Tuesday, 5 July 2016

A HEART SO WHITE by Javier Marias

Once, maybe twice in a lifetime you chance upon an author who writes specifically for you. Not for a critic. Not for a fan. Not even for a wife or a husband. For you. Every word gets through to you. Every line opens you up like someone saying 'I love you'. Soon you realise that you will not die a happy man if you don't read every book, every short piece this writer has ever come up with. Javier Marias is that kind of writer for me. What Saul Bellow is for Martin Amis. What Daniel Defoe was for James Joyce.

I cannot forget how I first opened The Infatuations back when it came out a few years ago. Half a page – that's all it took. The prose felt magical and begged you to get lost in it. The long-winded, impeccable sentences enveloped you the way some carnivorous plant would, except you were in no danger to be squashed to death. The plot was a beautiful, if complex, embellishment to a style verging on perfection.  

A Heart So White, one of Marias's earlier novels, is all that and more. I could give you the whole plot in three brief sentences (Marias is the kind of writer who can spend two full pages describing a look in someone's eyes), and you would call me insane for praising the book so much. Well, I wouldn't care. Javier Marias is the master of understatement. And with A Heart So White, he has this to say to you: don't tell your secrets to the one you love, not if you really love them. (At which point I start humming the melody of "What She Doesn't Know", Nina Nastasia's fantastic single from 2008.)

All you need to know is this: a recently married man finds out about the secrets of his father. Everything else is the process. It's what you will love this novel for – the painful, ecstatic process of discovery. That and the fact that Javier Marias's novels are full of short stories that fit the general narrative so beautifully (maybe that is the reason why I find some of the stories in When I Was Mortal a bit underwhelming – they feel unfinished). Like the girl at the stationer's. Like the guards and the paintings. Like the two women from a bar who notice you 'the way one notices a mosquito'.

Javier Marias comes up with observations you wish you could never forget: 'in cases of mutual dishonesty, sometimes the only way to reconciliation is through sex'; 'it's always the most conventional things that contain the largest measure of madness'; 'when you listen intently – you can't see anything, one sense excludes the others'. When he mentions Nabokov's Pnin in the sense that people enjoy it rather than finish it – it's priceless. And this coming from someone who has read Pnin multiple times. These observations are interlaced with experience and wisdom, and you will learn a lot about marriage ('narrative institution') as well as older people who so 'rarely allow themselves to blush'.

My personal favourite moment is Marias describing the way we tend to remember people from one particular photo – like our mother when she was twenty-eight. It's a beautiful point, and it provides some sort of key to the bridge between the past and the present that Javier Marias is forever trying to establish in his books. With the coldness and precision of the famous Spanish saying: revenge is a dish better served cold. Spanish people in Javier Marias's novels are complex individuals carrying with them 'the weight of the unspoken', as Saul Bellow once put it, something that will one day give us the knowledge and the experience we need. And stain our hearts so white.


'It's strange that words don't have worse consequences than they do'. If you can come up with a line like that, you are my favourite author and you have written one of the most beautiful books I can think of.