Analysis of Javier Marías’s The Man of Feeling

In “Something Unfulfilled,” an epilogue to The Man of Feeling, Javier Marías (1951–2022) compares the writing of fiction to a love’s invention, “discovering or stumbling upon something” where but an image existed before, “its first throb” (Nabokov’s phrase, appropriated by Marías). Both, as he sees it, are shaped by anticipation, by moments when divergent possibilities appear, and by recall. Both ride on a feeling that “requires the largest dose of imagination.” Then “once the discovery has been made, and once the book exists in the particular way that publication makes immutable . . . one that one can talk about it, even explain it.” A writer/narrator/lover does not know, but feels his or her way through “the realm of what might be. Or, rather, of what might have been.”

But if he is unaware of, or refuses to acknowledge, the equivocal nature of love, if he is “a true man of feeling,” a man on a train gazing “impassively ahead, as if written across the empty seat opposite . . . [is] a detailed account of a future already known to him and which he [is] merely verifying,” he will build his life around mere possibility, his Dulcinea, the imaginary reality of love. Like Othello, or Hieronimo Manur, the man to whom the title of Marías’s novel refers, a Belgian banker patiently awaiting the day when his Spanish wife will reciprocate his affection, jealousy and suspicion consume him, and eventually, unfulfilled, he gives in to despair.

Javier Marías / Quim Llenas/Getty Images

If, on the other hand, he is not fixed, not dependent upon one reality alone, if he is like the protagonist and narrator, the Catalan León de Nápoles, an operatic tenor, if he accepts the role imagination plays, and adapts himself to the demands of the roles life is always handing him, memory will save him in the end. If he forges ahead, a lion, takes what he can, makes steps to fulfill his passion, even if simply to copy a reality, to adopt the experience of his enemy Manur in all its warped possessiveness, he will be better prepared to dream himself out of love one day—literally one day, one in which León records his story for the reader, explains, four years on, this lost love for Natalia, a woman Señor Manur once felt was his property.

In keeping with one who interprets for a living, indeed enjoys pretending, León admits, “I find it hard to speak without a libretto.” The plot he chooses as template for his retrospective tale is Shakespeare’s quartet of Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, and Iago, an histrionic selection, to say the least, and unbelievably pat, for, coincidentally, the events he relates occur while he is rehearsing for the role of Cassio in a Madrid production of Verdi’s operatic version, Otello. But, as he tells us, his is “an over-imaginative but basically simple soul.” He treats the affair like a “highly colored” dream, or high drama. During his Madrid experience, he explains, he was for a time saved from himself—he had immersed himself in a new role, that of a man who tries to possess love. He lost his usual “I,” the voice of one who is a pessimist without a goal, a neurotic thinker bored with thinking. He qualifies, however, now that he is abandoned, he is recovering this tedious voice in the cold retelling of that friendship with Natalia Manur and Dato/Iago, her paid companion. The old “I” returns with “no reason to live . . . [nor] to kill himself . . . [nor] to feel afraid . . . [nor] to wait . . . [nor] to think; and yet he does nothing but those last three things.” So he ruminates indirectly and spasmodically, and the story unfolds, a mist of anticipation interrupted by refl ection on the aftermath, with very little interaction between the lovers.

Encountering, in a hotel bar in Madrid, his Iago/ Dato, who introduces him to Desdemona/Natalia, he spends his days with the two, and falls for her. More important, he succumbs to an idea that arrives like an announcement of love, or war: the challenge, to play Cassio in real life, to steal Manur’s wife, to “usurp” (and identify with) Othello. He already recognizes something of himself in Manur, an actor, too, and one who has learned that “the most effective and long-lasting subjugations are based on pretense or, indeed, on something that has never existed.” But Manur is an exploiter, a tycoon with “one of those faces the mere contemplation of which brings unease to the soul of someone for whom the road ahead is still unclear.” He is a type of man León fights, raised as he was, a poor relation, by a tyrannical godfather, a judge and bank owner. If this were not excuse enough, he sees opportunity by freeing Natalia from a loveless marriage, a transaction made to save her and a wastrel brother from poverty.

Natalia is “afflicted by a melancholy dissolution,” a description presumably a projection of the tenor’s own inward, passionate pretense, his need for a symbol of his love. Spun out of León’s memory of an idle, innocent moment when he first watched her anonymously on the same train where her husband gazed straight ahead, before the fortuitous introduction by Dato, she is his cliché of the feminine, little more than nerves, red and bitten fingers, and a veil of hair hiding her features. Yet she will leave him, just as she leaves her husband. She too subjugates, the imaginations of men her dominion: León’s by inspiring a fixation on conquest; her husband’s through his fear of losing what he has never had; Dato’s monetarily, buying his loyalty when necessary, and preoccupying his waking hours with her pursuits (his job is to report to Manur, who then drives each rival away, that is, until León’s robust appearance).

Manur, so zealous in the prevention of affairs, imprisoned by a strict and unrequited love, kills himself when Natalia runs off with León. But after accompanying the Lion on tour for a few years, perhaps Natalia finds that the two men she once needed are not so different after all. One has taken his own life on the opening night of Otello, having lost his most prized possession, along with any possibility of love’s fulfillment. The other, a suave tenor, singing on and on, possesses her with probabilities, boring his captive audience with talk of inseparability until death takes one or the other, and with what is to him an unbearable alternative, facing death with only a confused memory of her, should he lose her: “her sweet, grave, ironic gaze was so intent on my incessant lips that it made me feel as if I were only my lips.”

Javier Marías / Gianfranco Tripodo for The New York Times.webp

Voluble León certainly is, a man of cultural appropriations, with a taste leaning to the old-fashioned, and an eye, like Marías throughout his novels, for the sartorial. Clothes make the person, and their description by the poor relation who has had to rely “on his own efforts” reveals subconscious motivation (pearls with a red stole are “anachronistic” when worn by the icon Natalia), as well as a preoccupation with taste, class, and wealth, whether it be the elegant but well-worn fl are of a venal Dato, or the global ambitions of Manur in shiny “European concession to a style considered elegant abroad.” One lives out of a suitcase and travels like a salesman, a profession with which León has always felt an affinity, the affinity that initially drew him to Dato in that hotel bar, at the beginning of his melancholy story, when he assessed the man’s character with a glance at his apparel. Dato, a salesman on sale to the highest bidder, serves the interest of others. Like a singer, the companion passes by train or by plane from city to city, through hotel lobbies, or across a stage, entertaining, or proffering the impetus for love. Without his presence, the whole affair would never have gotten off the ground. His power over the two prospective lovers lay in a tacit recognition that with a word to Manur, their anticipation of consummation, which he sustained by pretense, by pretending ignorance, might vanish.

If a salesman is cool enough, he will be convincingly nonchalant when he writes, finally, at the end of his day of shadows and mirrors, his story, as León does, “I feel sleepy, I wonder what I will dream about tonight when I put down this pen and go to bed alone.” And indeed he may, with memory’s aid, be able to bear all things, even become a Marías trademark, if an early example, a narrator calm and studied, a bit slick, a calculator aware of the vicious underside of life, composing in a heightened manner, but with a sharp edge. At least he can assure the reader, in closing, that unlike Manur, “I would be incapable of following his example.”

Grohmann, Alexis. Coming into One’s Own: The Novelistic Development of Javier Marías. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002.
Kerrigan, Michael. “A Ridiculous Way to Go.” Times Literary Supplement, 15 November 1996, pp. 241–242.
Mason, Wyatt. “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” New Yorker, 14 November 2005, pp. 90–94.
Rudman, Mark. “A Note on Javier Marías.” New England Review 25, nos. 1–2 (2004): 52–53.
Scarlett, Elizabeth. “Victors, Villains, and Ghosts: Filmic Intertextuality in Javier Marías’s Mañana en la batalla piensa en mi.” Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos 28, no. 2 (2004): 391–410.
Venuti, Lawrence. “Speaking Without a Libretto.” New York Times Book Review, 29 June 2003, p. 130.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis, Spanish Literature

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