A few days after returning from her honeymoon, Teresa leaves the room in the middle of dinner, goes to the bathroom and shoots herself in the heart. Years later, in the present, as our narrator Juan is getting used to the changes brought about his own marriage, he becomes fascinated by the mystery of why Teresa killed herself. He has a personal connection – his father Ranz was married to Teresa at the time and later married her sister Juana, Juan's mother. So Teresa would have been Juan's aunt – though had she lived, of course she wouldn't have been...
There are several themes going on in the book – the uncertainty of memory, the inability to forget something once heard, the increasing unknowableness of truth when stories are relayed from person to person. Both Juan and his wife Luisa are interpreters and the sections where Juan talks about listening and conveying meaning are fascinating. The title is a reference to Macbeth, specifically to Lady Macbeth's reaction on being told of Duncan's murder, illustrating a major theme - the complicity forced upon someone to whom a tale is told. Marías is also playing with the idea that events that are major in the present fade into insignificance as time passes, so that eventually all will be the same whether an event happened or didn't. An interesting thought.
In fact, there are lots of interesting thoughts hidden in Marías' prose – well hidden. This is yet another in what seems to be becoming my accidental theme of the year – stream of consciousness novels or, as I prefer to call them, badly punctuated. I admit this one is nowhere near as bad as Absalom! Absalom! But it's up there with Mrs Dalloway for sure, although Marías does at least manage eventually to get to the end of his sentences without completely losing track of where he was heading. There is no doubt that this style of writing lends the prose an air of profundity which, once one breaks the sentences down into their constituent parts, often evaporates, as one realises that the difficulty of comprehension is due not so much to the complexity of the ideas as the complexity of the sentence structure.
Another recurring feature of the few stream of consciousness novels I have waded through (or not, as the case may be) is the constant repetitiveness that the authors tend to employ, as if somehow repeating a thing a few dozen times will make it more meaningful. Perhaps it does, if one likes this style of writing – for me, it simply makes it tedious. An idea that intrigues on first mention requires expansion rather than repetition to hold this reader's interest, I fear.
To be fair, I hate this style in general, but I do think Marías does it much better than most. Much of what he has to say is perceptive, as for example in this quote about getting used to being married. (The style means any quote has to be a long one, so apologies.)
"As with an illness, this “change of state” is unpredictable, it disrupts everything, or rather prevents things from going on as they did before: it means, for example, that after going out to supper or to the cinema, we can no longer go our separate ways, each to his or her own home, I can no longer drive up in my car or in a taxi to Luisa's door and drop her off and then, once I've done so, drive off alone to my apartment along the half-empty, hosed-down streets, still thinking about her and about the future. Now that we're married, when we leave the cinema our steps head off in the same direction (the echoes out of time with each other, because now there are four feet walking along), but not because I've chosen to accompany her or not even because I usually do so and it seems the correct and polite thing to do, but because our feet never hesitate outside on the damp pavement, they don't deliberate or change their mind, there’s no room for regret or even choice: now there's no doubt that we're going to the same place, whether we want to or not this particular night, or perhaps it was only last night that I didn't want to."
This is an example of both what I liked and didn't about the book. It's an interesting perspective and casts a good deal of light on Juan's uncertainty about the married state, but the style drives me up the wall even though it's one of the least waffly passages in the book.
In terms of substance, the book is pretty much plot free. There are several set-piece scenes, some of which are very well done and give an air of menace or perhaps impending doom, and illuminate Marías' themes. But nothing much actually happens. And I must admit that by the time we finally got to the stage of discovering the reason for Teresa's death, the thing had been so stretched out and the themes beaten into the reader's head so often, that I couldn't imagine anyone actually being surprised by it.
I'm sighing with frustration because there's a lot of good stuff in here. Written in normal prose, it would have made an excellent, thought-provoking novella or short novel. As it is, it's overlong, repetitive and filled with unnecessary waffle, all of which diminishes rather than adding to its impact. I found I could only read it in short sessions because the style frankly bored me into a dwam, and I would discover I'd read several pages (approximately half a paragraph) without absorbing any of it. So, recommended to people who enjoy stream of consciousness writing and not recommended to people who don't. 3½ stars for me, so rounded up.
on 17 April 2016
I read about a third and had to give up. I was expecting a lot since the author is so famous but I was completely underwhelmed. There is no plot development, the prose meanders in endless disquisitions about matters that may or may not end up being relevant to the story (but one has to have the patience to follow to the end all of the pseudo-philosophizing tirades, such as the one on the impossibility of translating adequately the speeches of politicians of different nationalities, and beyond the impossibility the very pointlessness of such an exercise, even in a fictional context such as this novel, which in spite of its occasional and mostly failed attempts at insightful commentary remains a narrative nevertheless ...) You get the idea. I fell asleep. You have to be Proust or Mann to sustain the reader with this sort of style, and Marias is far from either.
on 24 April 2008
'A Heart So White' is an emotionally-layered and incredibly nuanced yarn that explores - evidently - the human heart, its immense power and the darkness that lies therein. Page by page - almost too methodically sometimes - the book questions what love is, the lies that sustain love, and the limits to which it can drive us. Starting with the protagonist, Juan, being mistaken for some one's lover, and then overhearing a lovers' spat while caring for his new wife, who is delirious with fever, the story slowly unfurls Juan's own history, paralleling the story of the bickering lovers with that of Juan's father with a truly surprising conclusion.
Javier Marias is the kind of writer that I don't imagine would be an easy read for the typical UK reader since, for the last fifteen years or so, the average book buyer picks up sensationalist or shallow entertaining books which are promoted to death, with, of course, the odd masterpiece - like Margaret Atwood's 'The Blind Assassin' thrown in. Indeed Javier Marias may have found it hard to find a publisher if he was English, so thank god for Spanish and thank god for translation!
A Heart So White is exceptional. I read it a while ago, so the fine details do not stick with me, but I recall a powerful book, sensitively written, with immense intelligence and lovingly crafted sentences (well done to the translator!) I remember sympathetic, flawed characters, tragedy wrought excellently. It builds wonderfully, slowly, and is not a quick read: that's not to say it is difficult to ingest, it just requires patience. I remember that it has a great shock at the end. I remember that I enjoyed it immensely, found it rewarding, and recommend it to people ages after I read it. If you have a reading list, this should go on it. A major world writer.