Fever, infatuation, and Colonel Chabert

I’ve been re-reading Your Face Tomorrow, in which Jacques Deza spends several months separated from his wife, Luisa. He is in London while she remains in Madrid, in their apartment, with their children, and he thinks about her every day. This, naturally, includes imagining what she might be doing without him—and with whom.

Toward the beginning of the first book, Fever, he considers:

And yet, illogically, I believe that Luisa will not take this new love or lover back to the apartment where she lives with our children or into our bed which is now hers alone, but that she will meet him almost secretly, as if respect for my still recent memory imposed this on her or implored it of her—a whisper, a fever, a scratch—as if she were a widow and I a dead man deserving to be mourned and who cannot be replaced to quickly, not yet, my love, wait, wait, your hour has not yet come, don’t spoil it for me, give me time and give him time too, the dead man whose time no longer advances, give him time to fade, let him change into a ghost before you take his place and dismiss his flesh, let him be changed into nothing, wait until there is no trace of his smell on the sheets or on my body, let it be as if what was had never happened.

marias javier infatuationsThis idea wasn’t one I’d remembered from my first reading of Your Face Tomorrow, and I believe I’ve already found one more allusion to it in the first volume. But I’ve seen Marías work it up into a whole novel: The Infatuations.

That novel also involves a woman named Luisa, and this Luisa is indeed a widow. The narrator is curious about the death of her husband, and becomes involved with Luisa and with a family friend named Díaz-Varela. The narrator’s death investigation is a significant part of the novel, but The Infatuations is also preoccupied with the fact of the dramatic changes triggered by a sudden, unexpected, and violent death.

The death’s effect on Luisa is the main thing, and there are conversations both real and imagined about what will happen to her. Will she see anyone romantically again, and if so, how long will it take? Will she kill herself? Will she ever “get over” her husband’s murder? And so forth. The main thing is, what effect will time have on her?

Díaz-Varela is sure that she will marry again, after an appropriate period of mourning. He describes how she will change over the next few years, first becoming used to the idea “I’ve been widowed” or “I’m a widow,” until, one day

“…she won’t be, and will say instead, ‘I lost my first husband, and he’s moving further away from me all the time. It’s such a long time since I saw him, whereas this other man is here by my side and is always by my side. I call him “husband” too, which is odd. But he has taken the other husband’s place in my bed and by virtue of that juxtaposition is gradually blurring and erasing him. A little more each day, a little more each night.'”

It is “odd,” but there it is, time can change “husband” from one man to another. As Luisa’s dead husband said in a conversation imagined by the narrator, “That is the awful power of the present, which crushes the past more easily as the past recedes, and falsifies it too without the past getting a chance to speak, protest, contradict or refute anything.”

Díaz-Varela explains to the narrator that he recently read a book, Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, “which agrees with me as regards Luisa, as regards what will happen to hear in the fullness of time.” A few years ago, when I read The Infatuations, I read this too. It’s about a French soldier in Napoleon’s army who is counted among the dead at the Battle of Eylau but is, in fact, saved. By the time he makes it back to Paris, his wife—his widow—has already married another man, and the last thing she wants is the return of a ghost who threatens her social position. Colonel Chabert struggles with his impossible existence, wishing he’d lost his memory along with everything else.

J’ai été enterré sous des morts, mais mantenant je suis enterré sous des vivants, sous des actes, sous des faits, sous la société tout entière, qui veut me faire rentrer sous terre!

I was buried under the dead, but now I am buried under the living, under contracts, under facts, under all of society, which wants to put me back underground!

The awful power of the present is such that it cannot readmit this figure from the past, and Colonel Chabert may have been better off dead.

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