‘The Man of Feeling’ by Javier Marías (Review)

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to participate in Richard and Stu’s Spanish-Language Literature Month event (since expanded to include works in Portuguese) yet this year, so I was happy to see that it’s been expanded to include August, too.  I have a few Spanish-language books lined up for next month, all by female writers (for obvious reasons), and my first review is just a few days away.  However, with a little time on my hands this week, I did manage to get to one short book before the end of July – after all, there’s always time to reacquaint yourself with an old friend 😉

The Man of Feeling (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) is the earliest of Javier Marías’ books to come under review at my site, and while it’s a lot shorter than his later novels, clocking in at a mere 137 pages, it has all the features you’ve come to expect.  The story takes the form of a series of notes the narrator, a successful opera singer, decides to take down after waking from a vivid dream based on real events that happened four years earlier.  Sitting in his apartment on a short winter’s day, he summarises an eventful couple of weeks in his life, switching between the dream and real life while commenting on what he’s relating and hinting of what is to come.

The real story begins with the narrator’s encounter with three people, two men and a woman, on a long train journey.  While he didn’t speak to them at the time, on his arrival in Madrid he recognises one of the men in the hotel bar, and over the course of their conversation learns all about the complex relationship holding the trio together.  Dato, the man at the bar, accompanies Hieronimo Manur (a Belgian banker) and his beautiful wife, Natalia, on their travels, performing an important but unusual role:

And since I’m no use to him whatsoever (for that’s the truth of the matter), he can manage perfectly well without my purely theoretical services; Manur can do everything without my help and I serve a far more useful purpose, a far more valuable role, keeping Natalia company and making sure she doesn’t get bored and doesn’t suffer and isn’t entirely miserable. Do you understand?  Do you see?  I am a companion, nothing more, and both of them, Natalia and Manur, know that is what I’m paid to do, and they make that quite clear.  And I know it too.
p.35 (Penguin Modern Classics, 2012)

The singer understands the need for company as he’s often bored during his long stays rehearsing away from home, so he’s only too happy to spend some time with Dato and Natalia over the following weeks.  However, when he (inevitably) begins to get close to Natalia, Manur is forced to intervene, in a most surprising manner.

A slow-burning novel, in other hands The Man of Feeling could almost have been a mere short story given the relatively small number of events that unfold.  As always, though, Marías is equally as concerned with the ‘how’ of his tale as with the ‘what’, making it even more important to take your time with the book.  When reading any of his works, it’s vital to reflect on each and every throw-away comment, committing these small clues to memory.  As always, the end of the story here is in plain sight from the first few pages: as always, despite these hints, you probably won’t see it until he points it out…

This one is a story of love, but perhaps not as you’re used to seeing it as the main characters each have their own idea as to what love is.  The narrator, a seasoned world traveller with a partner he doesn’t really want, has a rather casual approach to relationships, while Natalia is a mystery he wants to get to the bottom of.  Perhaps the most enigmatic of the major characters, though, is Manur, a meticulously turned-out man who remains in the wings for the majority of the story.  There’s obviously a secret behind his marriage, and narrator and reader alike are intrigued, wondering whether he loves Natalia and if they’re really together.

Another important theme in the novel is that of displacement, with the group initially brought together as a result of similarities in their lifestyle.  Both opera singers and travelling businessmen must endure the loneliness of strange cities as a result of their duties, meaning that Dato and the narrator recognise the other’s frustrations at their first encounter.  There’s also a certain irony linking Natalia with the singer.  Both grew up in Madrid, but having moved away and lost contact with family ties, the two are now adrift in a familiar yet cold city, making it even more inevitable that they will come to depend on each other.

Much of the beauty of The Man of Feeling comes from its structural complexity.  The story is told on multiple levels, including the narrator’s notes, his dream and the events of four years earlier that inspired the whole tale.  By moving between the three levels,  Marías, along with his narrator, is able to manipulate events, change the chronology, and be privy to details that in reality only became apparent far later in the piece.  This allows the writer to cast a shadow of future events over the tale while concealing the substance of these from the reader:

And yet I find myself resisting telling you everything.  A poor tenor who is afraid of his own story and of his own dreams, as if using words instead of lyrics, words that have not been dictated, invented phrases rather than repetitive written texts, learned and memorised, had paralysed his powerful voice, which up until now has only known the recitative style.  I find it hard to speak without a libretto. (p.27)

As is often the case with Marías’ protagonists, the singer is a man who, despite claiming to be baring his soul, has secrets he’ll hide until the last few pages.

The structural strength of the novel is supported by several of the writer’s usual idiosyncrasies.  Marías is not a writer to be hurried, and through his narrator he informs us of the way he feels his way through the novel, each detail moving him closer towards a complete work:

And it was from then on that I began to understand better, in the same way that a man writing can begin to understand what he is writing from one chance phrase that tells him – not suddenly, but slowly – why all the other phrases were as they were, why they were written in that way (which he will see now as having nothing to do with either intention or chance), when he thought he was just feeling his way forward, merely playing with paper and ink to pass the time, because he has been asked to do so or out of the sense of duty felt by all those who have no duty. (p.103)

In his three-page epilogue, a brief writer’s note, Marías touches on this idea again, stressing his preference to develop the story as it comes without worrying too much about where he might eventually end up.  However, having experienced his magic on a number of occasions now, I know better than to take these words completely at face value…

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Marías novel without a Shakespearean reference, and The Man of Feeling doesn’t disappoint here either.  The reason for the narrator’s return to Madrid is to perform in Verdi’s Otello, and it’s hard not to assign one of the four main roles to each of Marías’ creations.  Manur makes for a splendid (Belgian) Othello, and Natalia is obviously Desdemona, yet the other two roles are more problematic.  Yes, the singer is in town to play Cassio (and the slightly odd-looking Dato is an obvious choice for Iago), but it’s best not to be fooled into seeing them as exact parallels.  Our Spanish friend has a wicked sense of humour, and this might well turn into a twisted version of the Shakespearean tale.

Most importantly, as always, we find ourselves waiting for that typical Marías final conversation, two men talking in a room in a moment where the world seems to hold its breath.  The secrets are revealed, and the penny finally drops (for narrator and reader alike).  We know it’s coming, and we’re used to the writer’s tricks and preferences, yet Marías still somehow manages to turn the story on its head in these last few pages.  In The Man of Feeling, the Spanish master has once again produced a wonderful work of fiction, and because of its relative brevity, this might just be the one for newcomers to his work to try first.  However, whether you’re wanting to dip your toes into Marías’ oeuvre or simply thinking of trying more of his work, I can only encourage you to make time in your reading schedule for this one.  It’ll certainly be worth it 🙂

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