While the Women Are Sleeping is the first work I’ve read by Javier Marias. It’s a collection of short stories spanning over 30 years of writing. I tend to think of collections like this as greatest hits album. A writer’s been around for a while, re-releases a bunch of stuff, it takes minimal effort, and generates some interest. That may not be a fair comparison. Though written in vastly different times, the stories are linked together by their tone and subject matter. Whether it’s a difference in translation, culture, or age, the stories don’t read like contemporary fiction, but more like something written in the late 19th or early 20th century.
The title story, “While the Women Are Sleeping” sets a mood similar to Poe or Hitchcock. The narrator and his wife have been watching a couple at the beach while on vacation. The man whom they observe is obese and much older, he also constantly films his young, attractive girlfriend. Through a change in setting, the narrator meets the older man and asks him about his activities. The older man replies that he adores the woman, and wants to capture the last days of her life. Is she ill, the narrator asks? No, is the answer. From there a conversation ensues about love, life, and death. The story is slow to develop, but high in tension and discomfort.
“A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps” also visits the ideas of life and death. In this story a ghost haunts an old woman, but only the young woman who reads to her can see the ghost. The young woman falls in love with the ghost, who never speaks to her, and develops a relationship of sorts. The story asks the reader to question time. How do we perceive the passage of time? How do we remember events? Who is haunting whom? It’s a beautiful and sad critique on growing old and finding love.
A story that differs somewhat is “Gualta,” in which a young, charming, highly successful man encounters a colleague in the same corporation who is exactly the same as the narrator. The encounter leads him to a realization that he hates himself. The narrator tries to revise his personality and makes an effort to become coarser. Unexpectedly, the other man has suffered from the same identity crisis. Strong for the most part, the story concludes with an ending low on satisfaction as it loses momentum and direction.
Overall, the stories are entertaining and work well as a collection; however, in terms of being great stories they fall short. Some of the stories like, “An Epigram of Fealty,” and “Issac’s Journey” seem concept driven with little impact. While stories like “The Life and Death of Marcelino Iturriaga” develop slow enough that the writing seems to value style over accessibility. The best story out of the collection is “While the Women Are Sleeping” and you can read it online through the New Yorker. Though the other stories may not hit all the points to be classified as great short stories, they are full of creativity and worth reading.