Profile: Javier Marías

At 17, Javier Marías ran away to Paris, where he wrote his first novel. A second was published while he was still at university. His parallel career as a translator has informed his fiction and, he says, taught him how to write. Regarded as one of Spain's greatest novelists, he is also - thanks to one of his books - the unlikely king of a small Caribbean island

On the day Javier Marías was born, in Madrid, "my father, as he usually puts it, shook my hand and left for the United States for the first time". It was not, adds Marías quickly, "because he was horrified to see me" - the family followed a month later. But for his father, imprisoned then banned from teaching by the Franco government, it was the first of two such escapes, to Wellesley College (where the Maríases lived in the same building as fellow professor Vladimir Nabokov), and to Yale. In most other ways Marías says he had a typical Madrilenian childhood, but his beginning foreshadowed preoccupations that have been threaded through his work ever since he started publishing, somewhat precociously, at 19: a defiance of Franco and everything Franco stood for, and a confident, expansive cosmopolitan outlook that makes him a bestseller in Europe, but earns him some censure in his own country - censure that says more about ideas of Spanish literature he has no time for, about a certain nationalist parochialism, than about who he is.

Marías grew up reading books by English writers, studied English literature at university, has set all or part of many of his books in Britain. His living room, where a huge, brooding oil painting by Paul Wilhelm Keller-Reutlingen faces a television set nearly as large, is also his English library. Books climb to the high ceiling: at the top, at the end of a row, Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, illustrated by Gustav Doré, gazes down on the chainsmoking Marías, another elliptical, baroque teller of dark tales.

He lives on his own, in a flat on Madrid's main square, facing the Ayuntamiento, or town hall ("which often makes me wish I had a rifle - the mayors here are awful"). From his balcony, "on insomniac mornings ... or in the aftermath of reckless revelries", as he puts it in Dark Back of Time , a Piranesi-esque autobiographical "false novel" he published in 1998, Marías tests the temperature of his city. He watches people go to work, imagining their lives. Unconsciously, he listens: he has written that when the cacophonous city falls silent he knows another terrorist attack has occurred. On March 11, 2004, he looked out and saw the entire legislature, heads bowed, standing in the courtyard. The day we meet he is bleary and apologetic with grief and tiredness: though he rarely sleeps before 3am, last night he heard that a friend for 25 years, the exiled Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante, died in London, and stayed up writing a tribute for El País.

Ever since his teens, when he regularly visited the Spanish Nobel prizewinner Vicente Aleixandre, and met the engineer and writer Juan Benet, Marías has had close friendships and been mentored by older men. Sensitively, lovingly drawn old men preside in his books. The latest translated into English, Your Face Tomorrow I: Fever and Spear (the first section of a novel in parts) is dominated by one, an elderly don based on a real professor emeritus of Spanish studies at Oxford University, Sir Peter Russell. Often one is reminded of his father - whose story, essentially unchanged, appears in Fever and Spear : a young republican during the civil war, he was denounced by an erstwhile friend, accused of writing for Pravda, having links to the NKVD, con sorting with the "Red Dean of Canterbury" (Hewlett Johnson); unusually, he escaped the firing squad. Despite being banned from teaching, and writing for the papers, Julián Marías became a philosopher, and a grand old man of Spanish letters - and bequeathed to his son an abiding fascination with secrets and betrayal.

Javier and his brothers (he is the fourth of five, one of whom did not survive childhood) grew up in a liberal, bookish household, attending, unusually for Spain, a co-ed school not run by priests. Marías is not religious, and in Spain this can still cause problems: for eight years, until they fell out over a dismissive column about the Catholic church, he wrote a weekly column for El Semanal, the Sunday newspaper which, counting syndication, reached four million readers; now he writes for El País. Combined with his books, of which he has sold 2.5m in Spain (and 5m in 34 languages), the column makes him a major, and divisive, public intellectual. He is aware that some people think "that I am very cold, that I am arrogant, that I am a bit hard". "He has an infallible knack for treading on the right toes every time," says Eric Southworth, another Spanish don at Oxford, who has been a friend for 25 years. "He's a radical liberal in the sense of JS Mill, believing in the dialectic as being something for the public good." Others say it's just envy. "He writes such wonderful Spanish," says the Spanish filmmaker Agustín Díaz Yanes. "And he's so witty." It doesn't help that he has always refused all patronage from the Spanish government.

He learned to write by imitation. Though he insists he was a normal boy - good at sport (he's a keen football fan who supports Real Madrid, and has published a book of essays about football), socially at ease in school ("I was not a little monster reading Goethe when I was nine") - it is not entirely usual to write your own Just William stories once you've read all Richmal Crompton's; or "books" about musketeers, once you've exhausted Dumas, Paul Féval, Jean Ladoucette. He's still fond of musketeers: a long row of handmade tin soldiers guards one wall of books; another, of soldiers on horseback, elephant-back, camel-back ("that's Lawrence of Arabia!"), guards another.

Marías has said that "in the intellectually mediocre country I grew up in, in which everyone thought Franco was eternal, people like me took shelter in the movies. The American pictures of the forties and fifties were our stimulation." Yanes says that "he's like an encyclopedia. Sometimes I am ashamed." But then it's typical: "If Javier wants to know something, he wants to know everything."

The summer he was 17, Marías saw 85 films in six weeks. He had run away from home, and was living with his uncle Jesús Franco, a pornographer and director of Fu Manchu movies, in Paris. He had run away specifically to write a novel, a parody-tribute to American movies called Los dominios del lobo ( The Dominions of the Wolf ), which Juan Benet helped publish two years later. His parents did not let on they knew where he was.

His second novel, written while at university in Madrid, was quite different, but still a pastiche. Set among intellectuals on a boat in the Mediterranean, it owes a lot, says Alexis Grohmann, an academic at the University of Edinburgh who has written extensively on Marías, to the Henry James of The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers , to Joseph Conrad and Conan Doyle. "Marías self-consciously emulates the structures of Edwardian prose writing, so his Spanish reads, to some extent, like a translation from English."

By this time Marías was part of a group of older writers clustered around Benet, and while his novels expressed youthful exuberance, they also made a serious statement about Spanish literature. "Of course we have had novels throughout the centuries," says Marías, "but most were only totally justified if they somehow illustrated our reality." There was little fantasy - no Alice in Wonderland or Dracula - and under Franco fiction was further hobbled by censorship: the few novels being written were heavy with working-class sympathies, with censor-baffling imagery. So experimental jeux d'esprit with foreign subjects, argues Grohmann, demanded and enacted a break from the stifling social-realist tradition. They also brought accusations that he was not a true Spaniard, but an angloaburrido - an "Anglo-bore".

Marías's mother died when he was 26, living in Barcelona with a girlfriend and writing. "Sometimes it's very hard for me to bear the fact that I was unaware of my mother's serious illness," he wrote in Dark Back of Time. "It was kept from me ..." When he found out he hurried to her bedside; she lasted only a few more hours.

Yanes met Marías at university but it was only at this difficult time that he came to know him well. With others who wanted to be novelists, scriptwriters, artists - "we were young, we were poor and we were free" - they went to discos, stayed up till all hours, talking. "Javier was very brilliant when he was young," says Yanes. "We all knew he was going to be successful." They still have long dinners once a month, to which Marías brings obscure DVDs he's traced; they share a passion for British second world war pictures.

The Spanish often talk too loudly, says Yanes, but Marías is quieter, he has more "English manners". And "he's always telling jokes - though they're sometimes so serious that people take him seriously." An element in many of his novels - the account of dinner at High Table in All Souls , his Oxford-set campus novel, say - is a raucously, farcically funny set piece.

For six years he did not publish a novel of his own. Instead he became a translator, from English to Spanish, beginning with Museums and Women by John Updike, moving on to Hardy's The Withered Arm . His next translation, Tristram Shandy , had over 1,000 footnotes and won a national award; it was followed by Conrad's The Mirror of the Sea and poems by O'Hara, Nabokov, Faulkner, Robert Louis Stevenson. Over the years, for "the pleasure of incorporating something you like into your own language," he has added Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, Yeats, Anthony Burgess, Auden, Salinger, and the Religio Medici of Sir Thomas Browne. "It's a commonplace to say that a translator is a very careful, or even a privileged reader," says Marías. "I would say that he's a very careful and privileged writer. What you're asked to do when you're a translator is to rewrite acceptably - that is to say, well - something marvellous already written in a different language. You have to choose every word. And like an actor, you have to renounce your own style."

He considers translation the best possible training for writing novels, and feels he learned most from Sterne, because he spent so long with Sterne's playfulness, his archaisms, his refusal to be bound by conventional treatments of chronology.

All Marías's novels since 1986's A Man of Feeling feature a narrator who is in some way an interpreter. In A Man of Feeling he is an opera singer, interpreting other people's music; in All Souls (1989) he is a teacher of translation at Oxford; A Heart So White (1992) somehow makes of simultaneous translations between world leaders a love story and an extended comic set-piece; in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (1994) the character is a ghostwriter. "They are people who are renouncing their own voices."

By the time he wrote A Man of Feeling Marías had lived in Barcelona, in Paris, in Oxford (from 1983 to 1985, teaching, like his narrator in All Souls, Spanish literature and translation theory), in Boston (at Wellesley, like his father, and in the same house), and in Venice (because of a rela tionship). A Man of Feeling and All Souls are eloquent on the topic of a man alone in a foreign city, in yet another strange room, observing, cataloguing, an acerbic traveller in antique lands. Even when friends and women are involved, in these and later novels, this singularity clings to him, taking on darker tones until, in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, he begins to follow unsuspecting people around.

A Man of Feeling is the tale of an obsessive love triangle written, the breathless conceit is, over a day. It was suggested, wrote Marías, by an anonymous trio he once saw on a train. All Souls , however, is full of people recognisably from the Modern Languages faculty at Oxford. "It's curious," says Southworth, one of its dedicatees, "how academics will spend ages telling you to be cautious about making one-to-one connections between a real world and an invented world, and then when they smell the slightest possibility of gossip they forget all about it. All Souls has got adroit observations of English life and the university, but that's not what it's 'about'. What it's really interested in is how people deal with the past. It's about hauntings, rather than 'has Jim got a 20th part of Henry and a 19th part of someone else?'"

Disconcertingly, even invented characters were equated with real people. "Good God," Marías wrote in Dark Back of Time, which, nine years later, explored the extraordinary ways All Souls impinged upon his real life, "as a result of my novel there is now a professor at Oxford whom everyone believes to be an adulteress, guilty of an extra-marital, Continental and, worst of all, Peninsular liaison, some woman who did no such thing, or at least not with me ..."

Fact and fiction had got so cosy that Grohmann devoted an essay to whether All Souls was autobiographical writing or fiction. It's a vertigo characteristic of Marías's mature writing, which is always fronted by a male narrator (except for a short story in When I Was Mortal ). This "I" is not a series of "talking-head aliases for Marías", says Southworth, but "there's some kind of kinship," says Marías. "That's deliberate." By Fever and Spear the dividing wall is thin indeed.

All Souls is also the point at which he matured into his very particular voice and style. Paragraphs can be pages long, and contain only one sentence. They wonder, qualify and requalify, piling on clauses like speed bumps, sometimes ending up at an entirely surprising full stop. This makes him difficult to translate, says Margaret Jull Costa, his much-praised English translator. It's partly the syntax - bolt-on sentences work better in Spanish - but "I don't think that's the problem. I think it's more the thought process that's difficult. He's like Picasso, who said he used to take a line for a walk. Javier takes a thought for a walk. In a way they're very philosophical novels, and that's quite alien to the English reader. We don't like to be made to think."

Jull Costa admits her heart sank somewhat when she was faced with the epic abstractions and equivocations of Fever and Spear, but denies that Marías's approach to sentences is a liability: "Are they a weakness in Proust? It's just a way of getting deeper into things, of not accepting face-value judgments." His style enacts his subject, which "is really the individual consciousness - how we think, how we justify, how we perceive, and how we flail around for some certainty, some absolute feeling or judgment and find it a lie and an impossibility." Having said that, his "sense of humour is essential".

Another distinctive stylistic quirk is Marías's use of repetition. Phrases recur, like echoes, within novels; the same phrase will then reappear in a completely different novel. One of them, the "dark back of time", eventually gets its own book. (It's adapted from a phrase in The Tempest. Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me , and When I Was Mortal arise from the same speech in Richard III. A Heart So White is from Macbeth. "Shakespeare opened so many byways, and didn't explore them", says Marías.) He likens his technique to music: "That reappearance - I wouldn't say repetition, because it's not exactly that - that reappearance of a motif is very often extremely moving. The fact that you recognise something ..."

He does the same with people, relationships, moments. So a crooked artist from one novel will reappear in a short story; there is often a bereaved father, a disreputable male friend. A recurring figure is a woman called "Luisa" - not the same figure, but always the wife-to-be, or wife, or ex-wife of the narrator. In All Souls the narrator is rescued from Oxford's crippling ennui by returning to Madrid, marrying a Luisa, and having a baby; in A Heart So White he is a roué who has finally married a Luisa, and mourns his lost "abstract future": "Now what?" In Fever and Spear he has lost his Luisa. Marías claims he simply doesn't like many other names, but there is more to it. "Luisa" seems to mean something pure, ideal, particularly since the non-Luisa women in his books are so often lost souls, prostitutes, damaged, or violently dead.

Both A Heart So White, which won the IMPAC prize, and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me , which is tautly balanced between meditation and noir narrative and some see as his best novel, begin with a dead woman. In A Heart So White , it is a woman just back from her honeymoon, who, during lunch with her family, shoots herself. It happened to a cousin of his mother's, and he has met no one who knows why: "I realised that when you cannot know the truth, it is only then that you can invent it. But of course, invent it in a way which is convincing to your own self."

In Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me the narrator has dinner with a woman whose husband is away. She dies, of natural causes, in his arms (this and adultery have been frequent tropes, ever since A Man of Feeling : bed, for Marías, is both a confessional and a place of danger, in which we must be watched over - or held, if nothing can be done). "That death was totally invented, fortunately. No one ever died in my arms." Neither woman is called Luisa.

When this was published - the two novels followed each other within two years - he was often asked what he had against women. It is not just these two scenes. While his men are impressive, believable, sympathetic or at least amused, his women are more worrying. His narrator dwells on their bodies - more accurately, parts of their bodies: on legs, with appreciation; on breasts - often bloodied, often of dead or seemingly dead women - with a certain critical revulsion, a casual objectification.

"The atmosphere of all these novels is one of high sexual tension, which verges on the pornographic," Margaret Drabble, who was on the IMPAC jury and has included him in the Oxford Companion to English Literature , has written. "As a woman, I find them more disturbing than offensive. They seem to reach back into a darker past where women and men were more sharply differentiated than they now allow themselves to be, than they now think they ought to be. They strike one as politically incorrect, but not in a simple macho manner. They cause alarm but not, on the whole, offence ... Something more complicated than old-fashioned sexism is going on here, and I can't work out what it is."

Marías insists he just describes the world: "In our society, women still get the worst part, in many senses. In Spain we also have this terrible problem, of women being killed by ex-husbands, or ex-boyfriends, or boyfriends. Over 100 women die that way every year. You have the feeling, sometimes, when you read the papers, that it's an epidemic." And it's true a note of warning rings through his work, about the violence men know they can - do - inflict. But he also admits, "I don't feel so sure of my capacity to state anything about female characters. There are things which seem to me quite impenetrable. So my female characters are portrayed with a certain slight distance, or with a lot of guessing. And also because in my life there's a lot of guessing."

In Dark Back of Time one of his so-called proofs that Javier Marías and the unnamed narrator of All Souls are not the same is that "there has never even been a significant or lasting Luisa in my life". Which does not mean there have been no relationships: "I don't know if he's going to like this," says Yanes with a certain admiration, "but he was a womaniser. He always had very pretty girlfriends."

Marías says he has had six or seven major relationships, most of which are now friendships, with him as well as with each other. ("I suppose that says something in my favour, doesn't it? Or maybe not.") He is in a relationship at the moment, with a woman in Barcelona. "That's happened to me very often - another city, another country, or she was married. For years I thought what a coincidence. But maybe it's not so much of a coincidence. I don't find it a problem in general, if no one is unhappy because of the situation. It's harder to get tired of each other. There's time for longing."

But Dark Back of Time is much more than a statement for the defence: it is a bravura enactment of the spirals and vicissitudes of intellectual curiosity, especially the sections relating to a passage in All Souls many people assumed to be invented but was actually the most true: the life of John Gawsworth, a pseudonym for Terence Ian Fytton Armstrong, poet and literary man-about-town in the first part of the 20th century, who was also King Juan I, third king of Redonda. Redonda is a real, barren island in the Caribbean which belongs, legally, to Antigua, but has been an imaginary kingdom since the father of fantasy writer MP Shiel claimed it in 1865. From him the kingship passed to Gawsworth - who claimed it enthusiastically, conferring titles on, for example, Barry Humphries, Joan Crawford, Lawrence Durrell and Diana Dors. Gawsworth bequeathed it to writer Jon Wynne-Tyson (who ennobled, among others, Alan Coren and Libby Purves). Wynne-Tyson, as Marías tells it, abdicated in favour of Marías because, in All Souls, he had written about Gawsworth so sympathetically.

"I thought I shouldn't term myself a real novelist if I don't accept this," says Marías, who considers Redonda "a realm inherited through irony and writing", even though "at heart I'm a republican and islands make me nervous". He has taken it seriously, becoming literary executor for Shiel and Gawsworth and establishing his own press, Reino de Redonda, to publish them, as well as some of his own translations, and any books he feels need rescue, such as Richmal Crompton's fiction for adults.

And he has conferred his own titles - on Pedro Almodóvar (Duke of Trémula), William Boyd (Duke of Brazzaville), AS Byatt (Duchess of Morpho Eugenia), and Francis Ford Coppola (Duke of Megalópolis), for example - and established his own literary prize. The dukes each suggest three nominees (Almodóvar is particularly conscientious), and the winner - so far there have been four, JM Coetzee ("before he got the Nobel"), John H Elliott, Claudio Magris and Eric Rohmer - gets €6,000, and a dukedom.

The series of novels Marías is working on, of which Fever and Spear is the first (the second is published, but not in English, and he is writing a third), pursue the suggestion in All Souls that in the second world war modern languages dons were pressed into service as spies - and explore the idea that we pretend not to see that everyone we know will at some point betray us. The narrator, who has left Spain for London and is visiting Oxford, can see this, so is recruited by a latter-day spy network that trades in guessing what people will do next. "He's a caring person," reads a report on this recruit, this new "interpreter of lives", "not indifferent to others, but always in a rather abstract way ... Things happen, and he makes a mental note ... he knows more about us than we ourselves do. About our characters I mean ... With a knowledge to which we are not a party ... It's as if he were living a parallel theoretical life." Perhaps not unlike Javier Marías, novelist.

Javier Marías

Born: September 20, 1951, Madrid.

Educated: Institución Libre de Enseñanza, Colegio Estudio, Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

Some books: 1971 Los Dominios del Lobo; '72 Travesía del Horizonte; '78 El monarca del tiempo; '82 El siglo; '86 The Man of Feeling; '89 All Souls; '92 A Heart So White; '94 Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me; '96 When I Was Mortal; '98 Dark Back of Time; 2005 Your Face Tomorrow 1: Fever and Spear.

Some awards: 1979 Spanish National Award for Translation; '93 el Premio de la Critica, Prix L'oeil et la Lettre; '96 Prix femina; '97 IMPAC International Prize for Literature, the Nelly Sachs Prize for German Literature; 2000 Alberto Moravia International Prize for Foreign Fiction


Aida Edemariam

The GuardianTramp

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