The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

CONTEMPORARY DISPLACED WRITING: Marías — The Man of Feeling

NOTE: Our review of Wendy Williams’ The Globalization of Love has been postponed until this Friday, December 16. In the meantime we’d like to share with you one of our favorite displaced writers, Javier Marías.

At school, an English teacher told my class that good writing should be like a scalpel. Quite what he meant by this was not entirely clear to me, but he said it with such intensity and with an accompanying, ever so disturbing stabbing gesture that I felt I should really take note of what he said. However, on first reading the work of Javier Marías, I finally understand something of what my teacher was trying to explain to my doltish teenage self. Marías’s ability to expertly set up a scene and then dissect the thought processes of his protaganists is a joy.

If you haven’t read any of Marías’s work you really should. Without a doubt he is one of the finest writers currently living and though he has a loyal readership in the English-speaking world, it should be much larger than it is.

When reading his novella The Man of Feeling , I came across one passage that struck me as being perfectly appropriate for featuring as a Contemporary Displaced Writing post. The narrator of The Man of Feeling is a young opera star who is constantly traveling as he tours the world. For the most part, this is not a glamorous life; it is, in fact, a stultifying life spent in rehearsal rooms and hotel bars — they are all different but yet they are all the same, too.

The extract I want to share has our opera star narrator relating his feelings when he first visits a new city:

… I enjoy the feeling that I am in a new and unfamiliar city; getting into public places and being aware that the people there speak a language I know only imperfectly or not at all; studying the clothes and hats (though nowadays one sees fewer of the latter) that the good citizens choose to wear in the streets; finding out if shops are full or empty during office hours; seeing how the news is treated in the newspapers; looking at certain examples of domestic architecture that one can only find in that particular part of the world; noting the typefaces that predominate in shop signs (and reading these like a savage, understanding nothing); scrutinizing the faces in the metro and on the buses which I frequent for that very reason; picking out particular faces and wondering whether I might or might not meet them elsewhere; deliberately getting lost in parts of the city where I have already learned to find my way, that is, with map in hand if I need it; observing the inimitable passing of each languishing day at each point on the globe and the uncertain and variable instant when the lights are lit; setting foot in places where our feet leave no trace, on the luminous asphalt of the morning or on some dusty, ancient stone pavement illuminated by a single street lamp as evening falls; visiting bars full of indistinguishable, blithely insignificant murmurings that cover and erase everything; mingling with the people in the white streets of the south or in the grey avenues of the north at the declining hour when people are going out for a stroll or coming home from work, that brief respite, seeing how the women go out in the evening or perhaps at night, all dressed up, and seeing the cars in their many colors waiting for them; imagining the parties they are going to; wasting time.

And in each city I visit I would like to meet people, to meet those smartly dressed women, who are perhaps climbing into their glossy, impleccable cars to drive to the opera to hear Leon de Napoles: to go and see me.

Extract from Margaret Jull Costa’s translation published by New Directions, available here. You should read it, you know. You really should.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a review of the new expat autobiography Perking the Pansies, by Jack Scott.

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Image: MorgueFile

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