PPerhaps because Javier Marías deeply felt the absurdity of everyday life and felt that history is a game with terrible consequences, he became interested in two activities that echo our senseless absurdity: art to spy and the art of writing fiction. From the first, he became an investigator and a wise observer, from the second a talented practitioner. Fifteen novels and several collections of short stories testify to these two lifelong passions, and his success is measured by the enthusiasm of a public of readers who eagerly sought his books, published in nearly 50 languages.
Of course, the world of spies wasn’t his only interest: he enjoyed unraveling the games of the academy, the entanglements of erotic strategies, the chattering realm of writing and editing. But the spy story mostly allowed Marías to explore the consequences of our games with each other. The story he chose to tell was for him only a starting point: the reader had to do the rest. “Once you’ve finished a novel,” says one of his characters in Les Infatuations, “what happens in it is of little importance and quickly forgotten.” What matters are the possibilities and insights that the imaginary plot of the novel imparts and instills in us, a plot we remember far more vividly than the actual events, and to which we pay far more attention.
Marías, who died this week shortly before his 71st birthday, was one of Spain’s greatest novelists and an ongoing Nobel contender. He was the son of the famous philosopher Julián Marías, a disciple of José Ortega y Gasset, founder of the Revista de Occidente, a magazine in which many luminaries of the first half of the 20th century published much of their work. There is no doubt that the philosophical atmosphere that reigned at home and her father’s firm opposition to the Franco regime, which earned him a prison sentence, shaped Marías’ childhood and adolescence. Like Iris Murdoch, whom he greatly admired, he believed that fiction had to find its starting point in a philosophical question, and he agreed with her that “every book is the wreckage of a perfect idea”.
“Life cannot be told,” writes Marías in A Heart So White, “and it is extraordinary that we have nevertheless tried over the centuries to tell what cannot be told, whether in the form of myth, epic poem, chronicle, annals, minutes, fable, legend or canticle, ballads or corridos of the blind, gospel, hagiography, history, biography, novel or eulogy, film, confession, memoir, reportage, no matter.
And yet, Marías believed it was essential to persist, however desperately, in telling our stories. His fascination with English literature led him to translate several English classics, including works by Thomas Browne and Lawrence Sterne, now recognized as the best written in Spanish. He said British history had always been a part of his life, from reading the stories of Just William as a child to more recently struggling to understand “the tragedy of Brexit”. Two of his most successful novels – A Heart So White and Tomorrow in the Battle Think of Me – have titles taken from Shakespeare, which he also translated, and Your Face Tomorrow trilogy can be read as a tribute to Oxford, where Marías taught.
Marias’ playfulness made her accept the crown of the almost fictional kingdom of Redonda, an uninhabited island in the Caribbean bought by the father of science fiction writer MP Shiel, who is said to have been granted the right to be king by the queen. Victoria. This allowed Marías to confer titles on several of his literary friends: WG Sebald was named Duke of Vertigo and Francis Ford Coppola Duke of Megalópolis. When we met in Madrid, Marías spoke of Redonda as a quixotic creation but with too many dukes and not enough ordinary citizens. “Perhaps I should start establishing a proletariat for Redonda, made up of all the politicians currently living off the fat of the earth.” I don’t know if he ever put his new plan into action.
For all his interest in the real lives of professors and spies and the love entanglements of ordinary men and women, Marías never saw himself as a chronicler of real, flesh-and-blood characters. “I’ve never been interested in what some people call naturalism or some people call realism”, he once said. “I’m not interested in using differentiated voices, not even in dialogue. It must be believable, but that’s it. I think on the contrary that it is a courtesy on the part of the author to give the reader something interesting and, if possible, intelligent.