Men in Love IV: Hiding in full view

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.

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22 thoughts on “Men in Love IV: Hiding in full view

  1. I reviewed Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow 18 months or so ago. Well, volume two to be precise but I read both books and All Souls. You’re completely right about the mannered style never quite warming up into a linguistic passion. (I wish I had said that!). The herd-review comparisons with Proust, Nabokov, James, are disingenuous for this reason alone. I upset his buddies at Oxford for daring to question the comparisons. No doubt a million forthcoming children’s books featuring wizards will be “compared to JK Rowling” but of course it will mean less than nothing. That said, I enjoyed all the Marias I read; All Souls in particular. The hotel in which they can see both Brighton Pavilion and the Palace Pier is the Albion. I walk by it every day to go to work!

  2. You know, I thought I’d read you on Marias, Steve, but I wasn’t sure. As for inane comparisons, I think they do more to put me off authors than any bad review ever could. What possesses publicity people? I’m reading James Salter’s Light Years at the moment, a very beautiful book, and the front cover bears this sole quotation: ‘Salter is a writer who particularly rewards those for whom reading is an intense pleasure.’ This rubbish was supposedly written by Susan Sontag – is such a thing possible?

    It’s rather cool that you actually know the hotel.

  3. I was not familiar with Marias until your post, so I had to look him up. It sounds as though he has had quite an impressive career. I never quite know what to make of books that you’re not sure whether you love or hate when you finish with them, but this certainly sounds as though it gives you things to think about. He did something right if he makes you want to read more of his work.

  4. What a very interesting perspective to take, to write about a love affair without really writing about the love affair. Do you think the distance this creates is meant to reflect the loneliness of the character? Or is that too simplistic a description and there is more going on that that?

    As for how blurbs compare writers and books to others, drives me nuts. It’s worse I notice on the books of first time authors where sometimes there are three or four authors listed that are all so different I wonder how it could be possible.

  5. He sounds brilliant, litlove, to have decided to write the narrative of an affair in the first person, and then to thwart every expectation you might have about that point of view and that subject. The first person removed seems like a really interesting strategy to take. This is one to read, without question.

  6. Danielle – I found him intellectually very engaging, and sometimes his long-winded style worked beautifully. Occasionally some passages were just tedious, but not enough to put me off reading more by him. He was a very different kind of writer, and that’s always worth a further try. Stefanie – I do think you are right; that odd perspective is due to his isolation in Oxford, but I also had the sense that it was who he was. And I did wonder whether it was a male take on romance not to talk about the thing that was emotionally most important to you, and to project yourself out into the material world. You’re so right about first time authors. All those years spent trying to be original and then the front jacket aligns them with a host of popular novelists they have no desire to be associated with! Andi – I’d love to know what you think if you get hold of a copy. It is very unusual. Dear Bloglily – you have it exactly right. Thwarting our expectations of the first person seems to be very much at the heart of this novel, and the ‘first person removed’ is a wonderful way to describe it. Harry – what an interesting question. Marias is himself a well-known translator, and I felt that at times it read like a crackingly difficult translation exercise that you might set a class of students. I think it’s sufficiently ornate not to suffer too badly. It’s that easy, sparse, idiomatic style that is oddly enough the hardest to do well in another language. But even so, I expect the Spanish version is inevitably smoother.

  7. Danielle – I found him intellectually very engaging, and sometimes his long-winded style worked beautifully. Occasionally some passages were just tedious, but not enough to put me off reading more by him. He was a very different kind of writer, and that’s always worth a further try. Stefanie – I do think you are right; that odd perspective is due to his isolation in Oxford, but I also had the sense that it was who he was. And I did wonder whether it was a male take on romance not to talk about the thing that was emotionally most important to you, and to project yourself out into the material world. You’re so right about first time authors. All those years spent trying to be original and then the front jacket aligns them with a host of popular novelists they have no desire to be associated with! Andi – I’d love to know what you think if you get hold of a copy. It is very unusual. Dear Bloglily – you have it exactly right. Thwarting our expectations of the first person seems to be very much at the heart of this novel, and the ‘first person removed’ is a wonderful way to describe it. Harry – what an interesting question. Marias is himself a well-known translator, and I felt that at times it read like a crackingly difficult translation exercise that you might set a class of students. I think it’s sufficiently ornate not to suffer too badly. It’s that easy, sparse, idiomatic style that is oddly enough the hardest to do well in another language. But even so, I expect the Spanish version is inevitably smoother.

  8. I love books with an intriguing style and you have piqued my interest on this one. I love wordy books as well so this sounds like one I would like to try. It’s fun, isn’t it, to try and dissect the reasons why a books keeps one at a distance? My relationship with books varies from one to the next, a progression or an evolution or a random pattern…hard to know. Thank you for this wonderful review.

  9. I haven’t read anything by Marias and know nothing very much about him, so this question may be doing him a disservice, but is he someone working with a particular narrative style in order to see if it’s possible to make a novel work in that way? I don’t have a problem with that, should it be the case, but I think I would find myself reading him as an academic rather than a reader. Is that something a novelist would want?

  10. Great review. Sounds fascinating, although not hugely likeable – must pick it up! I also love to read books set in Oxford; partly because I love the place, but also because there’s something about walking the same streets as the characters that just adds another dimension to the reading experience…

  11. I must watch out for this … at least one of his books. I do like novels that try to give me a different take on things, that give me new perspectives. However, when the night and the snow start to come down on that quest for something different, I need to truly believe in that person I’m following. Oh dear, I kind of went all prosy there, without meaning too! 🙂 Nice review! 🙂

  12. Verbivore – I think you would appreciate the style. Marias is a highly lauded translator and I think it shows in his sentences – you can tell me if you think I’m wrong! Ann – what an intriguing question! This is the only book I’ve read by him, but judging from the reviews I was looking at, it is quite representative of his style. I did find myself reading more as an academic, it must be said, which is ok, but I would have felt more loving towards the book if it had moved me more often. Still, it IS interesting. Nic – if you have Oxford links, then it is definitely worth reading. The evocation of life in a college and in the city generally was something I thought very well done. Shameless – feel free to have a prosy moment any time you like! Thank you for your kind words.

  13. It’s always interesting to feel ambivalently about a book, isn’t it? It’s fun, I think, to try to figure out why something doesn’t quite work or why you are left a bit cold or why you are intrigued in spite of feeling uncertain about the experience. I can understand why you want to read more by this author!

  14. Hello, litlove. Thanks for introducing me to Javier Marías, yet another new novelist for me to look for.

    As you described _All Souls, I thought of hungarian novelist, Peter Nadas, and his novel _A Book of Memories_: brittle, straining for Proust (or at least the translator was), cold at the heart, and not engaging. It seems that Marías is more interesting than that.

  15. The first Javier Marias book I bought was Dark Back of Time, I had read a review of it and thought it sounded unusual, but I found I just couldn’t get into it, probably didn’t help that it is about events in his life that stem from the publication of All Souls, which I hadn’t read, however I had heard that Dark Back of Time would stand alone. I started reading it (first couple of chapters say) about three times over the course of two years and couldn’t stick with it, but the book stayed in my mind and so I tried again this summer and found, at last, that I became totally engrossed in it and Marias’ digressive style which is prominent in this book, so much so that I now have A Man of Feeling waiting in my to-be-read pile and after reading your post All Souls will be there too soon.

  16. Dorothy – sometimes it’s more interesting than straightforwardly loving something! I’ll be interested to know what you make of him when you read him. JB – I think you might like Marias. He is not as cold as all that, just cool-ish. Hakim – hello and welcome to all Singaporean librarians! Thank you for visiting. Jenny – hello and welcome to you, too. Now that is a tale of perseverance rewarded! Well done to you for sticking with it and reaping the benefit in the end!

  17. Pingback: All Souls by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa) | JacquiWine's Journal

  18. One of the fascinating things about blogging is the way we often see very different things in the same books. Your comments on the narrator’s relationship with Clare is a case in point. It’s a very intriguing novel, isn’t it? So full of different ideas and threads. Have you gone on to read more of Marias’ work? I would recommend A Heart So White (that’s if you haven’t already read it).

    • I have it on the shelf but haven’t read it yet – the usual story! But I did enjoy this and found Marias to be one of those authors whose work lingers long in the mind afterwards. So I’d definitely like to read more of him.

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