Saturday, September 15, 2007

Javier Marias: All Souls

I am on a literary tour of Spain these days. After Juan Goytisolo now it is the turn of Javier Marias. Unlike Goytisolo I have been hearing his name and reading the reviews of his books for quite some time but I got around to reading him only now. Apparently in continental Europe he is a major literary star and many of his books have scaled the bestseller charts. His books have been regularly reviewed in major english language magazines and newspapers too.

In the eighties Marias spent a couple of years in Oxford as a visiting lecturer in the Spanish department there. He wrote this book based on his experience there. Now that I have said this, he actually wrote another book called Dark Back of Time, which I have been reading too, exactly for readers like me who look for some biographical grounding in fiction. Anyway let's just say that the narrator, who may or may not be Marias himself, lives in Oxford and like his fellow academics is basically a good-for-nothing. In Oxford he says "being is much more important than doing or even acting."

"In Oxford just being requires such concentration and patience, such energy to battle against the natural lethargy of the spirit, that it would be too much to expect its inhabitants actually to stir themselves, especially in public, although in the breaks between classes some of my colleagues did make a point of rushing from once place to another just to create the impression of being in a state of the most constant and extreme haste and bustle."

Well be that as it may, as the novel shows being itself can be very interesting and very funny too if the people are colourful enough. There is actually no central thread in the book. It is just a fragmented and loosely connected collection of brief portraits of colourful figures and some really hilarious (and a few sombre) set-pieces. And by colourful I really mean colourful. We get to meet a bunch of aging homosexuals, ex-spies, (seems in retrospect be a self-conscious commentary on the famous Cambridge spies and homosexuals), experts on interrogation of defectors from Soviet Union, an economist whose expertise is the cider tax in sixteenth century England, an eccentric couple who run a second hand book store, plump rustic girls in the neighbourhood pub, a representative of the international Arthur Machen society, a dog with three legs, an obscure writer John Gawsworth who was awarded the kingship of an island but who died in utter destitution, and a host of others. The narrator also gets involved in a romantic affair with a married woman which actually forms the bulk of the novel.

The tone and the style of the book, as befits the subject, is that of a high-brow and inventive satire. The narrator is himself an outsider, a continental, and one of his jobs in Oxford seems to be recording and commenting on the mores of Oxford academics, as if he were a trained anthropologist. Most of the time it is self-satire too though it is always full of affection and sympathy towards everybody. There is not even a hint of bitterness and anger. Some people may feel the book to be slight and without a serious point but I think that would be a mistake. Its seriousness lies not in its content but the way language is used to negotiate fiction and reality. The book has a few photographs too which like in W.G. Sebald's books tease the readers by confusing them about the nature of fiction and reality. (Marias and Sebald admired each other's works.) The tone, the style and the wordplays also reminded me of Nabokov, many of whose narrators are academics and are similarly unreliable and inventive too. He was similarly a master of high-brow satire too, though he preferred the label "parody" because he considered satire to be a didactic and hence a sub-literary art. (Nabokov's Pnin, which this book reminded me of, is actually one of my favourite academic novel i.e. a novel about academics.) In fact Nabokov himself makes a few appearances in the book as Vladimir Vladimirovich.

Marias actually wrote "a sequel" (rather a fictional-commentary) to All Souls which was published in English as Dark Back of Time (a phrase taken from All Souls). I am currently half way through it and it is an absolute masterpiece. It has a seriousness which seems to be missing from All Souls, at least on surface. If All Souls reminded me of Pnin, then Dark Back of Time is Pale Fire. I will write about it when I am done with it. For now a nice profile of Marias from The Guardian.

13 comments:

Szerelem said...

So you finally moved away from Austria?
First a post on Latin AMerica, now Spain.....

shall definitely try to read these...

btw, any plans on a literary tour to my part of the world? (umm the middle east - which is technically not my part of the world but the part that still holds my attention!)

In any case, you really must read more Pamuks....I remember you metioning wanting to read Istanbul?

Antonia said...

I have been reading this All Souls ages ago and liked it quite abit, though like A Heart So White more. Maybe because in the latter one he is more into this Cicero-sentences style, but I don't know whether I remember this well enough, All Souls was written in a lighter style. But I don't think it is satirical, it would not surprise me if it was all true.
I have the Dark Back here too, but somehow not yet read it. Maybe later.

Alok said...

szerelem: middle-east is too complex for my small brain. i have left it for more intelligent people to tackle. these tiny sleepy European countries are what I like. :)

antonia: Dark Back of Time also has nice and strange sentences (though I wouldn't know if they are cicero-sque) and strange words too. And it gets really funny because he plays on reader's anxieties about what he is reading is "truth" or fiction..

nico said...

I agree with Antonia. I've read both, 'All souls' seems to me a little too snob, and 'Negra espalda del tiempo' seems patchy in comparison. 'A heart so white' is by far his masterpiece. Marias is a polemic figure. And, now that you're in Spain, why don't you try, Adelaida Garcia Morales??? I love that writer, her gothic view in novels such as 'South', 'The vampire logic' and 'The silence of mermaids'?
Also the Catalans (never take them as spanish!!), such as Merce de Rodoreda and Carme LAforet are highly recommendable!!

Alok said...

there is of couse some snobbery but it is also very self-conscious and an element of self-satire and playfulness is always there and it undercuts that upper-class, elitist, scholarly tone that the narrator employs. I am really enjoying Dark Back of Time. Will check A Heart So White next...

I don't think the other books you mention are available in English. I also want to see the Victor Erice film which is based on "South".. I love his The Spirit of Beehive very much.

I discovered another Spanish writer recently-- Juan Goytisolo who is a master, I read his Count Julian earlier and now reading Marx Family Saga... really wonderful.

nico said...

By the way, did you know that Garcia MArquez learnt to read Catalan justo to read 'La plaza del diamante', Merce de Rodoreda's wonderful novel?

Alok said...

The Time of the Doves and South are available on Amazon. Will see if they are there in my library too. They are celebrating Hispanic culture all this month so may be they will accept some purchase suggestions to improve their collection... thanks a lot for the tips.

nico said...

Victor Erice was (or is) married to Garcia Morales, did you know?

Alok said...

No, I didn't know that. A lot of interesting trivia for one day I think :)

nico said...

Oh Alok, wonderful. That's a great thing, revisiting spanish classics. "South", the film, is not as good as the book, as it usually happens. Spanish literature, such a great thing. Of course the Golden Age is the thing: Cervantes's 'Exemplary novels' for instance, and Calderon's theater, Maria de Zayas novellas!!! F. de Quevedo's 'El buscon', that's the best. I personally think that they drained all their energy in those centuries. Of course Goytisolo is a must (such as 'La Chanca'. I don't know the translation). Juan Marse is another one that should be read, "Si te dicen que cai" (there's a movie based on that one, with Victoria Abril), and another one that's really really unique is Luis Martin Santos's "Tiempo de silencio", that's for sure translated. Of course women are crucial also: Carmen Martin Gaite, Soledad Puertolas and Carme Riera. Then the most famous ones, sucha as Almudena Grandes and Lucia Etxberraria are interesting but not that powerful.

Alok said...

I have heard of Quevedo's book. I always wanted to read these classic Picaresque novels from Spain. Will make a note next time I go browsing in the library or book store. Don Quixote was the book which I think started my love affair with literature in the first place....

Thanks again for all the names. I will make a separate list for references.

Nico said...

Forgot to tell you about the most important of all: the anonymous "El lazarillo de Tormes", foundation of the picaresque! Cheers!

Alok said...

Thanks Nico. I am just worried that my library will start looking like Don Quixote's. haha just joking...

I am planning to read Montano's Malady by Enrique Vill-Matas too. Have heard it is quite good.