JAVIER MARÍAS IS ONE OF SPAIN’S MOST ACCLAIMED CONTEMPORARY NOVELISTS. HE BEGAN WRITING FICTION AT AN EARLY AGE – THE STORY ‘THE LIFE AND DEATH OF MARCELINO ITURRIAGA’, INCLUDED IN HIS COLLECTION WHILE THE WOMEN ARE SLEEPING, WAS WRITTEN AGED 14 – AND AFTER STUDY AT THE COMPLUTENSE UNIVERSITY OF MADRID SPENT SEVERAL YEARS TRANSLATING ENGLISH-LANGUAGE TEXTS, INCLUDING WORKS BY THOMAS BROWNE, LAURENCE STERNE AND WALLACE STEVENS.
The digressive and meditative tendencies of these writers are evident in Marías’s later fiction, particularly in his three-volume masterpiece Your Face Tomorrow, which has been hailed as one of the great works of twenty-first century literature. This Proustian spy novel maintains a taut, suspenseful narrative over 1000+ pages, while continually illuminating and questioning the unreliability of narrative, the (im)possibilities of translation, the contingencies of historical record, and the division between reality and fiction.
These concerns are returned to throughout his oeuvre. Dark Back of Time, a semi-fictional memoir, takes as one of its subjects the critical misattributions of factual and fictional elements in an earlier novel, All Souls, which describes the activities of a Spanish lecturer at Oxford, where Marías taught translation theory for two years in the 1980s. The publication of All Souls, which includes a biographical sketch of the English writer John Gawsworth, led in 1997 to Marías being named the King of Redonda, an unpopulated island in the Antilles formerly ‘ruled’ by Gawsworth. Perhaps the most revealing aspect of his reign is the annual conferral of duchies upon writers and artists Marías admires, which include John Ashbery (Duke of Convexo), A. S. Byatt (Duchess of Morpho Eugenia), Francis Ford Coppola (Duke of Megalópolis) and W. G. Sebald (Duke of Vértigo). His latest novel, The Infatuations, characteristically combines a mysterious and gripping plot with extensive deviations into recurring themes of secrecy, betrayal, and the passage of time.
The interview took place in Marías’s apartment, which overlooks a square in central Madrid. During our conversation, the windows of the apartment were alternately opened to aerate the smoke-filled room, and closed to keep out the sound of loudspeakers used by the many tourist guides below. Despite continually warning that he would not be, Marías was generous with his time, speaking for over three hours.
THE WHITE REVIEW — Your childhood was spent between Spain and America…
JAVIER MARÍAS — I was in America for two very short periods in my childhood, and the first one doesn’t even count because I was a baby. I was born in Madrid, and my father had been hired by an American college for that year, 1951. After the end of the Civil War, my father would have been a professor, or a writer, but he couldn’t be any of those things in Spain, he wasn’t allowed to. Coincidentally, the day I was born, he had to leave. As he used to say: I was born, he shook hands with me, and he left. Not that he was especially horrified at my birth, but that was the way it was. About one month after that my two elder brothers and myself were taken by my mother to Massachusetts and we spent the whole academic year there. Then afterwards, when I was 4 or 5, my father was hired by Yale University. Since it was for a whole academic year he decided he would go with the family as well and I spent 1955-56 in New Haven in Connecticut.
The rest of my childhood was a madrileño one. Though of course America had an influence – when you are a boy or a young child and you go to a country that is so different – and it was then from the Spain of Franco, 1955, can you imagine — of course it was a total discovery. My brothers and I always missed somehow the year we had spent there. ‘When are we going back to America?’, we would ask. And there were a few nice things there, of course, that we didn’t have here.
For the rest of the time it was a normal Spanish childhood. Though not so normal in the end, considering the decade we were in. There were some small characteristics in which I consider myself very fortunate. For example, the fact that I went to a co-ed school, which was not normal at the time in Spain at all. Most people of my age went to single sex schools, and many of them to schools ruled by nuns or priests, and I was lucky not to have that. I always lived together with girls. It was a rather liberal school. But now and then an inspector came from the Ministry of Education or whatever it was, and the teachers became very excited, saying ‘Run and separate, girls to this classroom, boys to that classroom!’, so that the authorities thought that we were in separate classrooms. It was an absolutely ludicrous situation in all aspects.
On that subject, there is a strange habit in Spain; football referees are always referred to with two surnames. I learned very recently this habit of calling referees by both names – if you have a very common first name like Garcia or Gonzalez or Rodriguez, it’s common to use two, but if you have an uncommon name, like Marías, it’s absurd to use two. But referees use two. I read that it comes from the early 1960s, that there was a referee in the Primera Liga whose name was Franco. It was decided that he should be called Franco Martinez in order to avoid the press saying: ‘Franco stole the match!’, or, ‘Supporters angry with Franco!’ So that started the tradition. Crazy.
THE WHITE REVIEW — You’ve said that your first novel, Dominions of the Wolf, was an homage to American cinema.
JAVIER MARÍAS — I wrote Dominions of the Wolf in a very unconscious, irresponsible way. It had more to do with the way I wrote a few things when I was 12 or 13 or so – I started writing because I wanted to read more of what I liked. I started because of emulation, which is a very much forgotten word, a very noble word, it’s not imitation, not mimicry, not plagiarism, it’s a very good thing. You feel like doing something similar to what you admire and enjoy. It’s a great stimulus for doing things. I loved William Brown’s stories and the musketeer novels. Once I’d read them all I said, I want more. And the only possibility was writing more. Dominions of the Wolf was done in this same irresponsible spirit, with no idea of publication, just for fun, just in order to do it. I gave it to a couple of friends, just to say ‘see what I’ve done’, that was the only idea. Then it was published – it was passed on to someone who said I like this, and it was published. I found myself at 19 years old with reviews of the book, and in some of those reviews I remember that some critics said – they were rather benevolent I would say – this novel has some value really, in the inventiveness, or the fantasy, the quickness of it, it’s very quick. It was more or less praised, but there was a very frequent objection: why does this young man talk about this rather than talking about his world, what is around him, our problems, Spain, the situation? Of course then it was 1971, the fashion was still more or less what was termed the social realistic novel.
Very naively many writers of the previous generation had thought that everything including literature should be a weapon against Franco and his dictatorship, which is ludicrous, because of course a novel can’t do anything. They wrote terribly boring novels. Well-meant possibly, but poor from a literary perspective. My generation didn’t do that. We were very committed politically, but as citizens; I’ve always made a differentiation between citizenship and being a writer. So I received this sort of reproach from the critics. But afterwards, I thought, in a way these people are wrong. In a way, I’m talking about my childhood in Spain, and the respite of American cinema and novels – detective novels, Dashiell Hammett, Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler – they were a respite from our oppressive world. So while in one way I was running away from that mediocre, repressive world, I was also somehow reflecting with irony – it’s a rather ironical novel, very humorous – I was reflecting a way of escape from my own childhood. I thought that after writing the book, because I was obliged to by the critics. But my initial impulse was to emulate something I liked.
THE WHITE REVIEW — A common accusation levelled at you is your not being ‘Spanish’ enough. It’s been said many times that you write as if in translation.
JAVIER MARÍAS — I was accused of that for many years. My second novel featured British characters and a strange expedition to the South Pole or the North Pole, I can’t remember which. That was published in 1973, titled Voyage Along the Horizon in English. My first two novels didn’t have anything to do with Spain or Spanish people or political issues, and some people started to say, this is an English writer who translated himself into Spanish. It was said that my Spanish is full of syntactical inaccuracies, and it’s true – I have forced the syntax in my language very much, not only because of my knowledge of English, but also because languages should be more resilient than some academic people allow them to be. So I had this foreign writer label – and it was very derogatory – but then I’ve had several different labels throughout my very long career. I was finally accepted as a good writer, but too ‘brainy’ or cerebral, too cold. I think my novels are not particularly cold – there are passages which are rather passionate or at least almost lyrical, I would say. Then for another period they said, ‘Yes, but he writes for women,’ as if that was something bad. But that’s not true, I have all kinds of readers, and then everyone has more female readers, because women read more than men. People who don’t like you try to label you with derogatory things, but when a label falls down by itself, then they look for another one. I don’t know why. In my own country I’ve felt in general more resistance than support from my colleagues, from the literary establishment, not all critics but many of them.
THE WHITE REVIEW — How has your work as a translator influenced your own work?
JAVIER MARÍAS — What I can say is: yes, probably, if you are a translator and a writer as well and you do translate very good things – and almost everything I translated was excellent, from Browne to Sterne to Conrad to Thomas Hardy, poetry by Faulkner and Nabokov and Stevens and Auden and Ashbery and Stevenson, prose by Yeats, and Tennyson, great authors – you are heavily influenced, whether you like it or not, by what you translate. You learn a lot and you spend a lot of time with the work. What is most important of it all, and it has been said many times, is that a translator is a privileged reader, but also a privileged writer. What you do is re-write in a completely different language something that was written by a great writer. The wording is yours – of course you try to be faithful – but you have to choose, always.
When I was teaching theory of translation at Oxford, in the US, and in Madrid, I said to my students: ‘Everyone thinks they know how to translate “I love you” in English. You know, people have it on their shirts and all that. But there are about seven or eight different possible translations of that into Spanish.’ The most common words, the words common to everyone, are different in different languages. For instance, muerte, death, can’t be the same for a German, because in German death is masculine, whereas in French or Spanish or Italian, death is feminine. Of course they are represented: in German paintings and etchings, death is a man, and she is an old woman in southern Europe. Even the most common thing of all – death being the most common thing, besides life – you have to translate literally, bearing in mind that it’s not the same thing. You have to choose – you have to rewrite.
Borges said that translation was a very modest miracle, but one of the greatest on earth. That the text, having lost everything that made it possible – that is, the original language – could still be the same. You can say, yes, this is the same, having lost the rhythm, the pace, the alliteration – if it’s poetry, the rhyme, the meter, everything – but it’s still the same thing. It’s quite miraculous. If you do that acceptably in your own language of course you’re influenced by that work. I learned a lot from the authors I translated, that’s evident in my works. The big influence of Sterne, in the treatment of time in the novel, or Sir Thomas Browne – some of them did have an influence of which I’m aware.
THE WHITE REVIEW — You mentioned you deliberately cultivated a new kind of syntax, and you’ve spoken elsewhere of using commas as poets employ enjambment. What is your conception of syntax?
JAVIER MARÍAS — It has much to do with what is essential for me in any literary text, also in prose: the rhythm or pace of it. There is a musical element which I cannot disregard when I write, or a cadence, whatever you want. Of course it’s not something very studied or deliberate, in a way it’s just a sense of the pace you have. Sometimes I just suppress some supposedly necessary commas, because I think they’re a hindrance to that cadence or rhythm. Sometimes I use commas instead of full stops. If instead of a comma you use a full stop, you have to add pero, but, or aunque, which is ‘or’, or ‘however’, or words like that which sometimes I feel to be a hindrance. It also comes from Latin, which I studied as a boy and at university – I can’t read it now. There was something in Latin, called the absolute ablative in English, which describes sentences in which you didn’t have an action verb. It has to do with the learning of that formula which said you can say things without a proper verb, only a participle sometimes. I make these rows of sentence separated only by a comma and some of them are like that in a way. You make me think very hard on something I usually don’t do! I work very hard on each page; I never make two versions of my novels, but I do many versions of each page and once the page is done and I can’t do it any better it goes to the printer. When I’m writing one particular page I work on it as if it was separate from all others, like poets do, the only difference is I’m not thinking of metre. But sometimes I think I need one more syllable here – depending on where the stress goes in the word. Sometime I think I need one more syllable and it needs to be an esdrújula, where the stress would be in the antepenultimate syllable, so I think I have a strange sense of the length of sentences or the length of words. That is supposed to be lost in translation, but maybe it’s not.
THE WHITE REVIEW — Do you think prose is capable of musicality? Are music and literature comparable in their effects?
JAVIER MARÍAS — I wish it was comparable, but I don’t think it is. I’ve said that I think of music as probably the supreme art, and sometimes I wish I could do something similar to what music does with writing. But of course it’s always different which because words have a meaning. The meaning of words is always there, unless you make something very experimental. Music has this marvellous thing. It’s very mysterious to me why a few notes make you feel joyful or melancholy or sad or whatever, without having any words. The problem is that a literary text is always too influenced by the meaning of the words you are using, what you are saying, besides cadence. Cadence and rhythm are important, essential even.
Sometimes I have been asked, how do you explain the writer you are – not an easy one to read and all that – and that you have had so many readers. My books have sold over seven million copies throughout the world, which is a lot for an author like myself. I never know why exactly, but I think maybe it has something to do with the idea that sometimes my prose can be a little – a very frequent adjective has been ‘hypnotising’ or ‘bewitching’ or something like that. That only accounts for Spain in principle, and perhaps that has something to do with my own experience of translating. Some authors are very contagious in the good sense of the word. Translate Conrad, Sterne, Browne – all three are very difficult but there is something in their prose, it’s like a wave, once you are up on the wave it leads you somehow. Maybe this is why my books are appreciated in other languages, maybe I am the kind of writer who contaminates his translators.
THE WHITE REVIEW — You’ve said that you don’t prepare your novels in terms of narrative, but do you have a distinct style planned in advance for each. Do you see them as stylistically distinct?
JAVIER MARÍAS — No, I think they are continuous. I’ve been using the first person since 1986. My narrators are cousins to say the least. They are very similar, but it’s never the same character, they have different names. In my latest novel, The Infatuations, where the narrator was a woman, that was a problem. In the end I think she’s a cousin to all the others as well. I don’t try to disguise that voice very much, which is not exactly my voice, but my ‘narrative voice’, maybe. I don’t think of changes of style, I certainly don’t belong to that kind of author who says, I don’t want to repeat myself, because it’s never the same book. I think that to force that is like looking for subjects, which for me is a ridiculous thing – there are people who are looking for a good story. Nowadays with the internet there is no mysterious story that actually happened that hasn’t been exploited by someone.
Looking for subjects is absurd. I’ve always written about things that matter to me in my own life, the things I think about, the things I worry about, that are rather universal I would say. Secrecy, confidence, betrayal and suspicion and love and friendship and death and marriage – things that I’m worried about, not as literary subjects, but just in life. I don’t ever look for something or plan something in general. Of course in some of my novels there are elements that come from facts, but always with an intent to talk about the things that really matter to me, and matter to everyone more or less, even if they are not always very conscious of it. So I don’t really plan my novels – you must have read in several places that I call my way of writing working with a compass rather than with a map.
THE WHITE REVIEW — What new limitations or freedoms were you aware of, if any, writing with a female narrator in The Infatuations?
JAVIER MARÍAS — In the beginning I was a little shy. I thought, well, this is a woman, maybe she wouldn’t make the same kind of jokes my male narrators do very often. There are some comical bits in most of my novels and also small jokes or ironies or things like that on the part of the narrator, so I thought maybe if I have this woman doing the same thing my other narrators do, it will seem a little unlikely or like one of them is dressed as a woman. So I was a little shy until a moment where I thought: there are many differences between men and women, but not so much in the minds. I have known many women in my life who are very similar in their minds to men – there are very stupid and intelligent men and the same for women, and very intelligent men and women. There are three things my narrators do: telling, observing and reflecting. I can’t see many differences between the way some men and some women do these things. So I decided, yeah, why not, she can make some jokes, she can be ironic in a similar way at least.
The result has been largely accepted, mainly by women. I think that some women were happy to see a novel in which the narrator was a woman who was not stressing all the time that she was a woman, which is something that happens very often in novels by men or women. There is an underlining of the fact that ‘I am a woman’, which is absurd because it’s not something women do in real life. So she just talks and she just says things, she wears a bra, but she’s not stressing all the time the ‘female condition’, as it were. Many female readers of the novel were thankful. There were a few ultra-feministic or supposedly ultra-feministic women who said the novel is not believable because women don’t think like that – and I said, this is male chauvinism. You can say a dog doesn’t do that, a cat doesn’t do that, but you can’t say a woman doesn’t do that. There are as many different types of women as there are men, of course.
THE WHITE REVIEW — You mentioned reflection as one of the three activities of your narrators. One of the characteristic elements of your work is its willingness to slow time down, to prolong the duration of brief moments, to allow for meditation or reflection to occur. What is the impetus behind this?
JAVIER MARÍAS — You can construct time in a novel, but time itself doesn’t exist. There is real time – one minute is sixty seconds – but for us in life it’s clear that things have a different duration, and this is very clear when we remember things. Even when things are happening, one thing we’ve all experienced is how long or short five minutes can be depending on the situation. One example among many is when you spend a whole night up arguing with a woman who is leaving you, and you argue and talk and explain, and that takes the whole night. Many people have lived that once or twice in their lives. And then once that thing is over, probably what your remember is one moment or sentence or the way she looked at you at one moment. Things that have a duration in life have a different duration in memory, and then the ‘real’ or important or essential duration is the one that stays with you. Probably when it happened you didn’t notice.
In a novel you can make these moments exist with their real duration. I say, I’m going to suspend this, because this is the important moment in time, I will make it important, the reader will remember this. Giving it to him or her in a way that life cannot give it to us but in memory – I’m giving it to you as it happens. I’m going to make time that doesn’t have the time to exist, exist – if that’s clear at all.
That’s one of the reasons I do that – it’s a way of recovering or experiencing the way we live things in fiction. We do live them like that, the problem is we only live them that way when they’re gone. I learned that from Sterne, and also from Proust. He does that wonderfully. There are moments in which someone in Proust comes to visit someone and they ask him to wait for a while in the lobby. And then there’s a moment in which the Proust’s prose goes on and on and the man starts remembering things and then twenty pages after that someone appears, the man the character is going to visit. He’s been waiting there for maybe three minutes but it took twenty pages, and in those pages a lot of things happen, as many things as happen in the mind as well, and that’s marvellously conveyed. It gives you a dimension of things that we normally don’t notice. I think that’s one of the great things a novel – probably more than poetry – can do, to convey that.
THE WHITE REVIEW — Regarding this impulse to retrieve lost, concealed or hidden moments – narratives or moments of history or individual writers that are overlooked or forgotten – do you feel a sense of duty or responsibility towards those who are overlooked?
JAVIER MARÍAS — I don’t know. I’ve always felt some weakness – what in French is faiblesse – or maybe it is pity, a special kind of pity for those things or people that are overlooked. Or for those people who died too young. For instance, what we say in Spanish, a word we have you don’t in English is malogrado. The kind of rather obscure, often solitary, people – I have a weakness for them and a weakness for people unfulfilled, because of circumstances or an early death. I have this anthology of texts I published in 1989 called Unique Stories, and the idea was that there are many writers who have not even passed through the history of a genre because they didn’t write enough things, but maybe they wrote one excellent short story that is forgotten, forgotten even within in a genre. I made this anthology of excellent or not always excellent ghost stories by overlooked or forgotten writers, sent to oblivion.
It wasn’t quite like that in the end – for example, there was a story by Winston Churchill who was of course very famous, but not because he wrote a very good short story. Richard Middleton, who died when he was 21, has some excellent stories, more than one – what could this man have done? Or even Marlowe, who died when he was 28 or 29. Those people, I pity them a lot, and that’s much reflected in Dark Back of Time. I say, of those people who might have been, where are they? Where is what they did not do? It’s in the ‘dark back of time’. And it’s not a matter of obligation or duty, or anything of that sort – more a sympathy for them.
In Dark Back of Time there is a passage in which I speak about my eldest brother whom I never met because he died before I was born when he was 3½. In that passage one of the things I remember saying is: this child was born to the same father and same mother, he was a brother, like my three other brothers, who would have been as natural to me as air, and what’s expressed is this sense of – not guilt, because it’s not guilt, but – why am I here? Why am I writing things? Who would he have been? What would he have done? Where is he? A few people would have met him, but most of the people who met him are dead now. I never met him. I know he did exist but he will stop existing in a few more years probably, even in the memory of people who did not know him, because I did not know him. He was born in 1945, died in 1948 or 1949. I was born in 1951. That kind of thing is easily expressed when I talk about that dead brother. It has to do with that feeling, the things that are forgotten or overlooked or unfulfilled, things that might have been. I have a weakness for all that. Not a sense of duty towards them, it’s more that I like to think that not everything is lost for everyone. Sometimes maybe that’s why I recover some of those people.
There is also a weakness for those who are very enthusiastic, for instance authors who are not very good.Ed Wood – you remember the film Ed Wood – I think that’s the best film by Burton, his latest films are almost unwatchable – he managed to make you see how enthusiastic that man was, how well meaning, but at the same time how he was not very gifted for what he wanted to do. We’ve all known people like that who are not very talented but enthusiastic, and you wish they could have some success or something, because they are really enthusiastic about what they do. That makes me feel a tenderness for them, as well as for the ones who couldn’t make it and maybe deserved to, but of course life is very unfair. Your intentions have nothing to do with what you achieve.
THE WHITE REVIEW — You talk about your brother’s toys in that passage, and there is the suggestion of an opposition between the loyalty or fidelity of objects and the unreliability or infidelity of narrative or verbal record. With this in mind, what role do images play in your text? Are they closer to objects or narrative?
JAVIER MARÍAS — The first time I did that was in All Souls, in 1989. It’s funny because some people when I did that again to a wider extent in Dark Back of Time, said it was Sebald-like. I liked Sebald very much, we exchanged a few letters in the last two years of his life. I liked his work and apparently he liked mine. But ‘Sebald-like’? I did it in 1989 (Editor’s Note: W. G. Sebald’s first book, After Nature, was published in 1988 in Germany, but does not contain any images) with two photos of John Gawsworth and I remember the surprise of my publisher then – photographs in a novel? Yeah, why not. It was a really strange thing to do then, now it’s not strange any more of course.
The main reason is very simple. I discovered reading Erwin Panofsky and others, art historians or art theorists, what a pleasure it is to look at an image and read about it at the same time. When Panofsky describes something it you can check and say, yeah, he’s right, I can see it, I wouldn’t have thought of this but now he mentions it, I see it. And then it’s only fair, if in a novel someone talks about a painting or photograph, to show it to the reader a well. That’s mainly it. There is no hidden purpose or enhancement of things – I’m talking about an image, let’s show the image, let’s allow the reader to see it.
I had a big problem with that once in Your Face Tomorrow, an ethical problem, when the killing of the narrator’s uncle at a young age, 18, 17, during the Spanish Civil War, is discussed. The narrator mentions that his mother learned about her brother being killed only because she was shown a photo of him dead in a Republican prison. This episode was based on the real story of my own mother’s discovery that one of her brothers had been killed – she only knew because of the photograph of him in the prison. In the novel I described this photograph, but then I thought: should I include it? I’ve made it fiction, but it’s coming from this photograph. I’m not sure I should show a photograph of someone who actually lived and died many years ago aged 17 or 18. But he did live this way. He was killed. Why is it that the old tradition was to cover any dead person’s face? Now it’s not done, not any more or on all occasions. One of the reasons was not only to avoid people from having the shock of seeing a dead face, but to keep the dead one, who doesn’t control his features or expression any more, being exposed like that: he does not control his image any more. For a moment I thought, well should I include it? On the one hand I thought, I’m not playing fair with the reader. I’m purloining this image from the reader when my habit is to show the images I’m talking about, and this one does exist. I even thought I could include a drawing of the photo, which would maybe not be exactly the same thing, in order to be fair to the reader, or not completely unfair. But in the end I talked with Carmen, my partner, and it was she who said I mustn’t. In the end reality imposed itself on that occasion. This was an actual person, he was my uncle, I never met him, of course, but he shouldn’t be shown like that, even in a fiction.
THE WHITE REVIEW — Throughout your work you discuss the ethics of showing photos of violence, and are acutely conscious of how the ‘unreality’ of verbal report informs that debate – if an event stays within the bounds of language, there is the sense that something both happened and didn’t happen. Is your use of images ever a kind of ‘proof’?
JAVIER MARÍAS — On some occasions, yes. For instance, in Dark Back of Time there are some cuttings reproduced to show that this was actual, real news, that this happened. I have the cutting or photograph of this most novelesque man, Hugh Olaf de Witt, as it might sound like something completely invented. In the same way, in All Souls, most people thought John Gawsworth was invented, despite the two photos of him. It was so novelesque, people thought, that it had to be invented. They thought the rest must be autobiographical because I had been in Oxford and all that. But Gawsworth’s story was factual. And Hugh, who appears in Dark Back of Time and also seems unlikely, fought in the Spanish Civil War, was a prisoner of the Gestapo, met Franco and wanted to organise some guerrillas in the Caucasus. He wrote a couple of books and was a painter and a sculptor – and here’s a photo of him. Sometime you can use images as proof.
It seems as if everything that actually happened is doomed to become a fictionalised happening. If you’re told these days about a murder in the eighteenth century, let alone the fifteenth century, you listen to it, how terrible and horrifying, but you will listen to it more or less as you listen to a story, something fictional. Things – actual, factual – are doomed to become fiction, in a way, but at the same time, we must recognise that, though they are a fiction, at least they are still being told. The other option is that they are not told at all, as if they actually did not happen. Even the stories that are remembered and told or rediscovered by a novelist or by a historian, they are doomed in a way to sound like fiction, like a story. You won’t be much moved by an eighteenth-century murder now, even if you know it actually happened. Of course you are moved if you watch a film, or read a novel – because films in particular have a faculty of making you feel things as if they were happening – that’s one of the reasons we enjoy them. But you know it’s a film, you know it’s a novel. The problem is with actual things is that you go to them, when time has elapsed, more or less in the same spirit. That’s the fate of anything in the long term at least. Not when it is something that happened to your father, for example, but in the long term.
That’s one of the funny things about the Spanish Civil War. It finished more than seventy years ago. Why is that still people are not looking at the facts of the Civil War like fiction? That’s not happening yet. Maybe it’s because our own fathers suffered it, but in time it shall be like that as well. If we are told now about the Napoleonic War, it sounds like complete fiction. Even though we have the famous Goya paintings and all that, it sounds like Robin Hood. Why doesn’t the Civil War start to sound a bit like that? Maybe because it was a Civil War, not against a foreign enemy, or maybe because we are still suffering from it today. But that will happen in the end. It shall become fictional, and thank god, I must say. Sometimes I have said that fiction is the refuge of history. Yes, you have books of history, but history is read by a few. Literature too, but a wider few.
THE WHITE REVIEW — Do you consider your books as historical documents?
JAVIER MARÍAS — No, not really. You can’t count any more on the duration of literature. I always say that posterity is an idea of the past, contradictory as it may sound. Nowadays it would be ridiculous to think of posterity when things last only three months. I wrote a column after the publication of Your Face Tomorrow.The whole project had taken me eight or nine years, and after all that effort and time, it was finally published. About three months after publication I went to see a bookseller on Calle Major who is a very good friend. We talked for a while and I asked him what he’s selling. He said, oh the third volume of your novel sold very well, but now it’s prehistory. Yeah, probably you’re right, I said. Things are consumed nowadays so fast, they don’t last at all. I wrote a piece for my column starting with that anecdote and went on to say that one of the problems of today is that whatever is present is already past. Because of its being present it’s already old because it’s not being expected any more but existent – it’s already old. It happens with films, novels, music, everything, it seems things only exist as long as they don’t yet exist. There’s a new film by, say, Polanski, and while you didn’t have the film visible there’s some excitement about it, but the moment it’s watchable we’ve already watched it, it’s past, it’s prehistory, it’s old. It’s never happened before – things had a life. But nowadays it’s more and more like that – the very fact, the very circumstance of the existence of something makes it old, which is terrible in a way. It would be ludicrous now to think of posterity when things are like that. I am very lucky because my novels last longer than that, generally – The Infatuations, which just came out two years ago in Spain, is still selling, and still alive, as it were. And A Heart So White, published twenty years ago, is still somehow alive and living and selling, which is great. But thinking about posterity now belongs to a different era when things had a living and an afterlife – authors and books – which nowadays is very rare.
THE WHITE REVIEW — Speaking of the relationship between the present and past, a recurring notion in your work is that of ‘biographical horror’ or ‘narrative horror’, which expresses a fear that the narrative of a whole life can be overshadowed by some significant final act, a perverse or strange death or revelation of some secret. There is expressed in this idea a tension between the past and the present, a wariness about the power of the present to (mis)represent the past, and a sympathy with the past’s vulnerability to misrepresentation. Do you feel your novels attempt to resist the predominance of the present?
JAVIER MARÍAS — Yes, I suppose in a way. The only thing you can do about it if you don’t like that, which I don’t, is to stay impassible. To say, well, yes, I know things are like that – but in my own activity I’m not going to go on in the times, I’ll write about what I’m interested in, as if there was posterity or an afterlife – not for me, I don’t care about that at all – as if things could last. I’m going to take my time, I’m going to write slowly. I don’t have a computer so each time I do corrections of course I have to retype the page again. I type it five times. And people say to me, but you’re wasting your time, those corrections, you wouldn’t have to type the whole thing again on a computer. I say, I don’t care. I like to type it again. One of the reasons is that it’s different from when you reread it once – every time you type it you are getting accustomed to what you wrote, in a way you are taking responsibility for it and approving it. Making it yours, more yours than it was. Yes, it’s the first draft that’s new. Then you have to get accustomed to it – let’s see if I take responsibility for it as mine, if I approve it, if it’s acceptable, and then if you do it again, the same way students or boys or girls – I don’t know if they do it any more – used to copy out poems. They could read the poem in their textbooks, but very often they had to write it down themselves in a notebook, as if to make it their own. If I write it myself with my own hand I make it more my own. I suppose that was the unexpressed idea in boys’ and girls’ minds when they do that.
I don’t write to gain time: I write in order to lose it, to feel it, to feel it pass. I take my time. For an impatient reader my novels sometimes must be very enervating or irritating, as in the second volume of Your Face Tomorrow – come on, tell me if this man is gong to be beheaded or not! No, no. I won’t tell you yet, because that’s not really what matters. My intention now is to talk about a sword, and why are we so afraid of swords, what it means, for a few pages. There shall be these memories in the mind of the narrator and he will establish a connection between this situation he’s living and the last ten minutes in the bathroom, in a disco, with things that his father told him about the Civil War. I’ll take my time, I don’t care. If people like it and read it – good. If they don’t, well, what can I do?
THE WHITE REVIEW — Which contemporary novelists do you read?
JAVIER MARÍAS — Not many now. For many years I tried to be up to date, not only in my own language but in others. I stopped while writing Your Face Tomorrow, because of sheer lack of time. I realised that after almost ten years of not being up to date it was an impossible task to catch up. On the other hand I realised I had lost a lot of time trying to be up to date, because of course sometimes you find good new things, but perhaps only one out of twenty? And, well, you get older, and you think there are many classics you haven’t read and there are a few you would like to reread. So nowadays I don’t read many contemporary authors except a few, like Alice Munro, for instance, I think she’s great. I read new things by Coetzee and, of course, I did read things by Sebald when he was alive and writing. John Banville. And now and then Ian McEwan. But not so many. On the other hand I realised also that the more you write, the less you read. The older you get the less you read new things as well. If I didn’t know myself, I wouldn’t read my works. If someone came to me and said you must read Javier Marias, Spanish guy, contemporary, written a novel of 1500 pages? Come on. Give me one Dickens I haven’t read and then maybe I’ll read it, but not this contemporary thing by a Spanish writer. I can’t help reading them as I write them, of course, but otherwise I don’t think I would read myself. And one of the reasons I published that very long book in three volumes – not the only but one of them – was that I hate very long books. I thought I should give people the chance to buy one volume and if they don’t feel like going on they won’t have bought the whole thing irremediably. In principle I mistrust very long books. I did it like that also because, for me, it was like writing a new novel each time. It’s the same novel, of course, but for me, psychologically, biographically, it’s like three novels.
THE WHITE REVIEW — Your narrators are often concerned with names and the relation of names to identity. Do you feel that names can have a predetermining effect upon identity, or are they rather flexible?
JAVIER MARÍAS — Not really – in fact, what is common or normal in my novels is that there is some hesitation about names. In The Infatuations in the very first sentence there is a hesitation over a name – is it Deverne or Devergnes – to begin with. Sometimes we use several. Names are precisely what are very variable. People change them, people use other names, writers have done that a lot with pen names and pseudonyms and whatever. Mark Twain is Mark Twain for good. Or Lewis Carroll. On the contrary, I think that names are a very moveable thing – which precisely helps to somehow escape identity, in a way. It’s much easier to change a name than to change anything else, particularly your face.
THE WHITE REVIEW — That would be a good place to end.
JAVIER MARÍAS — If you need five more minutes go for it, just in case you had something you prepared and didn’t have the time to ask. One of the strange things about writing nowadays, because of what we talked about before, this thing of the lack of duration of things, is sometimes – why do we do this? Write? It’s a strange thing because even for people who write on a computer, I suppose, it’s very slow, to fill pages, even if you don’t correct anything, even if you write real trash, it takes time. It takes time just to type. I remember, when I used to translate and I had to make a new final version and practically the final thing was just typing copy. I think that the most I could do was ten pages per day of just typing. It takes time to get through the pages – it’s like the work of an artisan.
There’s a very common question, when you launch a book, after two or three years’ work, from journalists: ‘What are you planning next?’ It happens also with football players, they’ve just won the Champion’s League and the journalists says, ‘Well, what next?’ Well, I just won the Champion’s League, leave me alone! And I always think: this is cruel! It’s inhuman! And you have the same feeling: I’ve just finished a book that took me three years, don’t ask me about the next one. I haven’t even thought about whether there should be a next one. Sometimes you wonder, why do I go on with this? It’s not like why you start – I started in order to read more. But why am I doing it now? Why do I go on? That’s harder to answer.
The White Review, November 2013