When I read Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives some years ago, I didn’t spend much time wondering who the so-called detectives of the title were. It seemed obvious. They were the book’s off-kilter heroes, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, two poetry-drunk youths who venture off in a white Impala into the Sonoran desert to solve the mystery of what happened to the mythical, vanished poet Cesárea Tinajero. Their quest, which also involves them fleeing a gun-wielding pimp, opens and closes the novel. It sandwiches a hefty middle section that patchily reconstructs Belano and Lima’s peregrinations across the globe later in life through interviews with some 40 people who knew them. It was only after I unexpectedly embarked on my own Bolaño-esque odyssey into war, dictatorship, and the world of Spanish-language poetry, years later, that I started to suspect that his two protagonists weren’t the only savage detectives in the book. I began to wonder: Who interviewed all of those people in the middle section? What unseen person(s) had tracked them all down to talk? Now that took savage detective work. Little did I know I would find myself doing something eerily similar and even ask myself, half in jest, if Bolaño was somehow toying me with from beyond the grave. Quite fittingly, my own savage detective story began in the very country where he died—Spain.
In the summer of 2012, I was living in Madrid with my wife. One night my friend Javi invited us over to his apartment to watch a cult Spanish documentary from the 1970s called El Desencanto (The Disenchantment). He didn’t say much else—he didn’t want to ruin it for us—only that the film was about a dead poet and his eccentric family.
El Desencanto is, indeed, about a dead poet and his eccentric family: Leopoldo Panero, his wife, Felicidad Blanc, and their three sons, Juan Luis, Leopoldo María, and Michi. But it is also about so, so much more. Leopoldo Panero was a communist before the Spanish Civil War but joined Francisco Franco’s army in order to survive, and by the end of the conflict he was writing fascist-tinged poetry and would later be celebrated by the dictatorship for his verses. In 1962 he died, leaving behind elegant, resentful, and literature-obsessed Felicidad, along with their three sons, all with rebellious leftist beliefs and high-flown literary aspirations. Ten-plus years later, mom and the boys got together on camera to make the film that left me in state of awe as I sat on Javi’s couch. Not only did they attack their deceased paterfamilias by pulling the family’s dirty laundry out of the closet and into the light, but they did it by speaking in a kind of incendiary poetry while lacing their story with literary allusions that added a dramatic mystique. The Paneros treated their family history as if it were a novel they could collectively rewrite, and certainly they were characters worthy of a novelist’s imagination. Juan Luis, the oldest, was both macho and dandified, modeling himself on his idols Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Leopoldo María, the middle son, was an unstable poetic genius who was constantly in and out of jails and mental institutions. And Michi, the youngest, was a playboy whose literary medium was the overblown stories he told. El Desencanto was about history and myth, family and inheritance, and politics and poetry. I would soon learn that the film had scandalized Spain when it came out in 1976, a year after Franco’s death, launching the Paneros into the realm of legend.
Prisons and asylums, fascism and rebellion, dictatorships and poetic movements—the Panero family’s story read like an unwritten Spanish chapter from Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas. I walked home that night from Javi’s apartment feeling like my eyebrows had been by singed the Paneros’ singular strangeness. I also felt like a literary wormhole had somehow opened up between Bolaño’s fictional universe and my own real one.
Wondering if this was a case of art imitating life—even as life for me would soon start imitating art—I turned to Google to see what I might dig up on the Paneros and Bolaño. Sure enough, the Chilean had fictionalized Leopoldo María as a character in two books I had already read: as a magnetic, nameless poet-genius living in an insane asylum in 2666, and as arguably the same character in The Savage Detectives, but named Pelayo Barrendoáin, surrounded by fans at the Madrid Book Fair “who feed on my madness to nourish their madness.” He also appeared without a mask in another Bolaño book. In the posthumous novel Woes of the True Policeman, a gay poet who idolizes Leopoldo María refers to him admiringly as “the Great Faggot of All Sorrows,” and his brother Juan Luis appears in a list under the category of “Worst houseguest.” These intertextual discoveries only made the story of the Paneros that I had seen in El Desencanto pulse with a stronger glow, leading me to feel like I had stumbled upon a non-fiction Bolaño book written by real life instead of him.
During the months after seeing El Desencanto, I developed an obsession with the Paneros, and to make a long story very short, three years later I began writing a collective biography of the family. The project required me to track down and interview all the people I could who had known them in order to trace the arcs of their lives. In other words, adopting the methodology of the middle section of The Savage Detectives as I chased stories of the Paneros, I became a savage detective.
By the time I started work on my book, I was living in Los Angeles, so I went back to Spain as much as was feasible. My research visits were very intense. Most of the people I sought out to interview were in Madrid, where the Paneros had spent the bulk of their lives. Although I had already lived there and thought I knew the city moderately well, it became a different, seemingly infinite place when infused with the rich history of the family. Every door I knocked on, every bar I sat in, every new phone number I called, unboxed a hidden world of stories. I interviewed friends and relatives and ex-lovers, editors and critics, gallerists and a ghostwriter, celebrated writers and film directors, historians and journalists, a Borges biographer, Federico García Lorca’s niece, a best-selling cookbook author, two former mayors of small cities, and the Spanish ambassador to Honduras. And, of course, I interviewed the literary kin of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima: poets—lots and lots of poets.
Over cafés con leche and condensation-beaded cañas (small glasses of beers), I probed everyone I interviewed delicately but insistently, trying to understand the thoughts and actions of five individuals who, like Bolaño characters, seemed to think literature was more real than life itself. The memories poured out, like a choral narrative for me to parse into one unified, cohesive tale. I learned the squalid details of one of the Panero sons’ alcoholic decline; I learned things about the sexual predilections of the other two. Combining several testimonies, I was able to recreate the 1976 premiere of El Desencanto. I listened to recollections about the Spanish Civil War, the Franco Dictatorship, and Spain’s precarious transition to democracy. The literary world in Spain is small and familial, so nearly everyone I interviewed knew everyone else I interviewed. Often, they insulted each other. During the long conversations I frequently ended up getting drunk when I didn’t mean to and went to sleep very late when I had to get up early the next day. Sometimes I even inadvertently got drunk early, like when a retired lawyer who had played a role in crafting Spain’s 1978 constitution welcomed me into his apartment on a scorching July morning with a bottle of champagne that he popped open for us to share.
People’s trust in me during this process was shocking. I was a blank page and the interviews filled me with the words of others, sometimes very sad ones. The novelistic richness of the experience outweighed the physical and emotional fatigue, especially the moments that felt not stranger than fiction but the stuff of fiction: the psychiatrist who only vaguely understood why we were meeting yet treated me to an enormous meal of fried fish, then invited me up to his apartment and seemed intent on keeping me there for the rest of the day; or the famous writer and former communist secret agent in Spain during the Franco dictatorship, now in his 80s, who has his own brand of anti-aging elixir.
I sometimes regaled my editor with these stories, which she called “the book behind the book.” My experiences also felt like the book inside of books. When I visited Juan Luis Panero’s widow in a town on the Costa Brava, an hour from Blanes, where Bolaño lived in his final years, I felt like I had entered the end of his novel Distant Star. Likewise, my research into Leopoldo Panero’s bitter public feud with Pablo Neruda put me in mind of the legendary poet’s appearance in By Night in Chile. But the proliferation of literary wormholes went beyond the work of Bolaño. The Panero family’s trip to Alexandria, Egypt in the 1950s simmered with the romance of Lawrence Durrell’s novel Justine, which they modeled their trip after. When I visited the family’s ancestral home in the small town of Astorga, the courtyard echoed Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, also a Panero family favorite. This was the magic of the Paneros—their literary obsessions seemed to deconstruct the fabric of reality and stitch it back together with literature as its seams. Bolaño and the Paneros were similar that way: Books became the raw material for crafting a life rather than the other way around.
And maybe I was that way too, since at a certain point during the writing of my book things seemed to turn very meta, as though I had entered a novel and become an unwitting character.
I first noticed this soon after I interviewed the Spanish novelist Javier Marías about his friendship with Michi Panero. I particularly adore two Marías novels, A Heart So White and Thus Bad Begins, both of which concern molten secrets that inexorably rise to the surface. As if on cue, after my conversation with Marías, several of the subsequent interviews I conducted yielded secrets about him. Nothing shattering, but enough for each person to go off the record. Was I being sucked into a María-esque narrative scenario? No. I was clearly being excessively fanciful imagining that life was imitating art in such a way. One person in Spain I talked to about this said I had a classic case of “Panero Paranoia,” meaning their compulsive literariness was becoming my own. This paranoia only increased, however, when I emailed Enrique Vila-Matas.
Like Javier Marías, Vila-Matas was good friends with Michi Panero. He mentions Michi in his novel Never Any End to Paris, and he dedicated his novel Lejos de Veracruz to him. The book is about the travails of three brothers who are a mashup of sorts of the Paneros and another famous Spanish literary family, the Goytisolos. I corresponded with Vila-Matas about some of his memories of Michi, and I also sent him a passage from Michi’s unpublished partial memoir to ask if what he said about Vila-Matas and his family was accurate. (The answer: kind of. Vila-Matas called it a “sublimation” of the truth.) Soon after, a writer for a magazine in Argentina who knew Vila-Matas wrote me to say he’d told her I was writing a novel about the Panero family, and she wanted to quote me for an article. I corrected her that I was writing a biography and answered her questions. A month or so later, a reporter for the Spanish newspaper El Pais wrote me because Vila-Matas had told her that I was making a movie about the Paneros. Once again, I offered a correction then answered questions. What would be the next inquiry, I wondered, someone saying that Vila-Matas had told them that I was composing a stage musical about the Paneros?
This was when it became clear to me that, yes, I was in an Enrique Vila-Matas novel. The playful absurdity, the maniacal whims of a writer, the blurring of the real and the unreal—it was vintage Vila-Matas. Or wait: Was it pure Bolaño? Was I in a novel by Roberto Bolaño (who was friends with Vila-Matas) in which a stand-in for Vila-Matas messed with the head of an American writer trying to write a book about a Spanish literary family with a fascist past?
Of course, the answer was much simpler than all of that: I was simply deep, deep inside the process of writing my own book, which finally came to a close six years after I first saw El Desencanto. A telling development had occurred. I was no longer the sole detective asking questions. Now new ones were appearing and tracking me down to ask me questions. When at last I turned in my finished manuscript after reading thousands of pages of books and documents and conducting nearly 100 interviews, I felt vastly satisfied but also vastly empty. The literary madness of the Paneros had nourished my literary madness, and I already missed them.
During the fraught, lonely period between finishing my book and its publication—which I imagined being akin to wandering lost in the Sonoran desert—I met my wife one day for lunch. We ate sitting on a bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean. After we finished, my wife departed, leaving me to contemplate the sea. Overcome by a sudden sleepiness, I laid down on the bench and dozed off. A half hour later, my own snoring woke me up. A huddle of people standing nearby glanced at me. I thought of something the middle son, Leopoldo María Panero, used to say near the end of his life, when he would leave the mental institution in the Canary Islands where he lived during the day and take naps on public benches: I’m not a bum, I’m a poet! I wanted to yell out the same thing. Instead, I lay back down and stared up at the clear blue sky. I wasn’t a poet; I never had been. I was a detective, and for the time being my savage work was done.
Image credit: Unsplash/João Silas.
In early 2016, during a monthslong relocation to Barcelona, I fell under the spell of three contemporary masters of Spanish-language fiction: Javier Cercas, of Barcelona, Javier Marías, of Madrid, and Álvaro Enrigue, of Mexico and New York. Even now, back in the U.S., I feel with these writers the special connection you get when your reading life and your life-life come close enough to touch. And over the last couple years, I’ve managed to track each of them down for an interview. The first piece in this series featured Cercas and the second Enrigue; the finale, though the first of them chronologically, features Marías.
The internationally bestselling author of novels including A Heart So White, The Infatuations, and the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, Javier Marías has often been called “Spain’s living greatest writer.” His new collection of essays, Between Eternities, is his first to appear in English in a quarter century and features meditations on lederhosen, soccer, Joseph Conrad, and “Why Almost No One Can Be Trusted.” I sat down with him at the 92nd Street Y in late 2016 to discuss his “literary thinking” on the occasion of his novel Thus Bad Begins (video of the event can be found at 92y.org). What follows is a slightly condensed version of that discussion.
The Millions: I read an interview where you talked—I’m not sure how facetiously—about writing novels for the purpose of including a few paragraphs or sentences that wouldn’t stand up on their own … where the novel is a sort of arch to hold up this one capstone. The example you gave in the interview was Tomorrow in the Battle, Think on Me. I’m wondering if there is similarly a core passage or image or set of paragraphs or images in Thus Bad Begins that you felt yourself writing around or toward … or that you began with.
Javier Marías: Well, if there is, I won’t say which one! But what I meant then, and maybe it’s true sometimes, is that most novelists … or, that would be presumptuous on my part, at least the kind of novelist I am, and maybe others too, often think (of course, you’re never able to judge what you do) that there are a few paragraphs or a couple of pages that are better than the rest.
In my case, I usually think—and I may be mistaken, of course—of some paragraphs which are slightly lyrical, or they contain a digression or a reflection or a short meditation, maybe it’s even half a page or something, sometimes a little more … and you are rather satisfied with that. You say, “This is the gist.” The gist of the novel? You can say that?
TM: I think so. I think you can say that: the gist.
JM: I mean that when the novel is more or less finished, there is sometimes the thought, “Well, now I realize”—at least, in my case; I’m speaking always for myself, obviously—“that because of these paragraphs, I wrote this novel. Because of this couple of pages, for instance. I realize that now.” And then sometimes you think—because I’m not a poet, I don’t write poetry, never wrote poetry, not even when I was a young man or a teenager—you say, “But I had to surround this with something else, with something huge, with an architecture to hold it, to make it acceptable. What I want is the reader mainly to look at these pages, but I have to distract him or her with stories, plots, dialogues—”
TM: All that stuff.
JM: All that stuff. But that is something you realize when you finish the novel—it’s not something that you have in your mind previously.
TM: I see. So you’re speaking of those paragraphs for which you realize, in the end, “All along I was moving toward this …”
JM: In a way, yes. But it’s not a premeditated thing to do. That would be … vile, I suppose. But sometimes you say [later], well, yeah, the justification for this whole thing is these two pages.
TM: You you spoke of plot and character and “all that stuff” … and I wanted to talk about one of those things, one of those novelistic things that keeps readers reading, which is the degree—especially in your novels—the degree of suspense generated. Often when I’m reading you, even before I know what the question is, I feel myself waiting to get to the answer. I remember reading The Infatuations, the moment when Maria is going to the door to eavesdrop, and I was reading as though I were in a movie theater, covering my eyes. You know, “Don’t go to that door!” I’m wondering how cognizant you are of the pulse of suspense as you’re writing—whether this is something that just comes very naturally to you, or whether it’s an epiphenomenon of your style, or whether you actually do a lot of editing and revising—of scheming.
JM: Oh, no, not really. My method for writing is a very suicidal one.
TM: All methods for writing are suicidal ones.
JM: Probably, but you feel more suicidal over the one you chose. Or the one that chose you …
You know, one of the problems with novelists is that we never learn the job. We never learn it! I mean in the sense that other people do. A professor goes to give his lesson after 40 years—as is my case; I published my first novel when I was 19, which was over 40 years ago—and the teacher knows he will give a good lesson, or at least a decent one. And he will do it with ease. And the carpenter who’s been making tables for 40 years or whatever knows he will succeed with the next table. But a novelist doesn’t know that at all!
TM: Do you have a moment where you sit down to write the next book and you think you must have learned something last time?
JM: No, no, you learn you haven’t learned anything! And even if some of the previous books have been praised, and people have enjoyed them and all that, not even that is reassuring, in my case, because it’s “Oh, well, yeah, I was lucky with that one.” Or “People were misled!” Or something. But that doesn’t guarantee anything for this one that I’m starting now.
But what I was going to say is that my usual way … Well, as I’ve said on many occasions, there are of course all kinds of writers, but … There are some who write with a map, as it were. That is, they know exactly … or with a chart.
TM: I hate those people. I don’t understand them at all.
JM: No, no … why should you hate them? I mean, all methods depend on the result … But before they start a novel, they have the full story in their mind, they know exactly what’s going to happen to every character, and when, et cetera, et cetera, which is certainly not my case. I think that if I knew a complete story before I started writing a novel, I wouldn’t write it, because I’d say, “What a bore!”
I like to find out as I write. I’ve mentioned on many occasions before that the word “invent,” which is the same in English and Spanish and many other languages, “inventar” in Spanish, comes from Latin, “invenire.” And “invenire” originally, in Latin, meant to find out, to discover. And so to invent—in our sense, in English or in Spanish—has to do, etymologically at least, with the idea of finding out—which is what I like to do.
I start writing with a compass. I don’t have a map. I just have a compass. So I’m heading north, as it were. I know more or less where I would like to go, but I don’t know the way, not at all. And I don’t even know whether I shall find a desert in the middle or a cliff, or a river, or a jungle, or what. I must cross them as I find them. Whereas the one with a map knows that he will find the jungle and the desert and the cliff—but he knows beforehand, and he knows very well when and how.
And then the thing is that I don’t know exactly how I do my novels. Every time, I realize I don’t know how a novel is written. I don’t know how other people write them, and in fact, I don’t know how I write them myself. All of a sudden you happen to have 300 or 400 or even 500 pages, and say, “Oh. This looks like a novel.” But I work page by page. I never make a draft of five or 10 pages in a row. Never. I make one page, I work on that—I still use a typewriter—and then I take out the piece of paper and I make corrections by hand and erase things, add arrows and suppressions and additions and everything. Then I retype it again, once, twice, three times, four times—five times, sometimes—until I think, “Well, I can’t do it better than this.” Or “I’m tired,” which is also possible. And then that page generally goes to the printer like that. One page after another.
And I never reread the whole thing until the novel is finished. Because I’ve been saying, “Oh, come on. I have 200 pages now. Shall I reread them? What if I found them awful? Now the whole thing would be ruined. And I wouldn’t have the faith to go on.” So I won’t read them. And just one by one, one by one, each as if it were the only one, I concentrate on that one page, I do it as best I can, but it has no real relationship to the next one or to the previous one, so to me it is rather mysterious that in the end, as some readers, very kind readers, have told me—some of them even say, “I couldn’t put it down”—“Your novels are so seamless!” And I say, “Oh, dear me, it’s exactly the opposite.”
TM: I think the reason I said I hate the map people is that I have this idea that the map people aren’t suicidal. And that it’s the compass people who are going, I have no idea how to—
JM: No, they are [suicidal], too.
TM: OK. Well, that’s reassuring.
JM: No, they are, too, because there is one thing that plays against them, I think. Which is, because of their knowing exactly what’s going to happen throughout the novel, or what suspense they will need at a given moment, they are more predictable. And sometimes they don’t realize that, because they already know the ending, the reader can get the ending much easier than in the novels of the writers with only a compass, who have improvised, who didn’t know the ending, even 30 pages from the end. I remember I wrote a short novel in 1986, in which I was 30 pages from the end and didn’t even know who was going to die, or if anyone was going to die. And I had to decide: “Shall I make him die?” Now it seems impossible that someone else would die instead of the one who did die, but of course, a long time has elapsed …
And by the way, if you’ll allow me, I think it’s worth talking [more] about that. I think it’s one of the reasons why we still write and read fiction … I wrote a few years ago a speech that was on telling, and what I said was that telling is very difficult, and that telling actual things is almost impossible—for a historian, for instance. A historian tells facts, as much as he knows about them, but some other historian may come along and contradict him or her, and say, “No, no, no, you’re not right.” Or say, for instance, “We have just discovered a bunch of letters from Napoleon, and that makes the story completely different …” Even when we tell something that we just witnessed, an incident that happened this morning on the way to our job, on the subway, for instance … and you say, “Well, I saw this man striking that other man,” and you start telling something very simple, and then if someone else is with you who witnessed the scene, they say, “Wait a minute, you came late to the scene, because what you didn’t see, I saw. I had a better angle. It’s that the beaten man provoked the other one,” and so on. So nothing is very certain …Telling with words is very difficult. Everything can be denied, everything can be contradicted.
And I think that one of the reasons we write and read novels is that in a way we need something, even if it’s fictional, even if it never did happen, to be told once and for good, once and forever. And the only thing that no one can contradict or deny is fiction. I mean, Madame Bovary died the way she did. And no one can come and say, “Oh, I disagree. She didn’t die.” Or “She stabbed herself.”
TM: “She faked her death.”
JM: No one can say that. So Madame Bovary did die, died the way Flaubert decided, and that’s the end of it! No one can contradict it. And even if it’s fiction, even if she didn’t really exist, we need the security, or the comfort, of something told for sure, once and for all. And something not told forever, as well—for you must have in mind that what is not told in a novel shall never be told by anyone … What is told is told forever, what is not told shall never be. No?
TM: No, this sounds plausible to me. It’s like: The only thing we can believe in is what’s completely made up.
JM: Yes. But at least we have a full story, you know?
TM: And your father was a philosopher, is that right?
JM: Ortega y Gasset’s main disciple, yes.
TM: And so I wanted to ask you finally: There’s almost a philosophical world in which your fiction takes place, preoccupations with eternity, and infinity, and variation and the impossibility of variation, with, you know, what’s about to happen, what can never happen, everything has already happened. Have you been thinking about these things more or less your whole life, or was there a moment in your writing life where you thought, a-ha! “This should come into my work.”
JM: I don’t think my novels are philosophical at all, precisely because my father was a philosopher and I know … that there is a huge difference between what a novelist can do and what a philosopher does, to begin with.
What I do, I think, is a different thing, and I’m not the only one to do it—in the past, many of us did it—which is what you might call, and what I have called often, literary thinking. Which has nothing to do with thinking about literature, that would be boring, it’s thinking literarily of things.
I mean, you have all kinds of thinking, religious thinking, scientifical thinking, philosophical thinking, of course, psychoanalytic, whatever …all kinds of thinking. There is a literary way of thinking, as well. And it has some advantages, in comparison with philosophy, for instance. One of those things is when you all of a sudden say something in a novel that the reader recognizes as something truthful … I’ve often used the word “recognition” for novels. I think one of the things that moves me most as a reader is when I find a scene or a meditation or an observation in a novel and I recognize it and say, “Yes, yes, this is true. I have experienced this, but I didn’t know that I knew it, until I’ve seen it said by Proust.” Of course, he’s the master of that, or Shakespeare, as well. And then, [in a novel] you can say these things in a very arbitrary way. They are like flashes. Whereas philosophers—or at least the old philosophers—need to demonstrate the principle, need to demonstrate step by step what a novelist doesn’t.
On the contrary, a novelist just throws something, throws a true sentence, or a true observation. Someone who reads it may feel it’s true precisely because he recognizes something he didn’t know he knew. But he recognizes it and says, “I’ve experienced that.” And I think that’s quite a different thing. To answer your question, it’s not something that I already decided, “Oh, this could be useful for my novels.” No, I don’t look for subjects for my novels. For the last 30 years, I usually write on the same things that concern me in my life. And the things that make me think. And some of them are, for instance, secrecy, treason, friendship, betrayal … the impossibility of knowing anything for certain.
This year I have been keeping a list. The first book I read was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. A friend recommended it and she was right. This slim novel is very funny. I went on to read more books by Muriel Spark, like The Finishing School and The Driver’s Seat. I remember trying to read Memento Mori at a café with a woman I had a crush on, and I couldn’t read it. I stared down at the same page for an hour. I’m sure it’s a good book!
By the summer, I was living in a sublet in Brooklyn. In that shabby room crowded with mood boards and Zen trinkets, I read The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh, a grotesque, startling vision of contemporary life on this planet, and The Answers by Catherine Lacey, a gorgeous and incisive account of people struggling to answer impossible questions about what it means to be a flawed human in relation to other flawed humans.
A couple months ago, I moved from a sublet in Brooklyn to a place in Ditmas Park. I read Taipei by Tao Lin, which is one of the most uncomfortable and awkward books I’ve ever encountered. It moved me. I adore it.
My friend Brandon Shimoda, a poet, sent me his journal. He printed it out and mailed it to me in a priority envelope. He writes about dreams, walking, his impressions of people on the bus, etc. Sample entry: “Couldn’t care less about poetry or its mind, I just want to make things out of trash and give it all away.”
And finally: Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard. Sarah Gerard is a writer who also happens to be a detective, an intellectual, and a hobo. Her collection of essays about Florida, religion, friendship, sex, and eccentric people and their questionable activities made me perceive the world in a different way. I fell in love with her, so I might be kind of biased.
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I’ve had a good year in reading, mostly because I’ve been traveling a lot and have developed a habit of reading obsessively in airports and airplanes. In January I read Josephine Rowe’s debut novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal, and Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, and was deeply moved by both. Both are little marvels of elegance and concision.
Three of the five books I read in February warranted a little star next to the title in the notebook where I keep track of books I’ve read. Javier Marías’s A Heart So White is essentially a ghost story, except that thing that’s haunted isn’t a house or a landscape or even particularly a person; the thing that’s haunted is somehow the entire institution of marriage, and I’m still unsettled by the thought of it. I think that Ali Smith’s Autumn is her best work to date, and I’ve loved almost all of them. Autumn is utterly of this era, the first post-Brexit novel I’ve read, and yet I think it has a rare quality of timelessness, in that I am certain I’ll still find it moving and fascinating 20 years from now. Dan Chaon’s Ill Will is the creepiest book I’ve ever read, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s the kind of book that grabs you by the throat.
My favorite book of March was Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments. It’s slim and deadly. Her idea was that it might be interesting to write a book comprised solely of the quotable sentences that one underlines in more ordinary books. I found this book quite useful. When one of my European publishers sent me a proposed jacket image over the summer that involved a young woman strutting down a post-apocalyptic road with a come-hither look, dressed in a bustier and form-fitting jean shorts, I sent them this section from 300 Arguments:
After I submitted the final draft of my book about a train-track suicide, the art department produced sketches for my book cover: a needle and a long skein of red thread; a length of fluffy pinkish lace; a yellow hand mirror lying on a patch of green grass. I gave my editor a note for the designers, and the next day they delivered a perfect cover design: a photograph of the book’s subject, a man sitting on a train. This was the note: Pretend this book was written by a man.
(My publisher responded with the same jacket image, except with the girl Photoshopped out, so that the image was just an empty landscape. Fine.)
In April I read and loved Sherri L. Smith’s Orleans. I don’t read much YA, but we were about to do an event together and it was a rare moment where I was a) doing an event with another author and b) actually had time to read said author’s book. It’s a devastating and beautifully written book. The imagery stays with me.
My favorite book of May was Adam Johnson’s short story collection Fortune Smiles, which includes one of the best ghost stories I’ve ever read. I spent a pleasurable July reading everything ever published by Nicole Krauss, in order to familiarize myself with her body of work before I reviewed her spectacular Forest Dark for the Guardian. August was unremarkable, book-wise, but in September I read Nick Harkaway’s wonderful Gnomon, and then James Smythe’s gorgeous and haunting I Still Dream the month after that. Gnomon and I Still Dream are in an AI-paranoia genre that I’ve been seeing more and more frequently, with plots wherein the nature of reality is slippery.
As I write this, November isn’t over yet, but the books that have most impressed me this month are Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman and Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. The novels are in no way similar, except in their authors’ impeccable control over their material.
I’ve saved June for last, because in June I read Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. I encountered the book in Montreal. I go to Montreal only under duress or when I think it will be especially helpful to my Quebec publisher, because I lived there 15 years ago, and living in that city as an Anglophone was so unpleasant that I fall into an automatic depression every time I return. People are nice to me now when I go there, no one spits at me on the street for speaking English the way that one guy did 15 years ago, I no longer see anti-English graffiti on the street, I speak French well enough now to order a coffee en français and therefore other customers in line don’t glare at me, I no longer have the kind of job where I need to worry about the Language Police, and I care much less about whether or not people like me than I did when I was 23, but one’s first impression of a place can be indelible.
In the spring I was in Montreal for 24 hours, and at the hotel between interviews, my Quebec publisher showed me a book that pierced my haze of unhappiness: My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is a dazzling graphic novel, a story about growing up poor in 1960s Chicago that’s also a Weimar Republic horror story and a meditation on monsters, on what it means to be different, on family and love. “This book will change the genre,” my publisher said, and I don’t know enough about the graphic novel genre to confirm or deny this, but I do know that the book changed me. I left the city with the sense of having encountered something truly extraordinary. Sometimes you read a book and you think, Oh. This is what a book can be.
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As if to mark the new year, or as if preemptively depressed by the brutal lows and snows of the months to come, our thermostat suffered a nervous breakdown in the first weeks of 2015. The new normal was 63 degrees Fahrenheit. I’d wake before dawn, put on long johns, pants, fleece, and hat, and sit down at my desk, between north-facing windows, trying to start something new. The phrase “rough draft” took on a new meaning. As did the phrase “starting cold.” By noon — an interval during which I’d moved only to shower and take the kids to school and re-wrap myself in a horse blanket — my fingers and nose were phantom appendages. Looking back on this now, though, I feel a surge of warmth. Why? Because every afternoon, after a late lunch, I’d fire up the space heater in the living room and sprawl in a patch of sun and return to an imagined Italy.
I’d begun Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels with a rationing plan: one volume for each season of the year, to culminate with the publication of the fourth and final installment in September. But a week after I finished Volume 1, that plan went all to hell. More than Lila and Lenù (heroines, antagonists, entangled particles), I missed the volcanic energy they generated together. Nothing else I tried to read seemed quite as vivid. So I dipped into Volume 2 — just a few pages, I told myself. And then when I reached the end, I didn’t even pretend to wait to begin Volume 3. At various times, in the empty house, I caught myself talking back to the page. “Wake up, Lenù!” “Don’t open that door!” “Oh, no, she didn’t!” Oh, yes, she did.
The only not-fun part of binge-reading the Neapolitan series was running out of pages before the end — which, by mid-February, I had. I felt like Wile E. Coyote, having raced out over a canyon, legs still churning, but with nothing left beneath. Eventually, I found a different kind of escape: Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, a dreamy 19th-century Russian novel where, basically, nothing happens. Rather than distract me from my snowbound state, this novel seemed to mirror it. For the first 100 pages, Oblomov, our hero, can’t even get out of bed. He’s an archetype of inanition, a Slavic Bartleby, but with a gentleness of spirit that’s closer to The Big Lebowski. He falls in love, screws it up, gets rooked by friends and enemies…and hardly has to change his dressing gown.
Sufficiently cooled from Ferrante fever, I moved on to Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, from 1979. I’ve taught (and admired) Hardwick’s essays, but was somehow unprepared for this novel. Fans often mention it in the company of Renata Adler’s Speedboat and Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, with which it shares a jagged, elliptical construction and a quality of nervy restraint. But where the fragments of Adler and Didion suggest (for me, anyway), a kind of schizoid present-tense, Hardwick’s novel is as swinging and stately as a song by her beloved Billie Holiday, ringing “glittering, somber, and solitary” changes from remembered joy and pain.
As the glaciers beyond my windows melted to something more shovel-ready, I began to fantasize about a piece called “In Praise of Small Things.” At the top of the list, along with the Hardwick, would go Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, the story of a Western railroad worker around the turn of the last century. I’m still a sucker for full, Ferrante-style immersion (favorite Westerns include The Border Trilogy, Lonesome Dove, and A Fistful of Dollars), but to deliver an entire life in a single sitting, as Johnson does, seems closer to magic than to art. Train Dreams is just about perfect, in the way only a short novel can be.
Then again, I also (finally) tackled The Satanic Verses this year, and caught myself thinking that perfection would have marred it. The book is loose, ample, brimful — at times bubbling over with passion. Another way of saying this is that it’s Salman Rushdie’s most generous novel. The language is often amazing. And frankly, that the fatwa now overshadows the work it meant to rub out is a compound injustice; many of the novel’s most nuanced moments, its most real and human moments, involve precisely those issues of belief and politics and belonging Rushdie was accused of caricaturing. Also: the shaving scene made me cry.
Though by that point spring had my blood up. Maybe that’s why I was so ready for Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Or maybe it was the return to Italy. Either way, this turned out to be one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read. As with Hardwick, the mode is elegy, but here all is expansion, sumptuousness, texture: the fading way of life of an endearingly self-regarding 19th-century aristocrat, ambered in slow, rich prose (in Archibald Colquhoun’s translation): “In a corner the gold of an acacia tree introduced a sudden note of gaiety. Every sod seemed to exude a yearning for beauty soon muted by languor.” And by the time I finished, gardens were blooming and buzzing around me, too.
I woke the morning after our Fourth of July party to find that a guest had left a gift: Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Mary Norris’s memoir of life in the copy department of The New Yorker. We headed to the beach, on the theory that saltwater is an antidote to hangover. But I ended up spending most of the afternoon on a towel, baking, giggling, geeking out over grammar and New Yorker trivia. What kind of magazine keeps a writer this engaging in the copy department? I wondered. On the other hand: what are the odds that a grammarian this scrupulous would be such a freewheeling confidante?
I don’t think of myself as a memoir guy, but (appetite whetted by the Comma Queen), I ran out a few weeks later to buy a brand new copy of William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days — a book I’d been waiting to read since first encountering an excerpt a decade ago. Finnegan is a brilliant reporter, and the core material here — his life of peripatetic adventuring in the 1970s — seems, as material goes, unimprovable. Around it, he builds a narrative that is at once meticulously concrete and wonderfully, elusively metaphorical. Even if you don’t know or care about surfing, the whole thing starts to seem like some kind of parable. Which may be true of most good sports writing…
And speaking of brilliant reporting: in early August, I plucked a copy of David Simon and Ed Burns’s The Corner from the giveaway pile on someone’s stoop. It’s exhaustive — almost 600 pages, and none of the broad strokes, in 2015, should come as news. Yet its account of individual struggle and systemic failure in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore is nonetheless enraging, because so little seems to have changed since the book’s publication in 1997. I found myself wanting to send a copy to every newsroom in the country. Here on the page are causes; there in the paper years later, effects.
It would take a week of vacation and newspaper-avoidance in Maine to remind me of how urgent fiction can be, too — or of the value of the different kind of news it brings. I read A Sport and a Pastime. I read Double Indemnity. I read The House of Mirth. And I fell into — utterly into — Javier Marías’s A Heart So White. This novel has some similarities with The Infatuations, which I wrote about last year; Marías works from a recipe (one part Hitchcock-y suspense, one part Sebaldian fugue, one part sly humor) that sounds, on paper, like a doomed thought experiment. Yet somehow every time I read one of his novels, I feel lit up, viscerally transfixed. And A Heart So White is, I think, a masterpiece.
This October, I published a novel. And I came to suspect that prepub jitters had been shaping both my reading and my writing all year, from those cold dark starts in January to my lean toward nonfiction in the summer. Anyway, some admixture of vacation and publication (the phrase “release date” takes on a whole new meaning) seemed to cleanse the windows of perception, because I spent most of the fall catching up on — and enjoying — recent books I’d missed. Preparation for the Next Life, for example, was love at fist page; if you’d told me Atticus Lish was another of Don DeLillo’s pseudonyms, like Cleo Birdwell, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. Yet an eccentric and (one feels) highly personal sense of the particular and the universal colors the prose, and Lish doesn’t let sentimentalism scare him away from sentiment. His milieu of hardscrabble immigrants and natives jostling in Flushing, Queens, feels both up-to-the-minute and likely to endure. Someone should Secret-Santa a copy to Donald Trump.
Another contemporary novel I loved this fall was actually more of a novella — another small, good thing. Called Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it’s the first published work of fiction by a young Englishman named Max Porter. It follows a father of two through the year after the death of his wife. The chapters are compressed, poetic vignettes that evoke the chimera of grief through suggestion and indirection. And then, more evocative still: the arrival of a giant, metempsychotic raven straight out of Ted Hughes’s Crow. You quickly forget that the book is weird as hell, because it is also beautiful as hell, moving as hell, and funny as hell.
In late October, I got to spend a week in the U.K., and decided to pack London Fields. A boring choice, I know, but I’d been shuttling from here to there for a few weeks, and needed to be pinned down in some specific, preferably Technicolor, place. London Fields didn’t let me down. The metafictional schema shouldn’t work, but does. And more importantly, a quarter century after its publication (and 15 years on from the pre-millennial tension it depicts), the prose still bristles, jostles, offends freely, shoots off sparks. The picture of the world on offer is bleak, yes. Yet in surprise, in pleasure, in truthfulness, almost every sentence surpasses the last. This book is now my favorite Martin Amis. I wouldn’t trade it for love or Money.
As synchronicity goes, M Train on a plane may not quite match London Fields in London, but Patti Smith’s new book remains one of the best reading experiences I had this year. Like Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it is elliptical and fragmentary, weird and beautiful, and, at its core, a reckoning with loss. Much has been made of the book’s seeming spontaneity, its diaristic drift. But as the echoes among its discrete episodes pile up, it starts to resonate like a poem. At one point, Smith writes about W.G. Sebald, and there are affinities with The Emigrants in the way M Train circles around a tragedy, or constellation of tragedies, pointing rather than naming. It is formally a riskier book than the comparatively straight-ahead Just Kids, but a worthy companion piece. And that Patti Smith is still taking on these big artistic dares in 2015 should inspire anyone who longs to make art. In this way, and because it is partly a book about reading other books — how a life is made of volumes— it seems like a fitting way to turn the page on one year in reading, and to welcome in another.
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Maria Dolz sees the same couple at the same café in the same city, Madrid, nearly every morning. “[T]he sight of them together” calmed her, and provided her “with a vision of an orderly or, if you prefer, harmonious world.” Maria works for a book publisher, where she often must deal with vain and pretentious authors — including one who is so infatuated with the Nobel Prize that he has already prepared an acceptance speech in Swedish. She is somewhere just south of 40, and has not married. To her, the couple was the ideal form of love, a couple who unselfconsciously enjoyed every second in each other’s presence. “[I] didn’t regard them with envy, not at all,” Maria says, “but with a feeling of relief that in the real world there could exist what I believed to be a perfect couple.”
But then the husband, Miguel Desvern, is murdered violently by a deranged homeless man, who raves about his daughters’ forced prostitution and wildly accuses Desvern of taking his inheritance. Thus ends the tranquil preprandial café moments — although the murder is less jarring (for Maria) than its aftermath. After another encounter with Miguel’s wife, Luisa, Maria strikes up a small friendship. Maria also begins seeing Javier Diaz-Verela, a friend of the couple’s; their relationship forms the core of Spanish author Javier Marías’s 12th novel, The Infatuations.
If you have been paying attention, you have noticed this is a book by a man named Javier Marías that features a complicated story of Javier and Maria. And if you knew Javier Marías’s work, this type of tongue-in-cheek wordplay would not be surprising: While The Infatuations contains strong elements of its author’s biography — Marías’s own life is often a motif in his fiction — it is not autobiographical. His novels “dare us — subtly here, grandly there — to mistake the narrator for the author himself,” Wyatt Mason has written. “Marías seems to be saying, what we believe — and what is believed about us — is where the trouble begins.”
As The Infatuations opens, Maria Dolz believes, it seems, in love — or “true love,” as the way we often refer to it — of a “perfect couple.” And that was precisely the start of a catastrophe.
Javier Marías may be the only significant working writer to also be a king. As the sovereign of Redonda (a small, rocky island north of Montserrat and west of Antigua), Marías is the honorary (“void of content,” in his words) monarch. His two-decade reign has nearly entirely consisted of bestowing titles on various artists — John Ashbery is the Duke of Convexo, for example — as part of an effort at tongue-in-cheek recognition.
Marías does not take it seriously, but the title of “king,” in some ways, feels apt. The cover of The Infatuations notes striking praise for the author from heavyweights J.M. Coetzee (“one of the best contemporary European writers”), Roberto Bolaño (“By far Spain’s best writer today”) and Orhan Pamuk (Marías “should get the Nobel Prize”). His books have sold more than 6.5 million copies throughout the world, and have been translated into 42 languages, yet neither my local libraries nor any hometown shop — independent bookstore or Barnes & Noble — carried any of his titles, and even the state university’s large library only had a handful of his books, mostly in Spanish. Marías may be royalty, but in the United States he remains nearly as obscure as Redonda.
Nearly the moment after Marías’s birth, his father, Julián, a philosopher, moved from Madrid to Massachusetts for a teaching job at Wellesley, while Marías, his mother, and his older brothers moved shortly thereafter. Marías would spend chunks of his childhood in the United States, where his first novel, completed before he turned 21, was set; but he eventually went on to study English at Complutense University in Madrid. After two novels, he turned to translation for a half-dozen years. His work — Spanish versions of Sir Thomas Browne, Laurence Sterne, and William Faulkner, for example — seems to be a guide to his subsequent fiction. For a period he taught translation theory at Oxford, where his novel All Souls takes place. It is difficult to understate how fundamental translation (as a concept) is to reading Marías, and that is perhaps one reason why reading him in English seems almost as fitting as the original Spanish; indeed, his work, in its original language, has been criticized as “sound[ing] like translations,” because, among other things, it lacks much distinct Spanish-ness, no (in Marias’s words) “bullfighting, no passionate women.” To Marias, sounding like a translation was praise, even if it was meant as an insult. “One of the things I didn’t want to be was what they call a ‘real Spanish writer.'”
A translator is a “privileged reader and a privileged writer,” Marías has said. “[I]f I ever had my own creative writing school I would only admit people who could translate, and I would make them do it over and over again.” The narrator of A Heart So White is a translator, for example; the narrator of Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow trilogy is an “interpreter of people,” who is asked to establish if a person would lie or kill in the future. Translation is, in typical Marías fashion, an allusion to his biography: the author’s own mother, in fact, was also a translator.
Marías’s other narrators are frequently interpreters by another name, who occupy themselves interpreting and translating, from Juan’s obsessive interpretations of his wife’s small gestures in A Heart So White, to Victor’s ghostwriting in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, to Maria’s attempts at deciphering words not being said by feminine lips of Javier Diaz-Verela in The Infatuations. It is a fundamental human occupation, Marías seems to be conveying, prone to gaps and misses. “[A]ll the valuable information to which people imagine we translators and interpreters working in international organizations are privy,” Juan says, “in fact, escapes us completely, from beginning to end, from top to bottom, we haven’t a clue about what’s brewing or being plotted and planned in the world, not the slightest glimmer.”
As a regular columnist for El Pais, Marías has opined on a huge range of topics. Perhaps having to produce so much copy, and so often, has rendered him to strikingly straightforward and eloquent — in virtually any interview — about his process and his books, although one suspects that Marías possesses such grace naturally. He seems to understand his own writing — which often seems effortless, and never showy — better than anyone. He is a retort to Barthes: the author, in other words, is not dead, but a key to the entire process. “A novel is a more savage and wild thing in the sense that you can say anything, and your narrators or characters can say anything,” Marías has said. “Yet it still arrives at a kind of truth.”
The truth that The Infatuations arrives at, if it does, is a most uncomfortable and perplexing one.
Perhaps the only thing wrong with The Infatuations is its title. In Spanish, it is Los Enamoramientos, which could also be translated as “crushes,” but which is defined in the novel — in a long speech of Javier Diaz-Varela — as the “state of falling or being in love.” Of course, the title is one of the vagaries of translation — how fitting for a Marías novel — since “enamoramiento” cannot be easily translated into English. If, in English, there had been a noun form for “to be enamored with,” perhaps that would have worked best; still, “infatuation” manages well enough.
The book probes what defines the boundary between love and infatuation, and how often both can be on shaky ground. Our lives are “very limited in our choices of partner by location, class, history and who is willing to accept our advances,” Marías said, talking about the novel. “How many times are we not the first choice? Or even the second, or the third?”
This is rather a disturbing notion, after all; many hardened atheists still believe in love or perhaps a version of a soulmate, and most often it seems it’s the religiously devout who remain unmarried. The Infatuations purposefully attempts to suggest imperfect, impure love is more common than is ever spoken. Javier tells Maria that she is not in love with him, as she claims, and that “even the most transient and trivial of infatuations lack any real cause, and that’s even truer of feelings that go far deeper, infinitely deeper than that.” In this way, human affection seems tantamount to human hatred, such as the homeless man’s killing of Miguel: causeless, random, the product of inward self-obsessions instead of the outward direction of the self. (Perhaps that was hinted by “Maria” falling for “Javier,” as they are both just the creations of Javier Marías.)
But maybe this depressing suggestion is just Marias speaking out of both sides of his mouth — what he has called *pensamiento literario*, or “literary thinking,” a way of thinking that lets the writer contradict himself. In The Infatuations, we have the possibility that perhaps life, unlike the novel, is quite a different, more complicated thing, and the jaded notions of manipulations and cynicism apparent to Maria are simply products of her bitter worldview: “…no novel would ever dare give houseroom to the infinite number of chances and coincidences that can occur in a single lifetime,” Maria thinks at one point, “let alone those that have already occurred and continue to occur. It’s quite shameful the way reality imposes no limits on itself.” It’s shameful to Maria, but perhaps it is hopeful for the rest of us.
Beyond the interesting ideas his work draws on, Marías’s novels are simply a pleasure to read — they possess the sort of flat, hypnotic quality of the prose of W.G. Sebald, who, along with Marías, can make anything seem interesting. Marias’s sentences — like Sebald’s — are long, and feature lots of commas, where thoughts appear and pop up and then disappear, building and strengthening, and often the sentences contains strings of complex and compound ideas, much like this sentence, as the author burrows further and further into particular moments, stretching them out for pages. His novels contain what Marías calls “a system of echoes or resonances,” or ideas, motifs, details, which the story keeps revisiting. Sometimes these are literary touchstones — in The Infatuations, Maria keeps coming back to bits of Balzac and Dumas, while in A Heart So White it is Macbeth — and other times they are bits of distinct dialogue or details (such as Diaz-Verela’s feminine lips). Perhaps because Marias does not outline his novels, these important “reoccurrences” feel organic. If there is a Chekhov’s gun, it was in the first draft.
Throughout the course of The Infatuations, Maria learns too much about Javier Diaz-Verela, too much about Luisa, too much about Miguel. The love of Luisa and Miguel, that perfect couple, is replaced with another kind of love — to say more would spoil it — that seems no less dedicated, if significantly less pure. There hardly exists, at the end of the novel, a “perfect couple,” but perhaps that feels more real. It is precisely these quandaries, contradictions, and realities that makes Marías’s fiction so good; The Infatuations, containing the qualities of Marías’s best work, is an important addition to his oeuvre.
Literature, Marías has said, “doesn’t properly illuminate things, but like the match it lets you see how much darkness there is.” The Infatuations leaves us with the unsettling possibility that the darkness is deep indeed.