February 14, 2006

Book Review: "The Man of Feeling" (1986) by Javier Marías

An opera singer describes a love in the act of attaining it, after having lost it, four years later. He sees all this in dreams the morning he is writing. Like dreams, certain images are vivid & others are conspicuously missing.

Kar Wai Wong’s film, In the Mood for Love, tells of a love affair thru the eyes of the cuckolded spouses - the lovers are never seen. When the lost husband & wife realize the iniquity, they attempt to reenact it as they imagine their spouses would have done it, including details like meals & choice of words. The movie is endlessly sad. Marías’s narrator is similarly guessing, but about his own lost beloved. The character Natalia Manur is a phantom in the book, as if he in his dreams can remember the love for her, her situation & her affliction, but nothing of her spirit or beauty. The bulk of the content dwells on the narrator’s loneliness, an odd quality for a book about the attainment of love. Of course, we expect an opera singer to a be a megalomaniac, & loneliness is the ultimate selfishness. Love as a desire, when reaching for it or waking to find it missing, is man disconnected from the external, isolated from one’s perceptions - as a narrator, subjective & unreliable.

His selective omniscience relies on jealousy’s imagination. He can meticulously guess at the nights she spends with her husband, at the smell of his cologne, on if he is wearing his reading glasses or not.
The theme of the husband & his wife & her lover & the panderer is repeated in variations. Of course, the opera he is in Madrid to perform is Otello, & he must play the non-lover Cassio. Manur, the husband, is likewise jealous with little evidence, before any consummation, & his tragedy is likewise a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, Marías tells us in his epilogue, that Manur is the real Man of Feeling. He bought his wife, & has waited fifteen years for her to love him. The first-person lover, as we see the drama thru his myopic dreams, is only acting a part learned subconsciously from Verdi & Shakespeare.

Borges writes of a historian who uncovers parallels to Macbeth & Julius Caesar: “The idea that history might have copied history is mind-boggling enough; that history should copy literature is inconceivable...” The historian then comes to the conclusion that the conspirators had planned the assassination based on Shakespeare, to redeem their leader, who as it happened was the traitor. The dialog & action may be based on some trope, but the point of the story, “The Theme of the Traitor & the Hero”, is the shifting roles, the huge potential fluxuation in essence.

Marías plays with these shifting roles in his contemplation on husband-wife-lover-pander. He considers the waxing eccentricity of Hörbiger, the tenor who sings Otello, whose fading glory is accompanied by a refusal to start the opera until the audience is full. The theater has to hire more & more ushers to fill the empty seats as his popularity wanes & his reputation for tardiness is known. On his last performance, made-up as the Moor of Venice, “with the help of a small Japanese telescope which he sometimes used to inspect the vaster auditoria, he espied with horror an empty seat in the antepenultimate row of the right-hand aisle, [...] the magnificent Hörbiger stepped onto the stage, climbed down into the stalls area, strode through it, to the astonishment of an already irritable public, & sat down in that one accusing seat, thus completing the audience that had been his downfall.”

Was this an act of selflessness or selfishness? Which best befits the lover, or the true Man of Feeling? The husband has the object but not the passion, the lover the passion but not the object. The wife is reduced to the object, & therefore cannot be described nor remembered in dreams. The pander becomes the circumstance, & henceforth boundlessly mutable. Hörbinger, by the end, has completely bought his audience, & when he becomes the last member, absurdly self-fulfilling his love, it is the end of his career, his life. Manur has bought his wife, but each day he sees less of her soul. All the male lovers, either in the act of attaining or losing, are, like the desperate traveling salesmen repeatedly mentioned in the book, homeless. The love that ends in conquest & marriage or the love that ends in suicide are both loves of selfishness.
Happy Valentine's Day!

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