Wednesday 9 November 2011

All Souls

All Souls - Javier Marías

This is my second book by Marías in the past few months and I will be looking out for more. Different but sharing an interest in translation with my first taste of his writing Bad Nature , this is a variant on the English university novel. Given its name it seemed like an appropriate read for the Halloween season but  has more humour than horror, although horror is not absent.

The main theme of the book is time and the duality of experience. This duality meshes nicely with Marias' interest in translation. We have rivers with more than one name interwoven through the book, physically representing the movement of time and also the subjective nature of naming. The fact that Oxford is a hotbed of agents (and double, and even triple agents) is also mentioned. Everyone is seen to be playing games of deception and those who aren't are seen as suspect.

One of the college professors does a sideline as a Russian translator for M15 and there are suspicions that he may be pleasing himself during interviews with prospective defectors: "it was noticed that he seemed to take an unnecessarily long time over his translations of the questions into Russian and people got the impression he was departing from the questions he was given and adding others off his own bat, though he didn't of course translate into English the answers given to the latter. Naturally the inspectors could never prove the existence of these private and parallel dialogues held between Dewar and the defectors and (assuming they did exist) still less what the devil Dewar was talking about with those would-be ex-Soviet subjects. For that they would have needed a second translator..."

The main character, Deza (anonymous here but he apparently reappears in Your Face Tomorrow) shares a lot with Marías, who also spent some time in Oxford. Indeed there is a sense that Oxford and his (Deza's, not Marías') affair with the married Clare Bayes is just an interregnum and doesn't belong to the real river of his life. The affair is never more than something to pass the time while he is in Oxford. The narration itself is told from a future perspective in which the narrator has married and has a child so we know that the affair comes to nothing.

There is a sense of Oxford as an esCAPE from reality. At times Deza has little to do and wanders the street much like Oxford's population of mendicants but his robes project a sense of purpose. The meaning of 'productive activity' is questioned. It is not the central stuff of life, the central meaning is human contact, or thinking of human contact. "Productive activity, the thing that brings us money and security and prestige and allows us to live, what keeps a city or a country going, what organises it, is the thing that, later, allows us to think with even greater intensity about them, about men and women."..."Yes, it's all that other activity that's the parenthesis, not the other way round." "Even wars are fought in order to be able to start thinking again, to renew our unending thinking about our men and our women..."

He also suggests that we are as defined by what we throw away as much as by what we produce. "His day is measured out in visits to the rubbish bin..." "It (the trash) all gets packed down, concentrated, covered over and fused together and thus traces the perceptible outline - material and solid - of this sketch of the days of a man."

And it is the distraction of picking through the detritus of others that seems the most passionate activity in which Deza involves himself: "one distraction in particular, which was never lacking in Oxford ... was the search for the kind of rare, out of print books that give pleasure to the morbid or eccentric collector." This activity brings him into contact with a mysterious band of Arthur Machen devotees. It also connects him to John Gawsworth, who's books are difficult to find, particularly one with an intro by Machen. His telling of the story of the prodigy Gawsworth, who was the titular King of an empty rock called Redonda, earned Marias a claim to the kingship which he uses to create numerous earldoms (W.G Sebald is the Duke of Vertigo) and which provides him with a name for his publishing company.

Gawsworth was also a book collector, although towards the end of his life he fell on hard imes and they were probably dispersed widely to raise liquidity, which was then drunk. "Where are the books he collected, the books he could identify at a glance in the midst of the labyrinths of chaotic, dusty shelves, as I could on the shelves in the Alabasters' shop and in all those other booksellers in Oxford and London? ... I too always found what I was looking for, to the point where I often had the feeling that it was the books themselves that looked for and found me.) They had probably returned to that world where all or at least the majority of books return, to the patient, silent world of second-hand books, which they leave only temporarily."

The limping man with the three legged dog who makes contact with him about the (British cult horror writer) Arthur Machen society has a theory of horror, that anything can have its latent horror brought out by juxtaposition with the right object / being. There are elements of horror in the past of some characters but they are not always excavated

But when I mention horror it just reminds me of how funny this book is, with a set piece dinner with drunken Dons scaling madcap heights and Deza's invention of a series of invented etymologies for Spanish words is very funny. The presence of a three legged dog, gypsy flowersellers, a bohemian king, wild coincidences and philosophical speculations makes this a sort of shaggy dog tale, but I enjoyed all its twists and turns and lay-bys .

And anyway, is it not the small things that are really important in our lives? "I can understand someone who regrets dying simply because they won't be able to read their favorite authors' next book, or see a new film starring an actress they admire, or drink another glass of beer, or do today's crossword, or continue to follow a particular television series, or because they won't know who won this year's FA Cup."

I found elements of the book strangely coincidental. Maybe this book "looked for and found me".
There were a couple called Alabaster who run a dusty second hand book store. My front room is currently doing an impression of a dusty second hand bookstore and the name Alabaster brought back memories of an essay I wrote for my brother when in school. He used to pay me 50p to write 'punishment essays' that he got given every now and then and sometimes I could put stuff into one essay which would ensure another. My most successful was the heartbroken Captain Al A. Baster who wandered the seas on his ship The Lost Bark after the tragic demise of his wife had put paid to his dreams of having lots of little Basters. Cue another 50p.

And if that humour is merely childish well I am but a product of my age: "the result is that the adults of our era are brought up - we are brought up - to continue to be children. To get worked up over some sports event and grow jealous at the slightest thing. To live in a state of constant alarm and insatiable desire. To be fearful and angry. To be cowardly. To observe ourselves."


  1. This was the first Marias I've read and looking over your select quotes (I don't have the book anymore; I swapped it) made me wish I kept it. I think his writing style at this point had not yet hardened into long sentences and long paragraphs. It appears to me that his fixation on several topics were really carried over from this early book to his succeeding novels.

  2. I'm looking forward to reading All Souls; hopefully it'll be my next Marias. I enjoy University/college-based novels, and this one sounds like a really intriguing example.

    Your comments on the professor's Russian translations strike a chord with certain aspects of A Heart So White. I think you'll recognise a few similarities between the two novels when you read Heart. Marias does seem to enjoy playing around with variations on the same (or very similar topics) across his novels. The deception you've mentioned here chimes with the theme of secrecy and truth in Heart (and The Infatuations, for that matter). Also, I get the sense that he's very interested in the question of how well we ever know those who are closest to us (lovers, family, close friends). Did you get a sense of that here? I wonder whether All Souls might be a little different to some of his other novels in this respect?