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Javier Marias


Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “All Souls” A Novel by Javier Marias

July 22, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 2.41.54 PMby Alexandra Bowie
Relationships outside of family often come into existence through the expedient of contiguity, and may simply disappear once the the contact ends. It’s a resonant theme that has provided the grist for many stories about shipboard or vacation romances (and the risks they entail). The unnamed Spanish novelist who narrates Javier Marias’ engrossing novel “All Souls” is writing about a period he spent as a visiting scholar in Oxford a few years earlier. (According to John Banville’s introduction, the resonance goes deeper: Javier Marias himself spent a few years in Oxford in the 1980s.) Looking back on his years in Oxford and the relationships he formed there the narrator reflects on the paradox that while his relationships in Oxford were profound, few survived his return to Madrid.

Marias introduces most of his principal characters at a High Table dinner. (The chapter describing the dinner is hilarious and spot-on. Here’s one example:

These suppers take place once a week in the vast refectories of the different colleges. The table at which the diners and their guests sit is raised up on a platform and thus presides over the other tables (where the students dine with suspicious haste, fleeing as soon as they have finished, gradually abandoning the elevated guests to their solitude and thus avoiding the spectacle the latter end up making of themselves)…)

Characters present at the dinner include: Clare Bayes, with whom the narrator carries on a lengthy and delirious affair; and her husband; Cromer-Blake, the narrator’s best friend in Oxford; and Toby Rylands, an eminent and about-to-be emeritus literary scholar. The affair ends prematurely when Clare’s young son must leave his boarding school to recuperate from a mysterious illness, mysterious at least to the narrator, keeping Clare busy and preoccupied. The narrator must have been irritated at the time the events occurred, but in his recall sounds more puzzled that Clare would choose her son over him.

The narrator also forms an important relationship with Alan Marriott, who tracks the narrator down through a used bookseller – the narrator is searching for the narrowly-known works of a favorite author – and persuades him to join a subscription society devoted to the works of a different writer. For a reason he cannot explain to himself, the narrator agrees to pay a quarterly subscription. At the very last moment of his visit, however, Marriott mentions another writer, Gawsworth, who interests the narrator rather more. He delves into Gawsworth’s background, and begins to amass a collection of his works. The narrator is interested more in Gawsworth’s character than his works, and what he finds when he traces him comes as a bit of a surprise, both to the narrator and the reader.

“All Souls,” as might be expected in a book named for the most recondite of Oxford colleges, is not an action novel. Instead, it’s a lengthy contemplation of what makes a relationship stick – besides regular contact. Looking back, the narrator describes his time in Oxford as a time of unease, and observes his most reliable and lasting relationship is not with his lover. It’s a deeply satisfying and interesting novel for the committed reader.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “The Infatuations” A Novel by Javier Marías

March 13, 2015

“Fiction has the ability to show us what we don’t know and what doesn’t happen,” says Javier Diaz-Varela, one of the central characters in Javier Marias’ thought-provoking novel “The Infatuations.” As listeners of the podcast “Serial” learned, it can be impossible for an outsider to figure out what happened between two people. Separating what happened from what might have happened and what could have happened instead, or later, is the central thread of this deeply absorbing story.

Maria Dolz, in her mid-thirties, works in a Madrid publishing house. She stops at a cafe near her office for breakfast most mornings, where she regularly observes a couple sharing breakfast. She never meets or speaks with them but seeing them gets Maria’s day off to a hopeful start. Eventually there comes a day, or a series of days, when she notices they are missing. It turns out that the husband, Miguel Desvern, has been murdered, the victim of a random crime. Maria shrugs, mentally, until his wife, Luisa, returns to the restaurant several months later. They speak, they become acquainted, and it turns out that Luisa and Miguel had also noticed, and discussed Maria: they called her the Prudent Young Woman. One thing leads to another, and, through Luisa, Maria becomes acquainted with Diaz-Varela, Miguel’s best friend. Maria enters a light-hearted affair with Diaz-Varela who tells Maria a series of stories, from Balzac, from Dumas, about people who come back from the dead. Diaz-Varela also brings his friend to life for Maria.

One night she overhears something that leads her to wonder what role Diaz-Varela might have played in Miguel’s death. Another of the novel’s motifs is MacBeth’s lament on hearing of his wife’s death: “she should have died hereafter.” Diaz-Varela had reason to be happy his friend had died – a motive – and, over the course of a long conversation with Maria, sets out a plausible explanation for what she overheard. Was Miguel’s death a murder, nothing more? An execution? Something else? There are holes in Diaz-Varela’s story, and part of Maria’s battle with herself is what she will do with the information she has learned.

Maria narrates in the first person, and the novel is structured as a series of brief incidents, or even sentences in a conversation, followed by Maria’s detailed thoughts – sometimes she dissects what she’s seen or heard; other times she elucidates. She tells much of the story in flashbacks. All of the action is internal, yet the reader’s tension ratchets up as the story develops. Maria brings us with her, convincingly, even while we know that she’s failed to convince herself of the truth of Diaz-Varela’s narrative or the morality of her own actions. The story Diaz-Varela tells, and the novel itself, show us what we don’t know, and underline what we can’t. It’s an interesting parallel to “Serial” and considerably more persuasive. Do you agree? Let us know in the comments.

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