Stranger on a Train


While everyone’s busy making a fuss about figments of the media imagination named “Stephen Glass” and “Jayson Blair,” a true genius of literary subterfuge sends another book into the world unnoticed. Javier Marías is one of Spain’s most brilliant contemporary novelists, the author of 23 books, many of which have won prestigious awards and sold staggeringly well in the rest of the world. Reviewers compare him to Proust and James, though you could replace those names with Sebald or Borges—and even that would be desperate critical shorthand for a writer whose sprawling intelligence and circular, tricksterish prose resist reduction.

Marías is king of the ramble, his sentences darting off in every direction as if trying to scoop up all of life’s intensities in one fell swoop. He leaves readers in the dark until the last possible second. Aided by his talent for suspense and melodrama, he makes the dark feel like a tantalizing place to be. My favorite of his novels translated into English, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, reads like warped detective fiction twisted around a philosophical meditation. It starts with a date gone wrong: A married woman dies in the midst of a one-night stand. The plot snakes backward and forward in time as her lover wonders what to do next—call the husband? Flee? Kidnap the woman’s young son, who’s asleep in the next room?—and then tries to reconstruct the days leading up to her sudden death. As in all of Marías’s novels, the narrator’s lively, intimate voice is as crucial to the tale as any action.

In The Man of Feeling (the latest of Marías’s novels to be sinuously translated by Margaret Jull Costa), he toys with another romantic scenario—that of strangers on a train. An opera singer sits across from three people in a compartment—two men and a woman—and tries to guess their secrets. Although he can’t see the sleeping woman’s face, hidden behind a veil of hair, he glances at her mangled cuticles and diagnoses her as “afflicted by a kind of melancholy dissolution.”

When he reaches Madrid, the singer bumps into the strangers again and learns that Natalia Manur travels the world with her Belgian businessman husband, who treats her like chattel. The second man, Dato, is a jester/companion paid to keep Natalia’s “boredom and suffering to a minimum.” As if to fill a mutual void, Dato, Natalia, and the singer become instant best friends, larking about the city like giddy adolescents—until the singer acts on his amorous impulses and derails all of their lives.

Marías claims that The Man of Feeling was partly inspired by Wuthering Heights, and it’s true that the novel has a gothic heart. It throbs with the memory of love, for “love is based in large measure on its anticipation and on its recollection. It is the feeling that requires the largest dose of imagination,” as he writes in his afterword. By presenting the novel as if filtered through a recent dream, the narrator makes it impossible for us to separate truth and figment. But that’s the point—most of the time one doesn’t really know what happened anyway. Does Natalia fall in love with the singer, or is he just an escape hatch from her strange, indentured marriage? Did she deliberately choose him for his unique personality, or did he just appear in the right place at the right moment?

Natalia remains a vaporous idea rather than an actual character. (In a list of her appealing traits, the singer mentions “her prolonged silences, like absences, before she replied to my sudden questions on an endless variety of topics.”) Marías offers the reader no rapturous flirtations or torrid sex scenes between the lovers—all we see is a man talking to himself, trying desperately to trap his blissful memories on the page. If you’ve ever stayed awake after a perfect day, willing yourself to remember it, you know that epiphanies dissolve. And people who once loved each other gradually drift apart, as with the singer’s previous girlfriend, represented in his mind by a scattering of vague recollections filed under “obsolete.”

This fascination with the flexible nature of memory and reality runs through all of Marías’s fiction. His fake autobiography, The Dark Back of Time, playfully suggests that one of Marías’s previous novels—a real book called All Souls—has altered the lives of the people his characters may have been based on. Most of his narrators are ghostly figures (literal ghosts, in a few short stories) who watch life pass them by, paralyzed by the futility of fighting chance. As the hero of Tomorrow in the Battle explains, “We have no idea who might be watching us or thinking about us, who is about to dial our number, who is about to write us, who is about to want us or seek us out, who is about to condemn us or murder us.”

Marías evokes a vibe of perpetual dislocation and exile in The Man of Feeling that makes it feel like the literary equivalent of Chantal Akerman’s Les Rendez-vous d’Anna. Like the filmmaker in Akerman’s movie, the singer coasts through the cities of the world, forever on tour. He studies local faces and signs (“reading these like a savage, understanding nothing”) and jealously watches people go about their daily lives, moving confidently “as if they were just about to set off to some place whose existence takes on real meaning because it is expecting them, so absorbed are they in their present or imminent or dreamed-of or planned activities that my awareness of my own dead hours used to depress me immensely.” Yet the singer hates the thought of relinquishing his comfortable passivity—he actually curses himself for wanting to pursue Natalia: “How tiring love is . . . ” the singer complains. “Striving, planning, longing, unable to content oneself with perseverance and immobility.”

The acrobatic workings of the imagination excite Marías far more than daily reality. In The Man of Feeling, he averts his eyes from the physical relationship and instead probes the prelude and aftermath of an affair, zooming into a lover’s brain as it buzzes with wild, invisible life.