Juan knows little of the interior life of his father Ranz; but when Juan marries, he begins to consider the past anew, and begins to ponder what he doesn't really want to know. Secrecy--its possible convenience, its price, and even its civility--hovers throughout the novel. A Heart So White becomes a sort of anti-detective story of human nature. Intrigue; the sins of the father; the fraudulent and the genuine; marriage and strange repetitions of violence: Marías elegantly sends shafts of inquisitory light into shadows and onto the costs of ambivalence.
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Excerpted from the Introduction
I think it was Faulkner who once said that when you strike a match in a dark wilderness it is not in order to see anything better lighted, but just in order to see how much more darkness there is around. I think that literature does mainly that. It is not really supposed to ‘answer’ things, not even to make them clearer, but rather to explore – often blindly – the huge areas of darkness, and show them better.
This was Javier Marías’s response to an online interviewer who asked him, ‘What is the purpose of writing?’, and it not only provides an unexpectedly lucid answer to that intimidating question; it also directly illuminates Marías’s own practice, and that of A Heart So White in particular. For this is a novel which asks the profoundest, most unsettling questions about knowledge itself: about human curiosity, about the keeping of secrets, about our need to know the truth and our (sometimes equally pressing) need not to know it; and about language, too – for knowledge can only be imparted in words, and words, as writers know only too well, are slippery, unreliable, and have a tendency to falsify the very truths they are meant to impart.
Most novelists have a ‘breakthrough’ book, the one that introduces them to a wider public: in the case of Marías it was All Souls (Todas las almas), published in 1989. Offering up the simple pleasures of traditional fiction rather more willingly than some of Marías’s subsequent work, it tells the story of a Spanish academic who comes to Oxford and has an affair with a fellow-tutor, and has some points of contact with the ‘campus novel’ genre so beloved of Anglo-Saxon comic writers. A Heart So White (Corazón tan blanco) followed in 1992, hard on the heels of that success, but there is not much sense here of a writer compromising himself in order to accommodate a larger, less specialized readership. The wisp of a plot can be summarized in a few words – newlywed translator learns the deadly secret behind his father’s three marriages – but it is a more opaque, demanding work than its predecessor. The novel’s long, looping opening sentence sets the agenda at once:
I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father’s gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the dining room with other members of the family and three guests. (p.3)
Notice, first of all, what a strange, violent temporal journey we make while negotiating the jumble of tenses in that sentence. We start (‘I did not want to know’) at some unspecified point in the past, then (‘have since come to know’) move forward, then (‘when she wasn’t a girl anymore’) rewind even further into the past and then (‘hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon’) locate ourselves a little more exactly within this timeframe, and so on. Any promise of a conventionally linear narrative is immediately shattered, and we are already made aware, subliminally, of one of the novel’s major themes: the evanescence of human experience, the fact that everything belongs to the past as soon as it has happened, the fact that ‘everything is constantly in the process of being lost’.
This might, of course, easily be described as a Proustian theme, and indeed the length and complexity of Marías’s sentences have evoked stylistic comparisons with Proust, as well as with Henry James and Thomas Bernhard. But we would do well to remember that, earlier in his career, Marías had a distinguished parallel life as a translator, and probably his most celebrated translation was his Spanish rendering of Tristram Shandy. Because he is not the most obviously humorous of novelists, it might be tempting to downplay the extent of Marías’s affinities with Laurence Sterne: but they seem to me just as strong as his links with the great twentieth-century European writers. Like Sterne, Marías is prey to a radical scepticism about the novel’s capacity to render the complexity of subjective human experience in anything other than the crudest, most approximate way. Like Sterne, too, he is possessed by the notion that some of the smallest and most fleeting events in our lives are also the most significant; that these events occupy a space in our memories which seems quite out of proportion to their original duration; and that writers must therefore develop ever more inventive strategies that will give such transient but momentous events their narrative due.
There the resemblance more or less ends: for Marías, unlike Sterne, inclines towards narrative subversions which are po-faced rather than zany or farcical. One of his methods, for instance, is a highly distinctive form of repetition. Many novelists are scared of repetition, assuming that readers will take it for laziness or carelessness. Marías, on the other hand, realizes that our thought processes are often repetitious, and he wants to render this quality as scrupulously as possible. Thus we will find the narrator of A Heart So White reflecting that,
What takes place is identical to what doesn’t take place, what we dismiss or allow to slip by us is identical to what we accept and seize, what we experience identical to what we never try, and yet we spend our lives in a process of choosing and rejecting and selecting, in drawing a line to separate these identical things and make of our story a unique story that we can remember and that can be told. (p.28)
Almost two hundred and fifty pages later, when the narrator has overheard a crucial conversation between his wife and his father, and has at last become privy to his father’s secrets, he writes:
Sometimes I have the feeling that what takes place is identical to what doesn’t take place, what we dismiss or allow to slip by us identical to what we accept and seize, what we experience identical to what we never try, and yet we spend our lives in a process of choosing and rejecting and selecting, in drawing a line to separate these identical things and make of our story a unique story that we can remember and that can be recounted, either now or at the end of time, and thus can be erased or swept away, the annulment of everything we are and do. (p.272)
Among other things, there is a certain rueful world-weariness about this technique: one of the things Marías is trying to tell the reader, it seems, is that no matter how much we experience, no matter how shocking or intense our experiences are, we remain locked within the same patterns of thought and reflection. One usually closes a Marías novel with the sense that human experience is immutable, and that people themselves rarely change. The precedent, again, might come from Sterne, although again Marías expresses the idea calmly and regretfully, with little of Sterne’s cavorting humour.
The notion that ‘what we experience is identical to what we never try’ has another consequence: not for Marías’s characters, this time, but for his literary aesthetic. It makes him sceptical of the line dividing fiction from non-fiction: a scepticism he shares with many other European writers poised on the cusp of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Two obvious examples might be Milan Kundera (whose books were, as our narrator is somewhat tiredly aware, highly fashionable at the time when A Heart So White was written) and W. G. Sebald. Like Sebald, Marías likes to include photographs in his fictions (there are photographs in both All Souls and Your Face Tomorrow), leaving the reader with nagging uncertainties as to whether they are real or fake. And, like Sebald, he is just as interested – more interested, it might be argued – in reflection and analysis than he is in narration. A typical Marías sentence might begin with the description of an event, but this act of telling will rapidly morph into something discursive.
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Marias has a rhythm that he repeats throughout the book, in which an apparently natural inner monologue leads up to a surprising insight or an unexpected obstacle. It is clear that he thinks these changes of direction produce meaning, and that their accumulation can lead to deeper meanings. But for me, it's consistently disappointing to see him leading up to one of those moments, and imagining that the result will be expressive or even profound, and then turning, satisfied, to the next episode. The book has a large-scale structure, and was clearly planned in advance, but on the level of the page, it is loose. Epiphanies were managed so much more tightly, and with so much more variety, by Joyce. Even though Marias is a very introspective person, there are clearly limits to his self-awareness when it comes to these structures. That lack of self-awareness extends to repeated phrases and images: he knows he is repeating them (he is not an unskilled or unpracticed author), but he believes they are justified by the ebb and flow of inner monologues. The result is loose and unbelievable, like a sloppily sketched painting. I know this review is somewhat abstract, but it's on this level that he fails. If you can stop yourself from seeing how he thinks he is creating deeper meanings, then you can suspend disbelief in the naturalness of his prose.
Macbeth murders sleep¿says the narrator at one point in the much hailed Spanish novelist Javier Marias¿ highest profile work to date; his 1992 novel Heart So White.I read Macbeth (unbelievably) for the first time last spring and had highlighted: ¿My hands are of your color, but I shame to wear a heart so white¿ from Lady Macbeth¿s response to Macbeth when he told her ¿the deed is done¿ (meaning Macbeth tells his wife he has murdered Duncan). With that said, one does not have to have read Macbeth to enjoy this novel. After finishing this, I had learned more about the layers of interpretations of the play than any of my rereading ever could.The 40something newly married narrator Juan, is a government Interpreter slash Translator, and he, we are told has a `tendency to want to understand everything that people say, and everything that I hear, even at a distance¿. From this vocation, Juan has privileged his premise that even everyday conversation, human dialogue is often a `matter of life and death¿ in its influence in the course of human events:Its strange that words don¿t have worse consequences than they do. Or perhaps we just don¿t see it, we just don¿t think they have any consequences and, in fact, the world¿s in a permanent state of disaster because of the things we¿ve said.Soon after his honeymoon, Juan has decided that his imagined future together with Luissa his wife is a `concrete¿ one, its trajectory is predictable. But he also has `presentiments of disaster¿ and the discovery of the sources of these forebodings provide the impetus for his attempt make sense, to discover the reality of the chronicle of his enigmatic father, Ranz¿s previous marriages and their dark secrets they have hidden.In the course of his reflection he forms `hypothesis and conjectures¿ of connectedness between past events of Ranzs¿ marriages and his own current marriage and their influence on an imagined future. The strands, or threads of the fabric, are formed by two parallel stories of his father and his first wife Theresa; along with his own relationship with his wife Luissa. They form a weave with two counter-posed stories of couples: first the purely conjectured relationship fabricated from an overheard conversation in a neighboring hotel room in Havana, the `story¿ of Miriam and Guillermo. Second the attempts at relationships of his friend Berta and her noir lover Bill. Marais¿ narrative is much like a weaving loom whose shuttle and arms are formed by: `listening¿ which is primary Interpretation, and Translation: which is less direct, and more subject to distortion, recounting of the personal events, the stories, which may be self serving lies or part truths, pictures of the past. Just as in the plays of Shakespeare, in Heart So White much of what characters, and narrator, learn about each other, plot events or even of themselves is through casual overhearing and eavesdropping. Another device of the narrative-loom is repetition of ideas, framing spoken sentences remembered, which Marias uses here much like in the poetic form of the villanelle. This loom creates:¿a vast piece of cloth with no stitching, no ornament, no folds, like invisible, reddish sky with no angles to limit it, then differentiated, and mobile hole in which one cannot see the we and there is only repetition, but not the repetition that occurs after some time has passed, which is not only tolerable but pleasant, not only tolerable but necessary a continuous, uninterrupted repetition, a constant leveling out of what is happening.¿ Then there are four lines from Macbeth centered on Lady Macbeth¿s role in Macbeth¿s murder of Duncan that are repeated as in stanzas of a villanelle . They are used to frame inferences in the narrative, each probing specific themes: ¿a heart so white¿: complicity/implication, ¿brainsickly¿ thinking: secrets/culpability, ¿the dead are like pictures¿: `negation of the retold¿ and last, ¿Macbeth murders sleep¿: the willful ignorance of
Even among a good number of excellent reads this year, this novel stands out as my most exciting discovery. It begins with a young woman who has just returned from her honeymoon and kills herself. Sounds like ur typical mystery paperback? Not at all. Fast forward to a hotel room somewhere in Cuba where the protagonist is spending his honeymoon. He happens to look out of the balcony and gets to be mistaken by a woman below for somebody else. It's the guy in the next room, it seems, whom she knew. Trivialities, petty occurrences, chance happenings, but things are not as trivial as they seem to be. He does not yet understand, but there are hints of connections, links between seemingly isolated banalities that reflect darker and more painful truths. Shakespeare's Macbeth provides the underlying theme, and how the author subtly interlaces the complex themes of love, betrayal, and truth into parallels in the story is simply extraordinary. Mariás weaves an intricate mosaic of fragments of stories, effortlessly shuttling between past and present, in rich, evocative prose with wit and a profound insight into our lesser explored inner selves. This novel is deep, complex, multi-layered, and the author effectively draws us, through the protagonist, into self-reflection through stream-of-consciousness writing. It is certainly not for those who prefer fast, linear narratives. Highly recommended to those who are interested in ¿thinking¿ novels. This would be a very good book for group discussion/reading ¿ lots of material there, both in terms of substance and writing style.
Could not begin to tell you how wonder Javier Marias' is- so see for yourself. Spectacular!
I would highly recommend this book as an interesting read into the lives of this Spanish Family. Very interesting.