The Spanish Riveter: The Person Doing the Telling – the work of Javier Marías by Declan O’Driscoll

No writer was more keenly aware of what is lost and what is gained by the process of translation than Javier Marías. Speaking to Paul Holdengräber in 2009, he said that ‘when you translate a book, the book loses the language that made it possible. It loses absolutely each and every word the author imagined’. It is the translator who makes the crucial decisions about which words will be used. Unusually, Marías could see this transformative process from the perspective of an author whose writing was translated into many languages, but also as a translator, into Spanish, of many significant English language writers, including Laurence Sterne, Sir Thomas Browne, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Hardy and John Updike. This process, he felt, greatly benefitted his own writing. As Gareth J. Wood writes in Javier Marías’s Debt to Translation (OUP, 2012), ‘it is clear that Marías believes translation to have honed his skills as a writer, shaping his prose for the better to the point where he actively encourages others to follow his example’.

When we read his novels, therefore, we should be aware that they were written in Spanish by Javier Marías but that in the English translations ‘every single word has been changed and the wording of a translator has never been chosen by the author but by the translator’. Marías was very well served by Margaret Jull Costa, the translator of almost all of his novels into English. This has meant that not only was he translated with immense care and diligence but that her decisions lend the novels a consistent ‘voice’. The single novel not translated by Jull Costa was Voyage Along the Horizon, which was translated by Kristina Cordero. This was an early novel – his second – written when he was twenty-one and which he described as a ‘pastiche’. Three other youthful novels remain untranslated. While Voyage Along the Horizon is a curiosity, it did introduce the lengthy, multi-clause sentences which would become a notable element of his writing style, starting with his first significant novel, The Man of Feeling, published in Spanish in 1986 but translated into English seventeen years later, when Marías was a notable figure in world literature. This book introduced other stylistic features that would become signatures of the writer’s mature work. The most significant of these is the early introduction of a conundrum with strong moral implications. From this premise, the narrator can linger at considerable length on details that allow for both exacting considerations of the situation we have been made aware of and diffuse diversions that appear to work through casual associations in the narrator’s mind. In an epilogue to this novel, Marías imparts a lot about novel-writing methodology: ‘This is how I usually work. 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 appear or disappear, what will become of their lives or of the fragment of their lives that I am going to recount.’

Marías’ next novel, All Souls, translated in 1992 is, again, labyrinthine in its extended sentence form. The setting is the Modern Languages department of the Oxford University college that gives the novel its name. Loose musings on the arcane rituals of the college and the manners and behaviour of the English mix freely around an affair the narrator is having with a married lecturer. With gossip wafting about like the cigarette smoke that is everywhere, there is plenty to amuse the reader. It is also the novel that first introduces readers to the intriguing story of the island of Redonda, which Marías returned to in Dark Back of Time. It is also a novel much concerned with ‘eavesdropping’, a major element of his subsequent novels.

The purpose of characters who listen and spy is to uncover well-concealed truths or secrets that are usually presented within the initial scene-setting. Such is the case in the novel A Heart So White (1995), the first of four books whose titles are taken from plays by Shakespeare (five if you accept a slight reworking of a quote from The Tempest for Dark Back of Time). As with all but one of his other novels, this one has a first-person narrator. In this instance, the narrator has a father who is fervently anxious to keep aspects of his past – regarding details of his first two wives – in the realm of the unknown. As the narrator was the product of his father’s third marriage, this prompts the narrator to think deeply about the nature of his own existence. Intricate examinations of people’s inexplicable behaviour, the never-quite-equal nature of love and recalibrations of the past are the concerns of much of the novel.

In all of Marías’s novels, interrogation of what can seem like incidental factors, or even apparently whimsical obsessions, occupy the space where, in other novels, the plot would advance. This is very much the case in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (1996), in which digression and allusion – the search for connections and the impossibility of certainty – form the novel’s substantial heart. ‘I am the person doing the telling and people can either choose to listen to me or not,’ the narrator says.

As ever, there is a dilemma: a woman dies in the arms of a man who is not her husband. What to do? The predicament is the means to the author’s true purpose. He relishes the opportunity to linger over themes both familiar (the character of the English, the nature of the Spanish) and less familiar (the many manifestations of battles, interpersonal or military). For Marías, everything is contingent. In all of his work, the happenstance of life, and of death, is rendered with a kind of incredulity. This may be what happened, he seems to say, but it could so easily have been different.

With Dark Back of Time (2001), Marías returned to the Oxford setting of All Souls. Dark Back of Time is best approached after reading the earlier book because it is in conversation with that novel. Was All Souls based on actual happenings? Is this book? Or should we believe him when he tells us: ‘the elements of the story I am now embarking upon are entirely capricious, determined by chance, merely episodic and cumulative’? Much evocative time is spent in second-hand bookshops. We also return to the bizarre history of Redonda, the uninhabited Caribbean island that once belonged to the writer John Gawsworth and of which, following much gentle persuasion, Marías became ‘king’. He exercised his position to initiate a prize, the winners of which became Dukes of Redonda. Among those chosen were, J. M. Coetzee, Claudio Magris, Éric Rohmer and Alice Munro.

The trilogy of books, collectively titled Your Face Tomorrow (2005, 2006 and 2009) and totalling 1,262 pages, allowed Marías first to present his material as happening in a novelistic ‘real time’, and then to replay it in slow motion, permitting a meticulous examination, in the hope that the truth and intention of what has occurred can be determined. The trilogy is a spy novel (or anti-spy novel) but one that is primarily concerned with discernment. Close observations that bleed into voyeurism are conducted by the narrator, Jacques Deza, who is judged to have a particular talent for evaluating a person’s character by observing them intently. But, as he discovers, to see is sometimes to be. When he is contaminated by the actions of another, there can be no negating what he has witnessed.

All great novelists establish their own sense of reality as they write. The novels of Javier Marías can, at times, push hard against our knowledge of the world. Within his fictional creations, there is always both a discernible coherence and a notion of unreality. This applies, in particular, to his dialogue, which is far too eloquent, and elegant, to bear any comparison with the ways in which people actually speak. Yet, it does not interfere with our acceptance of the particular circumstances presented to us in his fictional world, because Marías patiently lays down accretions of details – both physical and metaphysical – which convince us wholly as we read. In The Infatuations (2013), for example, it is impossible not to become ensnared in the shifting contrivance that may – or equally may not – explain the violent death of a businessman. There is no assurance in what we are being told and there is an artificiality about much of what is said. A resolution will not be forthcoming, and yet it is all immensely satisfying and even – within the given context – credible.

Doubt is, again, central to Thus Bad Begins (2016). As the narrator says, ‘novels are such arbitrary, impure things’. They are not the place to seek definitive answers. Yet, the truth is precisely what Eduardo Muriel, a film director, thinks he wants to confront. That truth, inevitably, proves to be elusive.

In The Infatuations, one of the main characters illustrates a point by reading Balzac’s Colonel Chabert to another character. Identity, he shows, is easily mislaid. Knowing who you are is no guarantee that others will stop thinking of you, in every sense, as the person you once were. In Berta Isla (2018), absence makes the heart grow doubtful. Berta married the man she has loved since they were at school together, but his secrecy and evasions, along with his increasingly lengthy absences, mean that misgivings accumulate and even the truth of his identity becomes uncertain. A rare instance of third-person narration (in the sections detailing his activities) gives the novel an extra sense of distance and estrangement.

The man’s name is Tomás Nevinson, which is also the name given to the final novel by Javier Marías, who died on 11 September, 2022. Tomás Nevinson (2023) returns us to Oxford and spies and people we have met before. ‘I was brought up the old-fashioned way, and could never have dreamed that I would one day be ordered to kill a woman’ it begins. Once again, we are presented with a quandary of extraordinary difficulty, and one that raises moral issues that must, in characteristic Marías style, be considered with due gravity and range. It’s a very fine ending to an outstanding body of work in which each novel has mingled with all of his other novels and with the great writing of western literature.

By Declan O’Driscoll

Read The Spanish Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.

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