The fundamental purpose of the literary critic is to incentivise his audience to read books of which he approves. He has two means at his disposal. The first of those means is the recommendation by virtue of excellence, which can be reduced to the basic formula ‘look at this, this is very good, to read this will give you pleasure, excite you, improve you.’
It is very difficult, when writing about Javier Marías, a man who can lay defensible claim to being the greatest novelist above ground, to resist the temptation to simply copy out a lengthy passage of his prose and ask the reader to look at that, rather than at your stilted attempts to convey how good it is through elaborations on the formula above. After several false starts to this piece my resistance has waned, so here is a lengthy quote from the opening to A Heart so White:
‘I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl any more and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father’s gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the living room with other members of the family and three guests. When they heard the shot, some five minutes after the girl had left the table, her father didn’t get up at once, but stayed there for a few seconds, paralyzed, his mouth still full of food, not daring to chew or swallow, far less to spit the food out on to his plate; and when he finally did get up and run to the bathroom, those who followed him noticed that when he discovered the blood-splattered body of his daughter and clutched his head in his hands, he kept passing the mouthful of meat from one cheek to the other, still not knowing what to do with it.’
This passage reads like Proust doing telenovela.