If Plot Doesn’t Matter, Then Why Are You Stuck in One?

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 9 2013 10:40 AM

Plots

The characters in Javier Marías’ novel say plot doesn’t matter—but they’re stuck in one.

The Infatuations

Illustration by Nate Powell

Javier Marías is a master of first lines. He’s a master of other things as well, I think, but definitely of first lines. Here, for instance, is the first line by Marías I ever read, after finding a copy of his novel A Heart So White in a bookstore bearing the “staff pick” honorific:

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

“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.”

What is brilliant about this first line—and I suspect it’s obvious, but bear with me—is the way that it raises in such a small space so many provocative questions that you, the reader, immediately want the answers to. Why did this young woman kill herself, assuming she was successful? (She was.) Did her father do something to her? (He’s already been mentioned twice—and she used his gun, which seems like a kind of revenge.) Most provocatively, why did this narrator, whoever he or she is, not want to know that this happened, this thing that we, the readers, now want to know so much about? (And yes, the unbuttoning of the blouse and the taking off of the bra—and that little phrase, “she wasn’t a girl anymore”—also work to seduce the reader. Some readers, anyway.)

Marías likes to begin his novels “with the explosion of a narrative bomb,” as the critic Wyatt Mason put it in a 2005 New Yorker essay, citing A Heart So White as the exemplar. The Infatuations, the newest Marías novel to be translated into English by the extremely able Margaret Jull Costa, qualifies as well. Here’s how it opens:

“The last time I saw Miguel Desvern or Deverne was also the last time that his wife, Luisa, saw him, which seemed strange, perhaps unfair, given that she was his wife, while I, on the other hand, was a person he had never met, a woman with whom he had never exchanged so much as a single word.”

Again with the questions we must have answered. Why was it the last time she saw him? Why did she never speak to him? How does she know this couple? Why doesn’t she know how to spell his last name? Marías answers these questions in the end. (Well, all but one, I think.) As a general rule he does not tease his readers with pulpy narrative hooks only to deny them the pleasures such stories provide: His books have satisfying plots, even though he and his narrators frequently insist that plot doesn’t really matter.

“Once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten,” María, the narrator of The Infatuations, thinks. “What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.” With that philosophy in mind, Marías takes slightly trashy, eye-catching plots, then winds long, philosophical digressions around them like so many knotty, twisty pieces of string. These digressions consist of what Marías calls pensamiento literario, “literary thinking,” which is different from philosophical thinking because it “allows you to contradict yourself. A character within a book can say two totally contradictory things, yet both can be true.”

Before we get to those digressions, a brief word about the eye-catching plot: María knew the couple mentioned in the novel’s opening line because she used to habitually sit near them at a café, admiring their picture-perfectness from a short distance. She never spoke to them—not while Miguel, the husband, was alive. But after Miguel was murdered by an indigent stranger, she introduced herself to his wife, Luisa, who continued to come to the café, alone. Luisa in turn introduced María to one of Miguel’s close friends, Javier. Soon Javier and María began an affair, María succumbing to el enamoramiento, an infatuation. And before long María learns that Miguel’s seemingly random murder was not so random after all.

Around this plot Marías winds long meditations about murder, secrets, love, lies, and so on. “We do tend to believe things while we are hearing or reading them,” María reflects, while listening to a dubious story about what really happened to Miguel. This just nine pages after she has the thought, while listening to an earlier part of the same story, “Everything becomes a narrative and sounds fictitious even if it’s true.”

Author Javier Marías.
Author Javier Marías

Courtesy of Corbino.nl

As those lines suggest, much “literary thinking” is, unsurprisingly, about literature, or storytelling. Often it is about other books: One way to understand Marías’ writing is to think of it as literary criticism written in the form of crime novels. With The Infatuations, he has produced an imaginative gloss on specific passages in The Three Musketeers and Macbeth and on the whole of Balzac’s 1832 novella Colonel Chabert. In Musketeers, Athos discovers that a woman bears a mark branding her a convict, and so he ties her hands behind her back and hangs her from a tree. The Macbeth bit that keeps coming back to María throughout The Infatuations is Macbeth’s reaction on learning that his wife is dead: “She should have died hereafter.” (Marías is an acclaimed translator of English literature, and a particular fan of the Scottish play: “a heart so white” is a line of Lady Macbeth’s.) The Balzac book is about a soldier who is mistakenly buried with, and listed among, the war dead, and who then tries to return to his old life. How do we really feel about the dead, after they’re gone? Is murder truly always as revolting to us as it seems in the abstract? The characters in The Infatuations think about these questions through the works of old masters.

And as the novel glosses older texts, it also glosses Marías’ own work. About halfway through, a disreputable character named Ruibérriz de Torres shows up—disreputable, I say, because faithful Marías readers recognize his unwelcome presence from Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me and, if they’re completists, from the novella Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico. Another familiar Marías character, Professor Rico, also shows up. This is typically playful: Throughout Marías’ books, names and characters recur. Perhaps you noticed already that the main characters in this new novel by Javier Marías are Javier and María. And perhaps you’re wondering when I’m going to explain the one unanswered question in the book’s first line: Why does she call him “Desvern or Deverne”? Why can’t she spell his surname?

I never figured that out. Maybe it’s a Spanish thing? Or maybe it’s a little game that Marías is playing. Perhaps we’ll learn the answer in some later novel or novella. All Marías books feel like chapters in one much longer book. And it’s one you should start reading, if you haven’t already. I recommend picking up A Heart So White first. Just read that opening sentence again. Don’t you want to know what happens?

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The Infatuations by Javier Marías. Knopf.

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