How Javier Marías is trying to rebuild the novel form

Our new word order.

Spanish author Javier Marías
Spanish author Javier Marías. Photograph: Getty Images

I think it was Faulkner who once said that when you strike a match in a dark wilderness, it is not in order to see anything better lighted but just in order to see how much more darkness there is around. I think that literature does mainly that. It is not really supposed to “answer” things, not even to make them clearer, but rather to explore – often blindly – the huge areas of darkness and show them better.

This was the Spanish novelist Javier Marías’s response to an online interviewer who had asked him, “What is the purpose of writing?” It not only provides an unexpectedly lucid answer to that deadly question, it also directly illuminates Marías’s practice.

Most novelists have a “breakthrough” book, the one that introduces them to a wider public. In the case of Marías, it was All Souls (Todas las almas), published in 1989. Telling the story of a Spanish academic who comes to Oxford and has an affair with a fellow tutor, it has some points of contact with the “campus novel” genre beloved of Anglo-Saxon comic writers.

A Heart So White (Corazón tan blanco) followed in 1992, hard on the heels of that success, but there is not much sense here of a writer compromising himself to accommodate a larger, less specialised readership. The wisp of a plot can be summarised in a few words – newly wed translator learns the deadly secret behind his father’s three marriages – but it is a more opaque, demanding work than its predecessor. The novel’s long, looping opening sentence sets the agenda at once:

I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father’s gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the dining room with other members of the family and three guests.

Notice, first of all, what a strange temporal journey we make while negotiating the jumble of tenses in that sentence. Any promise of a conventionally linear narrative is immediately shattered and we are already made aware, subliminally, of one of the novel’s major themes: the evanescence of human experience, how everything belongs to the past as soon as it has happened, that “everything is constantly in the process of being lost”.

This might easily be described as a Proustian theme and indeed the length and complexity of Marías’s sentences have evoked stylistic comparisons with Proust, as well as with Henry James and Thomas Bernhard. Yet we would do well to remember that, earlier in his career, Marías had a distinguished parallel life as a translator and probably his most celebrated translation was his Spanish rendering of Tristram Shandy.

Like Laurence Sterne, Marías is prey to a profound scepticism about the novel’s capacity to render the complexity of subjective human experience in anything other than the crudest, most approximate way. Like Sterne, too, he is possessed by the notion that some of the smallest and most fleeting events in our lives are also the most significant.

There the resemblance more or less ends: for Marías, unlike Sterne, inclines towards narrative subversions that are po-faced rather than zany or farcical. One of his methods is a highly distinctive form of repetition. Many novelists are scared of repetition, assuming that readers will take it for laziness or carelessness. Marías, on the other hand, realises that our thought processes are often repetitious and he wants to render this quality as scrupulously as possible. There is a certain rueful world-weariness about this technique: one of the things he is trying to tell the reader, it seems, is that no matter how much we experience, no matter how shocking or intense our experiences are, we remain locked within the same patterns of thought and reflection.

Marías is also sceptical of the line dividing fiction from non-fiction: a scepticism he shares with many other European writers poised on the cusp of the 20th and 21st centuries. Two obvious examples might be Milan Kundera (of whom the narrator of A Heart So White, at least, is no admirer) and W G Sebald. Like Sebald, Marías likes to include photographs in his fictions, leaving the reader with nagging uncertainties as to whether they are real or fake. And, like Sebald, he is just as interested in reflection and analysis as he is in narration. A typical Marías sentence might begin with the description of an event but this act of telling will rapidly morph into something discursive.

This is more than just a stylistic tic: it is part of Marías’s deadly-serious attempt to keep the novel, as a form, alive and evolving. To put it crudely, for the first few centuries of its existence, one of the great virtues of the novel was assumed to be that it collapsed the dis­tinction between the general and the particular: reading the story of one individual errant knight by the name of Don Quixote, you also knew that you were reading the story of every man and woman (including your­- self) who had ever suffered from delusions and thwarted dreams. Modernism swept that certainty aside and called into question the novel’s authority.

After the modernist revolution, most novelists blithely carried on as before but a handful of writers have since applied themselves to the task of rebuilding things – recalibrating the relationship between the general and the particular in the novel – and Marías’s lithe, unreliable sentences are among his contributions to this enterprise. They insist on reminding us that the relationship between the two is liquid, slippery and in a constant state of flux.

Perhaps this analysis risks making Marías’s work sound too dry. Readers daunted by his sentences or by his commitment to the legacies of high modernism should rest assured that there is one other, more readily loveable characteristic to be found in his work, a characteristic without which no novelist is worth his or her salt: a healthy streak of narrative vulgarity.

A Heart So White begins with a bloody and dramatic suicide. Murder, or the threat of murder, is central to the plot. If it is not a whodunnit, exactly, it is certainly a why-did-she-do-it or a what-did-he-do (just as, by the same token, Marías’s epic trilogy Your Face Tomorrow can be enjoyed as a series of spy novels if the reader so chooses).

Pop culture references abound and our cerebral narrator, while he may look down upon the oeuvre of Kundera, is a big fan of Jerry Lewis and Family Feud. In short, he likes a good story, too, and however much it might sometimes feel that he’s trying to disguise it, he knows how to tell one. I cannot help feeling that it is this quality – just as much as Marías’s searching and omnipresent intelligence – that makes A Heart So White a novel to treasure.