October 2003

Matthew Kirkpatrick

fiction

The Man of Feeling by Javier Marías

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

It's too bad that more foreign writers aren't translated into English, and maybe an even greater shame that such a large number of books written in English don't come close to the writing of Javier Marías. It is, however, fortunate that Marías's books have made their way into translation, and better yet that The Man of Feeling, first published in Spanish in 1986, has recently been published in Margaret Jull Costa's English translation.

The short novel begins with the unnamed narrator, an opera singer, recalling a train trip to Milan. On the way, he spots a sleeping woman with whom he quickly becomes infatuated. After arriving in Milan, he finds that he and the woman have checked into the same hotel along with her husband, a banker, and their companion, Dato. Dato describes himself as Manur's personal secretary, but he is also there to keep an eye on the woman, Natalia, during her husband's frequent absences. Dato and Natalia become friends with the narrator, who finds himself on the cusp of realizing his infatuation when Manur intervenes as the strange story comes to a climax.

Despite the rather unspectacular plot, this quiet book is actually remarkable and surprising. While the narrator recounts the main story, he takes several sojourns into various aspects of his life and career. The minor characters introduced in these fragments lend a great deal to the story, and also help to create the odd tone of the novel.

The narrator describes Marías's style in the Man of Feeling best when he says that he finds himself "resisting telling you everything." The author is telling the reader not to expect the explicit -- there are spaces that the reader must fill and conclusions to make. From the first line "I don't know whether I should tell you my dreams," we know that the narrator is unreliable, and that what he gives us comes as if filtered through a dream. The narrative is deliberately fragmentary, almost ethereal in the way that Marías creates the characters and the narrator through memories that can't be trusted.

In addition to the novel's unique tack, the style of the book is subtly inventive. The book's lack of chapters and the page-spanning paragraphs enhance the tone of memory and dream, but more than that, the style encourages reading without interruption. It's definitely possible to read the book without interruption and I would guess that doing so would only deepen the dream.

The Man of Feeling contains a short epilogue by Marías in which he talks about how he came to write the book. I thought that this was an odd addition, as I'm not sure how important it is to include an explanation of the author's methods at the end of the book, before the reader has had time to absorb the story for themselves. But, since the epilogue was there, I read it immediately. It's not by any means superfluous, just a surprising inclusion that explained a lot of what the author was trying to do.

Without revealing too much, Marías says in the epilogue that he wanted to create Natalia's character through her absence. She remains mysterious through much of the novel, despite the presence she so clearly has in the mind of the narrator. Marías said that the novel "is a love story in which love is neither seen nor experienced, but announced and remembered." The Man of Feeling succeeds on those terms -- the narrator's love is convincing despite the lack of any concrete explanation for it.

The Man of Feeling is a good introduction to the wonderfully inventive Javier Marías. He's a writer on par with other European writers like José Saramago or Thomas Bernhard and that he seems to be getting some attention in America as fewer and fewer foreign language books make it into English is no surprise. If Javier Marías is an indication of the state of the world's literature, especially the great number of books that remain untranslated, we can be sure that we are missing out.

The Man of Feeling by Javier Marías
New Directions
ISBN: 0811215318
182 Pages