His novels are modern classics and he has been tipped to win the Nobel prize. Tim Martin smokes a cigarette or four with Javier Marías, the high priest of European fiction.
One of the things I’ve tried to do,” says the Spanish author Javier Marías, dragging cheerfully on the latest in a long line of cigarettes in the middle of a Barcelona heatwave, “is to allow to exist, in a novel, the time that doesn’t have the time to exist.” He gestures impatiently with the smouldering end. “That is … when things are happening we don’t really know what’s going on. You can spend a whole night doing something, having an argument with your well-beloved, for instance, and in the end, the only thing you will have that shall stay in memory will be a glance, or a minute, or some sentence, or some image, or how the light of dawn at a given moment was entering through the window. In a novel, you can make those things have their real duration – the one they shall have, maybe, almost, for the rest of your life.”
Marías’s conversation flows like his writing, punctuated by digressions that return with iron certainty to their point of departure. Although this lyrical, discursive style has made him a critical favourite in the English-speaking world, where writers from Salman Rushdie and Ali Smith to John Banville and Jonathan Coe queue up to sing the praises of his sly and musical novels, I’m surprised by the popular reaction he seems to excite in Spain. Everyone in Barcelona to whom I mention his name responds with a sigh of admiration. At the Hotel Casa Fuster, where we meet, a table on the rooftop terrace is set aside for us, and admiring glances criss-cross the terrace as it begins to fill up. Here Marías is not just a high priest of literature but a public figure, author of prizewinning novels and a weekly column in El País that dissects everything from the financial crisis to the cinema, the football results and the Olympics.
This month Marías becomes only the fifth Spanish writer to be published in Penguin’s Modern Classics series, after the publishing house acquired the rights to his back catalogue for a five-figure sum. Whether or not one chooses to read this as a side-bet on the Nobel Prize that many feel awaits him, it’s another demonstration of the particular affinity that England and the English language have for Marías and he for them. This is a writer, after all, who took a six-year break from novel writing in order to translate work by Sterne, Conrad, Stevenson, and Thomas Browne into Spanish, then lectured on translation in Oxford for several years before returning to Madrid. The experience gave him the basis for his delightfully shrewd campus novel All Souls and its Nabokovian quasi-sequel Dark Back of Time. His three-volume novel Your Face Tomorrow, meanwhile, offered a typically abstracted spin on the twilight world of the British spy, as its protagonist is recruited to a shadowy people-watching MI6 subsidiary that, Marías says, specialises in “accepting the warnings, seeing the things we usually don’t want to see in the people we love most.”
Marías’s fiction is also characterised by an interest that borders on obsession with certain ideas: betrayal, translation, forgery, the nature of time. The narrators of many of the novels, he says, “are cousins, or even brothers, you could say, literary brothers. All of them, in a way, are people who have renounced their own voices.” The Man of Feeling features an opera singer, “whose job is to repeat what someone else composed or wrote”, while Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me is narrated by a ghostwriter, “who is using his voice in the service of others. In a way they are all of them translators, or conveyors, or whatever you want to call them: people who see things from outside.”
Translation stalks Marías’s conversation as well as his writing. Throughout our talk, he periodically interrupts the flow of his beautiful English sentences with a polyglot observation (“Vraisemblable: you don’t quite have a word in English for that, do you?”) or a soft chuckle at a juicy archaism. “My way of writing and correcting by hand has something to do with my way of translating, when I did translate,” he acknowledges. “The moment I have the first sketch of a page, even if it’s something very rough, I feel it as the original of a translation. I have something to stick to, something that supports me.”
Except, as he says with amusement, decanting another pack of smokes into a tan cigarette-case, “I don’t have a plan for my work and I never have. It’s been 41 years now since I published my first novel in 1971, when I was 19. And it still surprises me, and to a certain extent bothers me, that I still don’t have any idea of what I’m doing. Very often I feel like an impostor, someone who’s been just lucky. It’s not that I’m being coy. When I’m writing a new book I tell my publisher, I’ve realised I don’t know how to write novels …” He laughs. “Insecurity. That’s irritating, isn’t it? A carpenter, after 40 years, he knows that the table he’s building will be a good one.”
Insecure or not, he keeps steadily on, and his brilliant translator Margaret Jull Costa is preparing her English version of another novel, The Infatuations, for March. “People are always surprised that I’m still using a typewriter,” he says. “They say, why don’t you use a computer, it’s much easier and much faster. But one of the things I’ve always said,” he adds, gesturing disdainfully with the ubiquitous cigarette, “is I’m not interested in being faster. I’m interested in being slower.”
He meticulously reworks each page of prose before he moves on, adding and subtracting from each sentence until cadence and rhythm are perfect. “One of the reasons I write is in order to feel the time,” he says. “Not to gain time, but maybe to lose it, to see it pass.”
The Telegraph, August 23, 2012