06 September 2010

Visiones de Marías

Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico is the latest book I've read and I'm still constructing my thoughts about it. It's a bad bad book, and I mean that in the wild wild west sense. I read it ahead of the other books I bought in my recent book-hunting in Manila, a rare opportunity to stock my shelf with goodies. I decided to read it for its sheer brevity in length, a mere 57 pages of Marías-concentrate, in one of the beautifully spare designs of New Directions Pearls. I also bought The Literary Conference by César Aira, a writer I've only started reading this year, an instant favorite with his surreal Ghosts and the lighted landscapes of An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. My other purchases are Clandestine in Chile by Gabriel García Márquez, Six Records of a Floating Life by Shen Fu, Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo. I was also very fortunate to come across a used copy of "AN ADVANCED READING COPY FROM UNCORRECTED PROOFS" of The Seventh Samurai by Helen DeWitt. Its final published title would be The Last Samurai (no, not the). The reference is to Akira Kurosawa's celebrated movie. I've started reading a few pages of DeWitt and ... BIG WOW. This is the Fall book selection of Conversational Reading. Oh and I also got the bad bad (I really meant this in a bad way) The Body Artist by Don DeLillo. I only picked it up to go with the DeWitt book for the buy-one-take-one promo in the used book store.

I'm still thinking a lot about the ending of Bad Nature. It is tearing me apart. And the frequent references to "dark back" (as in, Dark Back of Time) had me in stitches. The book is about a translator/interpreter who worked for Elvis Presley in a movie set in Acapulco, Mexico. In one of their bar hops, one of the guys in Elvis's contingent offended a Mexican gangster. Inevitably, Elvis and his companions became embroiled in an argument with the gangster's group. The translator is the only person who could communicate the insults shuttling back and forth between the two factions. As is usual with Marias, the currents of terror are at first gliding innocently on the surface of the story and then breaks to the surface to take over the story. As I understand it from this story: the bad nature resides in all of us. The gangsters and also Elvis can be bad, as in evil, anytime. The key to world peace is tolerating "the other" but this is impossible because there is always a barrier of communication. Language and the significations of language can get the better of people. If we can not get past our own linguistic (i.e., cultural) prejudices then we are at a permanent state of conflict. Even gestures, like language, can be fatal. (The key scene in Bad Nature reminds me of a disturbing story, told as a joke, in Roberto Bolaño's 2666 where a simple handshake between a French scientist and an indigenous tribesman in Borneo, a pat on the shoulder, and an intent look in the eyes were all misconstrued by the native as an act of violence or rape or the eating of soul.)

At the back of the book With Elvis in Mexico (why not use the alternate title alone? Sometimes I'd like to refer to McCarthy's meridional bloodbath as The Evening Redness in the West. In some ways, the Elvis and the Redness books share a theme, but I'm not stretching it.), at the back of this short story (really too short to be called a novella) is a sketch (shown below) by Marías. They have one for each of the authors in the Pearls edition. Below the sketch is the blurb "Admired by Bolaño, Ashbery, Sebald, Pamuk, and Coetzee." In a paperback copy of the earlier published Fever and Spear, the back cover blurb only mentions "Pahmuk [sic], Coetzee, and Sebald." Bolaño is a late addition to the roster of Marías admirers but he was really an avid reader of the Spanish writer from early on.


Javier Marías is already internationally renowned as many of his books were translated in several languages and were awarded prestigious literary prizes (in original and translations). His books also sold already in the millions. Born in 1951, Marías is one of the leading contemporary writers in Spain. He is a novelist, short story writer, essayist, newspaper columnist, and translator. He published his first novel at age 19, finished his degree of Philosophy and Letters at Universidad Complutense de Madrid, and taught in Spain, UK (Oxford University) and the United States. Among the writers he translated into Spanish are Conrad, Hardy, Faulkner, Nabokov, Thomas Browne, Sterne, Shakespeare, Yeats, Auden, and Wallace Stevens. At present he reigns as the King of Redonda, an island in the Caribbean.


Marías is a prolific writer. He has over 30 titles to his name. About a dozen of his books were available in English so far. Everything was translated by Margaret Jull Costa save for Dark Back of Time and Bad Nature (both translated by Esther Allen) and Voyage Along the Horizon (by Kristina Cordero). Some of his nonfiction pieces appeared in The New Republic, Granta, The New York Times, The Believer, and The Threepenny Review.


Voyage Along the Horizon
The Man of Feeling
All Souls
A Heart So White
Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me
Your Face Tomorrow [in 3 volumes - Fever and Spear; Dance and Dream; Poison, Shadow and Farewell]


Dark Back of Time [a "false" sequel to All Souls]


When I Was Mortal [one story "Fewer Scruples" is online at The Barcelona Review]
While the Women Are Sleeping [forthcoming this year, the title story is at the New Yorker]


Written Lives


Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico
Gualta [this story of fantasy can be read online, only if your eyes permit it]
While the Women Are Sleeping


It's not hard to see why the writer is admired by great contemporary writers such as Bolaño and Sebald. He is a great one himself. Bolaño was impressed by Marías's early books, books that have yet to appear in English. He praised Los dominios de lobo (1971) ("The Dominions of the Wolf"), the very first novel Marías wrote at age 18 and published a year later. For Bolaño, this book (along with La asesina ilustrada by Vila-Matas) "marked a point of departure for our generation." In his essay "Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories" Bolaño listed a handful of "highly recommended books and authors", among them Marías’s story collection Mientras ellas duermen (Editorial Anagrama, Barcelona, 1990). The English translation of this book, While the Women Are Sleeping, is forthcoming from New Directions in November. Bolaño admitted to having been influenced by Marías. He once spoke to the journalist Sergio González Rodríguez whom he consulted in the writing of his final unfinished novel. The critic Marcela Valdes wrote about it in her review in The New Republic: "Listen, Bolaño joked, I'm going to make you [Sergio González Rodríguez] a character in my novel [2666]. I'm going to plagiarize the idea from Javier Marías, who made you a character in La negra espalda del tiempo [sic] [Dark Back of Time]." The plagiarizing of a great writer by another great one is not surprising. The "secret" connectivity in the body of work of Marías is comparable to the expanding universe of the Bolaño oeuvre.

I’m not sure how Marías himself view the Chilean writer’s works. But there's no question that Bolaño belongs to the fandom of Marías. In a 1999 interview for Capital (collected in Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview), Héctor Soto and Matías Bravo asked the writer: "Between Latin America and Spanish writers, where is your literary brotherhood?" Bolaño replied at length, the perfect blurb really:

Basically among the Latin Americans—but also among the Spaniards. I don't believe in the separation of Latin American and Spanish writers. We all inhabit the same language. At least I think I cross those frontiers. And in my generation there is a mixed nucleus of writers, Spaniards and Latin Americans, the same way they were mixed in another era of Modernism, possibly the most revolutionary movement in Spanish literature of this century. Because of his strength, I think someone like Javier Marías is forced to influence Latin American literature, and he does. He is a great writer. By the same token, young Spanish writers should be influenced by someone like Rodrigo Rey Rosa or Juan Villoro, two enormous writers. I am extraordinarily blessed by a photograph of all of us together, from this and that side of the Atlantic. Rey Rosa, Villoro, Marías, Vila-Matas, Belén Gopegui, Victoria de Stefano.

Now where is that photograph?


Max Sebald was known to personally admire the books of Marías. As king of the Island of Redonda, Marías instituted a prize where artists (authors, filmmakers, etc.) were given a title in his kingdom. The winners are selected by current reigning dukes and duchesses. Sebald was given the title "Duke of Vertigo." The other "royal appointments" include, among many others, Francis Ford Coppola (Duke of Megalopolis), Pedro Almodóvar (Duke of Trémula), A. S. Byatt (Duchess of Morpho Eugenia), William Boyd (Duke of Brazzaville), and Guillermo Cabrera Infante (Duke of Tigres). In his own work in the posthumous Unrecounted, Max also used a picture of Marías's eyes, one of the several pictures of "visions" in his books. He was also known to indorse the works of the Marías. The themes and prose styles of the writers are comparable to some extent. They are two writers whose whose writing projects are conceived with a view to the totality of their works. Their emblematic images persist in their books which often cross-reference each other. Like Sebald, Marías produced "picture books" where the subtexts of images seem to speak to the reader as much as the text itself. The picture books of Marías are essentially the unofficial "Deza trilogy": All Souls, a roman à clef semi-autobiographical novel and a comedy of the High Table; Dark Back of Time, a "false novel" which dissects the previous one; and Your Face Tomorrow, a novel about espionage and betrayal. (See also the Vertigo blog.)

The nonfiction Written Lives, a collection of biographic entries on literary writers, also contains portraits of writers. In this book, Marías literally became a "writer’s writer." Here he sketched some famous and obscure literary lives, in snippets or vignettes, not really in objective fashion, highlighting certain aspects of the writers' personalities, shattering some myths about them, perpetuating others. I think that the vignette form afforded Marías a perfect exercise in the selection of details. Out of so many facets of a writer's life, he has chosen the details that freeze the writer into a striking relief. This high selectivity of details is also comparable to the "nonfictional" novels of Sebald (as in the quartets of eccentric-melancholic personages in The Emigrants and Vertigo and in the moon-like fragments of The Rings of Saturn). It is also interesting to compare Bolaño's "political" creations of unorthodox writers in Nazi Literature in the Americas with Marías's mini-bios of real "political" writers in Written Lives.


  1. Thanks to your previous posts praising Javier Marias, I recently acquired his novel 'All Souls'. When I've read it I will review and post on it; but it certainly looks a funny, if not too typical novel which I'm looking forward to reading now I'm better informed; thanking you for the recommendation!

  2. Don't mention it. 'All Souls' was also the first book I've read of him. Sebaldian in parts and, in his own way, Marían.

  3. And here's one more I've been meaning to read for some time if not for the lack of available copies here in the hills of Miagao. And my usual question: where to start with Marias? :)

  4. Yes, copies are rare. Even in Manila.

    I've read only 5 by Marías so far. I think the best entry points can be Bad Nature, All Souls, or Fever and Spear.