A colonel in Napoleon’s army is severely wounded during a daring act of valor at the Battle of Eylau, then trampled by cavalry seeking to rescue him. Given up for dead, the “old greatcoat” is tossed in a mass grave. Many years later, having clawed his way out of the earth and been nursed back to health abroad, he returns to Paris, appearing at a lawyer’s office to attempt to reclaim his name, his fortune, and his family. But there is no place for the formerly dead in the France of the Restoration. Colonel Chabert’s would-be widow has liquidated his estate and fabulously remarried to an arriviste in the new, on-the-make Paris. Though righteous, the colonel is better kept safely among the departed; no one has much need for a living ghost, and he tragically ends his days in a rural almshouse, a “grotesque gargoyle.”
The foregoing is not a description of Spanish writer Javier Marías’s The Infatuations, his first novel since the three-volume Your Face Tomorrow (completed in 2007) and intimate by comparison, but of Balzac’s marvelous little Colonel Chabert, an 1832 novella in which the author digs up and buries again the revenant Paris of the just-immediate past. But Colonel Chabert haunts Marías’s genre-nodding story of love, murder, culpability, and betrayal with unusual vivacity. More than haunts it: Pages and pages of The Infatuations feature two main characters endlessly mulling over Balzac’s novella, providing an exhaustive explication de texte that at once is an excursus of the very book we are holding in our hands. They ruminate over its plot and moral implications and pick apart its point of view. One character, the friend and apparent confidant of a murdered cinema owner, insists that Balzac’s story demonstrates that it is quite wrong for the dead to come back to life. His interlocutor and lover, an assistant at a publishing house, is later troubled when she reads the novella in French and bristles at a decisive error he has made in translation. Is he a bad reader? Are we all?
Rumination is the operative mode of expression in The Infatuations, which is told from the perspective of the publishing assistant, a woman in her thirties named María Dolz. (Prepare to be a little confused from here on out: Marías has played with variations of his own Spanish surname in many of his thirteen novels, and here he puts that penchant into overdrive, christening his protagonist María and her paramour Javier.) It is an odd and certainly counterintuitive mode, perhaps, for what at its heart is a spin on a dime-store crime novel or a made-for-TV melodrama, with its affection for stock characters and portentous gestures, dealing with a murder that seems sewn up until the case begins to unravel.
The rough details of the crime are straightforward. María is drawn to the blissfully happy and handsome husband and wife she sees every morning at a Madrid café. In the first glimpse we have of the significance of the book’s title, she develops what seems an innocent infatuation with them and their conjugal pleasantness (not knowing them, she simply calls them the Perfect Couple). When she returns from vacation and begins to notice their absence from the café, she imaginatively creates scenarios for their disappearance. In the second sentence of the book, with his typically idiosyncratic sense of pacing, Marías leaps ahead to her subsequent discovery of the violent death of the husband, Miguel Desvern:
I didn’t even know his name, or only when it was too late, only when I saw a photo in the newspaper, showing him after he had been stabbed several times, with his shirt half off, and about to become a dead man, if he wasn’t dead already in his own absent consciousness, a consciousness that never returned: his last thought must have been that the person stabbing him was doing so by mistake and for no reason, that is, senselessly, and what’s more, not just once, but over and over, unremittingly, with the intention of erasing him from the world and expelling him from the earth without further delay, right there and then.
One thing that a reader knows of Marías is that virtually any word he uses will likely find itself echoing throughout his story, answering itself in refracted form later on, and this opening flourish is no exception. The nuts and bolts of the murder will prove basically right and monstrously wrong—Miguel was indeed knifed to death by a deranged gorrilla (Marías’s faithful translator, Margaret Jull Costa, deftly opts to leave the Madrid slang here in the original), but the extenuating circumstances stitch a whole sticky spiderweb of less random connections. In a book in which other books—not just Balzac’s, but Macbeth and The Three Musketeers—play intricate leading roles, where literature brushes against the messy flux of life, the relation of story to reality becomes less and less a cut-and-dry question for María.
It isn’t just literature that’s at fault. Love is a loaded gun for Marías, and nothing seems more lethal than the state of infatuation. The Infatuations is a round-robin of infatuated souls: María for the couple, María for Javier, Javier for the widow of his friend. The Infatuations reads at times as if Marías were offering a novelist’s twist on A Lover’s Discourse wrapped inside a murder mystery. “When someone is in love,” María thinks at one moment, “or, more precisely, when a woman is in love and in the early stages of an affair, when it still has all the allure of the new and surprising, she is usually capable of taking an interest in anything that the object of her love is interested in or speaks about.” True enough, but quickly she notes that it’s as if she lives under a “spell” as much as a blessing, “as if she had decided to live out her life on screen or on stage or inside a novel, in an alien fictional world that absorbs and amuses her more than her real life, which she puts temporarily on hold or relegates to second place, and takes a brief rest from it.” Infatuation makes its sufferers liable to all forms of dreams and actions: That is where the danger part comes in. At one point in the book, a character relates how difficult it is to translate el enamoramiento, for which the English “infatuation” is only an approximation. One of my only quibbles with Jull Costa’s limpid translation is that I might have titled the book The Smitten Ones, for there is a sense that all of the characters in The Infatuations suffer the same kind of passive attraction implied in the progressive sense of being “smote,” struck suddenly by a great unseen force, often fatally.
Marías himself is the author of translations from English, the most famous perhaps being his prizewinning Spanish rendering of Tristram Shandy, and also has taught at Oxford (the experience was the basis of his 1989 novel All Souls) and Wellesley. Precision of language is important to him—he has stated in interviews that translators are not only privileged writers but privileged readers—yet he seems to revel in how slippery it can be. It’s almost a running gag that a number of his characters from novel to novel are those who work with other people’s words professionally—an interpreter in A Heart So White (1995), a ghostwriter in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (1997), an opera singer in The Man of Feeling (2003)—and in The Infatuations, his mouthpiece is a factotum in publishing. (Much of the humor in the book derives from her hatred of the mediocrities her “literary” house publishes, including a pretentious hack who has committed to memory the acceptance speech he is certain he will one day deliver to the Nobel academy—in Swedish.) All of these characters struggle with the elusiveness of language, and Marías raises this to almost a structural level, as digressions generate tangents that generate more digressions. Rarely, though, do they seem gratuitous, and in The Infatuations, they loop together to give the novel its powerful shape.
It might not work if Marías’s sentences didn’t themselves exert such a hypnotic hold. His characters often think and talk with gestures of grandiloquence, which could annoy, or at least have an unlifelike drag, but somehow doesn’t. They, like him, love to push forward and suddenly pull back, and there is a circularity to their thought. María, happening upon Javier at the Natural History Museum in Madrid, delivers a soliloquy about the ghoulish serendipity of the occurrence: “Right here, right next door, your friend Desvern was cruelly cut down. It’s strange us sitting here in this clean and peaceful place, as if nothing had happened. If we had been here on that other day, we might perhaps have saved him. Although if he hadn’t died, we wouldn’t be together anywhere. We wouldn’t even have met.” Turn the page. The next chapter begins: “I was on the point of adding this, but I didn’t.” What follows is another almost too eloquent digression, about chance, about the apparent randomness and insensibility of Desvern’s murder (an ironically incorrect supposition, we’ll soon find). Keep reading another two pages, absorbed. Then: “But I didn’t say any of this, I didn’t want to take the floor, I didn’t want to speak.”
In its formal back-and-forth of speech, thought, and action, its acrobatics of hesitations and long tangents being suddenly choked off, then reiterated a few pages later, The Infatuations plays off Marías’s enchantingly sinuous sentences. They suck you in and lull you along with their rhythm, which gives the unusual and palpable awareness of how masterfully Marías has made time itself—the grammatical tense of language, the imaginary time in the novel, the real time in our own lives—his peculiar object of investigation. What is a ghost story, after all, if not the story of someone outside of time, just like poor Colonel Chabert? It’s easy to feel while reading and almost impossible to paraphrase, but this is perhaps what Marías means to credit when he has described his pleasure in pensamiento literario, literary thinking. The prose of The Infatuations is as casual as spoken language yet paradoxically feels honed to within an inch of its life. I don’t know how Marías manages that—or I should say, how his translator Jull Costa has achieved this in book after book, though never so marvelously as in this one. “Once you’ve finished a novel,” Javier argues with María, “what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters 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.” This is only partly true and only partly coherent, and The Infatuations leaves it to the reader to judge its thesis on every page.
Eric Banks is the former editor in chief of Bookforum.