JAvier Marías will not get the Nobel Prize that many people, including me, think he deserved. No matter. He had plenty of awards during his lifetime. The biggest loss is that we won’t get any more of his extraordinary novels. There is no other writer like him, certainly not in English. He was a complete original, comfortable with philosophy and pop-cultural trivia, genre and literary fiction. He looked straight in the eye at the great writers of the past, from many national traditions.
Marías, perhaps above all, was a profoundly cosmopolitan writer. He taught all over the world and declared that he “didn’t believe much in national literatures”. Translation was a central concern of his life and work – he translated Nabokov, Hardy, Faulkner and Conrad, among many others. He was at home in Oxford and Madrid, and he didn’t mind a character noticing a multilingual pun or ticking off Lady Diana Spencer, in a slightly brooding aside, for her “awful, erroneous English”.
He never translated himself (most of his novels were translated into English by the superb Margaret Jull Costa) but he won an award early in his career for his translation of Tristram Shandy, and he There is something of Sterne in his novels: teasing, degressive, preoccupied with the relationship between narration and reality. It was metafictional, but in a wacky rather than solemn way. In the first volume of his 2002 novel Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear, the narrator (as the protagonist of 2017’s Berta Isla, a translator who becomes a sort of spy) rummages through the library of an Oxford professor and finds a series of first editions by Ian Fleming signed in the name of his host.
The books have an almost indescribable atmosphere and style: copious, mysterious, elliptical, poignant. In case that makes it unfun to read, I have to point out that it was also very funny. You move, along with its narrators, through an interesting fog. In his masterpiece, the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, he wrote thrillers like a poet. Images or sentences would unexpectedly send pages or even books apart. The spy, with multiple identities, or the translator, somewhere between languages and cultures, has become the symbol of Marías’ enigmatic investigation into reality. He is a novelist of excesses and misunderstandings.
That’s what Tupra was saying in a fake accent that might have been his real accent, inside his fast car, in the moonlight of the street lamps, sitting to my right, his hands still resting on the stationary steering wheel, squeezing or strangling him, he wasn’t wearing any gloves now, they were hidden, dirty and soggy and wrapped in toilet paper, in his overcoat, along with the sword. — “That’s the thing, Jock. Fear,” he added…
He writes in vast looped sentences, tracking down hesitations, reservations, contradictions and remorse: Proust with bursts of ultra-violence.
His themes were the big ones: time and memory, power and cruelty, identity, betrayal, deception and, above all, self-deception. The protagonist of Your Face Tomorrow has an almost supernatural instinct to read other people – to see what their face will be like tomorrow – but can’t seem to make head or tail of his own motives. He is in turn Jaime, Jacques, Jacobo, Jack, Diego and Iago – Marías, the Shakespearean, who reminds us: “I am not what I am. He once said in an interview that the novelist is “not really supposed to ‘answer’ things, not even to make them clearer, but rather to explore – often blindly – the huge areas of darkness and show them better.
But although he was preoccupied with change and uncertainty (when writing, he says, he was using a compass rather than a map: “I know I’m going north, say, but what I find is a surprise”), he recognized how time locks certain things in. His practice, once he had a passage down, was to leave it: “I apply the same principle that we adopt in life. We can wish at 40 years, for example, not to have married this younger person, but that is part of our life. Most authors would change the error, but I’m sticking with it, making it necessary. He has spoken elsewhere in his work of how the past “perpetually turns into fiction”.
It seems appropriate to his concerns that – as King Xavier I – Marías claimed in a contested way to be the King of Redonda, the semi-fictional monarch of an uninhabited micro-nation in the Caribbean. Redonda’s alleged monarchy dates back to a claim (probably a hoax) by Edwardian fantasy writer MP Shiel and his disciple John Gawsworth, who inherited the crown and who Marías approvingly described as a “poet/drunkard/beggar” . During his “reign”, the false aristocratic titles that Marías distributed were a way, perhaps, of situating himself in a canon: John Ashbery, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, WG Sebald, AS Byatt, Pierre Bourdieu, Pedro Almodóvar and Jonathan Coe were among those who received imaginary duchies.
Redonda is without a monarch, and Marías is now beyond translation. “The only ones who don’t share a common language, Jacobo,” warns one of his characters, “are the living and the dead.”