Javier Marias: “One Night of Love”

12/02/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in Harper’s, December 2010. (Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa.)

The things we do for love, eh? In this particular story, a man longs for his wife to be more “lascivious and imaginative,” as the prostitutes “have grown increasingly nervous as well as increasingly expensive.” To help with his passions, he goes over the letters that his recently deceased father, a widower, had received and saved from Mercedes, “who had opted for the fiction of sending her love to my father after she had already died,” and in fact, begins to receive new letters from this strange yet “very proper” woman, who wonders why the father hasn’t yet joined her in the afterlife. Such odd conceits usually imply that something else is afoot, and the answer is found here:

I can’t help thinking that it was some kind of game, 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. It’s a way of blunting the most passionate and most intense of emotions, pretending that the whole thing is happening to someone else; it’s also the best way of observing it, of being an aware spectator. Yes, experiencing it and, at the same time, being aware of it.

From what I can tell, the man and his wife, Marta, are both having problems with sex, and the translator’s been very careful to use certain words over and over again, like “inventive.” Perhaps they’ve been inspired by the semi-fictional letters between the man’s father and his “dead” suitor, or perhaps — plausible, but more far-fetched, given some of the plot points — they wrote those themselves. In any case, the result of these letters, including the new ones sent from the suitor to the man leads to a spontaneous moment, the titular “night of love” with his wife, and yet they bring with them feelings of the oddest guilt, in that “I sometimes have the odd sense that, on that one night, I betrayed my father, or that my wife, Marta, betrayed me with him (perhaps because we gave each other fictitious names and created lives that were not our own), although the truth is that on that night, in our apartment, in the dark, lying on her bathrobe, only Marta and I were there.” Some sort of role-playing was afoot, but by the man’s choice not to open the next letter from the “suitor,” and from the sentence I’ve just quoted, it seems clear that he’s frightened by the drift this act created between him and his wife. Yes, he slept with his wife, but he had to do so fictitiously, so what is their love, after all? He stresses that it was “just Marta and me”; is he worried, then, that if he continued to get the sort of sex he wanted from his wife, it would no longer be just the two of them? If he gets what he wants, he’ll lose the woman he loves?

I’m grasping, a bit, to justify lines like “Perhaps I should try transvestites. Not that I really care, it doesn’t worry me and won’t last, although it might for a while.” I can recognize that Marias is struggling with complex questions of identity, passion, and love, the “you always want what you can’t have” mentality, but the story is so terse when it comes to the characters (which is the point: how little of them is actually present), that it’s difficult to fully understand what’s going on. We can’t entirely trust all of what we’re reading, and the blur between the man’s struggles and his father’s “romance” is destructively affecting. This is “one night,” then, that I could have used a little more from.

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