Friday, August 7, 2009


When we Americans think of inventiveness in our fiction we think of wild machinations and fireworks and showy plot devices that drive us forward from one page to the next. Either that or, as a librarian friend of mine recently said, "We are just telling the same story over again in different ways." But I just read a novel by Spanish author Javier Marias and there we find a very different sort of inventiveness. I am new to this author, though he is on the short list for the Nobel Prize every year. 'The Man of Feeling' was first published in 1986 but wasn't translated into English until 2003. We are a little slow.

And it is that slowness to seek what is beyond our own borders that caused one Nobel committee member to say that he would not vote for an American again and that an American would not win the prize as long as he was a member. Now, our first reaction might be one of outrage and a sense of injustice. But his observations could enlighten us. We are too provincial. Too narrow minded. Too concerned about our own affairs. We don't translate enough.

Marias spends many of the early pages of this novel building character as a young opera star travels on a train from Milan to Venice. The main character finds himself helplessly detached from the world around him because of his traveling and the kind of rarefied life he leads. (Living as he does in grand hotels between rehearsals and performances).

Of his writing Marias says, "I need to feel my way forwards, and nothing would bore me or put me off more than knowing, when I start a novel, precisely what it will be: the characters who will people it, when and how they will appear and disappear, what will become of their lives or the fragment of their lives that I am going to recount. All this happens as I am actually writing the novel and belongs to the realm of invention..."

I have been reading Chekhov again recently and am astonished at how quickly he can pen the essence of character in his short stories. Perhaps we should spend more time inventing what is essential to the story we are trying to tell. What do you think?

Jim August 21, 2009


  1. i've been trying to get my hands on a copy of 'the man of feeling' since i read this.

    and i'm currently dealing with the same issue that he speaks, of trying to feel my through a story. it does make for more interesting prose. at least i'd say.

  2. Hi Brandon. I was unable to lay a hand on a copy of 'The man of feeling' at any store so I ordered it through interlibrary loan at our local library. Some of these loan departments are great, so you might try that out.



  3. I'm responding to question about whether we should spend more time inventing what is essential to the story we are trying to tell. I definitely think that's true, although I think sometimes inventing what is essential comes after writing a lot that isn't essential first. The revelation comes in the process. And then there are those days when a story seems born complete, its body its essence...nothing superfluous there at all.


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