Javier Marias’s greatness in the world of world literature seems pretty much unquestioned. And I’ve always thought of him as a pretty cool guy—for boycotting the United States for as long as Bush was president, for example, which was one of the first things I learned about him. This was while I was interning at New Directions in the summer of 2009, and everyone at N.D. was abuzz because Marias would soon be making his first visit to the U.S. in nine years. Right about that time, they were getting ready to release the concluding volume of his monolithic trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, which, in light of recent reading, has risen significantly through the amorphous mass that is my to-read pile.
Yet despite all the excitement, somehow I got through my three months at N.D. without reading a single one of Marias’s many books. It was my summer of Bolano, I suppose—my infatuation with 2666 would give no place whatsoever to another international titan anytime soon. So here I am, two years later, finally reading Marias’s latest collection to appear in English, While the Women are Sleeping, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and published over a year ago. (I admit, I’m generally behind the times.) But if I happen to feel a bit anxious about so belatedly joining the Marias conversation on the basis of a single little collection, there’s a line from Marias’s introductory remarks to the last story in the book, “What the Butler Said,” that knowingly sets my anxieties at ease: “The books we don’t read are full of warnings; we will either never read them or they will arrive too late.” The word “warnings” here doesn’t quite work out of its proper context, but I’ll take it here to mean “things we desperately want and need to know before we die . . .” It might seem to be a remark that should make me more, not less, anxious. But this is a book that probes the dusty corners of whatever we imagine death might be and makes it a symphony of enticing enigmas, where ghosts go on writing love letters, or pursue an education, or persevere in their desire to resign—from friendship, employment, or the weird project of being alive—which, in the worlds that Marias sketches in these stories, is at times quite indistinguishable from being dead.
Though the book is not all ghost stories, it does include several, featuring narrators or protagonists enmeshed in their own strange dilemmas of love and selfhood which are complicated by the sudden incursions of a spirit from beyond the grave. “One Night of Love” has its protagonist, who complains of his wife’s lack of interest in lovemaking, discover love letters addressed to his late father from a woman who claims that she is already dead as she writes. The narrator then receives a letter from his dead father’s dead lover, importuning him to exhume his father’s body and cremate it, in order that his spirit will be released and can join her. As the narrator quibbles with himself over whether to hide the letters from his wife, her sexual interest in him mysteriously starts to grow. Another story, “A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps,” tells of a young girl who, out of charity, reads to a lonely old woman every day, and before long they are visited by a bullet-ridden ghost who turns out to be the Mexican insurrectionist Emiliano Zapata, coming just to listen quietly to the girl read.
I’m finding it difficult fun to paraphrase a Marias story, they’re so gently off-beat and beautifully constructed. And Marias is bursting with affection for his very human, very living protagonists, as boring and morally repugnant as they might be, which might make my descriptions a little less morally ambiguous than the stories actually are—and challengingly, illuminatingly so, if you’ll pardon all the adverbs. “The Resignation Letter of Senor de Santiesteban,” my personal favorite, tells of Derek Lilburn, an Englishman “of little imagination, ordinary tastes, and an irrelevant past,” who begins a new teaching job in Madrid on a short-term professional exchange program. He arrives at his new school, where he is given the simple task of locking up the school every Friday night. The first night he is to perform this chore, he is warned to pay no heed to Senor Santiesteban, the ghost who, every single night, bursts out of the school office, takes seven steps over to the hallway bulletin board, tacks up a letter of resignation addressed only to a “Dear Friend,” takes eight steps back into the office, and falls still. Oddly, this ghost is not to be seen, only heard. And no one knows who he was in life, or what he is resigning from, or why: the letter, identical every night, is enigmatically reticent of circumstantial details. Lilburn makes it his personal mission to solve the puzzle, despite the warnings of his superior, Mr. Bayo, who has been down the investigational road and found that it only leads one to admit in frustration that the mystery is unsolvable. The bored and boring Lilburn is undeterred, and shares every tiny discovery with the wearily patient Mr. Bayo, until, finally outdoing his superior, Lilburn finds a way to truly know the ghost—by becoming him, in a strange way that has nothing to do with death.
The private contemplation of death by the living preoccupies many of the stories in this book, but not all of them: see “An Epigram of Fealty,” which tells of a rare book dealer in London who is harangued by a beggar claiming to be John Gawsworth, King of Redonda; or “Gualta,” a brief tale narrating one man’s descent into total ruination after meeting his doppelgänger at a business dinner. The title story, which is the first and longest in the collection, sets the stage for meditating on the imagination’s encounter with death, but it features nothing of the supernatural either. Told from a voyeur’s perspective, the story is strongly reminiscent of Lolita: it depicts an overweight middle-aged man, Viana, who has subscribed his life to his passionate desire for Inès, the daughter of his close friends, whom he meets when she is only seven years old. Now she is twenty-three and they have been living together for five years, to the ruin of his friendship with her parents. He videotapes her body with microscopic attention every day “because she is going to die,” he says, and he wants to have a visual record of her last day on Earth. The narrator watches this videotaping take place on the beach, and then meeting Viana one night beside the hotel pool, he listens to the fat man’s tale. My next thought as I read is that Marias owes much to Nabokov’s sense of narrative play as well—from the first image in the story of the narrator spying on his fellow sunbathers on the beach through his wife’s straw sunhat, this playful seriousness continues through the story’s final lines:
Both were sleeping, that’s why they didn’t wake up or come out onto the balcony, Luisa hadn’t died in my absence, however long that had been—I’d forgotten my watch. Instinctively, I glanced up toward the rooms, toward my balcony, toward all the balconies, and on one of them, I saw a figure wrapped in a sheet toga and heard it call to me twice, saying my name, as mothers say their children’s names. I stood up. On Inès’s balcony, though, whichever it was, there was no one.
The texture of the collection as a whole may seem uneven, but this is hardly a detractor. The ten stories here are dated across a period of more than 30 years, the earliest being “The Life and Death of Marcelino Iturriaga,” written (according to the Author’s Note) in 1965, when Marias was just fourteen years old (“be kind, please,” he beseeches his readers). The story is narrated by a man on his deathbed who continues to be able to see and hear but is unable to move or speak, “alive and well” mentally even as his body has ceased to function. A certain lack of maturity in the writing comes across at times with a coarse brashness, a mix of youthful courage and naivete in the tone that can be highly entertaining:
At six o’clock on the evening of the 22nd, when the fever intensified, I tried to get out of bed, but fell back against the pillow, dead. . . . I couldn’t speak or move or open my eyes, even though I could see and hear everything going on around me. My mother-in-law said:
“May he rest in peace,” chorused the others.
Certainly it is the weakest story in the collection, so one wonders why Marias chose to include it. My guess is that it is at the very least to demonstrate that certain themes and meditations that set the writer to work in youth may keep him busy many years later. By including this story along with the much more mature “A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps” (dated 1998), with “The Resignation Letter of Senor de Santiestaban” (1975) and other stories from the mid-80s falling in between, the book offers us a glimpse of a long range of Marias’s life in writing.
The final and perhaps greatest pleasure in the book, however, is found in rereading and discovering that the work is not quite what you thought it was—it’s not the stories only, it’s the soft surprises that burst from Marias’s delicate prose (via Margaret Jull Costa’s rendering in the way that I like best in a translation: she gives the feeling that what you’re reading is decidedly not English, though you can’t point to exactly why it feels that way, as her English at the same time feels perfectly natural—Chris Andrews’s translation of Cesar Aira’s Ghosts is another example of English prose that dexterously retains some flavor of the original Spanish). As I’ve gone back over the book in composing this review, in order to describe these ghosts and enigmatic perusals of death, this is the kind of thing I find—the most careful, disquieting attention to a curious scene:
The young man took some time to reappear—perhaps ghosts go into mourning, for who else has more reason to or perhaps they are still wary, perhaps words can still wound them—but he did finally return, attracted perhaps by the new material, and he continued to listen with the same close attention, not standing up this time, leaning on the chairback, but comfortably installed in the now vacant armchair, his hat dangling from his hand, and sometimes with his legs crossed and holding a lit cigar, like the patriarch he never, in his numbered days, had the chance to become. (from “A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps”)
Everyone probably already is, but I’ll say it anyway: Read Marias, read him again, and read him again.
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