Sad news this week of the death of Javier Marías, for me the most complete novelist of his generation. His trilogy of novels, Your Face Tomorrow, is one of the finest things I’ve ever read. Astonishing that he never won the Nobel. He must have pissed someone off: but then he spent a lifetime doing just that. It was almost a second career, which he perfected over many years in a weekly column for the Spanish newspaper El País, exposing hypocrisy and venality wherever he found them (and he found plenty). He died of pneumonia following on from a bout of COVID. A lifelong smoker, he was often photographed with cigarette in hand, as here.
In an essay from 1995 called ‘What does and doesn’t happen’, Marías wrote:
‘We all have at bottom the same tendency … to go on seeing the different stages of our life as the result and compendium of what has happened to us and what we have achieved and what we’ve realised, as if it were only this that made up our existence. And we almost always forget that … every path also consists of our losses and farewells, of our omissions and unachieved desires, of what we one day set aside or didn’t choose or didn’t finish, of numerous possibilities most of which – all but one in the end – weren’t realised, of our vacillations and our daydreams, of our frustrated projects and false or lukewarm longings, of the fears that paralysed us, of what we left behind or what we were left behind by. We perhaps consist, in sum, as much of what we have not been as of what we are, as much of the uncertain, indecisive or diffuse as of the shareable and quantifiable and memorable; perhaps we are made in equal measure of what could have been and what is.’
The genre of the novel, Marías goes on to say, is able to show, ‘that what was is also of a piece with what was not’. It goes without saying that what never happened is available only to reflection, not to observation. This singular insight has been of invaluable help in my own writing.
On a similar theme, Javier Marías begins Dark Back of Time, his ‘false novel’, with the words: ‘I believe I’ve still never mistaken fiction for reality, though I have mixed them together more than once, as everyone does, not only novelists or writers but everyone who has recounted anything since the time we know began, and no one in that known time has done anything but tell and tell, or prepare and ponder a tale, or plot one.’
Which led me once to ponder: this eternal recounting, this need to tell and tell, is there not something appalling about it – and not only in the sense of whether or not we consciously or intentionally mix reality and fiction? Are there not times when we wish the whole cycle of telling and recounting and explaining and narrating would simply stop – if only for a week, or a day; if only for an hour? The incessant recapitulation and summary and anecdotage and repetition of things said by oneself, by others, to others, in the name of others; the chatter and the news-bearing and the imparting of knowledge and misinformation and the banter and explication and the never ending, all-consuming barrage of blithering fatuity that pounds us from the radio, from the television, from the internet, the unceasing need to tell and make known? And whenever we recount, we inevitably embroider, invent, cast aspersion, throw doubt upon, question, examine, offer for consideration, include or discard motive, analyse, assert, make reference to, exonerate, implicate, align with, dissociate from, deconstruct, reconfigure, tell tales on, accuse, slander or lie.
But nevertheless, if we are anything like Javier Marías, we carry on writing, carry on with the dance, because there is no other. What else could we do? Perhaps for him, at three score years and ten, the time had come to hang up his Olympia Carrera de Luxe (he continued, to the end, to work at an electric typewriter, as though in denial of the digital age). In a similar vein, he once commented that he found it impossible to write fiction set more recently than the 1990s, as though the strictly contemporary world, the world of the new millennium, were simply beyond his remit. The present, with its impossible torrents of information overload, social networking and accompanying identity politics was best left to those born into it.
Marías, whose family background was, like that of so many of his compatriots, overshadowed by the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship that followed (his father, a respected philosopher, was informed upon by someone he believed to be a friend). As a child, young Javier spent some years in the United States, where he learned to speak perfect English. He published his first novel, Los dominios del lobo (The Domains of the Wolf), aged only nineteen, and later went on to teach for two years at Oxford, where he set his coruscating and brilliant satire of university life, Todos las almas (All Souls). He was also a prodigiously gifted translator from English, with works by Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, W.H. Auden and others – perhaps most notably Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy – among his many translations.
The novel many believe to be his masterpiece, Un corazón tan blanco (A Heart So White), appeared in 1992. Its opening is one that sends shudders through me still:
‘I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father’s gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the dining room with other members of the family and three guests. When they heard the shot, some five minutes after the girl had left the table, her father didn’t get up at once, but stayed there for a few seconds, paralysed, his mouth still full of food, not daring to chew or swallow, far less to spit the food out on to his plate; and when he finally did get up and run to the bathroom, those who followed him noticed that when he discovered the blood-spattered body of his daughter and clutched his head in his hands, he kept passing the mouthful of meat from one cheek to the other, still not knowing what to do with it. He was carrying his napkin in one hand and he didn’t let go of it until, after a few moments, he noticed the bra that had been flung into the bidet and he covered it with the one piece of cloth that he had to hand or rather in his hand and which his lips had sullied, as if he were more ashamed of the sight of her underwear than of her fallen, half-naked body with which, until only a short time before, the article of underwear had been in contact: the same body that had been sitting at the table, that had walked down the corridor, that had stood there. Before that, with an automatic gesture, the father had turned off the tap in the basin, the cold tap, which had been turned full on.’
I never met Javier Marías, and never felt the desire to, since his novels and essays are so marvellous that the man himself might conceivably have proved a disappointment. But I do recall a story, told me by a friend, that reveals – with dreadful acuity given the way he met his end – something of his character. Marías had been invited to a prestigious international fellowship at a world famous university, which involved lodging in one of the university’s colleges for a couple of months and presenting a series of six lectures. Marías was inclined to accept, but there was one proviso: would he be allowed to smoke in his college room? Unfortunately, he would not: a smoking ban applied to all the university buildings and grounds, without exception. Marías declined the invitation.
He will be much missed, including by those, like me, who only knew him through his works.