Javier Marías in his work room around English-language publication of All Souls in 1992.
Javier Marias died on Sunday 11 September, aged just 70. His own blog has a running page of obituaries, mostly in Spanish at this point, lit-twit let out a poignant and respectful howl but it’ll be revealing to see how many new pages are commissioned. Marias is much loved and admired; he started early with a novel at 19 or 20, his originality and its maturing style was embodied early in subsequent novels, and arguably peaked with the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow (Trans Margaret Full Costa). He translated and wrote about other writers’ lives and work and if there is not one already, there will be biographies -though I know what he would say in his firmly insouciant way about them.
It’s rare that a simple/straight biography would be welcome (I’m thinking of ??’s of Gertrude Stein, or Cathy Curtis’s of Elizabeth Hardwick) before other more condensed essays and symbiotic burroughings materialise. Underlying these thoughts is a perplexed remark by Barbara Epler about Marias selling tens of millions of books despite being what she called a very literary writer. There are lit writers and lit writers, including so-called writers-writers, no? I think of Marias as being authentic and uncompromising in his focus and ways but those interests, in detection as an episteme, etc., open his worlds up to wider audiences where he stands as if revealed or exposed on the edge of the centre of things defiantly, puzzled, disinterested, resigned, dignified, always writing…
I read him first 30 years ago, and was glad of the space to write about All Souls in the New Statesman (below). My interest in Marias also peaked with Your Face Tomorrow I realised as I re-read and read my way thirstily through Enrique Vila-Matas (specifically; re-read the early triumphs like Bartleby & Co (!) that form a kind of cusp in his work and far beyond, after re-orientating myself with a first belated read of Never Any End to Paris, which always looked so unpromising to me with its mere mention of Hemingway in a Parisian context) and again something similar more recently with César Aira -echoes of Bolana in mind, too amongst living or generationally contiguous writing, influence persists and other writers are available!
I mean, there is in all of these a way of writing that is thinking too, on the page as I say below, in front of you, as it happens, that is steeped in thoughts, ideas, and often their literary expression, all in ways that writing in English doesn’t or can’t do -or won’t get published for doing. A way of writing that doesn’t resolve all these qualities in mere tone, though that can deliver much I want the workings too. I want the risk and irregularity of thinking as well as the strategic regularity of tone. In the end, though, is this just a taste for Spanish-language literature on my part? I want to retain this as a havering (a very English term because there is no reason for writing that merges lightness and intellect not to exist in English, even England, ofc!) thought, no more, at least for now…
However, what ‘it’ is includes a consciousness of form, no? Contrast it with the dutiful turgid bulkiness or insipid/abject ‘seductiveness/accessibility’ of so much fictive writing in English and that is immediately apparent. The denial of a(n easy) consciousness of form, the refusal of intellectual presence and alertness, for fear of, well, exactly those things. A pretence at something very fixed, familiar, to be taken for granted, dead and deadening to many of us… So, while Marias openly embraces his love of let’s say modes and histories of detection, he does immediately of course complicate all of that by engaging with the obviousness of the way that it repeats, in layers as it goes, unfolding, enacting, generating. To deny all of that is to produce very thin writing indeed… Writing without originality, those qualities he has described as merely present, not to be chased (not that much writing in English does that either!).
So, I have been wondering why I had not turned back to Marias in recent years, or read his post-Your Face work. Why I have not in fact re-read him? I’m about to discover the answer no doubt…! Btw, I tweeted an image (below) of the 7th edition in Spanish of All Souls/Todas las almas which reproduces a line of my review of it on the cover-slip because of a small personal resonance. Marias died too young at 70, as my mother did at 74. Too young as in; would-have-made-productive-reflective-happy-use-of-years-‘missed’-young. My mama was good at many things but not at paying visits; on a rare one of those in the mid-Nineties, we were in the old Grant & Cutler store and the new paperback of the Marias was on display. I clocked it and was quietly gratified to see it or my words translated even in this trivial way, given the currency of gift in words/books. I would have left it at that, but mama insisted that I should ‘always keep these things’ and bought it for me and thus made an indelible association in my mind with Marias thereafter… This rehearses the spirit and magic within, behind and beyond the words, pages and books of it all doesn’t it?
Below is the short review I did for Your Face Tomorrow, which I remember feeling quite brave about; the small but definite act of recognition of it before seeing or knowing what anybody else thought. Trying in the small way of it to influence that too, of course! The Inde let some pieces like this slip from their old online presence even in 2004, so there is no link because it disappeared except in quoted references. And below that is the shorter review I did of All Souls for the New Statesman in 1992, before the worldly presence of the internet. I would only add that these are both books to read or re-read first of Marias’ along with A Heart So White and Dark Back of Time, for sure…
I will add some links to Marias at the bottom…
Your Face Tomorrow 1. Fever and Spear
by Javier Marias
By Guy Mannes-Abbott
“What is this, a game, a test, a puzzle, a bet?” asks Jacques Deza, the narrator of Javier Marias’ oddly titled tenth novel. The first volume in a promised series, Your Face Tomorrow revisits the donnish Oxford milieu of his sixth novel All Souls  -the origin of his International reputation. Typically, the singular Marias has already mined the impact of that book in his exceptionally brilliant “false novel” Dark Back of Time .
Marias’ blocks of digressive prose, so interior, reflective and spasmodic capture a recognisable experience of being in the world that is peculiarly compelling.
At home in Madrid, 54 year old Marias is known for novels, essays, translations and newspaper columns. Beyond Spain his work exists in 34 languages, including Hindi. Once a keen translator, notably of Tristram Shandy, Marias has elevated notions of translation to a quasi metaphysical imperative. The resulting interpretative flux requires a gambler’s irresponsibility and is conveyed in sentences ten times longer than his peers. Yet, Marias’ blocks of digressive prose, so interior, reflective and spasmodic capture a recognisable experience of being in the world that is peculiarly compelling.
In Your Face Tomorrow Jacques Deza has fled a failed marriage in Madrid for London where he’s working for the BBC, visiting contacts from Oxford days and homesick. The book centres on a weekend in Oxford, where he immerses himself in the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s subsequent dictatorship, via the chronicles of George Orwell and others. Deza recalls a bruised childhood and his family’s more lasting wounds; an executed uncle, the arrest and persecution of his father. He’s also introduced to Bertram Tupra, who draws him into an opaque world of Intelligence; the watching, listening and interpreting of “stories, people, lives.”
Marias is one of the best minds writing fiction today, refusing easy ways through things, conjuring the conflicting sub tows of our world. It’s an experiential writing, a thinking on the page, unlike anyone else writing now.
So much for plot. Although Marias sincerely champions Ian Fleming here, his own writing is a powerful antidote to the plot-addled, quick pay back product so dominant in British publishing. Often described as Anglophile, in fact Marias’ fascination is with the leavings of British life -maverick writers like John Gawsworth who flared brightly before dying destitute. He’s also acute on British manners, however the thematic importance given the Careless Talk Costs Lives wartime campaign here reveals a foreigner’s perception.
Similarly, despite Marias’ flirtation with spies, the book is only tangentially concerned with ‘real’ spooks and is far more menacing as a result. Marias’ invisible ogre is American power and extraterritorial ‘justice’ which surpasses the worst nightmares of Orwell or Kafka. It is the ogre’s “totalitarian spirit” -“crazed” and “counterproductive”- that looms coldly over Marias’ novel which almost loses its way in the second part. Hard to love, his book speaks from a time that is hard not to detest.
So much for plot. Although Marias sincerely champions Ian Fleming here, his own writing is a powerful antidote to the plot-addled, quick pay back product so dominant in British publishing.
Marias essays this with extraordinary intellectual grace and creative subtlety; lingering with and teasing out ideas about trust, for example. It’s the opposite of Intelligence gathering efforts “to know today what face they would wear tomorrow.” Trust is a gift resistant to totalitarian doctrines of pre-emption and rhetorical wars on terror. This typifies a radical receptivity inherent to Marias’ wanderings, a unique, even perverse, lightness in work that remains taut enough to deliver a sharply sweet denouement.
Marias is one of the best minds writing fiction today, refusing easy ways through things, conjuring the conflicting sub tows of our world. It’s an experiential writing, a thinking on the page, unlike anyone else writing now. In Your Face Tomorrow it produces another work of urgent originality.
by Javier Marias
Javier Marias’s eighth novel has gathered acclaim and awards since it’s publication in 1989, and finally arrives in this English translation. Like his narrator, Marias was born in Madrid and spent time as a lecturer in Spanish Literature at Oxford. All Souls begins with a studied series of authorial disclaimers, during which the narrator claims he is no longer the same person nor even his “shadow … heir or … usurper.”
The novel is the account of an academic’s foreign interlude, centred on the requisite affair with a married female colleague. It is also an uncanny tale, exquisitely dressed, from a translator of Sterne and Stevenson. Marias calls attention to his multiplying language brilliantly with the simple comedy of Will, the aging Porter. Each day he greets the lecturer with the names of previous and future holders of his post, according to his own inventive calendar.
In a novel full of borrowed roles, texts, and bodies, the narrator spends his time as an academic “inventing wild etymologies”. He lampoons the absurdly mannered college dinner where he first exchanges frank, “admiringly sexual” glances with Clare Bayes, while analysing the “opaque … insular … English gaze”. Afterwards the Spanish visitor is told that when the Warden toasts the Queen it signifies that he can smoke. This indirect language becomes fantastic as he discovers “gross moral turpitude” to be a “euphemism for … penetration.”
All Souls is about this circuitous encounter with the English, their language and quintessential institution.
All Souls is about this circuitous encounter with the English, their language and quintessential institution. It delights when the literal unease felt by the unnamed narrator, forced to interpret everything throughout his time in Oxford, becomes dream-like. He remarks that the chance linking of two incongruous words or ideas can “instil horror and provoke fear”. Narrator and reader become engaged in metaphorical detective work to uncover a culture, an illicit relationship, and Clare Bayes traumatic past. Whilst the urgent clamour of the love affair is undermined with peculiarly postmodern irony, it’s pattern stretches the present into the past.
Below the book’s limpid surface with it’s Jamesian reflections, there is an oceanic swirl of masterfully choreographed narrative leaps.
Marias’s solitary bibliophile embarks on a search for Arthur Machen’s stylised horror stories in a city “packed to the gills with beggars.” This leads into an illustrated tribute to the minor poet and major bohemian; John Gawsworth. The narrator sketches a case for the pseudonymous and ultimately destitute Gawsworth, being the lover and witness of Clare Baye’s mother’s suicide. Finally however, he claims to have abandonned the “arbitrary punctuation” of “thoughts that struggle to make … associations”.
Earlier, he remarks that he sees the rows of empty shoes in shop windows filled by “a multitude of cramped, uncomfortable figures”, which provides a wonderfully ghoulish image for All Souls. Below the book’s limpid surface with it’s Jamesian reflections, there is an oceanic swirl of masterfully choreographed narrative leaps.
. ‘I have one, two, three, four, five, six balconies at home, which is a nice thing to have, by the way’ Marias in conversation with Michael LaPointe, The Paris Review, 2018.
. Paul Holdengraber (w Barbara Epler as above) in conversation with Marias @NYPL November 2013.
. ‘La novela que tenía en mente no pasó de las primeras líneas.’ Javier Rodríguez Marcos in El Pais, 2022.
. ‘For those who love the novel as a form and not just as entertainment, Javier Marías is arguably the most rewarding writer working today.’ John Burnside continues, ‘No one since Henry James has used the sentence to such effect in exploring the workings of human psychology’, in this review of Marias’s Thus Bad Begins, New Statesman, May 2016.
. ‘almost indescribable: copious, mysterious, elliptical, poignant. In case that makes him sound un-fun to read, I should stress that he was also very funny. You move, with his narrators, through interesting fog… looping sentences, tracking hesitations, qualifications, contradictions and second thoughts: Proust with sudden bursts of ultra-violence.’ Sam Leith in The Guardian 13 Sep 2022.