Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 18 Nov 2020

All Souls by Javier Marias

Javier Marias, the Spanish novelist, essayist and columnist is regarded by some to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize; others consider him a sort of ‘twin writer’ with the great WG Sebald. Both of these claims seem to elevate Marias far above his station, in my view. I have only read – nearly read – one of his novels, All Souls, but I have tried twice. The first time I more or less finished it; the second time, just last week, I gave up.

I know too little of postmodernism to be able to say definitively whether Marias should be considered a postmodern writer, but he seems to fit the description to me. He is often the unnamed, unreliable narrator of his novels, and their meandering, digressive style along with a number of characteristic tropes – spying, unstable identities, academia, the unreliability of time, memory, obscure erudition, bibliomania and a sort of obsessive outsider’s observation of other people and cultures (especially class) – are as important as any other ‘plot’ element. His novels blur the lines of fiction and actuality and there is an unmistakeable ‘mandarin’ tone to the prose – typically, by the way, beautifully captured by his dedicated and talented translators. All of which signals to us that despite the occasional descent into farce or ‘genre writing’ these are novels (one should probably call them ‘fictions’, I imagine) of resolutely High Purpose.

But the problem with this kind of writing – in which style and technique and procedure are as or even more important than plot or ‘story’ – is that no matter how accomplished the prose, they can often seem inert, emotionally unengaging and solipsistic. I found this to be absolutely the case with All Souls.

All Souls concerns the short appointment of a visiting Spanish academic to deliver a course in the theory of translation at the Oxford college of the title. (It is probably taking place either in the very late-1970s or early-1980s but it could be any time from, say, the 50s onwards.) This, then, is a ‘campus novel’ by other means –one might even call it a sort of metaphysical or philosophical campus novel, and yet for all this it sometimes reads like a highbrow Tom Sharpe novel (if anyone remembers Sharpe’s smuttily comic and quintessentially 70s fiction).

The narrator is very much an unmoored outsider in a city and a culture – upper class, elitist, arcane – that he struggles to understand. And yet this doesn't prevent him having an affair with the wife of another member of the college staff, nor visiting a squalid local disco frequented by working class youth from Oxford’s outlying villages, and where he knows that ‘fat tarts’ (the narrator’s term) can be picked up for casual sex.

His academic duties are so light that time weighs heavily on him. In his classes he invents spurious etymological derivations for obscure Spanish words. He is a bibliophile and spends his time haunting the secondhand bookshops of Oxford and London. He meets a strange semi-tramp figure – a limping man with a disabled dog – who claims to be the secretary of a society dedicated to the life and work of the minor Welsh writer of the supernatural, Arthur Machen, whose work the narrator collects. In due course this bibliophile obsession is replaced with an even obscurer one. Machen, it seems, once wrote the introduction to some short works by an even more forgotten writer, John Gawsworth, and for some years championed his work. The latter would later return the favour by writing a biography of Machen. This much is true, it seems. Gawsworth was also King of Redondo, a tiny uninhabited Caribbean island. Rulers of Redondo have included the writer of supernatural, horror and scientific romances, MP Sheil and – yes, you guessed it – Javier Marias (although his claim to the title is disputed). Over the years the various Redondan kings have ennobled dozens of ‘peers’, typically writers, artists and actors. If you detect the distinct malodorous whiff of fuggy Fitzrovia drinking clubs of the 1940s in all this, you would be absolutely right: Redondo is one of those laboriously facetious conceits that over the years has appealed strongly to bohemia.

How – or whether – these disparate strands are united and resolved I can’t remember. I wasn't clear the first time, and the second time I didn’t care.

Marias would no doubt say that his novel satirises the self-serving elitism and entitlement of Oxford, but I found the narrator as smug and repellent as any of the many other cyphers that masquerade as characters. All Souls seems to epitomise what many despise about modernist fiction – too little story, too little regard for the reader and a preoccupation with technique and form at the expense of content.

The precedent for Marias’s digressive style is, of course, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, but there are other twentieth century masters of the form to whom he has been likened, especially the German novelist WG Sebald, already mentioned, and the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard. But two things (at least) separate Marias from these other far greater writers: he lacks their enigmatic beauty and their genuinely high purpose. For both, albeit in their very different ways, are in fact writing of things that really matter – the rise of Nazism, the Holocaust, anti-semitism; the roots of pessimism and credulity; the corrosive nature of prejudice, the ‘forgetting’ of irredeemable injustice and cruelty.

I may of course at some point in the future kick myself for making a dreadful error of judgement, but by comparison with some of the writers whose methods he has co-opted, Marias is a self-regarding lightweight and I cannot understand why he is held in such high regard – unless being prolific is sufficient reason.


Alun Severn

November 2020