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A Heart So White (Vintage International) Paperback – March 26, 2013
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"By far Spain's best writer today." --Roberto Bolaño
"Brilliant. . . . An entertaining and intelligent novel." --The Washington Post
"The most subtle and gifted writer in contemporary Spanish literature." --Boston Sunday Globe
"Marías is simply astonishing." --The Times Literary Supplement
“Marías is one of the best contemporary writers.” —J. M. Coetzee
"A great writer." --Salman Rushdie
"One of the writers who should get the Nobel Prize is Javier Marías." --Orhan Pamuk
"Stylish, cerebral...Marías is a startling talent...His prose is ambitious, ironic, philosophical, and ultimately compassionate." --The New York Times
“His prose demonstrates an unusual blend of sophistication and accessibility.” —The New Yorker
“Javier Marías is such an elegant, witty and persuasive writer that it is tempting simply to quote him at length.” —The Scotsman
"Marías uses language like an anatomist uses the scalpel to cut away the layers of the flesh in order to lay bare the innermost secrets of that strangest of species, the human being." --W. G. Sebald
"His prose possesses an exquisite, almost uncanny observation, recreating moments and moods in hypnotic depth." --The Telegraph
“Javier Marías is a novelist with style . . . His readers enter, through him, a strikingly and disturbingly foreign world.” —Margaret Drabble
"A supreme stylist." --The Times
"Marías writes the kind of old-fashioned speculative prose we associate with Proust and Henry James. . . . But he also deals in violence, historical and personal, and in the movie titles, politicians, and brand-names and underwear we connect with quite a different kind of writer." --The London Review of Books
About the Author
Javier Marías was born in Madrid in 1951. He has published ten novels, two collections of short stories and several volumes of essays. His work has been translated into thirty-two languages and won a dazzling array of international literary awards, including the prestigious Dublin IMPAC award for A Heart So White. He is also a highly practiced translator into Spanish of English authors, including Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Thomas Browne and Laurence Sterne. He has held academic posts in Spain, the United States and in Britain, as Lecturer in Spanish Literature at Oxford University.
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The opening chapter of A HEART SO WHITE is a brilliant six-page account (all one paragraph) of the suicide of a young woman in the middle of a dinner party, at the end of which it is revealed that she was the narrator's father's wife. Shortly, we learn that the narrator's father, Ranz, later married the suicide's sister, who then became the mother of the narrator. In a sense, the remainder of the book is a quest, somewhat reluctant and oft-diverted, to find out why Ranz's previous wife (and the narrator's aunt) committed suicide, something that Ranz has kept secret for the 35+ years since. In the course of this quest, Marias explores many aspects of secrets and poses the question, Is it better not to know? -- which leads to the related question, Is it really possible to suppress the desire to know?, and then the further question, of course, is, In the end, is knowledge really possible at all?
The novel's title comes from one of several lines from Shakespeare's "Macbeth" that recur throughout the novel and add depth and complexity to the work. Another recurring line from that play is Macbeth's "I have done the deed." Near the end of A HEART SO WHITE, Ranz says, "What I did was done, but the big difference about what happened afterwards is not whether I did or didn't do it, but the fact that no one knew about it. That it was a secret."
In addition to secrets, other themes (some familiar to readers of other works of Marias) are the evanscence and serendipity of events in life, truth and the distortion of narrative, silence and how it can be as deceptive as speaking, and the obligations of/from the past, or the "weight of the past."
A propos, perhaps, given the preoccupation with secrets, the novel features a lot of eavesdropping and instances of peering down into the street from overlooking windows and, conversely, spying from the street on upper-story windows, all of which intensifies a certain voyeuristic character of A HEART SO WHITE. This voyeurism is extended further in one of the humorous episodes of the novel (in my experience Marias always has his funny or witty moments) where the narrator assists a woman friend in her search for a mate through a dating service and the making and exchanging of videos, which, of course, conceal and distort as much as they reveal. The funniest episode in the book is when the narrator (a translator) first meets his wife Luisa (also a translator) as the team assigned to be the interpreters at a meeting between a senior Spanish politician and a high British politician (who appears to be a lot like, and perhaps is, Margaret Thatcher), a meeting at which the narrator occasionally takes huge liberties in mis-translating and thus re-directing the dialogue between the two politicians.
A HEART SO WHITE (published in 1992) is similar to "Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me" (1994), and like that novel and "The Dark Back of Time" (1998) it is highly seductive and very much a novel of ideas. But those ideas are not quite as well-considered or on the mark as in the two later works, and the style not quite as mature and accomplished. The intellectual discussion tends a tad more towards cleverness than profundity, and the observations of human life tend more to concern its everyday conduct than its essence. Nonetheless, A HEART SO WHITE is a highly recommended installment in Marias's ongoing exploration of the secrets and meaning of life and the human obsession with knowing in the face of the impossibility of truly knowing.
As Marías puts it better than I, "Sometimes I have the feeling that nothing happens, because nothing happens without interruption, nothing lasts or endures or is ceaselessly remembered, and even the most monotonous and routine of existences, by its apparent repetitiveness, gradually cancels itself out, negates itself, until nothing is anything and no one is anyone they were before, and the weak wheel of the world is pushed along by forgetful beings who hear and see and know what is not said, never happens, is unknowable and unverifiable."
This is the central meditation of the book, but not its central trope which, as per usual with Marías, is taken from Shakespeare, Macbeth in this case, and throughout the book, with our narrator, his newly wed wife, and, mostly I should say, the extended lives of his equally extended coterie of family and friends, we come to see ourselves as some version of bloody-handed Macbeth or, perhaps much worse, cold-hearted Lady Macbeth, or both at different times.
Again to Marías, "Macbeth dared to say: `I have done the deed,' he said it at the moment he'd done it, who would dare to do as much, not so much do it as say it...Our mind is all vacillations and ambiguities and always prey to suspicions, for our mind there will always be areas of shadow and it will always think in that brainsickly way." - "Brainsickly" - The manner in which Lady Macbeth, who says that she shames to wear a heart so white, accuses Macbeth of thinking.
Those new to Marías may be wondering just what I'm on about in this review. It's an attempt to convey the feelings and reverberations that this master stylist imparts to the reader who is drawn to his work.
But, for those longing for something of a hint of a plot, the novel begins with a suicide, or, perhaps it were better to rephrase, the story of a suicide. I'm not giving anything away. It's what happens when the previously secret and unknown becomes known, after a fashion, that fascinates and ensorcells.
For, prospective reader, "...it's not easy to know why people kill themselves, not even people close to us, everyone's crazy, everyone's having a rough time of it, sometimes for no reason but almost always in secret, people just turn their face to the pillow and wait for the next day. Then one day they stop waiting."
Enter these catacombs, reader.