Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Interview with Javier Marías

Susan Irvine interviews Javier Marías.
Garlanded in literary prizes, tipped as a future Nobel winner, the Spanish author Javier Marías is also hugely popular, having sold more than 5.5m copies of his work in 39 languages. Yet he remains surprisingly little known in Britain, even though he is something of an Anglophile. His magnum opus, Your Face Tomorrow, is narrated by a Spaniard who works for a shady member of the British Establishment. All Souls (1999) is set in Oxford, and Dark Back of Time (2004) is about the bizarre impingement of the novel All Souls on Marías’ real life.

Even his narrative voice encapsulates a throwback ideal of English maleness, cool and urbane in tone, ironic, somewhat studied. And strangely reserved for someone who never shuts up. For the shadowy first-person narrator in most of Marías’ novels is in no hurry to get to the point.

The first volume of Your Face Tomorrow (2005) begins with a typical Marías sentence (though, it has to be said, one shorter than most). It is an admonishment. “One should never tell anyone anything or give information or pass on stories or make people remember beings who have never existed or trodden the earth or traversed the world, or who, having done so, are now almost safe in uncertain, one-eyed oblivion.” He then goes on, over the 711 pages (in the English editions) of volumes one and two, to do just that, making us remember beings who have never existed and those who are safe, well, almost, in oblivion, well, uncertain oblivion.

His style is one rich in clauses and qualifiers – in another life he would have made a brilliant barrister; his favourite word would seem to be “or”; his books question the border between truth and fiction, and the hidden influence of the past versus what he has called “the prestige of the present moment”, in a style that is mesmerising, crackling with sly wit, above all, prolix. He is a writer who makes Henry James look like the soul of brevity.

Earlier this month Poison, Shadow and Farewell, a final, third volume of Your Face Tomorrow was published, as yet only in Spanish . I arrive at Marías’ flat in Madrid a couple of minutes after the author’s copies have been delivered. We stand in the entrance hall surveying the pile of books. I pick one up. My wrist buckles.

“Seven hundred and seven pages ,” says Marías. “Shorter in English.”

“Goodness,” I say, hefting the wodge of pages. “You’ve outdone Tolstoy.”

“Never mind Tolstoy. Don Quixote is 1,200 pages. Mine is over 1,600 pages. I have beaten Cervantes.” He smiles. “Not in quality, of course, only in extension.” He smiles more. “It’s a terrible boldness on my part.”

But while the thought of a 1,600-page novel by a Nobel Prize-tipped Spaniard revelling in having topped Cervantes may not be the best inducement to would-be readers, rest assured: Marías is pure pleasure of the page-turning kind normally only delivered by spy novels and detective fiction. Which, in some ways, many of his novels also are.

We go into the sitting room, which is dark and moody, stuffed with books, leather chairs, and knick-knacks. A bust of Sherlock Holmes smokes its pipe on top of the telly next to a jaunty statuette of an English naval officer. It’s a very male sort of room, almost donnish. Marías lives here alone. He has never married or had children, though he has written and spoken, reservedly, about girlfriends. He doesn’t own a computer, doesn’t communicate by e-mail, and is innocent of the internet, which is odd, given that the structure of many of his books has the vertiginous labyrinthine quality of internet links.

He will barely start a story before breaking into a side story, into a meditative digression, into fictionalised family history, into a disquisition on a word such as “eavesdrop”, or a rumination on, maybe, Botox, all of which return to the main story to make an intricately interconnected whole.

Marías’ English is fluent, though he occasionally asks me how to pronounce a word, “vehement” for example. He was born in Madrid and studied English literature at university there, going on to translate such English and American authors as William Faulkner, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Thomas Browne, and Laurence Sterne. His first impulse to write, he says, came from reading Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories. “I was 12 or 13. I started to write a poor imitation of William and his gang in order to read more of them.”
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