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Book Review: While the Women Are Sleeping by Javier Marías

Guest Contributions

Our good friend Emir drops by the station with a review of a short story collection. His interests are chess, fiction, and literature. Some of his favorite authors are Fernando Pessoa, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Boris Pasternak (all lifted from his Goodreads profile).

You can visit his Goodreads profile for more of his reviews. Thank you, Emir, and we hope not to never see you again.

Ways of Looking (A review of While the Women Are Sleeping by Javier Marias)

Perhaps the best practical way to gauge a writer you do not know is to read his shorter works. You don’t want to engage a voluminous novel only to realize, after some kilometric plodding, that what you have in your hands is crap – golden, but. Its form favors the short story: it requires the writer brevity, certain exactitude. The writer must form his short story like a bomb, compact but able to blast the reader into shreds.

Guided by this idea, I read While the Women Are Sleeping by Javier Marias.

The collection of 10 short stories begins with the eponymous While the Women Are Sleeping. This is a savvy choice as it sets out the author’s intention and control. Control of what? The soul of the reader, as Poe would want a “brief tale” do.

“Seeing” is central to While the Women Are Sleeping, where the myopic narrator, a vacationer with his wife, was observing people in a beach through a straw hat.

“I would keep screwing up my eyes, reluctant to get my glasses out only to have to return them once more to their hiding place once my curiosity was satisfied. Then one day, Luisa, who knows the strangest and most insignificant things and is always surprising me with scraps of useful knowledge, passed me her straw hat—closer to hand than my hidden glasses since it was on her head—and advised me to look through its mesh. And I discovered that by peering through this screen I could see almost as well as with my contact lenses, more clearly in fact, although my field of vision was greatly reduced. From that point on, I myself must have become one of the more peculiar or eccentric beachgoers, bearing in mind that I often had a woman’s straw hat, complete with ribbons, clamped to my face with my right hand while I scanned the length and breadth of the beach near Fornells, where we were staying.”

Marias’s narrator-observer’s eyes would be drawn toward another couple, an odd-looking pair of a young lady – an idol – and a much older man, fat and bald—her worshiper. This man being observed was also observing his partner through his video camera: “he would stand on tiptoe, bend double, lie on the ground, face up and face down, take pan shots, medium shots, close-ups, tracking shots and panoramic shots, from above and from below, full face, from the side, from behind (from both sides); he filmed her inert face, her softly rounded shoulders, her voluminous breasts, her rather wide hips, her firm thighs, her far from tiny feet, her carefully painted toenails, her soles, her calves, her hairless pubis and armpits.” These observers and “recorders” look at things very differently indeed, and by the time you realize this, Marias has hooked your soul – that is, your attention – into reading his other stories.

Imagine Javier Marias as an amiable, funny, sardonic, and rather strange stranger taking you by hand in the dead of night, while the women and everyone are sleeping, to talk, to show you some things, to make you see and realize…. Marias’s stories shine light on identity, memory, and reality and question their essence.

“I never expected to find myself transformed into a bloodless William Wilson, or a portrait of Dorian Gray minus the drama, or a Jekyll whose Hyde was merely another Jekyll,” writes the narrator of Gualta, Javier Santin, upon encountering his double, named Xavier de Gualta. Javier attempts to change his looks, habits, and mannerisms – in short, himself and his life. But he’s in for a surprise.

While the Women Are Sleeping by Javier Marías

While the Women Are Sleeping by Javier Marías

In the Author’s Note for this collection, Marias explains that “Lord Rendall’s Song was first published in my anthology ‘Cuentes unicos’ (Ediciones Siruela, Madrid, 1989) in apocryphal form, that is, attributed to the English writer James Denham and purportedly translated by me. For that reason, I also included at the beginning of the story the biographical note that appeared there, since some of the facts in it contribute, tacitly, to the story itself, which would, otherwise, remain incomplete.”

Here we can already conclude the author’s interest with identity and perception of reality. In the story, a man goes home to his wife and child, saying: “I had left war and imprisonment far behind me now….” He will discover another man living his life, but what is more shocking is the dark twist in the end.

In One Night of Love, Marias fused humor and eroticism to cast a sidelong glance on man’s pretensions and suppressed emotions. The narrator speaks of his “unsatisfactory” sex life with his wife. His dead father’s lover is asking him to cremate his father’s already interred remains, a thing he doesn’t want to do and her first two letters went to the bin. Then, in the third letter, he received a promise:

“‘You can do what you like with me,’ she said, ‘whatever you can imagine or wouldn’t even dare to imagine doing to someone else. If you grant my plea to disinter and cremate your father and allow him to rejoin me, you will never forget me for as long as you live, not even when you die, because I will gobble you up, and you will gobble me up.’”

Yet another humorous take on reality, fiction, and memory, An Epigram of Fealty references an unpublished collection of three poems by Dylan Thomas, “Printed privately for the members of the Court of the Kingdom of Redonda [1953]. Thirty commemorative copies, each numbered by John Gawsworth himself. Very rare. These three poems, not listed in Rolph’s bibliography of Thomas, are testaments to the poet’s “fealty” to John Gawsworth, Juan I, King of Redonda….”

Those who have some familiarity with Marias will note that he is the reigning King of Redonda, and the story of how he came to be a royalty and the challenges to his “kingdom” by way of other claims of ownership, is in itself a case of fiction and reality bogged deep in a confused mire.

The dead, voiceless as in A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps, or narrating as in The Life and Death of Marcelino Iturriaga, or perpetually resigning from a job as in The Resignation Letter of Señor de Santiesteban, is not spared from the author’s penetrating gaze. What becomes of a person after death? And what about the life and the lives – us – they left behind? These three stories about ghosts are light strokes, backdrop to the existential focal point of Isaac’s Journey. Where were you before you were born and where are those who were never born?

“I sense that I am about to die, to set off on my final journey. What will become of me? Where will I go? Will I go anywhere? I can sense the approach of death because I have lived and was engendered, because I am still alive; death, therefore, is not perfect or all-embracing, it cannot prevent something other than itself from existing; it has to put up with the fact that something waits for it and thinks about it. Someone who has not been born or, even more so, someone who has not even been engendered or conceived is the one thing that belongs to death entirely. The person who has not been conceived dies most. He or she has travelled unceasingly along the most tortuous and labyrinthine of paths: the paths of contingency. He or she is the only one who will have neither homeland nor grave.”

I wish the collection was arranged in such a way that it ends with Isaac’s Journey; to my mind, this would have brought the reading to my favored climax and concentrated effect. But ending the book with What the Butler Said has its own justifications, and what Marias intended. Here we see a writer-narrator altering facts and withholding details to suit his purposes and even his source or subject, the reader would realize, is not at all beyond doubt.

And so we end with Doubt. Marias holds to us a mirror that somehow reflects a different person. Maybe it’s that silly grin? The crazy glint in the eyes? Whatever, in great works of literature answers are secondary to questions and uncertainty.

Somewhere in Madrid, Marias owns or rents two nearly identical apartments with identical furnitures: black in one, white in another. This final tidbit is a short story, come to think of it….

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