any way a desirable scenario, yet our culture holds these young thugs up as ideal lovers.

Double suicide. A bad way to end a date.

Double suicide. A bad way to end a date.

Another strange thing about our culture is how there is so much pressure to be in a relationship that to not conform is to be seen as a failure. Most “chick-lit” focuses on the search for Mr right. Rather than enjoying life in the moment you constantly defer your happiness in the hope that Johnny hunk pants will materialise out of thin air. What if he never comes? Or when he does he turns out to be cad and a bounder? Ask Dicken’s Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. Having put all her faith in Mr right she’s is jilted on her wedding morning when she finds out he’s a swindler.

Traumatised by this experience she lives out the rest of her tortured life as a ghoulish parody of a bride venting her hate through her adopted orphan Estella who she grooms to break men’s hearts. Now if that’s not a warning against putting all your eggs in one basket and making others the sole cause of your happiness I don’t know what is?

All the single ladies!

All the single ladies!

Yet heedless of Mr.Dicken’s sound warning we idolise characters that do exactly such a thing, like Bridget Jones for instance. While the original novel lampooned such a world view, that nuance seemed to get lost in the transition to the big screen and the sequels. Should we really be encouraging such a co-dependant approach to life? Are we not just producing a future generation of insane child groomers in wedding wear? Do we as a culture find this desirable? I mean it’s nice to find a partner and all that but should the entirety of our happiness be based on the possibility of encountering a magical being who will complete us?

You may be wondering why I’m asking so many rhetorical questions? Speaking of relationshipaholics brought Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw and her dubious prose style to mind which seems to be having a (rhetorically?) questionable effect on my writing.My final point about the juvenility of romance in our culture may be summed up in two book titles Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.Case closed. Happy Valentine’s day!