Arts Literary

Fiction from beyond the grave

While the Women Are Sleeping a puzzling collection

The 10 pieces included in While the Women Are Sleeping (New Directions, $27.50), a slim collection of Javier Marías' short prose newly translated by Margaret Jull Costa, form a remarkably coherent whole given that they derive from such a long span of time, the most recent dating back to 1990, and the oldest to 1965, when the now internationally celebrated Spanish author was only 14 years old. The themes range from the merely morbid to the uncanny. Many are ghost stories, all of them concern death. One tells of letters received from people presumed dead, one is narrated from beyond the grave.

Each of the first three stories, which constitute about half the book's length, offer a curious variation on the book's title, these tales told by husbands somewhere in mid-life, men whose lives are lived in steady proximity to their wives yet who maintain their secrets. Women are peripheral figures who may even be aware of the strange things their husbands are thinking or doing, but who are in any case not directly consulted about what is ultimately rendered as man's business. "While the Woman Are Sleeping" describes an encounter between the narrator and a man who compulsively makes videos of his much younger wife in anticipation of her death and in desire of having her final hours on record. "Gualta" describes the narrator's encounter with his doppelgänger and the frustration he undergoes when he attempts to arbitrarily differentiate himself, desperate to assert his lost sense of uniqueness. "One Night of Love" is about a sexually unsatisfied man who begins to receive letters from his father's former mistress following his father's death. With these first stories especially, I experienced a particular sort of frustration: in every case I was reading the work of an author who seems so clearly attracted to the sort of stories that attract me, and in every case these stories seemed to succeed mainly on the level of smart ideas and clever twists. The storytelling itself seemed to be lacking juice.

Perhaps my expectations were unreasonably high. I've only read one other work by Marías, his 1992 novel A Heart So White, of which I now recall just its terrific central idea, one involving translators who fall in love—I read the book a good dozen years ago, so I won't pretend that my lack of memory regarding its finer points means anything other than my having a faulty memory. But in the interim I don't know how many times I've come across quotes from other, often wonderful writers and critics praising Marías' literary genius. Add to that my great enthusiasm for New Directions and nearly everything they publish, and I clearly went into While the Women Are Sleeping with hopes of discovering a masterful voice I'd long neglected. But these stories are so often too slight. The one narrated from beyond the grave, for example, does little more than describe an unremarkable life cut short and now resigned to calmly laying under the earth—I feel obliged to note once more that it was written by a 14-year-old.

There are hints of mischievous inspiration. The final story, told to the narrator by a butler while trapped in an elevator, features a woman so entranced with watching Family Feud that her servants can fondle her breasts without her apparent notice. Another features a ghost who makes his presence known by leaving his letter of resignation in the same place night after night—again, a pretty good idea. Yet the net effect is one of puzzlement. Perhaps this book yields riches to those who know Marías' best work and can read these stories for flickers of the greatness to come. I vow to read some of those reputable works. In the meantime, I feel it's only fair to warn those who've never read Marías that this can't possibly be the best place to discover him. V

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