By Javier Marias
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
I love Javier Marías despite the fact that he is annoying.
I’m not trying to be glib or dismissive. I’m also not trying to insult Javier Marías, because I really do love him. I love reading his books. I respect him, I enjoy him, I think he’s wonderful writer. But he’s annoying.
It’s his writing style. Marías has as distinct a style of writing as any author I can think of alive today – his prose is recognizable almost instantly. It’s his great virtue, but, like most highly distinct styles of writing, it’s irritating to read.
It’s almost impossible to have a sense of what I mean if you have not actually encountered Marías’ prose, so, forgive me, but I will quote him at some length. Please trust me that this quotation is highly representative – the entire book is like this.
“…We think men will change their mind or their beliefs, that they will gradually discover that they can’t do without us, that we will be the exception in their lives or the visitors who end up staying, that they will eventually grow tired of those other invisible women who existence we begin to doubt or whom we prefer to think do not exist, the more we see of the men and the more we love them despite ourselves; that we will be the chosen ones if only we have the necessary staying power to remain by their side, uncomplaining and uninsistent. When we don’t arouse immediate passion, we believe that loyalty and our mere persistent presence will finally be rewarded and prove stronger and more durable than any momentary rapture or caprice…I know that it wouldn’t offend me to be a substitute, because we are all of us substitutes for someone, especially initially…Yes, we are all poor imitations of people whom, generally speaking, we never met, people who never even approached or simply walked straight past the lives of those we now love, or who did perhaps stop, but grew weary after a time and disappeared without leaving so much as a trace, or only the dust from their fleeing feet, or who died, causing those we love a mortal wound that almost always heals in the end. We cannot pretend to be the first or the favourite, we are merely what is available, the leftovers, the leavings, the survivors, the remnants, the remaindered goods, and it is on this somewhat ignoble basis that the greatest loves are built and on which the best families are founded, and from which we all come, the product of chance and making do, of other people’s rejections and timidities and failures, and yet we would give anything sometimes to stay by the side of the person we rescued from an attic or a clearance sale, or won in a game of cards or who picked us up from among the scraps…” (p. 120)
Marías lives inside the mind of his characters. He is interested in the intersection between our psyches and the world around us. He is fascinated not by what happens to his characters but in how they experience what happens to them, how they think and feel. His project is to represent that experience with fidelity.
I think that’s why he writes that way. Marías understands that our internal worlds are not linear, they are obsessive, recursive, tangential. We think in endless loops on the same problems, splintering off and coming back, and so, therefore, does his prose. You can see it in the above passage, the way he takes a single thought and iterates it, winding and rewinding, trying something a little different each time, adding, adjusting, tweaking and taking a slightly different stance. His writing is super clausal: every sentence layers itself on top of a theme, sometimes for whole chapters at a time. Nothing is simply stated once; rather, every thought is re-stated three or five times synonymously. Concepts are defined and refined in slow shadings until they have morphed into different concepts, which are then themselves refined, and so on.
It’s exhausting, but it’s effective. It is, perhaps, the best representation that I have ever encountered in prose of how we actually think. Psychically, humans are enormously complex, and it’s almost impossible to represent this complexity on the page. I have come to love his style, even while sometimes feeling winded by it. It has verisimilitude, an honesty. He is writing about nuance and ambivalence, and he is unflinching in his portrayal of human contradiction, of our multifacetedness.
But he requires a completely different style of reading. Some authors, most authors, need to be actively read: you need to push yourself through the text, paying attention. Marías is different: you need to trust him, let him carry you. If you try to stay alert the whole time, if you try to remember everything, you will exhaust yourself and lose patience. If, though, you relax into his writing, Marías can become kind of magical to read. It’s the reading equivalent of letting your eyes unfocus. What seems at first like endless verbiage, like self-indulgent editorial failure, is, in fact, the deliberate and artful construction of a cadence.
Most annoying writers become more annoying the more you read. What differentiates Marías is that his prose becomes easier as you get into the flow of it, rather than more grating over time. By the end of one of his books, you are so used to being carried on his particular current that you almost don’t remember that it’s possible to write differently.
And, if you are interested, ‘The Infatuations’ is a great place to start. I started with ‘Your Face Tomorrow’, a trilogy of about 1300 pages which I came to love but which took me months to work my way through. ‘The Infatuations’, though, is short and gripping, a murder mystery-love story, riddled with uncertainly and moral relativism.
It’s hard to represent the discursiveness of human thought and still have space to develop anything like a plot – that’s why most authors shorthand emotional experience. There are very few authors who really commit to thought, with all its reiterations and redundancies (Proust, for example, who, of course, is also exhausting to read). It’s really fun to see Marías’ particular lens come up against the normal constraints of a murder plot, which usually require exactly the sort of bright lines that Marías eschews.
There is a truism of relationship therapy, that the things which you love the most about your partner are the things which will come to irritate you the most, in other forms. The same is true of authors sometimes: the things which make them special, which stand out about them, are also the things that grate on you. Javier Marías is special – he’s difficult, he’s annoying – but he’s special. And the things that make him special (his prose, his observations), which make him annoying, also make him worth it.