Although Javier Marias has published 23 novels that have been translated into two dozen languages, the prize-winning Spanish author’s work has yet to receive broad attention in the United States. That situation could change — and should — with the American release of “A Man of Feeling,” a book that reflects the torture of love the way arias reflect heartbreak.
This is a musician’s story and a complex one, filtered through the perceptions of a broad-shouldered Spanish opera singer who had a brief, adulterous affair earlier in his career, the details of which have recently returned to him in a dream.
The novel opens with the singer describing the elements of that dream leaving the reader to wonder where the unconscious images end and the facts of the singer’s life — then and now — begin. This ambiguity persists throughout the book and is the secret of its tension, drama and appeal. The tenor’s experience of his liaison and his memory of it, his sleep and waking, comes in fragments.
“Four years ago because of my work (I am a professional singer) and just before I made a miraculous recovery from my fear of flying in numerous journeys by train over a fairly short space of time, some six weeks in total … It was on the penultimate of these trips … that I saw for the first time the three faces I dreamed about this morning, which are the same faces that have occupied part of my imagination, much of my memory and my whole life (respectively) from then up until now, that is, for four years.”
Those years have seen the young singer transformed from doing small parts in Verdi operas to larger ones, earning him the sobriquet the “Lion of Naples” because of a role he played in “Turandot” in that city. But it was in the early stages of his career, while playing Casio during a run of “Otello” at the Teatro de Zarzuela in Madrid that he began the doomed love affair that lasted seven days and is recalled in the dream.
These years have also taken their toll on him. Fifty pages into the book the narrator notes: “Now that I am telling you this dream and story I realize that I have abstained from thinking for the past four years.” The memory has numbed him and brought him to the point at which illusion reigns where rational thought cannot, or to quote William Hazlitt as Mr. Arias does in the book’s epigraph: “I think myself into love. And I dream myself out of it.”
The three characters, the three faces of the dream, are brought to life by the author’s intense precision and attention to detail — a tilt of the head, the placement of hands. But only two, the male characters are ever seen and fully described in the book. The woman, the object of both men’s desire is seen only once clearly and remains shrouded in mystery.
She is Natalia, possessed of pale eyes and “gnarly fingers.” Her husband Manur is a cold and aloof Belgian banker who wears a green fedora, and the man completing the trio of the narrator’s imaginings is Dato, who functions as Mansur’s professional secretary, a “venal” fellow who gets to know and attempts to control everyone’s affairs, business or otherwise.
As the narrative proceeds and the attraction between the narrator and Natalia unfolds, the characters are caught in the quagmire of an adulterous union similar to the one faced by characters in “Otello,” and by temperament they match up: Mansur is much like the tormented Moor, inclined to impulse and bad judgment; the lovely Natalia who beguiles seems a perfect match to Desdemona; and Dato, the “apparently indispensable conduit … who remained scrupulously in the background” has the innate villainy of a diabolical Iago.
But it is the narrator’s thoughts about the affair, what precedes it and its aftermath that reveal the torment and extend the passion, anger and mystery of unfolding events: This is not just a story of love but of doom and pessimism, melancholy and destruction.
“Why do I want to go on seeing her every day? Perhaps because I want to be like Liu [the conflicted heroine of “Turandot”] or like Otello, because at this particular moment in my history or pre-past or life, I need to destroy myself or destroy someone else… Otello’s life is better known. Among his options, he does not even consider anyone else’s happiness… It is unthinkable , Otello stepping aside to bring about the happiness of his wife and the man with whom, according to Iago, she has been unfaithful.”
Until the book’s ending’s surprise, which brings all that has passed before it into focus, readers must simply agree to participate in the suspense, taking cues — and pleasure — from the writing in which Mr. Marias succeeds in peeling back layer after layer of manners and motives of characters, creating a tale in which human feeling, particularly of the male rivals, trumps easy moral judgments and certainty.
In a curious finale to the book, the author has included an epilogue, more straightforward than his narrative, but not wholly so, in which he attempts to explain what he has written, focusing particularly on Natalia. “In the middle is a female character, Natalia Manur, who is shown in the novel in a very diffuse way … This might seem surprising given that she is also one of the main characters, but she belongs perhaps to that long line of fictional women (like Penelope, like Desdemona, like Dulcinea and so many others of less illustrious ancestry) whose existence is largely symbolic, as the narrator of ‘The Man of Feeling’ seems to acknowledge: ‘For, as I well know,’ he says, ‘the most effective and lasting subjugations are based on pretence or, indeed, on something that has never existed.’ One wonders if the narrator meant to add: ‘or on something unfulfilled.’”
There is a fine story here for readers who make the effort. It is breathtaking.