The Spanish novelist Javier Marìas was born in Madrid in 1951. His father Julián Marìas (1914–2005) was one of twentieth-century Spain’s most important philosophers and the author of a history of philosophy that became the standard textbook on the subject in the Spanish-speaking world. Marìas senior was also on occasion an outspoken critic of the Franco regime; he was briefly imprisoned, and banned from teaching in Spanish universities from the late Forties to the early Seventies. His first appointment abroad, in 1951, was at Wellesley College, where the Marìases lived in the same building as Vladimir Nabokov, and became friends with him.
Like Nabokov’s, Javier Marìas’s fiction might be described as a supremely self-conscious, near-obsessive inquiry into self-consciousness and obsession. At some point his protagonists almost invariably engage in Humbertian acts of tortured, covert surveillance, and these in turn release dizzying flights of compulsive but fruitless speculation. One of his stalkers, Vìctor in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, actually watches his quarry, Luisa (one of many Luisas in his oeuvre), purchase a copy of Lolita in the course of a shopping trip; “an excellent choice,” he observes.
Marìas established his name with the novella The Man of Feeling of 1986, although aficionados may seek out Voyage Along the Horizon, published when he was only twenty-one: it’s a spoofy, somewhat surreal homage to the adventure stories of such writers as Conrad and Conan Doyle that pays tribute also to the complexly indirect narrative methods of the later Henry James; though entertaining in parts, it ends up—rather like the voyage to the Antarctic it sets out to relate—making relatively little headway. Deciding literary translation might prove a more valuable apprenticeship in the art of fiction than pastiche, Marìas devoted his twenties to creating Spanish versions of English-language classics by Sterne, Sir Thomas Browne, Conrad, Faulkner, James, Kipling, Hardy, Shakespeare, and Nabokov. His version of Tristram Shandy won the Spanish national award for translation in 1979.
The narrator of The Man of Feeling is an opera singer known as the Lion of Naples who falls in love with the unhappy wife of a powerful Belgian banker, Hieronimo Manur. During a week of rehearsals in Madrid for the role of Cassio in Verdi’s Otello, the Lion pays extravagant court to the enigmatic Natalia Manur, and succeeds in wooing her away from her seemingly brutal and always busy husband—who promptly, and to the reader’s great surprise, commits suicide. It is Manur, rather than the operatic tenor, who emerges as the man of feeling of the title, as the Othello figure in the love triangle.
The story is being told in the wake of the collapse of the Lion’s love for Natalia, four years after his declaration of love to her culminated in a grand and eloquent vision of a shared Liebestod. But he is only Cassio, unable to scale the heights of passion of idealists such as Manur, or the tragic Hörbiger, who plays the role of Otello to the Lion’s Cassio: although in the twilight of his career, the stubborn and cranky German singer refuses pointblank to appear onstage unless every seat in the stalls and boxes is occupied; as his powers wane and his popularity declines, theater managements take to hiring people off the street to satisfy his demands for a packed lower house, until the theaters where he performs are full of “strange, tie-wearing rustics whom one could tell had never been to an opera before in their lives.”
His very last performance, again in the part of Otello, occurs in an opera house in Munich filled largely with these “false aficionados,” as well as with the theater’s own personnel, its ushers, porters, cloakroom attendants, cleaning women, and box-office staff. Despite these heroic efforts, peering through a crack in the stage curtain with his small Japanese telescope, the implacable Hörbiger spies an empty seat in the antepenultimate row of the right-hand aisle. Emitting an unearthly moan,
in full Otello costume, with his blacked-up face, his wild, curly wig, his eyes and lips made to look bigger with make-up, an earring in one ear and his telescope in his hand, the magnificent Hörbiger stepped onto the stage, climbed down into the stalls area, strode through it, to the astonishment of an already irritable public, and sat down in that one accusing seat, thus completing the audience that had been his downfall.
No entreaties can lure him back onto the stage, and he is eventually borne from the theater in full costume by Iago, Cassio, Roderigo, and Montano, never to perform again. Hörbiger too, then, is a man of feeling.
There are various ways in which this subtle, probing, oblique novella establishes a template for Marìas’s subsequent fiction. Aside from one short story in the collection When I Was Mortal, all make use of male first-person narrators whose consciousness is rendered in long, unspooling sentences that reveal the influence on his prose of translating writers such as Faulkner and Browne and James, as well as the impact of reading that master of the monologue, the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard.
In addition, the drama in many of Marìas’s novels derives from an actual or feared or threatened love triangle, always involving two men and a woman, and Vìctor in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me even develops a set of pseudo-Anglo-Saxon terms, such as ge-licgan, meaning to “co-fornicate,” and ge-bryd-guma, meaning a “co-bridegroom,” to indicate the relationship between two men who have slept with the same woman. Later books also follow A Man of Feeling in frequently playing off a somewhat uncertain, cerebral protagonist against an older man of much greater decisiveness and worldly authority.
The Man of Feeling‘s use of Shakespeare also persists, as signaled by so many of his titles: A Heart So White of 1992 is taken from Macbeth (“My hands,” Lady Macbeth declares after returning the dagger to the room where Duncan lies murdered, “are of your colour, but I shame/To wear a heart so white”); both Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me and When I Was Mortal derive from Act V, scene 3 of Richard III, in which the Machiavellian usurper, on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth, is visited by the ghosts of those he’s murdered: “When I was mortal,” Henry VI ruefully recalls, “my anointed body/By thee was punched full of deadly holes,” while the ghosts of Clarence and Lady Anne utter the same curse, “Tomorrow in the battle think on me/And fall thy edgeless sword. Despair and die”—lines used like a motif or musical phrase throughout Marìas’s unsettling novel of sexual usurpation and intrigue. Dark Back of Time is adapted from Prospero’s “dark backward and abysm of time,” and Your Face Tomorrow from a speech of Hal’s to Poins in Henry IV, 2 in which the Prince finds himself wearying of his low-life companions, and even anticipating his betrayal of them: “What a disgrace is it to me to remember thy name! or to know thy face tomorrow!”
All Souls, Marìas’s next novel, is set in England, and comes prefaced with a note denying any resemblance between its author and narrator, despite the fact that both spent two years in the same post, that of a lecturer in Spanish literature at the University of Oxford. Inevitably this led to its being read as a roman à clef, an outrage for the author that in turn furnishes one of the main topics of discussion in Dark Back of Time, published almost a decade later. “I believe,” that novel, or “false novel,” opens,
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. Anyone can relate an anecdote about something that happened, and the simple fact of saying it already distorts and twists it, language can’t reproduce events and shouldn’t attempt to….
Like W.G. Sebald, Marìas enjoys intermingling the fictional and the documentary; the love story of All Souls between the lecturer and Clare Bayes, a married woman, is wound around the life of John Gawsworth, a real writer who was born Terence Ian Fytton Armstrong in 1912: Gawsworth, who also occasionally wrote under the pen name “Orpheus Scrannel” (an allusion to Milton’s “Lycidas”), forged a small reputation with a series of defiantly antimodernist volumes of verse published in the 1930s, but is perhaps best known now for his biography of another of Marìas’s enthusiasms, the Welsh writer of supernatural fiction Arthur Machen. For reasons he can’t quite fathom, the narrator of All Souls finds himself obsessed with Gawsworth’s not very distinguished writings, and the sad tale of his gradual decline into vagrancy in his later years. The book includes a photo of him in his RAF uniform, probably taken in Cairo, with an unlit cigarette in his mouth, and also one of his death mask, made by a certain Hugh Oloff de Wet, another of Marìas’s galère of eccentrics whose life story is given in full in Dark Back of Time.
In both these books Marìas seems to be attempting to create perspectives on people and events that make the factual and the imaginary hard to prise apart; as a result we are insistently forced to acknowledge that there is no solid ground of unimpeachable truth on which to rest. The chronically underemployed lecturer of All Souls, for instance, spends much of his time haunting the secondhand bookshops of Oxford; his favorite is one run by a certain Mr. and Mrs. Alabaster on Turl Street, where he spends long hours sifting through their stock in search of tomes by Gawsworth, Machen, and other obscure English authors. On a return to Oxford described in Dark Back of Time he revisits his favorite shop, and is amazed by a proposal made to him by the couple, here called Mr. and Mrs. Stone: not only have they read his Oxford novel, but they have identified themselves as the originals of Mr. and Mrs. Alabaster. Hearing that a film is to be made of the novel, they have a request for the author: Would he kindly ask the producers of this film, to whom they have already written but to no avail, to cast them as themselves in it? Both belong to OSCA (the Oxford Society of Crowd Artistes), they explain, and are talented thespians.
When Marìas appears dubious about their rights to these roles, they present him with the photocopy of an interview—duly reproduced in the book itself—that they gave to the trade magazine The Bookseller, in which they lay proud claim to their fictional alter egos. In a reversal of Höbiger’s crossing from stage to audience in his Otello costume in order to watch himself as Otello, they dream of playing themselves as booksellers in a film of the book in which they are convinced they have already appeared.