‘The Infatuations’ by Javier Marias

“The Infatuations” by Javier Marias  (2013) – 338 pages  Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

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We have all heard the rules for good fiction writing: well-defined characters, sharp dialogue, exciting plot. It is as if there is an imaginary fiction instructor inside our heads repeating these rules over and over. However Javier Marias ignores all these rules, but it does not matter at all.  Let me elaborate.

Well-defined Characters.  “The Infatuations” begins with our narrator going to a restaurant for breakfast each workday morning, and a married couple, ‘the Perfect Couple’, are also there each day.  Our narrator observes this couple carefully.  It is only on page 45 that the narrator is finally identified as a woman, ‘the Prudent Young Woman’.  Up until that point, I had assumed that the narrator was a man. The narrator is constantly expounding, explicating, or speculating in detail on some matter.   I mistakenly associated these ways of thinking with men.  But after all it is the twenty first century, and maybe women think a lot more like men than I ever thought they did.  Let’s just say that Marias gave no hints as to the sexual identity of the narrator.  On the other hand our imaginary good fiction writing instructor in order to achieve a well-defined character would have had our woman narrator adjusting her skirt on page one, even though women don’t wear skirts that much anymore.

Sharp Dialogue.  Our imaginary fiction instructor would say that there should be a lot of back-and-forth in dialogue between characters, and no one character should talk for too long.  Yet Marias totally ignores this rule in “The Infatuations.  In this novel conversations between characters tend to be a series of long monologues of up to two pages.  I hesitate to use the word ‘philosophy’ to describe these conversations, because that would make them sound a lot less interesting than they actually are.  These long conversations are entirely fascinating.

Exciting Plot.  Well, there is one murder in “The Infatuations” which takes place off-camera, so to speak.  Readers should not hold their breath waiting to find out what will happen next, because nothing much else does happen.  The rest of the novel is discussion and speculation about that murder.  Yet Marias’ writing sentence-by-sentence is so captivating that at least this reader did not feel the need for any more action.

Here are a few sentences from “The Infatuations” which are quite typical of the quality of discourse in the novel.   See if you like them as much as I did.

 “When someone is in love, or, more precisely, when a woman is in love and in the early stages of an affair, when it still has all the allure of the new and surprising, she is usually capable of taking an interest in anything the object of her love is interested in or speaks about.  She’s not just pretending as a way of pleasing him or winning him over or establishing a fragile stronghold, although there is an element of that, she really does pay attention and allow herself to be genuinely caught up in what he feels and transmits, be it enthusiasm, aversion, sympathy, fear, anxiety, or even obsession.”

 There has been some talk of Javier Marias as being a potential future Nobel prizewinner.  I’ve read several novels by Marias, and each one has been an enjoyable as well as a worthwhile experience..  He would certainly be a stronger laureate than some of the recent previous winners (Daniel Fo?).

Although Marias does not follow the rules.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. This is the first review I’ve read of Marias’s book, and it sounds fascinating. I like the way you structure this review with the imaginary fiction writer’s thoughts (very funny!). Plot is not what I read for, but usually I prefer vivid characters. I do like experimental literature, though, and will put this on my TBR.

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  2. Hi Kat,
    It reminds me of when I was taking Contemporary Literature as a sophomore at the UW-Madison a long while back. One of the books we were assigned was ‘Absalom, Absalom’ by William Faulkner which had sentences that were more than a densely-packed page long. I struggled with that novel and ultimately dropped the course. Then I read ‘Absalom, Absalom’ the next summer, loved it, and decided to take Contemporary Literature again. From then on fiction became my primary diversion. The rules just don’t apply to some authors.
    I do believe “The Infatuations’ is a fine novel to add to your TBR.

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  3. I quite like Marias but the third volume of his trilogy has been sitting on the shelf for over a year — simply because I know I have to be in the right frame of mind to be able to read him. When he is good (i.e. I am in the right mood) he is very, very good but when he isn’t he is….very frustrating.

    So I’ll buy this book, but with every expectation that it will sit on the shelf for a year or two. Thanks for the heads up.

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    • Hi Kevin,
      “The Infatuations” took a while to win me over, but after about 100 pages it completely captivated me, and now I consider it one of my favorites for the year. There seems to be a real competition between Javier Marias and Enrique Vila-Matas for best living Spanish writer. They have different styles but I always look forward to reading both’s novels

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  4. Rules are useful for beginning writers, but I tend to think they’re best seen as guidelines. Your piece reminded me of Ann Quin, who disregards all those rules (as a number of writers do).

    I’ve not yet read any Marias, whereas I note you’ve read several. As I asked Trevor of themookseandthegripes recently, would you see this as a good first Marias and if not which would you suggest?

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    • Hi Max,
      Actually I’d recommend for most readers to start with one of Marias’ early books like ‘A Heart So White’ or ‘Dark Back of Time’. You though have gotten into literature to such a depth that you could probably get right into ‘The Infatuations’ and appreciate its complexities.
      I’m not familiar with Ann Quin. just looked her up on wiki. Sad to see that she committed suicide in 1973. Her story reminds me of the Swedish writer Stig Dagerman who wrote some amazing fiction until he committed suicide at age 31.

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      • Thanks for the recommends. What are your thoughts on Bad Nature which was also recently recommended to me?

        I’ve reviewed two Ann Quin’s at mine.I’m a big fan. Dagerman I’ve not heard of. I’ll look him up. Kavan and Rhys are also interesting. Kavan like Quin has a strong experimental side. Rhys hasn’t any evident connection, but I love her work so it seems worth wedging in a recommend just in case you’ve not yet encountered her.

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        • HI Max,
          I’ve read nearly all of the work of Jean Rhys and consider her one of the best. I haven’t read either Anna Kavan or Ann Quin. I will read your reviews of these two writers. They both sound interesting. They both passed away just a few years before I got interested in fiction bigtime.
          As for ‘Bad Nature’, that is one of Marias’ novels I have not read. Having Elvis as a character makes it sound intriguing.

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