How strange it must seem to historians, sociologists, and philosophers that, after all that has happened in the world, the small matter of love, in all its minuscule twists and turns, continues to preoccupy novelists more than, say, the breaking of nations or the fate of the earth. Some novelists have tried to rectify this; they have attempted to make the art of the novel seem more important somehow by treating, say, terrorism or large political questions with great seriousness. But then other novelists return, like scavengers or renegades or deserters or prophets, to the old dramas of fidelity, treachery, and passion among people who are ordinary.
How these small, perennial, familiar issues can seem larger and more pressing than important public questions is a mystery. And further mystery arises from the idea that public events are often quite useful, at times indispensable, to novelists, but as mere background, as things that help to focus the narrative, give it flavor, or make the story seem more important than it is. Compared to investigative journalism, history-writing, biography, or self-help books, the novel is a strange, humble, hybrid form; it is perhaps in its very humility, in its pure uselessness, in its instability, in its connection to the merely human that its grandeur lies.
Both Javier Marías and Antonio Muñoz Molina write in the full awareness of the battle between pride and humility that has been waged in novels themselves over the past two hundred years. They write as though the history of the novel in the heroic period from Stendhal to Proust has a living, nourishing, and exacting influence on how they, as novelists working now, make sentences and paragraphs, how they approach character and plot. The density and complexity of their style and their systems have been superbly rendered into English by two great translators—Margaret Jull Costa for Marías and Edith Grossman for Muñoz Molina.
Marías’s customary tone allows for slow, piercing meditation on the conduct and emotional lives of his characters. His wit and emotional accuracy and sly wisdom seem to take the place of narrative pacing or sweep. In his trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, published between 2002 and 2007, he creates set scenes in places such as Oxford, London, and Madrid that have the aura of brilliant and willful digressions and yet slowly become central to the density and flow of the narrative.
As a novelist, he has a way of posing as a philosopher, someone who wishes to make sense of the world, someone who relishes defining and analyzing psychic states and human motives and their consequences in snaking, confident, clause-ridden sentences and very long paragraphs, all the more to fool the reader and cause great shock when the novel turns out to have a plot after all, a plot that is deft and wily, intricate and gripping.
There is a section of his novel A Heart So White (1992), for example, where the narrator who is a translator meditates on the tedious art of simultaneous translation for public figures at public events. He does this with some relish and at great length, with lists and anecdotes and further thoughts. And then he hones in on the sexual drama between him and Luisa, another translator. He then creates a scene in which he, with Luisa there in case he makes a mistake, has to translate in a private room for two political figures who are clearly Felipe Gonzales and Margaret Thatcher. When the Spanish politician asks his British counterpart if she would like tea, our narrator deliberately mistranslates this as “Tell me, do the people in your country love you?”
Luisa does not correct him. And then both politicians indulge in a discussion about loyalty and love, some of it omitted or mistranslated by our narrator, who is still not corrected by Luisa, thus dramatizing the growing sexual connection between them, which becomes the real subject. This is a good example of Marías’s method of writing—lulling and distracting and amusing the reader before moving toward a narrative goal into which he will score stealthily or suddenly, or in any case when you least expect. While Marías enjoys his own intelligence and allows his wide reading to inform his books, he is, in fact, that rare and precious being, a simple novelist who loves a story, who is intrigued by evil that comes in the guise of ordinary badness or disguised as bumbling decency, and he is fascinated by sex and cities, not to speak of human frailty and patterns of loss and love, and strange behavior.
Part of the flavor of his fiction is his ability to hold the reader’s attention by some large observation:
To someone who does not yet exist everything is, inevitably, a matter of complete indifference, just as it is for someone who has died. Both are nothing, neither possesses any consciousness, the former cannot even sense what its life will be and the latter cannot recall it, as if he or she had never had a life.
He manages to make such statements part of the very texture of the book, so that they almost succeed in impelling the plot rather than slowing things down.
There is also a tension in his books between his style, which can be exquisite, exalted, and ironic, and the street-wise steps he takes to undermine, or poke fun at, his own narratives, and indeed his own protagonists. He knows that the novel is a game; it is possible to hear his own dark laughter at the rules he invents so that he can emerge victorious. He enjoys his own scheming efforts both to engage the reader and to keep the reader at bay. It is clear that he would like his readers to be as intelligent as he is, and clear also that their failure in this matter sets him free as he conjures a further twist of the plot, or allows himself to rev up the tired machinery of fiction for his own purposes, or is encouraged to write a sentence that is, by any standards except his own, far too long.
Besides his gifts as a storyteller, Marías also has gifts as a moralist, gifts hidden behind much fictional and metafictional material, gifts that suggest that all the playfulness, all the irony, all the ruminative language may be merely cloaks that he can pull back to reveal a novelist concerned, in ways both deep and shallow, earnest and amused, with the blurred space between right and wrong, with how hard it is, even for people of ostensible goodwill such as some of his characters or many of his readers, to know how to respond to violence, or evil intentions, or murder.
Marías likes murder. While he has translated Sterne, Faulkner, and Nabokov into Spanish and learned a great deal from them on the way, he has also translated Stevenson, Kipling, and Conrad. Thus the yarn—the adventure story told at length that holds the audience—belongs to him as much as any set of playful narrative voices. At the heart of the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow is a spy story. His novel A Heart So White, which, at one level, is a murder story, may be his best work to date because it offers an ingenious balance between Marias’s interest in scene and digression, language and tone in fiction, and a plot that is sharp and convincing, chilling and beautifully worked out.
The Infatuations, his new novel, is, like A Heart So White, a murder story entangled with a love story, or with a number of love stories. Its plot depends on something that most contemporary novelists would not dream of risking—an old-fashioned scene in which a crucial piece of information, which turns out to be very slippery, is overheard because a door has not been properly closed.
It would not do to give away the detailed plot of the novel. Marías himself, over many pages, is careful not to do so. Murder interests him not as a crime, but as an action like other ones that has some consequences but none that is entirely obvious other than the causing of the extinction of one human life. Murder is just death, after all, death arriving earlier than it should have, but nothing that was not going to happen anyway.
Marías’s narrator in The Infatuations is a single woman who works in publishing in Madrid, thus permitting the novel to include many knowing and sour jokes at the expense of writers, novelists especially, and their vanities and ambitions, and allowing the narrator knowledge of some literary texts—a novella by Balzac, for example, The Three Musketeers, some lines by Keats, and, governing the entire narrative, some moments from Macbeth.
Just as Paul Klee saw drawing as a way of taking a line for a walk, writing for Marías is a way of taking a sentence for a long, languorous stroll. The first sentence of the book makes clear that a man called Miguel Desvern or Deverne is dead and the second sentence allows us to understand that, on the other hand, the writer Javier Marías is not only alive but he is at his usual tricks with sentences:
I didn’t even know his name, or only when it was too late, only when I saw a photo in the newspaper, showing him after he had been stabbed several times, with his shirt half off, and about to become a dead man, if he wasn’t dead already in his own absent consciousness, a consciousness that never returned: his last thought must have been that the person stabbing him was doing so by mistake and for no reason, that is, senselessly, and what’s more, not just once, but over and over, unremittingly, with the intention of erasing him from the world and expelling him from the earth without further delay, right there and then.
The narrator, also known as the Prudent Young Woman, is preoccupied with what “right there and then” might mean or come to mean. She is concerned with the poetics of death, of being erased, expelled from the earth, and she is distracted by her own complex relationship with Díaz-Varela, one of the victim’s friends. The question of why the murdered man died now and not hereafter haunts the book; the plot is animated by the idea that Díaz-Varela, who loves the wife of the murdered man and seems made for her, might have a good deal to gain from his friend’s death. Marías is more concerned, at least on the surface, with the resonance of the murder, with the shape and texture of its aftermath, than he is interested in anything as banal as solving a crime.
He relishes how hard it is to be certain about shadowy things, and murder here is shadowy. But love and sexual desire in this narrative are not shadowy. Our narrator’s carnal interests have a way of making all other matters seem blurred, and the idea that Díaz-Varela, the object of her desire, desires another woman is rendered with certainty and clarity. Both the narrator and Díaz-Varela have ways of being in the world that are softly dictated by what they want. Marías’s great skill is to make this natural and to implicate the reader in its moral maze. He manages to match his complex diction with a complex vision about what is right or wrong.
On a first reading of the book it is possible to conclude that Marías takes the view that no one knows the difference between right and wrong and no one much cares. He is, however, too subtle a novelist to allow the reader a single interpretation of his moral vision. The Infatuations has a strange, insinuating afterglow that forces the reader to rethink the entire book, or at least wonder, and wonder seriously, about the narrator herself, what she does and what she does not do. Her own moral laziness, her insistence on following her needs and her instincts to the exclusion of all else, becomes filled with fearful ambiguities. Part of the subtlety of the narrative is that she is not merely an unreliable narrator. She may be more reliable than even she knows. Slowly, the more you think about her, and the more you read back, the more her sheer reliability becomes fraught and almost dangerous. She is someone who can be trusted, and Marías manages to make that idea very dark and suggestive.
In the meantime, of course, Marías has language to play with. He can write short sentences as well as long ones, and some of these are funny and almost comforting, such as: “We should never feel offended when someone makes do with our company for lack of a better companion.” Other scenes, such as the encounter between the narrator and her lover once she had overheard him speaking to a friend, are filled with ominous detail and slow burn.
In the light of the sheer brilliance of his own book, it is a bit rich (or perhaps it makes sense) for Marías to include so many unpleasant remarks about contemporary fiction in The Infatuations. At her publishing house, his narrator despises her authors and their books. At one point toward the end of the novel, she thinks:
Nor do I want to be like the wretched books among which I spend my life, whose time stands still and waits inside, trapped and watching, begging to be opened so that it can flow freely again and retell its old and oft-repeated story.
She also refers to the fact that her “publishing house usually only publishes contemporary writers—to the frequent misfortune of readers and myself.” The most famous writer they publish is referred to as “mean, repellent.” He is “tirelessly polishing his [Nobel acceptance] speech in garbled Swedish.”
When, living in Madrid, she refers disparagingly to “writers of overweening ambition…who breathed the same air as me,” it is tempting to ask her to go easy for a moment. Javier Marías and Antonio Muñoz Molina, who breathe the air of the Spanish capital, are indeed ambitious writers who have sought to move the center of the Spanish-language novel from Macondo to Madrid, and have done so using a sweeping narrative energy that devotes itself to large questions as well as to minute levels of feeling and examinations of motive.
Muñoz Molina’s In the Night of Time is twice the length of Marías’s book. In The Infatuations, there is a glancing reference to Franco and to the Spanish civil war, but the novel is not concerned with any history other than the one lived through in private by the two or three main characters who are snarled in love. The war is dealt with in more detail in Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow. In the Night of Time is set during the build-up to and the outbreak of the war. Real characters from history stalk its pages, as do real dates and an atmosphere of danger and impending doom.
But the drama in the book remains the old drama of love and betrayal, of will and desire, lust and loss. At its core is a theme that Muñoz Molina’s book shares with Marías’s novel—an abiding interest in time, time that changes us, time that erases, time that the novelists hold and wield. (Marías uses Macbeth’s “She should have died hereafter./There would have been a time for such a word” almost as a refrain in his novel.) Writing for both of these novelists is a way of entering the labyrinth of time, with no guide and no clear exit, but a sense of wonder, worry, and fascination as they proceed.
In The Infatuations, the narrator considers the phenomenon of time at some length:
The passing of time exacerbates and intensifies any storm, even though there wasn’t the tiniest cloud on the horizon at the beginning. We cannot know what time will do to us with its fine, indistinguishable layers upon layers, we cannot know what it might make of us. It advances stealthily, day by day and hour by hour and step by poisoned step, never drawing attention to its surreptitious labours….
In In the Night of Time Muñoz Molina, in a paragraph lasting three pages, also ponders time:
Give me time. If I had time. It’s a question of time. We’re still in time. We’re out of time…. Time like a solid block of calendar pages, each day an imperceptible sheet of paper, a number in red or black, the name of a weekday…. Time will tell. Time heals. The time has come to save Spain from her ancestral enemies. The time of glory will return….
Despite some similar interests, there is a real difference between the two writers. Marías the stylist, the ironist, the teller of tales, is the true hero of his own novels. His singular aura and his rare sensibility are etched into every sentence of his books. Writing for him is an exercise in power and will. Muñoz Molina, on the other hand, seems filled with melancholy, pity, sympathy, feelings of aching helplessness for the fate of his creations. The energy in his prose—notable, like that of Marías, for its long sentences, its vast paragraphs, its musings captured in sonorous rhythms—is, rather than a display of personality, a way of offering more felt life and complexity to his characters. Muñoz Molina is concerned with large questions of memory and perception, and the nuanced and fleeting nature of consciousness; he offers his protagonists a considerable, almost an old-fashioned, autonomy.
He is as interested as Marías, nonetheless, in the nature of love; both writers are fascinated by what love is like, and what it leads to. Ignacio Abel, the protagonist of Muñoz Molina’s In the Night of Time, is an architect in Madrid, a man of middling sensuality in middle age. He is married to a woman from a class above his own; her family are a great bore to him. She is older than he is; they have two children. Slowly, the war is coming toward them.
The novel opens when all this is over, when Ignacio Abel has made his way to the United States and is on a train from Penn Station to a job at a university where he will design a new library. We know, in the opening paragraph, that he has already left his wife, escaped from the fray both domestic and public. Just as Javier Marías does not create a voice for his narrator very far from what seems like his own voice, Antonio Muñoz Molina regularly enters his own novel as an explorer might, the tone suddenly becoming tentative as time is held still, as though a camera is taking a photograph of the photographer, or a building is designed to display some of its plumbing on the outside: “I can easily imagine the two men talking, and listen to their calm voices as the afternoon sun slowly leaves the room and disappears behind the roofs of the city.” Or:
I see her more clearly now, not as a silhouette outlined in black. I see her face, luminous with expectation in the photograph taken in an automatic booth on a street in Paris, the face and look of someone who hopes for something intensely, not because she can’t see the shadows but because she had the courage to overcome misfortune and a spiritual health resistant to both deceit and desolation.
The woman in question is Judith Biely, an American who comes to Madrid during the civil war and with whom Ignacio Abel begins an affair. The story then is simple. In wartime, a man must decide between his wife and the woman he loves, must choose between duty and adventure. Muñoz Molina is not afraid to use the war as background, to have it there to add spice to his plotting. Bombs go off, bodies are found on the street, armies and militias move about with increasing confidence and menace. But the story at the center remains the story of a man’s raw and unpredictable emotions.
What is remarkable about the book, despite the emphasis on the private and the shadowy, is how much Muñoz Molina manages to say about the world itself and how hypnotic his narrative becomes as he slows down time. He can use asides with tender skill. For example: “People’s souls are not in photographs but in the small things they touched, in the ones that bore the warmth of their hands.” He can have his protagonist contemplate his own past in slow and searching tones; he can have him consider his lover’s body with mesmeric grace; he can have him ponder his need to escape with urgency; he can have him consider architecture with originality:
How strange the invention of the staircase, a concept of something so remote from any inspiration in nature, space folding over itself at right angles, a single broken line on blank paper, as limitless in principle as a spiral….
He can also draw intimate portraits of public figures and those who held fragile power in Madrid as Franco’s forces come close. While poets such as Lorca, Alberti, and Salinas are glimpsed, others, such as the politicians Juan Negrín and Manuel Azaña, who were among the last leaders of democracy in Spain before Franco’s victory, have a larger part to play in the book and are drawn with exquisite care. “Negrín took a long drink of beer, and this time he wiped away the foam with a handkerchief that he then passed over his broad, sweaty brow.” Or:
Azaña’s eyes were a light, watery gray. He extended his right hand and held it almost inert while Ignacio Abel shook it. It was a soft hand…. Seen up close, the president looked older than he did just a few months earlier, and somewhat unkempt, with dandruff and white hairs on the wide lapels of a funereal jacket that had the shine of wear. An air of lethargy and extreme exhaustion slackened his features, made his skin colorless.
Muñoz Molina makes clear that he, born in 1956, wishes to search for the lost time when the civil war began and his country was torn apart. “I want to imagine,” he interjects in his own novel,
with the precision of lived experience, what happened twenty years before I was born and what no one will remember anymore in just a few years: the brightness of those few distant days in July and the darkness of time, that very afternoon, the days that preceded it.
He is ready to concede, because he is a novelist, that the days in question might have been almost ordinary, or might have seemed so, and that instead of war a man was thinking about love on the day the war broke out. Indeed, he writes about the small lies and large deceits of adultery, the sheer pleasure of snatched time, the guilt, the self-justification, with slower and more detailed attention than he does about politics or war. He is more concerned with his characters than with his country.
In the Night of Time, then, is more satisfying as a novel than Muñoz Molina’s Sepharad (2001), which is a brilliant meditation on the legacy of history, told from many perspectives. Both novels display a passionate engagement with both history and private life. Muñoz Molina, in all his fiction, has a sense of the past as a living force, darting, shifting, haunting, impossible to pin down. Both Sepharad and In the Night of Time are filled with the strung-out cadences of fear and desire, embodied in the pacing of the prose. Even though Sepharad deals with events that actually took place and characters from history—for example, Jewish victims of dictatorship in Germany and Russia during the 1930s. Muñoz Molina offers a force and a rare pity to the documentary evidence by his skill at orchestrating, playing tones and rhythms against each other. In Sepharad also, there is a suggestion that the characters have an intrinsic interest; they would be worthy of our attention even if there were no wars. In In the Night of Time he brings this perception further, allowing the most private inner moments to have greater importance than the war outside, and he approaches character with even greater tenderness, allowing for every type of weakness.
There is a lovely instability, for example, about his main character, Ignacio Abel, that is reflected in the many ways he notices things, or muses on them, but also in how he himself is oddly divided; at times he is a man with some uneasy qualities whom a novelist is valiantly attempting further to create. It would have been simple, perhaps, to have made Ignacio Abel braver and stronger, a man who stood for the freedom of the imagination in a darkening time, but it is part of the seriousness of the book that Muñoz Molina is prepared to allow Ignacio to behave badly, almost absent from himself, slightly stuffy, disloyal at times and almost unpleasant.
This is achieved partly by a willingness to draw the figure of Adela, Ignacio’s wife, with sympathy. The letter she writes, which Ignacio carries with him to America, quoted in short sections, is filled with wounded pride and eloquence. In its firmness and brittle, accusatory tone, it stands apart from the style of the rest of the book. Adela’s loyalty to her ghastly family and to Castilian custom and ceremony is vividly rendered but she is also loyal to her husband. She is not, as she might so easily be, torn between the two, but able to embody both loyalties. She slowly becomes, despite her conservative nature and her lack of sexual attractiveness, the most noble spirit in the book. Even her idiot brother, who joins the Falange, is given a scene where the reader takes pity on him and where Ignacio Abel seems cold and willful.
Gradually, as he journeys toward his exile and the strange, disconcerting comforts that will be offered to him in America, Ignacio seems to diminish; he becomes merely a set of memories and desires. Making a single decision, rescuing himself, has reduced him. Muñoz Molina dramatizes this, in all its slow uncertainty, with great skill.
There is a telling moment toward the end of the book when Judith Biely observes a change in Ignacio now that he has come to America, now that he has left Spain to burn, now that he has abandoned his family:
When she saw them together that time [at a student residence in Spain], she thought Ignacio Abel was younger than Adela. Now in the library [in upstate New York] she sees him in the light of the fire and thinks that by some strange shortcut in time he’s reached his wife’s age and belongs to the same world, the bureaucratic Catholic middle class of Madrid she’d seen leaving churches on Sunday mornings, going to tearooms on the Carrera de San Jerónimo, the married couples so serious, men and women in dark clothing, the women wearing veils.
In all his fluidity, Ignacio Abel has become the very world he has escaped.