Javier Marías won’t get the Nobel prize that many people, including me, think he deserved. No matter. He had plenty of prizes while he was alive. The greater 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, at ease with philosophy and pop-cultural trivia, genre and literary fiction. He looked the great writers of the past, from many national traditions, squarely and companionably in the eye.
Marías, perhaps above all, was a profoundly cosmopolitan writer. He taught all over the world and said he did “not much believe in national literatures”. Translation was a central preoccupation of his life and work – he translated Nabokov, Hardy, Faulkner and Conrad, among many others. He was at home in Oxford and Madrid alike, and didn’t mind having a character notice a multilingual pun or tick off Lady Diana Spencer, in a slightly peevish aside, for her “awful, mistake-ridden English”.
He never translated himself (most of his novels have been translated into English by the superb Margaret Jull Costa) but he won a prize, early in his career, for his translation of Tristram Shandy, and there’s something of Sterne in his novels: teasing, digressive, preoccupied with the relationship between narration and reality. He was metafictional, but in a prankish rather than a solemn way. In volume one of his 2002 novel Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear, the narrator (like the protagonist of 2017’s Berta Isla, a translator who becomes a sort of spy) rifles through an Oxford don’s bookshelf and finds a series of Ian Fleming first editions signed to his host.
The books have an atmosphere and style that’s almost indescribable: copious, mysterious, elliptical, poignant. In case that makes him sound un-fun to read, I should stress that he was also very funny. You move, with his narrators, through interesting fog. In his masterwork, the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, he wrote thrillers like a poet. Images or phrases would return unexpectedly pages or even books apart. The spy, with his multiple identities, or the translator, somewhere in between languages and cultures, came to be a symbol for Marías’s riddling investigation into reality. He’s a novelist of slippages and misunderstandings.
This is what Tupra said in a fake accent which was perhaps his real accent, inside his fast car, in the lunar light of the streetlamps, sitting on my right, with his hands still resting on the motionless steering wheel, squeezing it or strangling it, he wasn’t wearing gloves now, they were hidden away, dirty and sodden and wrapped in toilet paper, in his overcoat, along with the sword. — “That’s the thing, Jock. Fear,” he added …
He wrote in vast looping sentences, tracking hesitations, qualifications, contradictions and second thoughts: Proust with sudden 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 for reading other people – for seeing what their face will be tomorrow – but can’t make head or tail of his own motivations. He’s variously Jaime, Jacques, Jacobo, Jack, Diego and Iago – Marías, the Shakespearean, reminding 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 much as he was preoccupied with change and uncertainty (when writing, he said, he used a compass rather than a map: “I know I’m going north, let’s say, but what I find is a surprise”), he recognised how time locks some things down. His practice, once he had a passage down, was to leave it: “I apply the same principle we adopt in life. We may wish at 40, for example, that we hadn’t married this person when younger, but it’s part of our life. Most authors would change the mistake, but I stick with it, I make it necessary.” He talked elsewhere in his work about how the past is perpetually “turning into fiction”.
It seems apt to his preoccupations that – as King Xavier I – Marías laid a disputed claim to be King of Redonda, the semi-fictional monarch of an uninhabited Caribbean micro-nation. The supposed monarchy of Redonda goes back to a (probably hoax) claim by the Edwardian fantasy writer MP Shiel and his disciple John Gawsworth, who inherited the crown and whom Marías described approvingly as “poet/drunkard/beggar”. During his “reign”, the spurious aristocratic titles Marías doled out 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 given imaginary duchies.
Redonda is without a monarch, and Marías is now beyond translation. “The only ones who do not share a common language, Jacobo,” one of his characters cautions another, “are the living and the dead.”