Lust and Loss in Madrid

The Infatuations

by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
Knopf, 338 pp., $26.95

In the Night of Time

by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 641 pp., $30.00
Javier Marías
Javier Marías; drawing by Pancho

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…

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