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The Man of Feeling
By Javier Marias
Vintage Books USA Copyright © 2005 Javier Marias
All right reserved.
Chapter One I don't know whether I should tell you my dreams. They are old dreams, old-fashioned dreams, more suited to an adolescent than to a grown man. They are at once elaborate and precise, leisurely, but highly colored, like those dreamed by an over-imaginative but basically simple soul, a very orderly soul. They are dreams that become somewhat tedious after a while because the person dreaming them always wakes before the end, as if the dream impulse had worn itself out in the representation of all those details and lost interest in the final result, as if dreaming were the only truly ideal and aimless activity left. So I do not know how my dreams end, and it might be inconsiderate of me to tell you about them, knowing that I can offer neither conclusion nor lesson. But they strike me as both inventive and vivid. The only thing I can say in my defense is that I am writing out of the particular form of timelessness-the place of my eternity-that has chosen me.
However, what I dreamed this morning, when it was already light, is something that really happened and that happened to me when I was slightly younger, or less old than I am now, and which is not yet over.
Four years ago, because of my work (I am a professional singer) and just before I made a miraculous recovery from my fear of flying, I made numerous journeys by train over a fairly short space of time, some six weeks in total. That brief but continuous period of traveling took me through the western part of our continent, and it was on the penultimate of these trips (from Edinburgh to London, from London to Paris, and from Paris to Madrid in a day and a night) that I saw for the first time the three faces I dreamed about this morning, which are the same faces that have occupied part of my imagination, much of my memory, and my whole life (respectively) from then up until now, that is, for four years.
The truth is that it took me a while to notice them, as if something were warning me or as if, unwittingly, I wanted to delay the danger and the happiness involved in noticing them (but I'm afraid this idea belongs more to my dream than to actual reality). I had been reading the pompous memoirs of an Austrian writer, but was finding them intensely irritating (in fact, that morning they were really getting on my nerves), and at one point I closed the book and, contrary to my habit when I travel by train and I am not talking or reading or reviewing my repertoire or reliving past failures and successes, I did not look "directly" at the landscape, but at my fellow passengers. The woman was asleep, but the two men were awake.
However, the first man, sitting immediately opposite me, was looking at the landscape, his large head of greying curls turned to his right, and one unusually small hand-so small it did not seem possible that it could belong to any real human body-slowly stroking his cheek. I could only see his features in profile, but considering the essential ambiguity of his age-for his was one of those mysterious physiques which gives the impression that it is resisting the pressures of time rather better than most, as if the threat of sudden death and the hope of remaining fixed forever with its image unscathed were compensation enough for the effort involved-he appeared somewhat more than mature by virtue both of the abundant frosted vegetation that crowned his head and of the two fissures-like woody incisions in his burnished skin-which, positioned on either side of a weak, and at first sight, inexpressive mouth, gave one the impression, nonetheless, of a person quite prepared to smile for decades whether it was appropriate to do so or not. At that moment of his ageless life he struck one as a placid sort, a slight man with plenty of money, wearing a pair of elegant trousers-if somewhat worn and just a touch too short, one could almost see his shins-and a brand new jacket made of a fabric that combined rather too many colors. A man who had come into money late in life, I thought; perhaps the owner of a medium-sized business, someone independent but hard-working. Since I could not see his eyes, which were turned towards the outside world, I could not have said if he was a lively or a sombre individual (although he was very perfumed, suggesting a faded but as yet unvanquished coquetry). At any rate, he was looking with extraordinary attentiveness, one might almost say loquacity, as if he were witnessing the instantaneous creation of a drawing or as if what was there before his eyes were water or even fire, from which it is sometimes so hard to avert one's gaze. But landscape is never dramatic, not like the creation of a drawing, not like restless water or tentative fire, and that is why watching a landscape brings repose to the weary and bores those who never weary. Despite my strong build and a constitution about which I cannot complain, bearing in mind that my profession requires it to be made of iron, I often get extremely weary, which is why I too opted for looking at the landscape, only "indirectly," through the invisible eyes of the man with the small hands, elegant trousers, and extravagant jacket. But since it was growing dark, I could see almost nothing-only bas-reliefs-and I thought that perhaps the man was looking at himself in the glass. Indeed, only a few minutes later, when the light gently surrendered after the brief, hesitant glow of a northern sunset, I saw him duplicated, divided, repeated, almost as clearly in the glass of the window as in reality. I decided that the man was indeed studying his own face, he was looking at himself.
The second man, sitting diagonally opposite me, stared immutably ahead. He had one of those faces the mere contemplation of which brings unease to the soul of someone for whom the road ahead is still unclear or, to put it another way, who still depends on his own efforts. His presumably premature baldness had done nothing to impair his satisfaction or his belief in his own thirst for power, nor had it tempered-or even clouded-the chilling expression in his eyes, eyes accustomed to skim rapidly over the things of the world-accustomed to being flattered by the things of the world-and which were the color of cognac. Any insecurity of his own had allowed itself only the tribute of a neat, black moustache with which to disguise his plebeian features and to offset somewhat the incipient plumpness-which, to eyes in thrall to him, might still have passed for robustness-of head, neck and chest, the last of which tended to convexity. This man was a tycoon, a man of ambition, a politician, an exploiter, and his clothes, especially the shiny jacket and the tie and tie pin, seemed to have come from across the ocean, or were some refined European concession to a style considered elegant abroad. He must have been some ten years older than me, but the slight tic immediately apparent in the merest hint of a smile that his thick lips now and then silently rehearsed-like someone changing position or crossing and uncrossing his legs, nothing more-made me think that there must also be a touch of the child in this arrogant man's makeup, which, together with his robust physique, would make those who saw that smile react with a mixture of derision and terror, and a few drops of irrational compassion. Maybe this was the only thing lacking in his life: that his wishes should be understood and carried out without him making them known. Though confident of getting his own way, he might perhaps be obliged to resort again and again to tricks, threats, insults, fits. But maybe only to amuse himself, in order occasionally to test out his talents as an actor and to maintain flexibility, or perhaps in order to hone his subjugating skills, for, as I well know, the most effective and long-lasting subjugations are based on pretence or, indeed, on something that has never existed. This man who, in my dream, I judged from the start to be as cowardly as he was tyrannical, did not look at me-nor did the other man-not even once, not as far as I could tell, not, at least, while I was looking at him. This man about whom I now know far too much, as I say, stared impassively ahead, as if written across the empty seat opposite-which he almost certainly did not see-was a detailed account of a future already known to him and which he was merely verifying.
While this exploitative individual revealed his whole face, and the other somewhat mysterious fellow only his profile, the woman who was sitting between them, and with whom the men may or may not have been traveling, for the moment lacked any face. Her head was back, but her face was covered by her straight, brown hair, deliberately thrown forward, perhaps to protect her shallow train-bound sleep from the light, perhaps, too, so as not to offer up, gratis, the image of intimacy and abandon of which she herself would be unaware, her sleeping, lifeless image. She had her legs crossed, and her low-heeled winter boots revealed the upper part of her calf, which went on to become a knee, where the slight sheen of her tights intensified, and ended at the frontiers of a black skirt apparently made of suede. Her whole figure, deprived of its face, gave an impression of perfection, fixity, completion and acceptance, as if there were no room in her for change, emendation or denial-like the days that are ended, like legends, like the liturgy of established religions, like the paintings from centuries past that no one would dare to touch. Her hands, resting in her lap, lay one on top of the other, the right hand with the palm open, the left hand-hanging down-half-closed. But the thumb of that hand-which had long, rather gnarled fingers, like those of someone tempted to bid a premature farewell to youth-made the slight, involuntary, spasmodic movements of someone who has fallen asleep despite herself. She was wearing an anachronistic pearl necklace; she was wearing a red stole around her neck; she was wearing a double silver ring on her middle finger. 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. That is why I spent so much time studying her hands. Apart from the occasional movement of her thumb, there was something else that attracted my attention: not so much her nails-firm, off-white, manicured-but the surrounding skin, which looked terribly bitten or burned, so much so that the skin on her index fingers-because they were the worst affected-was virtually non-existent, indeed one might have doubted it had ever existed at all. The skin around these nails had suffered some serious eruption that had left behind an ugly red color, as if the skin were inflamed or raw. I thought that if it was the latter (I could not take a closer look), then it was the work not so much of the unseen incisors of the sleeping woman and of the child she had once been, as of time itself, for atrophy-for that was what it seemed to be-requires not only lack of use and activity, not only systematic suppression, but also that most temporal of all things and the thing that distracts all other things from their temporal nature: habit (or its ever-tardy daughter, the law, who is also the first to say that habit's time is nearly up and to announce an end to distraction). I was just beginning to get slightly carried away by these thoughts about a subject of which I understand nothing and, in fact, know nothing, when a sudden sideways jolt of the train made that glossy, straight, brown hair momentarily uncover the face it had been guarding. The face did not wake up, and only a few seconds later everything returned to its original position, but from the full, tight, tense lips, from the tight, tense eyelids with their tracery of tiny reddish veins (the eyes were closed and still unseen), I saw that the sleeping woman was, how can I put it, afflicted. Perhaps I saw that she was afflicted by a kind of melancholy dissolution.
"I don't want to die like a fool," I said to this woman shortly afterwards, in a hotel room that was dark, cramped and of a squalor I did not at the time notice, with bare walls and bedspreads that were grey or possibly just forlorn or simply forgotten in a heap on the floor, fitted with a clean but discolored carpet, and on which there was barely space enough to walk, with two half-unpacked suitcases taking up the space between bed and bathroom, so empty and so white that two toothbrushes-dark red and green-placed in one glass, whose cellophane wrapping had disappeared though we never knew precisely when or who had made it disappear, drew the gaze the way a hand is drawn to a dagger or iron to a magnet, so much so that when one of those toothbrushes was missing on the last night I was there, the ceramic surfaces and the tiles on the floor and walls were all tinged with the red of the remaining toothbrush, and that color even appropriated the black of the toilet bag which I left on the glass shelf so that her departure would be marked by some change or some sign of mourning in that bathroom, so empty and so white, which could be reached only by climbing over the half-unpacked suitcases and the forgotten bedspreads in a heap on the floor when, shortly afterwards, in a hotel bedroom, I said to that same woman: "I don't want to die like a fool, and since, one day or another, I will have no choice but to die, I want above all to take good care, while I can, of the one thing that is certain and irremediable, but I want especially to take care of the manner of my death because the manner is not quite so certain and irremediable. It is the manner of our death that we should take good care of, and in order to do so, we should take good care of our life, because it is that which, although nothing in itself once it ceases or is replaced, is the one thing which, nevertheless, will tell us if, in the end, we died a fool's death or a perfectly acceptable death. You are my life and my love and my life's knowledge, and because you are my life, I do not want to have anyone else but you by my side when I die. But I do not want you to rush to my deathbed when you learn that I am dying, nor to come to my funeral to say goodbye when I can no longer see you or smell you or kiss your face, nor even that you should agree, or want, to accompany me in my last years simply because the two of us have survived our respective and pitiful or separate lives, that isn't enough. What I want there to be at the hour of my death is the incarnation of my life-what that life has been-and in order for you to have been that too, you must have lived by my side from now until that final moment.
Excerpted from The Man of Feeling by Javier Marias Copyright © 2005 by Javier Marias.
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