Orhan Pamuk says of Javier Marías that he “should get the Nobel Prize.” I definitely agree but I am a little soft on the recommendation seeing how I wasn’t too pleased when Pamuk won the award. Marías is a writer that should be in every serious reader’s library. Luckily most of his works have been translated into English and we don’t have to struggle through the Spanish (not that reading them in the original Spanish isn’t a great idea, just harder for some readers).
My current selection by Marías is Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me. Based on the title, what do you think the novel is about? Well, you can’t count on Marías to make things easy. How about a narrative that starts like this:
NO ONE EVER EXPECTS that they might some day find themselves with a dead woman in their arms, a woman whose face they will never see again, but whose name they will remember. No one ever expects anybody to die at the least opportune of moments, even though this happens all the time, nor does it ever occur to us that someone entirely unforeseen might die beside us. The facts or the circumstances of a death are often concealed: it is common for both the living and the dying – assuming that they have time to realize they are dying – to feel embarrassed by the form and appearance of that death, embarrassed too by its cause. Seafood poisoning, a cigarette lit as the person is drifting off to sleep and that sets fire to the sheets or, worse, to a woollen blanket; a slip in the shower – the back of the head – the bathroom door locked; a lightning bolt that splits in two a tree planted in a broad avenue, a tree which, as it falls, crushes or slices off the head of a passer-by, possibly a foreigner; dying in your socks, or at the barber’s, still wearing a voluminous smock, or in a whorehouse or at the dentist’s; or eating fish and getting a bone stuck in your throat, choking to death like a child whose mother isn’t there to save him by sticking a finger down his throat; or dying in the middle of shaving, with one cheek still covered in foam, half-shaven for all eternity, unless someone notices and finishes the job off out of aesthetic pity; not to mention life’s most ignoble, hidden moments that people seldom mention once they are out of adolescence, simply because they no longer have an excuse to do so, although, of course, there are always those who insist on making jokes about them, never very funny jokes. What a terrible way to die, people say about certain deaths; what a ridiculous way to die, people say, amidst loud enemym at last deceased or about some remote figure, someone who once insulted us or who has long since inhabited the past, a Roman emperor, a great-grandfather, or even some powerful person in whose grotesque death one sees only the still-vital, still-human justice which, deep down, we hope will be dealt out to everyone, including ourselves. How that death gladdens me, saddens me, pleases me. Sometimes the trigger for hilarity is merely the fact that it is a stranger’s death, about whose inevitably risible misfortune we read in the newspapers, poor thing, people say, laughing, death as a performance or a show to be reviewed, all the stories that we read or hear or are told as if they were mere theatre, there is always a degree of unreality about the things other people tell us, it’s as if nothing ever really happened, not even the things that happen to us, things we cannot forget. No, not even what we cannot forget.
What would go through your mind if you were having an assignation with a married woman who fell suddenly sick heart attack?) and died in your arms? What about her young son in the other bedroom? What about her husband away on business in another country? What about a cold half-naked body in the bed? What do you do?
Marías is an exacting writer with wonderfully clear and evocative prose. When you add a great writer to an intriguing narrative, every page is fascinating (and they go rather fast as you’re reading).
I have a nice collection of books by Marías on my shelves or on the iPad and I really must get serious about reading them all. Wikipedia gives us a good list of works by Javier Marías:
Los dominios del lobo (1971)
Travesía del horizonte (Voyage Along the Horizon, 1973)
El monarca del tiempo (1978)
El siglo (1983)
El hombre sentimental (The Man of Feeling, 1986)
Todas las almas (All Souls, 1989)
Corazón tan blanco (A Heart So White, 1992)
Vidas escritas (Written Lives, 1992)
Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí (Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me, 1994)
Cuando fui mortal (When I Was Mortal 1996)
Negra espalda del tiempo (Dark Back of Time, 1998)
Tu rostro mañana 1. Fiebre y lanza (Your Face Tomorrow 1: Fever and Spear, 2002)
Tu rostro mañana 2. Baile y sueño (Your Face Tomorrow 2: Dance and Dream, 2004)
Tu rostro mañana 3. Veneno y sombra y adiós (Your Face Tomorrow 3: Poison, Shadow and Farewell, 2007)
Los enamoramientos (The Infatuations, 2011)
All English translations by Margaret Jull Costa and published in America by New Directions unless otherwise indicated:
All Souls (1992)
A Heart So White (1995) (new edition 2012 published by Penguin Books with introduction by Jonathan Coe).
Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (1996)
When I Was Mortal (1999)
Dark Back of Time (translated by Esther Allen, 2001)
The Man of Feeling (2003)
Your Face Tomorrow 1: Fever and Spear (2004)
Voyage Along the Horizon (translated by Kristina Cordero and published by McSweeney’s, 2006)
Written Lives (2006)
Your Face Tomorrow 2: Dance and Dream (2006)
Your Face Tomorrow 3: Poison, Shadow and Farewell (2009)
Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico (translated by Esther Allen, 2010)
While the Women Are Sleeping (2010)
The Infatuations (2013)
Berg, Karen, Javier Marías’s Postmodern Praxis: Humor and Interplay between Reality and Fiction in his Novels and Essays (2008)
Cunado, Isabel, El Espectro de la Herencia: La Narrativa de Javier Marias (2004)
Herzberger, David K. A Companion to Javier Marías. Rochester, NY: Tamesis Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-85566-230-8