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The Javier Marias Roadmap

Ever since the Your Face Tomorrow group read, I’ve made it a project to slowly work my way through as much Javier Marias as I can get my hands on. There are two books I’ve read since YFT; the first is All Souls, which is essentially a book about Jacobo Deza when he was an Oxford professor, about 15 years before Your Face Tomorrow (although he is never identified by name in the book and probably would have remained nameless had Marias not written YFT, and the book is quite unlike YFT in structure and delivery).

The second book is Dark Back of Time, which is something of a companion book to All Souls: it’s the story (fictional or non, I’m not quite sure yet; or maybe both) of the fallout from the release of All Souls in Oxford, wherein Marias claims that many of his Oxford associates imagined All Souls was a roman a clef and had various reactions to the characters they believed were based on themselves. I know this sounds like a conceit that could make Dave Eggers’ early work look downright self-abnegating by comparison (writer who wrote a book about his two years in Oxford then writes a book about the reaction to said book; how much more solipsistic can you get?), but Marias has actually made it into an amazingly robust form. In his hands the book becomes something along the lines of an ever-expanding literary detective story (threads beget threads, when then beget more threads), and anyway he spends a substantial amount of time gently mocking himself. After a while the book begins to develop a strong forward momentum, even though it’s by far the woolliest Marias book I’ve read yet.

These three books–YFT, All Souls, and Dark Back of Time–are all of a piece, not just in terms of plot and character and location, but also thematically; in fact, they hew together so well that I’m actually quite intrigued to read something by Marias from outside of this universe, just to see if I still like him as much when he’s not writing out of this vein.

I currently own three chances for that to happen: they are Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, which, given that the titular phrase has already occurred more than once in these three books, I am thinking may be similar; Bad Nature or With Elvis in Mexico, which is really more of a long story than a novel; and Travesia del horizonte, Marias’ second novel and published in English as Voyage Along the Horizon, which is already out of print in English and was not well reviewed, but, if it has no other virtues, will at least distinguish itself as being nothing at all like any other Javier Marias book I’ve read.

After that there are a few more novels left, and surely the most intriguing of the bunch is A Heart So White, which generally evokes hushed tones and fond gazes from those who have already had the honor. (The book also won the IMPAC-Dublin Award, which netted Marias and Margaret Jull Costa a cool 100,000 euros, though I’m not sure how that prize was split.)

And then we get to the nonfiction: Marias, who has written a weekly column for the Spanish newspaper El Pais for many years now, is a prolific essayist, though to the best of my knowledge virtually none of his nonfiction has been translated into English. One would think given his increasing popularity some press would take a chance on some of these intriguing titles, such as Faulkner y Nabokov: dos maestros.

And, lastly, I should mention that New Directions will be publishing the first book of Marias’ short stories to appear in English later this year.

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8 comments to The Javier Marias Roadmap

  • There is one book of nonfiction, the charming Written Lives, a collection of writers’ mini-bios. It’s a guide to which writers Marias loves and which he hates. It had a Sebaldian section at the end, something like “portraits of the artists as portraits.”

  • P.S. There’s a book of stories that was translated earlier (When I Was Mortal).

  • RJH

    Scott–I’m so glad you’ve found All Souls and Dark Back of Time as intriguing–both individually, and in relation to YFT–as I did. What a joy it was to read those books!

    I’ve read all of the others you mention, except for Voyage Along the Horizon (I have it, but haven’t cracked it open yet)…I think you will absolutely adore both A Heart So White and Tomorrow in the Battle…however, if you are looking for a change of pace from Marias, I would highly recommend Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico, and Written Lives, which Rise mentions above. The latter is both astounding and entertaining, and finds all the virtues of Marias found in the books you’ve read so far, but in much more concise, mysterious, and evocative form…the short “bios” of the writers he covers are so mysterious, so evocative, so intriguing, and so concisely composed, that it gives a very different perspective on Marias himself as a writer.

    However, I will note that I read Bad Nature between Vols. II and III of YFT, when I found myself about three weeks ahead of the reading schedule. I read it in one early evening, and I was heavily marked by that book. It is simultaneously funnier than anything else I’ve read by Marias, and at the same time heavily sad. The ending of the book pretty much blew me away. It is a totally bizarre, totally realistic, literary ghost story like nothing else I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

    So, all of which is to say: you can’t really go wrong with ANYTHING by Marias, I think…but I’d suggest going to Bad Nature, and then Written Lives, and then returning to Heart So White and Tomorrow in the Battle…

    However you arrange your progression, though, enjoy!

  • Jordan Anderson

    The ‘When I Was Mortal’ short story collection from New Directions is a great read, and is a departure from the style of Marias’s novels in some ways… he even describes in an introduction that one story was written almost like a puzzle, since a publication commissioned him to write a story in a way that Marias describes as “positively sadistic. In a very short space I had to include five elements, which were, if I remember rightly: the sea, a storm, an animal… I’ve forgotten the other two, proof that they are now completely absorbed into the story.” Another piece was commissioned to be like a crime novel.

    The reader does however “run into” characters and ideas from YFT, All Souls, and A Heart So White, via a story about Custardoy, an expanded story Marias once attributed to the fictional “Lord Rymer,” and a story called ‘Spear Blood’ where someone is killed by a spear…

  • Some of the El Pais essays ran in The Believer from February 2005 to April 2006 as the “La Zona Fantasma” column.

    You can view excerpts here:
    http://www.believermag.com/contributors/?read=marias,+javier

    I loved Dark Back of Time. Voyage Along the Horizon was a fine book, but DBT was something I was unprepared for and grateful to encounter. Voyage pales in comparison. I have yet to read All Souls, although I am especially intrigued now that a third novel related to the other two is out.

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