A Heart So White by Javier Marías

Substance submerged by style…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

a heart so whiteA few days after returning from her honeymoon, Teresa leaves the room in the middle of dinner, goes to the bathroom and shoots herself in the heart. Years later, in the present, as our narrator Juan is getting used to the changes brought about his own marriage, he becomes fascinated by the mystery of why Teresa killed herself. He has a personal connection – his father Ranz was married to Teresa at the time and later married her sister Juana, Juan’s mother. So Teresa would have been Juan’s aunt – though had she lived, of course she wouldn’t have been…

There are several themes going on in the book – the uncertainty of memory, the inability to forget something once heard, the increasing unknowableness of truth when stories are relayed from person to person. Both Juan and his wife Luisa are interpreters and the sections where Juan talks about listening and conveying meaning are fascinating. The title is a reference to Macbeth, specifically to Lady Macbeth’s reaction on being told of Duncan’s murder, illustrating a major theme – the complicity forced upon someone to whom a tale is told. Marías is also playing with the idea that events that are major in the present fade into insignificance as time passes, so that eventually all will be the same whether an event happened or didn’t. An interesting thought.

In fact, there are lots of interesting thoughts hidden in Marías’ prose – well hidden. This is yet another in what seems to be becoming my accidental theme of the year – stream of consciousness novels or, as I prefer to call them, badly punctuated. I admit this one is nowhere near as bad as Absalom! Absalom! But it’s up there with Mrs Dalloway for sure, although Marías does at least manage eventually to get to the end of his sentences without completely losing track of where he was heading. There is no doubt that this style of writing lends the prose an air of profundity which, once one breaks the sentences down into their constituent parts, often evaporates, as one realises that the difficulty of comprehension is due not so much to the complexity of the ideas as the complexity of the sentence structure.

Another recurring feature of the few stream of consciousness novels I have waded through (or not, as the case may be) is the constant repetitiveness that the authors tend to employ, as if somehow repeating a thing a few dozen times will make it more meaningful. Perhaps it does, if one likes this style of writing – for me, it simply makes it tedious. An idea that intrigues on first mention requires expansion rather than repetition to hold this reader’s interest, I fear.

To be fair, I hate this style in general, but I do think Marías does it much better than most. Much of what he has to say is perceptive, as for example in this quote about getting used to being married. (The style means any quote has to be a long one, so apologies.)

As with an illness, this “change of state” is unpredictable, it disrupts everything, or rather prevents things from going on as they did before: it means, for example, that after going out to supper or to the cinema, we can no longer go our separate ways, each to his or her own home, I can no longer drive up in my car or in a taxi to Luisa’s door and drop her off and then, once I’ve done so, drive off alone to my apartment along the half-empty, hosed-down streets, still thinking about her and about the future. Now that we’re married, when we leave the cinema our steps head off in the same direction (the echoes out of time with each other, because now there are four feet walking along), but not because I’ve chosen to accompany her or not even because I usually do so and it seems the correct and polite thing to do, but because our feet never hesitate outside on the damp pavement, they don’t deliberate or change their mind, there’s no room for regret or even choice: now there’s no doubt that we’re going to the same place, whether we want to or not this particular night, or perhaps it was only last night that I didn’t want to.

This is an example of both what I liked and didn’t about the book. It’s an interesting perspective and casts a good deal of light on Juan’s uncertainty about the married state, but the style drives me up the wall even though it’s one of the least waffly passages in the book.

Javier Marìas
Javier Marìas

In terms of substance, the book is pretty much plot free. There are several set-piece scenes, some of which are very well done and give an air of menace or perhaps impending doom, and illuminate Marías’ themes. But nothing much actually happens. And I must admit that by the time we finally got to the stage of discovering the reason for Teresa’s death, the thing had been so stretched out and the themes beaten into the reader’s head so often, that I couldn’t imagine anyone actually being surprised by it.

I’m sighing with frustration because there’s a lot of good stuff in here. Written in normal prose, it would have made an excellent, thought-provoking novella or short novel. As it is, it’s overlong, repetitive and filled with unnecessary waffle, all of which diminishes rather than adding to its impact. I found I could only read it in short sessions because the style frankly bored me into a dwam, and I would discover I’d read several pages (approximately half a paragraph) without absorbing any of it. So, recommended to people who enjoy stream of consciousness writing and not recommended to people who don’t.

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58 thoughts on “A Heart So White by Javier Marías

  1. Well, I’m glad you agree that he does it better than most… I personally rather like stream of consciousness and am a great fan of Virginia Woolf, so you won’t be surprised that I liked this. I think it’s also very typical of the somewhat flowery Romance languages and long sentences, very incompatible with the English prose style.

    • Yes, I can see how this would appeal to Woolf fans, though in my opinion this is much better. I fear I’m just not cut out for stream of consciousness writing – I’ve come to the conclusion that’s not actually how I think. I think I think in sentences! It’d be an interesting experiment to see if a particular brain thingy affects whether SOC works for certain people (obviously an experiment carried out by someone who doesn’t have to resort to using the word thingy…)

  2. I’d be interested in this probably because my grandfather married my grandmother after being engaged to her sister and I’ve never found out the full story. I quite like stream.if conciousness too (and you know I’m an Absalom fan!) so I do like the sound of this.

    • Really? That’s interesting – I love these old family mysteries, though I often wish I’d demanded more info from the oldies when I had the chance. If you like both Woolf and Faulkner then this one will be a walk in the park for you! And I did like his ideas…

  3. No plot? Goodness. That’s a must for a book, I thought. What are they teaching in schools these days? That paragraph was sorta cool, tho. Sounds as if he doesn’t like marriage much!

    Yup, he’s definitely reaching for a gun…

  4. Ah……..stream of consciousness and the style itself are likely to find me hovering over an addition to the TBR. I liked the excerpt. I find well done SOC takes me into the character’s thinking/feeling and brings them close to me. Maybe its because I’m well aware of the existence of my own stream of consciousness. Or, sometimes it seems streams of semi consciousness!

    Useful when someone’s semi ripio can be an encouragement! You are always clear on WHY you like or dislike something, so the rips and the bouquets both are very useful to see where your followers might agree or disagree, and either pass a book on by, or pursue it.

    • You may well like this! I didn’t altogether hate it myself, though in the spirit of full disclosure I have to say that quote is one of the better bits. The stream is considerably streamier in other parts…

      “It was cold or the fridge made me feel cold and I went to the bathroom and put on a dressing gown (I was tempted to use my bathrobe as a dressing gown, but I didn’t)…”

      Sorry, can’t type more – coma has returned!

      See, I don’t think I think like that. I think I think in perfectly, constructed short sentences, usually in the form of dialogue with either myself or an imaginary other. Maybe whether one likes SOC or not is determined by whether one thinks in SOC – hmm! The old left-hand/right-hand thing again perhaps…

      • Ah………..now I am oddly ambidextrous, writing with my left hand, throwing things equally well or badly with either hand, but cutting, sewing, eating, mousing, and painting walls with my right hand. I even write from under the line like a right hander, and tick like a right hander. My capital Ys are the only thing betraying my left handedness, they are backwards. It would be impossible to write right handed though. I don’t know how people do it.

        • I’m completely right-handed – my left hand just hangs around taking things easy most of the time. I used to try to make it more dextrous (isn’t that the perfect word in this context?) but it refused to play along. Pity, because if it wasn’t for that I’m sure I’d have been a world famous pianist by now. If I played the piano, that is.

  5. This is on my TBR & I’ve been looking forward to it – I do like stream of consciousness so hopefully it will be a winner for me 🙂 I’m amazed you finished it if you don’t like SOC, I can imagine it makes people lose the will to live if it’s not their cup of tea!

    • If you like SOC, then I’m pretty sure you will enjoy this – despite my criticisms, he does it well and some of his ideas are very intriguing. Which is why I stuck it out, I suppose – that, and I really did want to know why she shot herself. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on it when you get to it… 🙂

  6. Between your review and the comments, I’m swithering as to whether I want to read this one. I do like the little extract you quote. It’s always difficult to judge translations, for the reason MarinaSofia points out: if the translation’s accurate the text may read oddly in English, and if it reads well in English it may not be an accurate reflection of the original (as in the two English-language versions of Miss Smilla’s Sense of Snow).


    Good word! It’s not used often enough.

    • I reckon if you don’t mind stream of consciousness you should go for it – he does it well, and a lot of the ideas are intriguing. I thought this translation seemed excellent, though of course I can’t be sure. It flowed well, with none of that awkward clunkiness you sometimes get in translations. And when I was conscious, it made sense. Pity about those dwams though… 😉

  7. I’ve been wondering whether to read this one, FictionFan. When I first heard about it, I was really quite interested. It is good to hear that Marías does the stream-of-consciousness style well. I have to admit, it’s not tops on my list, but if it’s done well, then sometimes it can work for me. And as you say, the story itself raises some fascinating questions. Hmm……..

    • Despite the intriguing premise, it’s definitely more a book about ideas than plot really. I found the ideas intriguing but the style and lack of plot stopped me from enjoying it as much as I felt I could have if it had been written in standard style. Having said that, as stream of consciousness goes, this is definitely one of the better ones I’ve read. That’s why I’m ambivalent about recommending it – I suspect it will be a love-or-hate book…

  8. I can’t read those stream of consciousness works. Just won’t read them. For me, even good writing isn’t enough to offset the tedium of perusing someone’s thoughts for paragraphs on end. Oh, well, thanks for wading through this one…so I don’t have to, ha!

    • I really don’t like them either, even though this one was better than most of the ones I’ve read. I get more and more impatient and find myself muttering “Oh, do get on with it, for goodness sake!” – never a good sign! 😉

  9. In the passage you selected, I’m afraid I blanked out mid-way, which means I did not enjoy that stream of consciousness! Interesting observations here… This is a hard sell. Stream of consciousness must offer something invaluable in order to be effective, or at the very least provide entertainment! And I do firmly agree, repetition only works well when tightening the threads of a well conceived thought.

    Was that passage really only 2 (TWO!!) sentences?! Why, there ought to be a law against that! I’ve never seen so many commas in my life… 🙂

    • And that’s one of the better passages too! Part of the problem is that I’m such a pedant that I find myself reorganising and editing the sentences as I go along to make them more concise. So I’m spending more time thinking about the punctuation than the meaning! It’s not even the length of the sentences that bothers me so much – I loved Rushdie’s long sentences in Two Years, because they were so well constructed I was willing to follow them along and see where they would go. But so often SOC becomes pure waffle…

      “It was cold or the fridge made me feel cold and I went to the bathroom and put on a dressing gown (I was tempted to use my bathrobe as a dressing gown, but I didn’t)…”

      … and then I start to feel violent…😉

  10. I have to be in a certain frame of mind to read SOC novels. If I’m not I just turn page after page and at the end haven’t a clue what I’ve just read probably because I’m asleep!

    • That’s what happens to me! And then I have to make the awful decision as to whether I can force myself to go back and read them again… great for insomnia though! 😉

  11. “as one realises that the difficulty of comprehension is due not so much to the complexity of the ideas as the complexity of the sentence structure.”

    Love it!

    Yes, I do think a few more full stops are in order, here. But I’m also thinking that I agree with your statement that I copied here. The paragraph you quoted is not filled with meaning, just with words.

    • Haha! Did I sound a little bitter there? I’m sure I had my best schoolmarm face on when I wrote that…

      That’s what I find about so much stream of consciousness writing – a small but interesting concept is stretched way past snapping point, and becomes almost meaningless. And there were loads of huge paragraphs that didn’t even have as much content as this one, once you’d fought your way through the shrubbery.

    • Yep, and this was by no means the worst example. In fact, in terms of the book, these sentences are quite short! I may send him a bag of full stops to use in his next novel… 😉

  12. I do like the sound of this with its different and challenging perspectives – and I’m not really a fan of the stream of consciousness either (I can see this getting its own acronym in your reviews soon) and it has my pet hate of names that are very similar so I hope Juana doesn’t enter the storyline too often?

    • SOC! And worse than that a lot of it was SOC written in FPPT! OMG! Ha – it was about three quarters of the way through before I found out the narrator was called Juan – another thing that had been bugging me for about a week by that stage…

  13. I liked this book a lot – up until now I’d not thought anything of that but reading your comment about how you think in sentences makes me ponder if I think the way Juan does….I really hope not! I don’t mind reading SOC novels but I’d hate to think like one!

    • Hahaha! Ever since I said that I’ve been thinking about how I think – it’s all becoming a bit surreal and I have a horrible feeling I’m losing touch with sanity! I think my favourite bit was when he said something like “I walked confidently across the room, but not confidently.” I just don’t think I’m cut out for stream of consciousness… 😉

  14. What a cheeky author photo! And I really like the comments you’ve been making about steam-of-conscious books. Some are so highly praised that those of us who don’t enjoy then feel stupid until we can find the bravery and the right words to communicate why we don’t enjoy such books.

    • Thank you! I think it’s too easy to feel that it’s our “fault” when we don’t get a book – there’s so much book snobbery around certain books and authors. On Amazon, if you post a review criticising one of these difficult books, you can pretty much guarantee you’ll get abusive comments from people calling you stupid. My view is anyone who leaves such a comment has automatically proved that I’m more intelligent than s/he is! 😉

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