The Spanish novelist Javier Marìas was born in Madrid in 1951. His father Julián Marìas (1914–2005) was one of twentieth-century Spain’s most important philosophers and the author of a history of philosophy that became the standard textbook on the subject in the Spanish-speaking world. Marìas senior was also on occasion an outspoken critic of the Franco regime; he was briefly imprisoned, and banned from teaching in Spanish universities from the late Forties to the early Seventies. His first appointment abroad, in 1951, was at Wellesley College, where the Marìases lived in the same building as Vladimir Nabokov, and became friends with him.
Like Nabokov’s, Javier Marìas’s fiction might be described as a supremely self-conscious, near-obsessive inquiry into self-consciousness and obsession. At some point his protagonists almost invariably engage in Humbertian acts of tortured, covert surveillance, and these in turn release dizzying flights of compulsive but fruitless speculation. One of his stalkers, Vìctor in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, actually watches his quarry, Luisa (one of many Luisas in his oeuvre), purchase a copy of Lolita in the course of a shopping trip; “an excellent choice,” he observes.
Marìas established his name with the novella The Man of Feeling of 1986, although aficionados may seek out Voyage Along the Horizon, published when he was only twenty-one: it’s a spoofy, somewhat surreal homage to the adventure stories of such writers as Conrad and Conan Doyle that pays tribute also to the complexly indirect narrative methods of the later Henry James; though entertaining in parts, it ends up—rather like the voyage to the Antarctic it sets out to relate—making relatively little headway. Deciding literary translation might prove a more valuable apprenticeship in the art of fiction than pastiche, Marìas devoted his twenties to creating Spanish versions of English-language classics by Sterne, Sir Thomas Browne, Conrad, Faulkner, James, Kipling, Hardy, Shakespeare, and Nabokov. His version of Tristram Shandy won the Spanish national award for translation in 1979.
The narrator of The Man of Feeling is an opera singer known as the Lion of Naples who falls in love with the unhappy wife of a powerful Belgian banker, Hieronimo Manur. During a week of rehearsals in Madrid for the role of Cassio in Verdi’s Otello, the Lion pays extravagant court to the enigmatic Natalia Manur, and succeeds in wooing her away from her seemingly brutal and always busy husband—who promptly, and to the reader’s great surprise, commits suicide. It is Manur, rather than the operatic tenor, who emerges as the man of feeling of the title, as the Othello figure in the love triangle.
The story is being told in the wake of the collapse of the Lion’s love for Natalia, four years after his declaration of love to her culminated in a grand and eloquent vision of a shared Liebestod. But he is only Cassio, unable to scale the heights of passion of idealists such as Manur, or the tragic Hörbiger …
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Nabokov Wasn’t There March 6, 2008