Plot: Following the rivalries, jealousies, and infidelities of academic life at Oxford University, All Souls recounts a brief year the narrator spent at the distinguished institution indifferently teaching Spanish to undergraduates. He falls in love with Claire, a fellow tutor and wife of a colleague, leading to a brief and difficult love affair. The novel traces the space between their intimate encounters, and the sardonic faculty members who entertain themselves by exposing others private follies while attempting to conceal their own.
Verdict: An entertaining entrance to the work of Javier Marías, a novelist who you will either love or hate, who is one of the most significant anatomists of human follies and frailties writing today.
Review: The Spanish author Javier Marías has been hailed as a post-modern Proust; drawing unqualified praise from literary saints such as W.G. Sebald, who wrote that he was a ‘twin writer’ who ‘uses language like an anatomist uses the scalpel to cut away the layers of the flesh in order to lay bare the innermost secrets of that strangest of species, the human being.’ Predictably, as soon as one is canonised by the literary community in such a way the commentariat camps divide and form into the rapturous and the unimpressed.
This is really unfortunate; as every passionate reader deserves the opportunity to approach his work untainted by the polemics that surround groundbreaking novelists of the calibre of Knausgaard, Bolaño, DeLillo, or Marías. That their work captures a new form for an old format means that they will not be for everyone; but one of the great pleasures of reading contemporary fiction is finding out if the new way this writing points towards is for you. Marías’ work is most definitely for me; on a personal level I read him as exploring some of the most elusive philosophical truths of human beings through our many faculties and frailties.
The vague themes that belong to almost all modernist or post-modernist authors – memory, time, loss – could be predicated of Marías’ writing, but his exploration of them is not Proustian or Knausgaardian or Joycean. His chief tool is satire and humour, as the Marisian narrator is always a disinterested party, slightly removed, and ready to lay bare the folly of his or her quarry with an insightful laugh. But closely following these laughs is always a rumination on the source of that laugh, the surprise, and a conversational tracing of the logic of incontrovertible truths that lead those characters into a laughable lie. Finally, there is always the Marisian twist - that laugh, that lie, will more often than not come back to haunt the narrator or lead them to a startling realisation when Banquo’s ghost turns to gaze directly at them, the narrator, who followed the logic of a lie, while assuming their distance kept themselves safe from such folly. And a bigger game is always played, with the reader, in Marías’ work; reminding us that Banquo’s gaze can always settle upon ourselves next.
The downside of being likened (positively or not) to the usual rogues gallery of high literary fiction is that approaching the work of a new author can be intimidating. And some of Marías’ work is intimidating; particularly his masterful multi-volumeYour Face Tomorrow, which is often superficially likened to Proust in that it: (1) asks questions it answers many thousand words later, and (2) contains pleasurable longueurs that stretch for pages. From this perspective the sharp, melancholy, readable All Souls is an excellent way to approach Marías’ oeuvre and a means of deciding whether it is for you.
All Souls recounts a year that the narrator – a figure that, typically for Marías’ work, could be mistaken for the author – spent tutoring in Spanish at the renowned college All Souls at the University of Oxford. In summarising the plot, it is natural to focus on the narrator’s affair with a beautiful young tutor called Claire Bayes, who it happens is married to one of the narrator’s more senior colleagues. But, as always in Marías’ novels, the centre of the plot is merely a fragile skeleton that contains the contemplations and ruminations of the author. One is quickly introduced to three of the narrator’s closest colleagues – ‘two [of which] have died since I left Oxford’ – and who firmly take their place as character studies within the novel. Of course, they all have closely held secrets, and within the dull environment of Oxford a slow and polite game is played where the faculty members attempt to discover and share other’s hidden depths while keeping their own hidden. Marias’ reasoning for this is exquisite; in all academic environments one is left with long stretches of conversation that must be filled – at formal dinners, faculty drinks, meetings and mandatory occasions – and within an interdisciplinary environment, there is no greater faux pasthan boring another with your own research. As academics tend to be animals consumed with their own research, this leaves the option of either talking about themselves or each other. Therefore, one must gossip about others or confront the embarrassment of being the topic of conversation oneself. On such small pieces of careful reasoning, extracted from pure folly, is Marías’ genius established.
Throughout the course of the novel, most characters disclose their secrets and the very private emotional reasoning that underpins those secrets. Of the three introduced at the outset of the narrative, Cromer-Blake is the closest friend of the narrator and the first to willingly disclose himself. The slow revelation of Cromer-Blake’s other life occasions another typical highlight of Marías’ style – a discussion of the English idiom ‘eaves-dropping,’ and the fact it has no Spanish equivalent. In fact, translation is an occasional theme for Marías in many of his novels and always amusing when he turns his hand to exposing its mysteries; within All Souls it comes in the form of the amusing, elaborate, intentionally unlikely explanations the narrator provides for various Spanish words his students inquire about. At first the narrator wonders at his seemingly ignorant colleagues and fellow Spanish tutors (such as the second figure introduced of the three, Alec Dewar), stunned they never correct him for his liberties. Slowly, the realisation dawns on him that they are just as amused by his explanations as he is, and adopt a probably hard-earned and pragmatic attitude of unconcern at the potential misconceptions of their students. In later works, such as A Heart so White, the wrinkles of translation reappear with their customary hilarity and bite.
The second figure puzzled over by the novel is that of fellow academic and Spanish tutor Alec Dewar – nicknamed, a varying points ‘the inquisitor,’ or ‘the butcher,’ or ‘the ripper’ which adequately conveying a sense of his character as an academic. His entrance heralds another theme that Marías closely follows through his subsequent works, the secretive world of intelligence and espionage. The narrator’s acquaintance with this world is only ever glancing – here or in other novels, such as Your Face Tomorrow – but nonetheless it remains a fascination for Marías, who does the greatest job of any novelist in translating the secrecy and games of that world into human, existential terms. Dewar is another fabulous figure, and one who has his secret disclosed only through accident and a chance encounter with the narrator (and again, through the complications of language and translation).
Finally, All Souls ruminates over the hidden nature of other characters, including the narrator himself and his lover. Many of these ruminations are accidental, strange events and interests that occur naturally during any day – such as the narrator’s entanglement with the obscure author John Gawsworth, the previous ‘King of Redonda,’ (an invented title for an uninhabitedCaribbean island and a title that Marías the author now possesses). Some are not strange at all, but occur between the common acts of living that Knausgaard has so obsessively chronicled; although Marías’ accounts always seem to reach towards the transcendent insight, just as Knausgaard’s stretch towards the visceral. Marías writes:
When you’re alone, when you live alone and live, more-over, in a foreign country, you take more notice than usual of the rubbish bin… each black plastic bag, new, shining and smooth, waiting to be used for the first time, evokes a sense of absolute cleanliness and infinite possibility… That bag, that bin, are sometimes the only witnesses to what happens during the day of a man on his own, and it is in that bag that the remains, the traces of the man are deposited throughout the day, the half of himself that he discards, everything that he has decided not to be and not to have, the negative of what he’s eaten, drunk, smoked, used, produced and received … the screwed up sheets of paper he judged unsatisfactory or wrong … It 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 the life of a man.
The narrator points out that he began to take an interest in the rubbish at about the time his affair was petering out; a time when the disposable nature of his days at Oxford was becoming apparent and that common realisation of a time coming to an end. Each of Marías’ novels is a clever weaving together of these insights, which usually draw together into a startling conclusion. Each insight arrives like an epiphany on a railway platform; from the ordinary, and yet out of the ordinary. Yet he also perfectly captures how that moment must inevitably give way to the ordinary again; and we sink back into that morass of existence that is ‘fused together’ and can only ever trace a ‘perceptible outline.’
Among the incidental characters of the narrative rests the last of the three referred to at the outset; the first of this triad to be introduced, and the only one to be left undiscovered at the close of the novel. Old Will, the senile porter who sits at his sinecure of a post every day greeting those coming and going, remains a mystery. As Marías poetically describes, he ‘spent each morning in a different year, travelling backwards and forwards in time according to his desires or, more likely, quite independently of any conscious desire on his part.’ Will occasions the gentle identity crisis of the narrative; as the narrator can never tell which long departed faculty member he might mistakenly be greeted as on a given day. Indeed, the narrator begins to bemusedly speculate that Will might rest outside of time, greeting members who have not yet arrived – or alternately wondering who might be greeted with his name, long after he has gone and Will remains.
The conceit encapsulates Marias as an author and thinker; an initial impression of superficial whimsy or sophism or rumination, which gives way to a deeper contemplation containing a wry and cutting realisation. A realisation taken smoothly with a smile, in one’s stride, until it reappears – perhaps much later – as the ghost at the feast. Ultimately, it is hard to describe the deep aesthetic, comedic, philosophic, or existential pleasures that come from reading Marías’ work and through tracing the outline of his insights; but All Souls is an excellent place to start with an author I unequivocally recommend.