on 3 March 2013
This was my introduction to the well-known Spanish author, Javier Marías. The Man of Feeling is a slim novel, first published in 1986, published in English in an elegant, careful translation by Margaret Jull Costa. It's a story that's essentially about love but the way love is explored, thought about and presented is highly original and a pleasure to read.
What I most enjoyed is the way the love story at the heart of the novel is looked at, first from a future moment, through a dream, that is, looking back, remembering, restructuring what happened. And secondly, the love story is thought about in anticipation, before it begins; so it's imagined, dreamt about- again- longed for. The love story itself, the actual (if it ever occurs, I'll leave that open for the reader to discover) relationship between Natalia & the opera singer is a question mark, left for us to imagine. Marías uses W. Hazlitt's words at the beginning to spell this out: `I think myself into love, and dream myself out of it'. The novel is essentially about exactly this: how we imagine ourselves into love, then live through the love affair itself (if / when we do) and then finally dream about it, recollect it and put an end to it (or not).
The plot: on a train journey from Paris to Madrid an opera singer, who's at the limit of becoming bored and tired from a life of constant travel, despite the luxuries it offers, becomes absorbed in the sight of what seems a strange trio: two men and a woman, travelling together, sitting in the same compartment as him. He notices the woman and remembers her, even though she's asleep at the time. However, he saw something in her that caught his interest: `I saw that the sleeping woman was, how can I put it, afflicted'. The singer, in Madrid now, finds himself involved with this trio in various ways, some of which he only comes to understand later, some of which only in retrospect.
An interesting question which the reader can think about is- who is the `man of feeling' in the book's title. Only after closing this novel was I able to get a better idea about this, and the answer is surprising and very moving.
To summarise, this is a subtle, complex, skilfully written, dense, thoughtful book; it's more about thinking of love than about love itself.
A note: Marías' sentences are very long, meandering, labyrinthine sometimes. It's something I came to be used to while reading this & even came to enjoy, but I'm warning the potential reader to take it slow while reading `The man of feeling'.