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What is the point of a novel? Of any fiction? For many readers, the story is the point. It's a universal desire -- tell me a story! -- that first occurs to us when we are very young and which carries through our entire lives, to the tales told to a dying person to provide what little comfort they may impart.

Joan Didion says it very well: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." To make sense of our world, to put an overlay of narrative on the chaos of life, to give it a semblance of order. We crave stories, we need them.

But not according to Javier Marías in his novel, The Infatuations, which was translated from Spanish into English last year. The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winner has produced a work of art that is more about conclusions and feelings than the actual plot.

The story part of the novel is slight but is the kind that is most often seen in fast-paced thrillers, in noir tales, in dark, psychological whydunits. A young woman notices a happily married couple who have breakfast at the same restaurant where she eats every morning. Their delight in each other's company is the bright spot in Maria's daily routine.

The husband is slain one day, the victim of a homeless man who hears voices. He is stabbed out on the street in the middle of the day, on his birthday, and leaves the widow with two children.

A chance encounter leads the narrator to finally speak with the widow. Maria visits Luisa's apartment, listens to her and is present when family friend Javier and an acquaintance, a pompous professor, stop by.

Another chance encounter later, Maria runs into Javier at a museum. They begin a shallow affair in which she is basically on call whenever he decides he wants some company. Her feelings are a bit deeper, but she knows they are not as deep as his feelings for the widow.

And, one night, she wakes up in his apartment after a tryst to hear him talk to a stranger in the living room.

What she hears could have sent the story in so many directions, and most of us have read and seen those directions in books and movies. But that's not the way Marías goes. Just as, earlier, he tests the most ardent and open of readers by pages and pages of disgressive conversations that are little more than long soliloquies by their participants, he drops any pretense at narrative being propelled forward by events. He does this on purpose.

Because what happens is not the point of his novel:

What happened is the least of it. it's a novel, and once you've finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matter 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.
The importance of "possibilities and ideas" are reinforced within the narrative by Javier recounting to Maria Balzac's tale of Colonel Chabert, who comes back from the dead to reclaim his remarried wife, and Milady de Winter, that evil woman in The Three Musketeers who comes back from the dead to torment Athos and his colleagues.

Maria can't quite agree with Javier's premise about plot:

That isn't true, or, rather, it's sometimes true, but one doesn't always forget what happened, not in a novel that almost everyone knew or knows, even those who have never read it, nor in reality when what happens is actually happening to us and is going to be our story, which could end one way or another with no novelist to decide" what happens.
Marías demonstrates in The Infatuations that what happens is not as important as how we feel about what happens and how we carry on after something happens. Every character in his novel is true to this point he makes about "what happened is the least of it" -- and in an audacious work about a killing, to be true to this point is quite an accomplishment.

The Infatuations is a brilliant work but not an enjoyable one to read if narrative pull matters. The short chapters made it easier to set the book down and take a breath, important in a work with long, convoluted sentences. The novel is more nearly a chapbook of philosophical asides, even though the asides are consistent with each other, than it is a story.

If, on some occasion down the road, you find a Tumblr account of quotes from The Infatuations, it's likely I've made it. The ideas are beautifully written and gorgeously translated (by Margaret Jull Costa) and worthy of consideration. To large measure, those ideas are about how we feel about the people we love, especially when they have died. How long do we mourn them, how do we keep their memory alive, how do we honor them in our continuing to live? Or do we allow them to go, do we let go of them and carry on with new loves? What do we wish for those we love who we leave behind when we die? when confronted with the knowledge that someone is not who he seems to be, what should one do? What chances should anyone take when reaching out to others?

These are the things that will linger for me about The Infatuations, not the plot.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks for the (9+ / 0-)

    diary and the ideas expressed and the questions  raised in the novel

    To large measure, those ideas are about how we feel about the people we love, especially when they have died. How long do we mourn them, how do we keep their memory alive, how do we honor them in our continuing to live? Or do we allow them to go, do we let go of them and carry on with new loves?
    These are questions that haunt me and will take a look at Marias.
  •  Not sure I am on topic (9+ / 0-)

    but you reminded me of Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier that I complained about some time ago.

    While I wanted to know more about the protagonist, the protagonist was researching a man who was dead.  

    I did indeed learn more about both, but I was impatient.  I wanted some kind of outcome, some resolution, some growth of the main character.  He had abandoned his job and students and I wanted to see that it was worth while.

    He did seem to be in some danger as he visited people who knew the dead man.

    I guess that each time I talk about the book, I realize that it did intrigue me enough to finish it and to talk about and to keep thinking about it and that might make the author happy.

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Tue Jan 07, 2014 at 05:38:22 PM PST

  •  I don't know if I'd make it through this... (7+ / 0-)

    To me, the narrative is the point.

    Maybe, if I looked at it as a collection of essays and vignettes, loosely interconnected. Or meditations on a theme.

    But narrative is such a part of me that I look for narrative in real life. Which is what drew me to see the vast right-wing noise machine for what it is in the first place--a narrative-producing machine. And that's why it works so well.

    But having the narrative doesn't seem that different from Marias' concept that what happens doesn't matter, but how we feel about it does. Dog knows, the RWNJs don't seem to care about what actually happened nearly as much as they care how they feel about it.

    How does the Republican Congress sit down with all the butthurt over taxing the wealthy?

    by athenap on Tue Jan 07, 2014 at 06:17:55 PM PST

    •  I really like the connections you've made (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Radiowalla, cfk, FloridaSNMOM, Limelite

      between this novel and the RWNJ insistence on their story regardless of fact. Their story matters to them regardless of whether the plot points fit it. Facts are immaterial; it's the story that counts.

      Narrative is important; it matters. A well-designed narrative can be the foundation for the philosophical ideas that people believe in.

      That's partly why I found this novel so fascinating. It deliberately ditches our preconception about the importance of narrative.

  •  This "novel" epitomizes my existence (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht, bookgirl, Radiowalla, cfk, Limelite

    since last March when my partner died unexpectedly and I was left with all of the questions raised in your last paragraph.  I was absent for most of the summer from DK because of those questions and am still struggling with the answers.

    My story would read like a novel:  long term relationship with a dear artist, poet, musician who suffered from schizophrenic affection brought on by extreme physical abuse as a child.  What I have had to deal with since his death is the dichotomy between his estranged siblings' views and the stories M. told me.  Two sisters have mentioned the neglect by the parents, but nothing as brutal as the experiences told to me by M.

    I have come to believe that, for whatever reasons, both versions are the reality of those in the middle of the maelstrom, and although I have always believed M.'s accounts, I am now wondering how much they might have been amplified by later experiences.

    Didn't mean to be so confessional in my response, but your review and the importance of that last paragraph, which I just re-read, simply stunned me.  Definitely on my list to find, bookgirl.  Thank you so much.

    Just waitin' around for the new Amy Winehouse album

    by jarbyus on Tue Jan 07, 2014 at 06:34:02 PM PST

  •  Marías, & his books, sound intriguing and poetic. (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bookgirl, pico, Radiowalla, cfk, Limelite

    A couple of years ago, a friend highly recommended Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me. Since then, I've noticed his name connected with prizes more than once.

    I think I'd rather start with a more straightforward narrative, before getting to this one. But perhaps they're all full of narrative games. His father was a philosopher, and

    After attending the Complutense University of Madrid, Marías turned his attention to translating English novels into Spanish. His translations included work by Updike, Hardy, Conrad, Nabokov, Faulkner, Kipling, James, Stevenson, Browne, and Shakespeare. In 1979 he won the Spanish national award for translation for his version of Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Between 1983 and 1985 he lectured in Spanish literature and translation at the University of Oxford.
    We all love a good story, so I don't entirely agree that "What matter are the possibilities and ideas that the novel's imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with . .". But he has put his finger on what a book does better than any other work of art: involve us and send our imagination spinning off on its own journey, propelled by the holes and allusions a great writer threads through their narrative world.

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Tue Jan 07, 2014 at 06:35:30 PM PST

    •  That is the essence of what (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Brecht, Radiowalla, cfk, Limelite

      drew me and repelled me throughout reading this book. I've always loved character-driven novels over plot-driven novels, even in mysteries preferring the whydunits to the whodunits.

      But this book is making me stop and look at that difference. And now, while I'm not 100 percent on the side of the character who proposed the non-importance of narrative, I'm wondering how honest a reaction that is.

      Do the best stories reinforce what we believe?

      •  "Do the best stories reinforce what we believe?" (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        bookgirl, Radiowalla, Limelite

        Ah, the best stories. We're going to be puzzling over which are the best stories, and why, for the rest of our lives.

        A lot of the best stories set up a powerful resonance with what we believe, and what we care about: they're the highest diving board to send our imagination spinning off of. Shakespeare knew this in his gut.

        The best stories are the ones that work for the reader, for many readers, I guess. Moby Dick is a lousy story, a misshapen hodgepodge unrelated to most every other 19th century novel. Somehow Melville poured so much heart and craft into it that he wove a mystery out of hunger, wonder and will. Decades later, thousands of readers decided it worked. Beats me why it didn't stay sunk.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Tue Jan 07, 2014 at 06:53:38 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Brief answer: The best stories are ones that work (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        bookgirl, Radiowalla, Limelite

        There are a few dozen things going on in any substantial novel. Get enough of them working effectively, and your readers won't be worrying about the missing parts.

        And beautiful writing goes a long way.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Tue Jan 07, 2014 at 07:06:42 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  For me, the plot is there as a convenient prop. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cfk, bookgirl, Limelite, Radiowalla

    It's a ploy to get all those people, all those situations, together at one time (usually) in one place (commonly) with a theme that the author weaves over all of them like a fine spider web, almost invisible but incredibly strong.

    I'm expressing this badly I know, since I never tried to put it into words before, but a story is never an issue of what happened next (except that something has to happen next), but an examination of who reacts how, and why, and what led up to that action, and the one before. Starting to sound like the theory "it's turtles all the way down," or like an examination of karma in its intergenerational aspects, isn't it?

    Plus, the writing is the most important part, compared to which the plot especially pales in significance.

    I hope I haven't made too much of an idiot of myself. Back to writing :(    

    "You can observe a lot just by watching." ~ Yogi Berra

    by dandy lion on Tue Jan 07, 2014 at 09:12:48 PM PST

    •  I get what you're saying -- it's (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Limelite, Radiowalla

      another way of my saying that character-driven fiction is what I seek because it's how the characters respond that matters, not the situation in which the author places them.

    •  Keep in Mind That What Makes "Plot" Plot (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Radiowalla, bookgirl

      is revealed in this little writing lesson.

      "The king went out riding, caught a chill, and died," is not a plot.

      "The queen suggested that the king go out riding that cold day, as her lover was coming to the castle that afternoon with murder in his heart," is a plot full of complicated tragic irony.

      The first does not capture our imagination, it is merely a listing of chronological events.  The second sends it off reeling into possibility because their are motivations, ambiguous conditions, and emotional range implied.

      Odd, isn't it, that when the story reaches into the more abstract and less concrete structural forms, it becomes richer and more desirable to grasp?  Ephemera becomes "solidified."  Now that's power!

      Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

      by Limelite on Wed Jan 08, 2014 at 06:31:16 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I Have Not Read the Book (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Radiowalla, bookgirl

    But I can already tell that I would be impatient with it and that would lead me to become irritable, and that would result in my not finishing it.

    I think it's because you say. . .

    Marías demonstrates in The Infatuations that what happens is not as important as how we feel about what happens and how we carry on after something happens. Every character in his novel is true to this point he makes about "what happened is the least of it". . .
    You see, what's important (in my pov) is what I feel about what happens.  How I respond to the events characters experience.  How I react to their reactions.  Now, I suppose, in Marias' novel, I would get to "participate" in the latter, but not so much the other two that the author seems to be controlling by not telling a story that gives equal importance to event.

    An aspect of story that is so important to my enjoyment of it is character realization -- I don't just mean how the author "realizes" the character, I also mean how the character "realizes" himself.  That seems to me to be the point of storytelling.  The epiphany, the change, the magical time/thing/realization when we find out why the story is being told.

    If all the writer does is engage his imagination in re-telling the imaginings of his characters, is there any room left for my imagination in the interactive reading experience that takes place between reader, author, and character?

    Dear me.  I think I'll have to read the book to find out!  And I'm not sure I'm gonna like that.  I may get annoyed, then frustrated, and then I probably won't finish it.

    [ End of story.   ;^) ]

    Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

    by Limelite on Wed Jan 08, 2014 at 06:45:05 AM PST

    •  End of story -- that's brilliant. (0+ / 0-)

      The main character often reflects on how she feels, especially if it conflicts with something the man she cares about asserts.

      But that's hardly the same as me, the reader, reflecting or reacting to what's going on.

      If you ever dip into this book I would be fascinated about your reaction.

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