Book Review: While the Women are Sleeping (Javier Marías)

Javier Marías writes at length: by which I mean the span of his written body of work and the extent of some of his sentences. I suspect that that body of work has, in places, been re-edited, re-imagined, and re-purposed (this is surmised by way of the author’s own brief notes to this collection, but also by way of a cursory analysis of his rather consistent style over the thirty year period that contains the ten stories here). However, despite the overall readability of Marías’ work in this collection, it would appear that the establishment of his ‘name’, in the eyes of the publishers, has henceforth done away with the necessity to edit some of those brutally long sentence structures.

While the Women are Sleeping, published in 2011 (English translation from the original Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa), is a collection of stories of various length which span a writing period between 1968 and 1998. Marías asks the reader in his notes to ‘be kind, please’ regarding the story titled The Life and Death of Marcelino Iturriaga (originally published in El Noticiero, 1968). This is, in fact, a story written by the fourteen year old Marías in 1965. It is short and perfectly readable, concerning the brief life and dull existence (and ultimately dull after life existence) of its eponymous narrator. There is very little to suggest the writing of an average fourteen year old here. So the conclusion is that either Marías was well on his way to becoming a good writer by that age, or the original manuscript has been edited to fit the later emergent body of work.

Marías notes that this story does bear resemblance to a later story, When I Was Mortal (1993), not included in this collection. This practice of writing on writing, as it were, is not one I’m against — in fact, I find it a useful device for development of the art form: my slight irritation here in this collection, however, is the perceived implication of ‘this is how the writing has always been’. If this is the case, then so be it; I am suspicious though because surely every writer’s quality of output will shift over time, especially over a thirty year period.

What does appear to remain more or less consistent though, in Marías’ work here, is that there are subtle suggestions of something lying beneath the surface in his stories. The narrator Iturriaga, for example, ends his story by stating (whilst lying in his coffin), ‘this is my life and death, where there is nothing.’ The title story (While the Women are Sleeping) and The Resignation Letter of Señor de Santiesteban, the two longest offerings, deal in part with time and power. There is, however, the sense that Marías wishes to convey more than just these concepts between the lines. It is this notion of ‘between the lines’ that this reader finds himself focused on, in thinking about the overall impact of this collection. Marías’ writing appears to develop from conceptual inception, but the full depth of that thinking on the author’s part doesn’t always shine through.

This is a shame because, for the large part, Marías’ writing is readable. The story titled Gualta, for example, clearly presents us with the tale (albeit not entirely believable, though we go with the flow in this instance) of a man who meets his exact doppelgänger in looks and actions. (Marías’ conceptual preoccupation is present here too). A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps (re-purposed, according to the author’s notes, by altering the title, character names and setting of a previous story due to a short deadline for a commission) tells the tale of a ghost and a reader. Lord Rendall’s Song, apparently built around a bittersweet retort in a song of that title, by the author’s account, concerns time and loss and, on the face of it, the main character’s return from war to find his wife involved with another man.

In An Epigram of Fealty there is, again on the face of it, another simple tale: this time of a bookstore manager who comes into contact with a beggar, John Gawsworth, purportedly King of Redonda and subject of allegiance, as written into a display copy of a rare pamphlet. That pamphlet, concerning rare poems by Dylan Thomas, offers a snippet of information regarding Gawsworth’s uptake of the title Juan I, King of Redonda. The story goes that Gawsworth, literary executor to the late writer M. P. Shiel, inherited the title from the latter who, it would seem, developed the idea of being king of his own small uninhabited island in the West Indies, near his birthplace. Gawsworth saw it fit, so says Marías, to name Thomas as a Duke of the realm. Marías himself became the disputed ‘King of Redonda’ following a later ‘abdication’. Redonda is an elaborate and long-lived literary fantasy and joke, it would seem.

The whole story of Gawsworth and Redonda appears, I remember, in Marías’ Dark Back of Time (Vintage, 2004, English translation by Esther Allen; Spanish original, 1988). This book itself builds on Marías’ novel, All Souls (various editions, English 1992), and the affect that that book seems to have had. It is this building on a body of work and the cross-referencing of ideas that Marías seems to take particular comfort and refuge in.

This is all an aside to the pressing concern of the collection While the Women are Sleeping. Returning to the readability, in most part, of Marías’ writing here, this is only let down by his penchant for the occasional long and convoluted sentence. One sentence in particular is 110 words in length, punctuated by multiple commas and other means of breaking it all up in order to stretch the point. It seems that, in places, Marías finds it difficult to accept the notion of the succinct. There are only two conclusions, namely: that the original Spanish lends itself better to Marías’ flow of thought and writing; or, as implied earlier in this piece, Marías has reached the point of being beyond the pull of editorial reins.

In conclusion, what While the Women are Sleeping offers is a collection that is at once readable but sometimes readable only in a quiet place (the distraction of external stimuli may well disrupt the bubble of some of Marías’ long sentences). The stories therein aren’t formed in their entirety in this way, far from it, but concentration is suggested. That too would be a skill worth considering when trying to dig down deeper into Marías’ apparent love of ‘something beneath’ the superficial, of his building on the body of work he’s amassed, and of his penchant for the fantastical and literary, such as Gawsworth and all things Redonda.

Marías writes at length, in that body of work and in his sentences: there may well be more here than meets the eye; however, Marías may well be the only one to truly see everything therein.
 
 

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