February 2011

Joseph Martin


While the Women Are Sleeping by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Given Javier Marías’s clear love for dark motivations and ghost stories -- not magical realism, thanks, but the kind of creepy Poe-tasting that confounds literalists and raises kids’ hackles ‘round the campfire -- While the Women Are Sleeping is initially a confusing prospect. The collection’s ten stories span thirty years, from 1968 on, but his narrators all feel like different flesh on the same skeleton, a parade of bourgeoisie vacationing with wives or visiting New York or taking sinecures in Spain; they exist as non-entities, mere witnesses with interchangeable values. Characters encounter specters both literal (“The Resignation Letter of Senor de Santiesteban”) and dubious (“One Night of Love”), but with resignment: where rabbit-hole fate draws, say, thematic predecessors like Juan Preciado (from Juan Rulfo’s classic spookfest Pedro Páramo) or Felipe Montero (Carlos Fuentes’s Aura) deep into the uncanny, Marías’s narrators operate in helpless acquiescence to the macabre. When the nameless chronicler of Sleeping’s title story discovers an acquaintance’s plan to murder his lover Inés, he’s not provoked or frightened so much as discomfited -- while the prospect of another’s death gives him pause, it’s the newly discovered proximity to the dark side that makes him paranoid and neurotic.

Of course, that’s Marías’s milieu: for all his promised heebie-jeebies, his real hobbyhorse is everyday solipsism. The assumption of distance can be a precarious way to live and the author, a journalist and columnist by trade, spends Sleeping gleefully exploiting its contradictions. Beyond the subject of “A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps,” a spinster-in-training who graduates to old maid via a tacit, one-sided relationship with the slaughtered ghost of a revolutionary (about which more later), the author’s foci are all distant men acting as harbingers of death -- or, at the very least, in the midst of achieving a kind of living death. In “Gualta,” a man named Javier Santín Gualta meets his doppelgänger, also surnamed Gualta, at a restaurant; disgusted by his alternate’s manner -- our Gualta invokes the shock of self-consciousness that accompanies seeing oneself onscreen -- he proceeds to demolish elements of his personality, eventually “renouncing” his own biography. The logic of filmed behavior figures into “Sleeping,” as well, as its potential murderer takes daily footage of his doomed lover in a gesture at perverse posterity. “An Epigram of Fealty” follows the spiritual cuckolding of a forgotten literary patron, now a bum, who can’t prove his own identity; “Lord Rendall’s Song,” itself related through a pseudonymous Londoner named James Ryan Denham, ups the identity crisis ante, showcasing a soldier who arrives from years at war to find some surreal variation of himself killing his family as he watches through a window. In nearly every story, Marías makes sport of annihilating his subject’s sense of self, revealing self-identification as a sort of complacency, a POV susceptible to a simple change in its viewers’ choice of medium or perspective.

These fun house tableaus aside, however, it’s “Isaac’s Journey,” a meditation on three generations of predicted death by one victim’s best friend, that lets us in on Marías’s game:

He devoted his whole life to trying to resolve an enigma…And when he was close to death, he wrote his thoughts down on a piece of paper: “I sense that I am about to die, to set off on my final journey…Will I go anywhere? I can sense the approach of death because I have lived and was engendered, because I’m still alive; death, therefore, is not perfect or all-embracing, it cannot prevent something other than itself from existing; it has to put up with the fact that something waits for it and thinks about it. Someone who has not even been engendered or conceived is the one thing that belongs to death entirely. The person who has not been conceived dies most. He or she has traveled unceasingly along that most tortuous and labyrinthine of paths: the path of contingency.

And it’s this path, that of contingency in all its forms, that gives While the Women Are Sleeping its ambiguous title: while few of the collection’s women are outright meek, the vast majority exist at the mercy of their male counterparts’ poor life decisions. This isn’t to say they’re victims per se, though some fit the bill. Rather, women in the story exist on the margins, in more passive states of living death: sleep, abandonment by author and/or significant other, the loss of beauty due to age. In “ One Night of Love,” the narrator’s wife, Marta, lives in a passionless vacuum until her husband stops frequenting prostitutes to consider advances and post-funeral requests from his dead father’s mistress, herself prone to sending “posthumous” letters as though she herself were already dead; after fulfilling a burial promise to the mistress, the narrator manages one -- and only one, never to be repeated -- night of weird Oedipal thrills with Marta, who may or may not understand where she fits into his story. Elena, the focus of “A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps,” gets an even shorter shrift, reading out loud to a ghost for years before realizing, as he loses interest, that she’s mistaken his attraction to her stories for an attraction to her. And, of course, there’s the title story’s young and clueless Inés, unaware of her older lover’s plans to kill her.

Sleeping’s final story, the semi-biographical “What the Butler Said,” ends with a baby girl’s death and a suggestion that marriages to death and to men are the same thing -- a thematic sledgehammer of a closer by any measure. But Marías’s vision isn’t as dire as all that. For all his reflections on death’s fuzzy edges, he’s a people-pleasing, direct writer, as concerned with page-turner playfulness as eschatology; he even squeezes a chunk of juvenilia, “The Life and Death of Marceliano Iturriaga,” into the mix, partially for thematic resonance but also for comic relief. Metaphysical leanings aside, Marías’s fame (and he is famous, one of those weird American lacunae -- the man’s been translated into thirty-nine languages and worshiped by international titans like Roberto Bolaño and J.M. Coetzee) derives from his light touch, his ability to glance sidelong at the profane, and his love for mystery set-ups that wander along primrose paths. And it’s this gentleness, ultimately, that resonates long after reading: while there is plenty of gender warfare and flashlit horror to be had over the course of Sleeping’s ten stories, Marías doesn’t want to disturb you -- he just wants to make sure you’re good and haunted.

While the Women Are Sleeping by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa
New Directions
ISBN: 0811216632
129 Pages