Javier Marias: A Heart so White (transl. Margaret Jull Costa)

heartsowhiteIt doesn’t surprise me to learn that Javier Marias has translated Tristram Shandy into Spanish. In both Marias and Sterne we find something of the same obsession with the seemingly irrelevant detail which grows and grows in importance as time goes by, the lack of concern for narrative linearity and the love of going off on a tangent. I have not heard him compared to Karl Ove Knausgård, but this was the author I was reminded of as I read this, my first book by Marias (but certainly not my last). The same fascination with the fluidity of margins between fact and fiction, the same ability to take the most mundane little detail and philosophise about it endlessly, the same long, meandering sentences… which must be contagious, as I find my own sentences growing longer and longer as I attempt to review this book.

If that sounds like I am trying to put you off Marias, you couldn’t be more wrong. In theory, he is everything that writing craft workshops warn us against; he breaks all the rules and gets away with it. He moves from a personal point of view to a generalisation or something abstract within the same sentence, separated by nothing but a fragile comma. His characters are slippery and unknowable, enigmas to themselves and others. He has sentences that run on into whole paragraphs, half a page or more. He often repeats himself (or his characters do). And yet, somehow it all works (thanks also, no doubt, to Jull Costa’s outstanding translation). He is compulsively readable and this was the book which got me out of my reading slump back in December.

There is a mystery at the heart of the book: Juan discovers that his father’s first wife, his aunt Teresa, shot herself in the heart in the bathroom in the middle of a family lunch shortly after they had come back from their honeymoon. As Juan is about to get married himself, he starts wondering why this happened and discovers that his father had another wife even before Teresa. So, at the most basic level, this could be called a ‘whydunit’, but of course it is a lot more complex than that. The protagonist and author question our ability to cope with full disclosure and the past, ponder on just how reliable our perceptions are, how we create stories that we can live with. Above all, it is a poignant meditation on what it means to love and be loved, and how (whether?) that fits in with marriage.

Author picture, from his blog on WordPress.
Author picture, from his blog on WordPress.

If you’re still not convinced, I probably won’t help matters by saying that the first few pages can seem like hard work, until you get used to the cadence and tumultuous flow of the Marias river of prose. However, if you stop resisting, if you surrender to the hypnotism of his sentences, there is so much to love here! And it’s not all doom and gloom; there are many funny moments too. The author is a sarcastic observer of the foibles of simultaneous interpreters and speakers at international conferences and there is a particularly enjoyable scene where Juan decides to ‘pep up’ a dull conversation between two senior politicians by mistranslating.

So I urge you to give him a go if you haven’t made his acquaintance already and I certainly want to read more by him. What would you recommend I read next?

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23 thoughts on “Javier Marias: A Heart so White (transl. Margaret Jull Costa)”

  1. I first heard of Marias when a friend who lives in Spain bought me the first book of his Trilogy as a birthday present a few years ago. I am now a firm fan and A Heart So White is my favourite of all his books I’ve read so far . So glad you loved it too.

  2. I’m inspired – if not to read this particular book, then at least to go with the flow more when faced with books that are outside of my comfort zone. Usually I just give up, citing lack of time, ‘I read for pleasure’, etc as my excuse. When I did my MA I had to read many novels I would never have chosen to finish, and I gained a lot from some (not all) of them, both in terms of pleasure and writing education. I think I get a little panicky while reading the kind of book you describe above – my mind is firing questions at me, trying to analyse, telling me I’m too stupid to ‘get it’. But if the secret is to sink into it and simply enjoy, well … maybe I could try that 🙂

    1. Absolutely – that was the trick that worked for me. I just stopped trying to analyse it and just went along for the exhilarating ride. I probably will have to reread it to get all the nuances and subtleties, but it was a good initiation.

  3. Such a wonderful book. I have tried a few other titles since reading this one without being able to make headway, but I think it is a question of being in the mood and the perfection of this particular book. I have heard that The Infatuations, his last novel, was not one of his best but he has a new release this year. Many readers rave about the trilogy too. I think I may try that next.

    1. It may be a question of whatever I can get my hands on in English translation here in France, as I think the challenge of reading him in a French translation may be a bridge too far for me!

  4. I’ve only read one book of his: The Infatuations. I thought it was wonderful. Interestingly, I mentioned on my blog about how he breaks creative writing rules. I wondered if this was a European thing, but perhaps not? Anyway, thanks for this review. It has made me determined to read more.

    1. I wonder if it’s more of a Romance language thing about breaking the rules… many French, Spanish, Italian authors seem to be doing the same, but not so much the Scandinavians or Germans.

  5. I’m so glad you fell for this one, Marina. Great review – I particularly like your comments on the elusive and slippery nature of his characters, so true. I started with The Infatuations, and even though it’s not considered (by some) as top-flight Marias, it’s the one that pulled me towards him. I don’t think it’s as mesmerising as A Heart, but still worth considering. It contains some of the most insightful passages on grief – there’s a review at mine if it’s of interest. All Souls is another possibility – an intriguing book set in Oxford, a very different kind of campus novel.

  6. I didn’t get on too well with my first attempt at Marias (The Infatuations) but it may have been just the wrong book at the wrong time. I’m sure I’ll give him another go and this might be the one I try.

  7. There are some authors like that, Marina Sofia, where you’re better off just allowing yourself to go with the flow. Then you find yourself drawn into the story and no longer minding the side trips and so on. I’ve read other authors like that too, and if you’re willing to just let go, that sort of book can be a great experience.

  8. I think I was a little put off Marias by some fairly negative reviews of The Infatutaions, but from your inspiring review and the comments here it sounds like that may not be his best book. I will have to seriously consider adding this to the TBR now… *sighs*

    As an aside, how difficult it must be for a tranlsator to translate jokes about mistranslations…

    1. I do think he’s worth a try, even if you decide that you do’t like him later. He has a very different style from an English language writer- a bit like Elena Ferrante, and yet most people seem to have no trouble reading her.

  9. I tried so hard with this book but found I could get nowhere with it. It reached the point where I was putting off reading anything because I was so ashamed of not wanting to pick this up. I think I just have to accept that however good he is, he not the writer for me.

    1. Nothing to feel ashamed about. Not all writers can appeal to us – I can’t bear Donna Tartt for instance, and a little of David Foster Wallace goes a very long way for me…

  10. A Heart So White was my first Marias, Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me was my second. I’ve since gone on to read everything I can! Hadn’t considered the Sterne comparison before but I see it now. I hope you, too, go on to enjoy more of his work.

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