It has been said of Anthony Trollope that as soon as he finished a novel, he turned to a fresh page and started on the next, and it’s tempting to think that Javier Marías enjoys a similarly unstoppable flow of invention. The Spanish author has published more than a dozen novels—one of which, Your Face Tomorrow, comprises three volumes—plus a book of stories, countless translations, a work of literary biography, and a weekly column for El País. Because his digressive, intellectual, and liquid style is among the most consistent in contemporary literature, and because his fiction shares characters and thematic concerns, it sometimes seems as if Marías has been writing one very long book for his entire career. But in fact, as he told me in our recent conversation, his process of writing is far from preordained. “I always feel as insecure as if it were the first book I’d written,” he said.
His most recent novel is Berta Isla, which will be published in an English translation by his longtime collaborator, Margaret Jull Costa, in the UK this fall and in the U.S. next spring. Partly narrated by its eponymous heroine, Berta Isla returns to the milieu of espionage from Your Face Tomorrow. Marías has a persistent fascination with those who renounce their lives in order to work in the shadowy wings. As in several of his recent novels—The Infatuations and Thus Bad Begins—Berta Isla probes the nature of historical memory, asking what should be remembered, and what forgotten. Those questions are ultimately unanswerable, but as in the best of Marías’s fiction, it’s captivating to watch the minds of Berta Isla’s characters work them over.
I reached Marías by phone at home in Madrid on the eve of his sixty-seventh birthday. His characters can speak at length on virtually any topic, and while this is a literary effect he achieves painstakingly, it’s true that I had no difficulty in prompting him. Our conversation wandered from Brexit to Balzac, from his apartment’s balconies to the distant kingdom of Redonda, a barren island off the coast of Antigua that through a series of bizarre events (catalogued in his Dark Back of Time), Marías rules over as “king” (“with inverted commas, of course”).
I always enjoy birthdays because they’re like holidays that only you can observe.
I’m getting old enough not to enjoy them so much, but at the same time, I suppose I’m turning the age where I should be glad that I can still celebrate them. My mother died when she was a week from sixty-five, and one of my best friends, Juan Benet, an author whom I admired very much and who was my literary master in some respects, died when he was sixty-five. And so I think, I’m older than my mother now ever was, and, I’m older than Benet. Sixty-seven for me is maybe like seventy-seven for other people, on account of those two deaths.
The last time you spoke to The Paris Review, you said you’d never write from a female perspective.
And in fact I’ve done it twice since then. I remember having said that, as I was reminded of it by Spanish journalists when I published my novel The Infatuations in 2011. That was the first time I contradicted myself, and I used a female voice. It was very clear to me that the story should be told by a woman, it couldn’t be told by a man, and so I decided I would try, I would dare. I remember, on that occasion, I started with some hesitation, and I felt a bit insecure about it. It wasn’t until I’d written thirty or forty pages that I realized, of course there are many differences between men and women, but not when it comes to storytelling. I don’t think there is a big difference in the way a woman or a man tells a story. In my latest novel, Berta Isla, there are two voices—one is in third-person and the other is in the first-person—and again, it is a female narrator, Berta Isla herself. On this second occasion, I must say that it was easier.
I suppose you can always rely upon the authorial voice you’ve established over your career, regardless of the specific perspective.
In a way, that authorial voice, if I understand what you mean by that, is a sort of safeguard. I’ve never been interested in what some people call naturalism or some people call realism. I don’t worry very much about something that occasionally has been pointed out to me as a possible flaw—many of the narrators and characters speak in a very similar way, even in dialogue. I’m not interested in using differentiated voices, not even in dialogue. It must be believable, but that’s all. I think, on the contrary, that it is a courtesy on the part of the author to give the reader something which is interesting and, if possible, intelligent. I can’t bear, very much, the kind of dialogue you often find in many novels in which two nonintelligent people are saying nonintelligent things for pages on end.
Balzac’s novella Colonel Chabert seems to be a key work of art for you. It appears in several of your recent books. What has resonated with you about it?
I don’t think it’s a masterpiece at all. As happens very often with Balzac, he was probably tired or had some debts to settle and he abandoned things or became careless. I think the ending of that novella is not as good as the beginning. But I think it’s an excellent representation of an idea that has haunted me—maybe that’s too strong a word—for years and years. The idea of someone who leaves and comes back and is not recognized entirely. Who becomes a sort of ghost.
What seems to attract you is the ambivalence. The person is recovered, which at first seems good, but maybe their returning isn’t actually for the best.
There is a quote mentioned in Berta Isla by Berta Isla herself that says something like, “Returning is the most profound infidelity.” In a sense, things should be left the way they are. Usually, when we think of the people who were dear to us and who died, we miss them and think, I wish they could come back. But if they did—of course that’s an impossibility, but suppose they did—it would be a problem. My father died thirteen years ago. If, for instance, he returned, it would be a problem for my brothers and me. Where would he live now? What would he live on? We inherited his money. He didn’t have a lot of money but he had some, and we spent it. In a way, we should leave things as they are. I think that sometimes. Sometimes I think the contrary, of course.
Has smoking been important to your writing practice?
In a certain sense, I guess it has. It’s very likely that if I didn’t smoke, I wouldn’t write at all, because I’m used to having a cigarette in my hand while I write. But to tell the truth, the cigarettes I smoke while writing are probably the ones I smoke the least. They consume in my hand rather than in my mouth or in my lungs. But I usually have a cigarette in my hand while writing, to the point that it’s becoming a problem. I’m even having to reject offers and jobs and invitations because of it. A few years ago, I was invited by the University of Oxford to give the so-called Weidenfeld Lectures, a very important thing, apparently, at least for academics. Of course, it would be nice to go to Oxford for a few weeks, but I said to the person who invited me, There is a problem, because I probably won’t be able to smoke in the college where I’m staying. They said, You can smoke outdoors. And I said, Yes, but the problem is that I smoke while I’m writing, I smoke while I’m reading, if I’m sleepless I tend to light a cigarette, and I’m not going to go outdoors. So I said no, finally, on account of that—can you believe it?
Are you smoking right now?
Right now, no, but since we started to talk I’ve smoked one cigarette, yes. Now that we’re talking about it, you’re prompting me to light another one. Anyway, I suppose I should quit, but at the same time, I think, If I didn’t quit before, maybe this is not the time, either.
I’m curious about the role of balconies in your novels.
I have one, two, three, four, five, six balconies at home, which is a nice thing to have, by the way. It’s a good metaphor for being a bit inside and a bit outside—that is, taking a look at the outside without leaving the inside. Looking at the world, but from outside the world, is something my narrators do very often. They peep from their corners, as it were. I live in front of a square, and it’s a very old square. The oldest civil buildings in Madrid, which are from the fifteenth century, are in this square, so it’s visited by many tourists. If I go to my balcony, I am exposed. They can see me. I am out, but not totally out.
Your characters are often fluent in multiple languages and comfortable in multiple countries, and there’s a particular emphasis on the cultural interchange between Spain and Britain. How have you felt observing the animosity in the European Union toward this kind of cross-cultural exchange?
Brexit is appalling. Britain has been part of my life ever since I was a child and I watched all the World War II films that were made in the fifties and early sixties. One of my first books, of course, was Treasure Island. Richmal Crompton—someone probably not known in Canada or the United States—had a series of books for children, the Just William stories, and I read them passionately. In fact, I think that one of the reasons why I became a writer was on account of her and her Just William books. I can’t understand how the British voted the way they did, and I think it’s quite a tragedy, mainly for Britain but also for the rest of Europe. I’m a great defender of the European Union, even if it has many flaws and too much bureaucracy. I think it’s one of the great inventions of history. There were always wars between the European countries, but since 1945, with the exception of the Balkan Wars, we have had no wars between ourselves. That’s quite extraordinary, considering the bloody history of this continent. It’s unbelievable that a country as important as Britain thinks of torpedoing that project, which is one of the best and wisest things ever done, I think. Whenever I see young people longing for an epic, telling the people of my generation, You had an epic fight against Francoism, I always say, Well, it’s not something to be envied, to tell the truth. I suppose it’s normal for young people to long for the epic. I tell them, You have an epic here—defend the European Union.
Speaking of politics, will you brief me on the current situation in Redonda?
It’s very calm there. That’s one of the advantages of a fictional kingdom. And as I always said since I received that title, there are no subjects, everything is acceptable, even conspiracies, even treachery. Someone in England wrote a letter to the Times saying lies about how I’d gotten the title, and it was not very nice. But I didn’t dismiss him—he had a post—and so there are no problems. The only thing is that sometimes people write to me and ask for political asylum in Redonda because they can’t bear Spain anymore, and I say, Well, I wish I had a territory, but I don’t, because the territory itself belongs to Antigua.
You translated John Ashbery’s poetry into Spanish, and Ashbery always championed your work in the English-speaking world.
I translated just one long poem, many years ago, the poem titled “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” which was the first time his poetry had been translated into Spanish. He was very kind. He came to Madrid and we had dinner, even though I was just someone who had translated his very long poem. Many years after that, I can’t remember why, he started reading my novels, and then he wrote to me saying he was very enthusiastic about them, and we started a correspondence. In fact, I received an email from him two or three days before he died, and I was planning to reply to him. He’d talked about Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and I had something to say about them, and I was preparing myself to answer that email when the news came that he had died. So I didn’t reply to that one. He was very old, but still, you’re not less sorry for somebody’s death just because he or she is old.
Can you share anything about your new project?
Not for the moment, it’s too early for that. Even I don’t know what I’m doing until I have finished, and so it would be premature. Right now, I think it’s silly. I always think my novels are silly when I’m writing them, and sometimes after I have written them, too. I think, This is stupid, this is not going to be of any interest to anyone, and so now I am in the process of thinking, Well, probably this time, this is going to be really stupid. The people who know me very well and have been around me for many years say, But you always say the same thing whenever you’re writing a new novel, and I say, Yes, but this time it’s true, this time I mean it.
Michael LaPointe is a writer in Toronto.
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