I bought Javier Marías’s novel All Souls back in 1992 when it first came out in translation and I was working in the bookshop. I’d never heard of him and had no idea he would come to be such a big literary name, occasionally threatened with the Nobel prize and compared to Proust and Henry James. These comparisons come about because of Marías’s sentence structure, which is ornate and exhaustive in its associations, so that often the reader has the sensation of having fallen head first into a thesaurus instead of a novel. It’s the kind of literary style that makes you slow right down to read it but unlike Proust and James, there is something mannered in this verbal overload that never quite warms up into a linguistic passion. There’s humour, certainly, and no less amusing for being dry and a little cold, but as for heart, it seemed at first that it was lacking, and about halfway through the novel I wondered how it could be that a story ostensibly focusing on an adulterous liaison between a visiting lecturer in Spanish and a woman tutor, Clare Bayes, could manage so adroitly to avoid discussing the love affair at all.
Marías organizes his novel in a series of set pieces, dissected into chapters, and most of them have a quirky focus: the rubbish that accumulates over the course of the day in his appartment, the obscure books by the writer John Gawsworth (who really existed, and Marías includes photos of him in the novel to trouble the fictional narrative further) that he tries to seek out in second hand bookshops, the life of beggars in Oxford. In an early chapter, the unnamed narrator describes how he attended High Table and saw Clare for the first time. His inner monologue at this moment is in fact a foretaste of how he will recount their relationship: ‘ “What an idiot,” I thought, “why can’t I think about something more fruitful, more interesting? Relationships with those with whom we have no blood ties never are; the possible variety of paths such a relationship can take are minimal, the surprises all fakes, the different stages mere formalities, it’s all so infantile: the approaches, the consummations, the estrangements; the fulfillment, the battles, the doubts; the certainties, the jealousies, the abandonment and the laughter; it wears you out even before its begun.’ And indeed, of the classic scenes of a love relationship that he mentions here, he narrates none of them. Instead his insufficiently occupied life in Oxford, is recounted through a series of peripheral encounters in which the spectre of Clare sometimes lingers.
This tendency becomes particularly marked in the second half of the novel when Clare is absent from his life temporarily. Her son is home from boarding school, ill, and she refuses to see him whilst he is around. There follows a series of chapters in which the emptiness of his life is made starkly manifest. In one he goes to a local nightclub and picks up a girl in whom he has no interest, urged on by his colleague from the department. This scene describes far more graphically the narrator’s encounter with the girl than any time he spends with Clare, yet the tone is that of a man going through the motions with no emotional investment in the act. In another he describes the peripatetic life of the beggars and the madmen he sees on the streets of Oxford and wonders whether he is distinguishable from them as he trudges endlessly around the city, seeking distraction. In another he spots Clare with her son and father on a trip to the museum and he shamelessly follows them around, looking at the exhibits they look at, ordering the same meal as her son in the restaurant they attend. And so we reach the crux of our narrator’s strange identity; unlike most first person narratives, which seek to present the narrator in a favourable light by explaining and justifying his actions, this story is told by a man who can only be a shadow, a spy, an outsider. We learn so very little about him, because his focus is on telling the lives of others. How could such a man recount something so intimately revealing as the story of his own love affair?
This was without a doubt the strangest account of a man in love that I have ever read, and yet it was immensely intriguing. For all that the prose is excessively wordy sometimes, and in a way that can seem alienating, there were moments when Marías’s long drawn-out style pays its dividends and scenes of an exquisite sensibility were gradually traced beneath the reader’s careful gaze. The narrator writes from a time beyond his stay in Oxford, a time when he is now married and living in Madrid, and so the two years he spends in England are recounted under the aegis of transience and immanent departure. Nothing can really affect him when he is so rootless and so peripheral to Oxford life, and yet, of course, his relationship with Clare does. He is conscious that he sought out such a relationship in order to be fully present to something significant, in order to be brought to life in a place where he might risk having no more substance than a ghost. And indeed, without her, he is isolated and lonely and doubtful of the value of his existence. I cannot say whether this is or is not characteristic of men in general, but I would be astonished to find a novel about a love affair written in this way by a woman. It is not that our narrator is inarticulate – far from it – but his own emotions are kept ruthlessly out of the limelight and discernible only in the projections he makes onto others, in the stories he does not tell, and in the empty, faded spaces where we might assume love once was. I’m not sure what I thought of this book, not even sure whether I liked it, but I want to read more Marías because he intrigued me so.