Tuesday, 29 September 2015

While the Women Are Sleeping

While the Women Are Sleeping - Javier Marías

This collection of Marias' short stories spans his writing career from his teenage years in 1968 through to 1998. Quite a stretch of time. While not essential, perhaps, this collection hangs together better than might be suspected and includes much to  savour.

While the Women Are Sleeping (30pps, 1990)
Right form the start we know that this story is receding into the distance in the rear view mirror, and suspect that it may be of an ephemeral nature: "one tends to assume that summer conversations and even confidences will lead nowhere. Not that anyone has anything against that, not even me, even though I do wonder about them or perhaps miss them slightly. Only very slightly, as one misses everything that disappears."

Suitably, the stories highlights include the glances Marias throws towards the characters who exist outside the story, such as his description of a British tourist on the beach who "had the virtue, one that is becoming increasingly rare, of believing that everything is important, or, rather, that everything that comes from oneself has the virtue of knowing itself to be unique." Having last written about Vila-Matas and the sense you pick up in his books that the best that can be done now is to stitch together a patchwork quilt of quotations this can be taken as a comment on what it means to be a writer in the world today.

An older man films a beautiful younger woman, obsessively. The narrator and his wife are fascinated. One night the narrator meets the man outside their apartments at night, alone. The confidences he becomes privy to change his sense of what is going on and leave questions in his mind. The man had known the woman as a girl, and his relationship was one of first waiting for her to grow up and now one where he is afraid to miss anything about her: "I was waiting for growth, now I expect decay."

Gualta (8pps, 1986)
Gualta is a mere 8 pages long and is very clear about it's origins in the pages of other books. Our hero muses in the opening passage that "it had never occurred to me that forgotten characters from books read during adolescence might resurface in my life, or even in other people's lives." "I never expected to find myself transformed into a bloodless William Wilson, or a portrait of Dorian Gray minus the drama, or a Jeckyll whose Hyde was merely another Jeckyll."
The story concerns a man who meets another man from another branch of the company he works for. When he meets him for the first time in a restaurant, he finds that "It was like dining opposite a mirror made flesh." It seems that the similarities are not just on the outside. Both seem to think the same things as well. This causes the narrator to have a crisis of identity and to change himself in order to assert his own unique identity. But how will his mirror image act? And can you assert your identity by renouncing it?

One Night of Love (9pps, 1989)
"I would much prefer it if my wife, Marta, were more lascivious and imaginative and that I could be satisfied with her alone. I was happy on the one night when she did satisfy me."
Thus are we introduced to the story of that one night of love, and its connection to a bundle of love letters written to the narrator's now deceased father by a lover. The letters seem to come from beyond the grave: "I can't help thinking that it was one of those games of which children and lovers are so fond, and that consist basically in pretending to be what you're not, or, put another way, in giving each other fictitious names and creating fictitious lives, afraid perhaps (this applies to lovers, not children) that their overpowering feelings will destroy them if they admit that they, with their real lives and names, are the people having those feelings."
A ghost story with a difference.

Lord Rendall's Song (9pps, 1989)
More dopplegangers, at least apparently, inhabit this tale of a man returning from war to find another man in his shoes, a man who could be him. A tale that allows multiple readings although I am tempted to see someone radically disconnected from their actions by trauma.

An Epigram of Fealty (8pps, 1989)
This is a tale of rare books and centres on an appearance by a down and out John Gawsworth, the titular King of Redonda before the window of an antiquarian bookshop that includes "an eight-page pamphlet" which "contained three poems by Dylan Thomas never published elsewhere"  Readers of All Souls and possessors of Mariás trivia will be aware of the Kingdom of Redonda,  Marias himself being one of the current pretenders to the throne. Fun.

A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps (9pps, 1998)
In which a young lady finds the ghost of a bullet riddled "young man of somewhat rustic appearance" turning up for her readings to an older lady and a strange kind of love story unfolds.

The Resignation Letter of Señor De Santiesteban (25pps, 1975)
A ghost, and it's fascination acting upon the living, forms the core of this story of a minor academic who takes up a post at the "British Institute in Madrid". We are told that the main character, Mr Lilburn, "belonged to that class of person who, sooner or later, in the course of a hitherto untroubled life, finds his career in ruins and his unshakable beliefs overturned, refuted and even held up to ridicule by just such an incident as concerns us here." I'll hazard a guess that outside the world of Marias short stories, this is a very small class of people.

The Life and Death of Marcelino Iturriaga (6pps, 1968)
A very early story and with some of the gaucherie that one might expect but nevertheless an entertaining little piece from "beyond the grave" marked by some amusing understatement.

Isaac's Journey (5pps, 1978)
A curse follows a family until the line is broken. But what then happens to the curse?

What the Butler Said (15pps, 1990)
This bears a striking resemblance to the first story, as a story told in a stuck lift leaves the narrator with information which may foretell dark deeds. This story might even serve as a warning, although the narrator thinks it unlikely that the woman who might benefit would read this book. It includes a butler, black magic, an incredibly intense absorption in a TV programme called "Family Feud", molestation and the precautionary gathering of hair amoung other elements.

The whole collection reminds me of Graham Greene's designation of some of his books as 'entertainments'. These stories are slightly Poe and slightly post-modern. Not an essential collection, but fun nevertheless.


  1. Oh, it has a John Gawsworth story. I should read the book someday just for that. The ongoing saga.

    1. I really enjoyed the Gawsworth story. There is a nice Beckett reference in it too, and the figure of Gawsworth reminds me of a figure I breifly interacted with during my couple of days of homelessness in London - I was a teenager and it was more an adventure than anything but I still remember this rather imposing, aristocratic man who held court at one particular street corner.. but that's going way off point.

  2. Do you have a favorite story here, Séamus? I'm told the title story is particularly bitchin', but they all seem fairly cool as far as potential goes.

    1. I'd probably go with Gualta. An identity crisis with a difference. The scene where the two doppelgängers meet is really well drawn.

  3. I might have to get this at some point. The first two stories and Rendall's Song sound particularly appealing, but then identity is one of my favourite themes in literature.

    1. And I have to try to get to the essential stuff like Your Face Tomorrow or A Heart so White. As a fan, I'm sure you'd enjoy this.