While The Women Are Sleeping, By Javier Marías, trans. Margaret Jull Costa
Javier Marías, born in 1951 and alongside Enrique Vila-Matas and Roberto Bolaño one of the outstanding names in an extraordinary generation of Spanish-language novelists, first came to prominence in the English-speaking world with his novel All Souls, a clever and extremely funny account of his alter-ego's spell as a lecturer at Oxford.
His recent trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, has earned comparisons with Proust for incisive examination of character.
While the Women are Sleeping is the second collection of his short stories to appear in English, and presents a fascinating glimpse into Marías's ongoing dialogue with mortality. One of the stories, "The Life and Death of Marcelino Iturriaga" - which ends with the bleak and resonant summary, "and that's all: this is my life and my death, where there is nothing" - was written when Marías was only 14. The title story is the best, a creepy tale of an obese Catalan Humbert Humbert, who cultivates a friendship with the seven-year old girl next door until she is 18, when he marries her. He "adores" her with a jealous passion, and spends his days at the beach filming her every movement with a video camera. Inés is now 23, and the narrator learns that she is drawing away from Viana, her husband. She is, says Viana, "looking around to see what else awaits her beyond me, and she's a little tired, I think". Rather than let go of her, he fears he may have to kill her. The narrator's response is one of forlorn irritation: "What a drag... I'll have to read the newspapers closely from now on...".
Perhaps surprisingly in a writer whose view of the human condition is tempered with such a profound scepticism – not to say pessimism, bearing in mind the adage that a pessimist is a well-informed optimist – there is a lot of afterlife in these tales, as well as a recurring doppelganger motifs.
Marías is a writer whose narrative compass, in his mature works, returns again and again to the same themes, and the same characters, in an augmented autobiographical mode, including a male protagonist named Javier (or Xavier). He excels at detailed observational writing, suggestive of a profound affinity with the requirements of espionage, the theme of his great trilogy.
These stories provide a fascinating insight into the development of a great writer; particularly his experimentation with voice and subject matter. But they are not comparable with the achievement of the novels.