Issue 179, Winter 2006
A waiter at a restaurant in Madrid gasped when I mentioned that I was in town to interview Javier Marías. “You know him?” he asked, as if I’d named a president or a movie star. “Sometimes we see him walking down the street.”
Although Marías is not yet well known to readers in the United States, in Europe he is a literary and intellectual sensation—the author of eleven novels, two books of short stories, a collection of biographical essays, and a column on politics, literature, film, sports, and social issues for the Madrid newspaper El Pais’s weekly magazine. He is also one of Spain’s leading translators from English. His own books have been published in more than thirty languages and have sold over five million copies worldwide, and he is often mentioned in the European press as a contender for the Nobel Prize. Critics and admiring colleagues (J. M. Coetzee, Salman Rushdie, and the late W. G. Sebald) have praised the way he pits Spanish black humor against English grandiloquence to produce novels that are simultaneously fast-paced and meticulous, speculative and clinical, stylish and classical.
In person, too, Marías presents a fine balance of opposing qualities—alternately a grandee and a recluse, gregarious and reticent, punctilious and totally laid-back. Like the ghostly narrators in his novels, he is a little hard to pin down. He tends to perch rather than sit on his couch and to overenunciate when he speaks in English. He habitually drinks Coca-Cola, subsists on a diet of serrano ham and Manchego cheese, and will not wear a tie unless it is pressed upon him. Marías has a blog but has never seen it and refers to it only as “the Web that wears my name.” It is managed by an assistant, who posts his newspaper columns and writings. He does not own a computer or mobile phone. He rents two nearly identical apartments just off of Madrid’s famed Plaza Mayor. In one, the furniture is dark; in the other, the same furniture is white. Not far from the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf that houses his Greek, Latin, and Byzantine books is an entire room of DVDs stocked with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin movies as well as episodes of Bonanza, Maverick, and Friends. Despite the fact that his living space is cluttered with toy soldiers, literary memorabilia—Dashiell Hammett and Joseph Conrad letters, a bust of Laurence Sterne, photographs of various writers—and fan mail, Marías insists that he is orderly. “It’s just that I have no time to put things in order,” he says.
Marías is forever redrawing the thin line that separates illusion from reality, and they are central elements of his work. It is not only his narrators who are unreliable; the entire world of his novels is unreliable. His books enact the Nabokovian principle that memory is ultimately false, which gives his stories a sense of timelessness.
Marías was born in Madrid in 1951, twelve years after Franco took power throughout Spain. His father, Julián Marías, a renowned philosopher, was imprisoned and later prohibited from teaching in Spain for opposing the Franco regime, and Marías spent brief periods of his childhood in the United States. He completed two novels before the age of twenty-one, both of which were published: Los dominios del lobo (The Dominions of the Wolf, 1971) and Voyage along the Horizon (1973). He studied English at Complutense University in Madrid, and after his graduation did not write another novel for six years, working instead on translations of American and English writers as diverse as Sir Thomas Browne, Sterne, William Faulkner, Wallace Stevens, and John Ashbery. He taught translation theory at the University of Oxford, where his sixth novel, All Souls (1989), is set. In that novel, Marías lampoons life among the Oxford dons and sympathetically portrays the writer John Gawsworth, who inherited the title of king of Redonda, a small island off of Antigua. The publication of All Souls led to Marías being named the new king of Redonda, a title he still holds today. Marías’s seventh novel, A Heart So White (1992), won the IMPAC Award, and he has since published four more novels, including Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (1994) and Dark Back of Time (1998).
This interview took place over six spring evenings in Marías’s apartment—the one with the dark furniture. His father had died a few months earlier, and Marías’s eyes were set in deep shadows. “I sleep badly,” he confessed. He chain-smoked guiltlessly, often ambidextrously, while the nearby fax machine overflowed with proofs of book jackets awaiting his approval and details concerning an award Marías had just given under his publishing imprint, Reino de Redonda. Marías speaks in winding sentences, full of dependent clauses and parenthetical statements, that suggest what it might have been like to talk to Henry James, who, as Marías notes approvingly in his book Written Lives (1992), spoke as digressively and obliquely as he wrote and once referred to a dog as “something black, something canine.”
In addition to being a Spanish citizen, you are the king of the island of Redonda, a micronation in the West Indies. I believe you are the first monarch The Paris Review has interviewed. How did you come by your crown?
There was a shipping magnate in the nineteenth century by the name of Shiel, who lived in the Caribbean, and he had eight or nine daughters but no son. Finally, he had a male baby, Matthew Phipps Shiel, who became a writer. To celebrate his son’s fifteenth birthday in 1880, Shiel claimed ownership of the uninhabited island of Redonda, which is close to Montserrat and not far from Antigua. He organized a coronation with a Methodist minister from Antigua, and M. P. Shiel was crowned king of that island. Recently, I learned that Redonda is the equivalent to Transylvania in Europe, which is appropriate for a literary legend. It’s a very rocky place with limited access. It was used as a harbor for smugglers, and there were legends of terrible beasts and horrific events that happened there. Shortly after Shiel’s coronation the British decided to annex the island because aluminum phosphate was found. The Shiels disputed the British for years, and finally the colonial office said they were not going to give the island back to anyone, let alone a crazy ship owner and a writer, but they had no objection to Shiel using the title of king of Redonda as long as it was, as they said, void of content.
Eventually, Shiel settled in Britain, where a younger writer named John Gawsworth helped him in his old age. When Shiel died in 1947, Gawsworth became his literary executor and heir to his estate. Gawsworth activated an intellectual aristocracy, as it was called, and named dukes and duchesses, including Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller, and Dylan Thomas. Gawsworth had been a very promising figure, publishing books at nineteen. He fought in India, Algeria, and Egypt during the war. Amazingly, he published small booklets of poetry everywhere, even in Calcutta. I don’t know how he managed to do that during the war. He was one of the youngest members of the Royal Society of Literature and was in touch with many of the major literary figures of the time, from Thomas Hardy to T. E. Lawrence. But Gawsworth became a drunkard and was soon penniless. He had a lot of debts with his landlord and bartenders and started to sell titles to these people. He even put an ad in the Times to sell the title of king of Redonda. A lot of people were interested. I reproduced a telegram in one of the books I published under my Reino de Redonda imprint. I have it here. Carl Werner Skogholm of Denmark wrote:
Your Royal Highness, King John Gawsworth of Redonda,
Regarding your advertisement I beg to send you the following questions which I hope you will kindly answer:
1) What is the King’s duties?
2) What is the King’s rights?
3) Is the Isle of Redonda a good place to live in?
4) Is it possible for the King to contact Diana Dors?
5) I have two daughters. Is it possible for girls to inherit the throne?
It would be wonderful to become a king suddenly. I hope to be able to—if you are still willing to sell.
“It would be wonderful to become a king suddenly”—that’s what happened to you.
Yes. But for me, except for the fun of the legend, it has not been particularly wonderful. It seems that during the worst years of his life Gawsworth did sell it—he issued documents to different people—so there is some controversy regarding the title. Some of the heirs to those bartenders who claim they are inheritors to the throne are very angry with me. One said, It was so difficult to overthrow the Spaniards, and now you’re giving it back to them! That makes me laugh. I have never said that I am the king of Redonda or signed anything other than my name, Javier Marías. I have never been monarchic. I am rather a republican.
But how did you become this reluctant king?
These “pretenders,” as they are called, say that I bought the title at an auction, which I did not. In 1997, after I included one of Gawsworth’s stories in an anthology and mentioned his story in my novel All Souls, Jon Wynne-Tyson, who had become king after Gawsworth, wrote to me and said he wanted to abdicate because the pretenders had been writing to him for years. He is an extremely nice person, I must say. Since I had an understanding of Redonda and made it more famous than it ever was, he asked who I thought would be a good successor. He mentioned Seamus Heaney because Shiel was of Irish descent, and because he is such a great writer. I said, Yes, I thought it should be a “real” writer—the throne should be inherited not by blood but by letters. We had very British conversations with a lot of understatements—If you are saying what I think you are saying, but I would not dare to think that you are really saying what it seems you say—until he openly said, I think you would be a good choice. I said that if something this novelistic intrudes in my life and I don’t accept it, I should not be considered a novelist. So I accepted.
It is only a title. The island was recovered by Antigua, it belongs to Antigua, and I am not going to have dynastic disputes about anything that is more fictional than real. In my opinion, Jon Wynne-Tyson made the mistake of answering to the pretenders, and he was disputing with them all of the time, probably more privately than publicly. I decided never to reply to anyone. And that is what I have done. I have said, tongue in cheek, that this is the only kingly thing to do: not reply at all. What would the king of England or the king of Spain do? They would not reply.
Given the way you weave fiction and truth in your novels, some people have wondered if the island is completely fabricated.
But there are maps. The island is there.
Have you seen it?
No, not personally. Jon Wynne-Tyson did. But visiting it is not very important in my opinion either.