After three books by new discoveries, it’s time for Spanish-Language Literature Month to take a turn towards the familiar for the final two weeks. I’ve got an old favourite lined up for next Thursday, and today’s post also sees me returning to a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past. While the writing is very Spanish, though, the setting is a little closer to my (original) home – there’s something very English about where we’re going today…
Javier Marías’ All Souls (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) is a short novel set in Oxford, a fictional account of the writer’s own time in the English university town. An unnamed Spanish lecturer is spending two years at the world-renowned institution, giving the odd lecture and holding a translation class in which he invents etymological roots for words he’s never heard of. With ample time outside his undemanding academic schedule, he’s able to observe the traditions of both town and gown, giving us a most Spanish take on a rather foreign environment.
However, two years is a long time, and observation only goes so far – if the time is to pass comfortably, there’s something more our narrator requires. Luckily, at one of the famed high tables at his host college, he catches the eye of Clare Bayes, a lively, attractive woman who stands out among the assembled gathering of academics. The fact that she’s married is of little consequence, to either of them, and it proves to be just another minor detail in the college’s social life. You see, Oxford is a place of secrets, and the relationship is just another rumour, swirling around in a sea of hidden information…
After enjoying the first couple of his books I tried (A Heart So White, The Infatuations), I’d been meaning to return to Marías for a good while now, and this was a welcome reintroduction to his writing. It’s a nice, relatively-slight work, with his beautiful, unhurried prose evident from the start. One of the first chapters features a lengthy description of an old porter, one whose senility means he’s in a different year every day, taking the Spanish Don for whoever happened to be doing his job at that time:
“In Oxford, just being requires such concentration and patience, such energy to battle against the natural lethargy of the spirit, that it would be too much to expect its inhabitants actually to stir themselves, especially in public…”
p.4 (Vintage International, 2012)
It’s evident from the start that time moves along rather differently here in Oxford.
The backbone of the plot (not that this is overly important) is the relationship between the narrator and Clare Bayles, but never fear – this is a casual affair, never destined to ruin anyone’s life. As much as it has to do with desire, it’s about killing time in comfort in a town of dreams. Clare is the ideal choice for this dalliance. As we learn more about her, we find that she too has a slightly foreign background, sharing in the slight differences which make foreigners stand out from the locals:
“As is well known, the English never look openly at anything, or they look in such a veiled, indifferent way that one can never be sure that someone is actually looking at what they appear to be looking at, such is their ability to lend an opaque glaze to the most ordinary of glances.” (p.41)
Marías makes a lot of the behaviour of the outsiders, their direct stares contrasted with the polite, unseeing English gazes.
This contrast between the English and the outsiders provides another key pillar of the novel. Our Spanish friend is very much an outsider looking in, examining, commenting, aware of his transience. Thanks to the writer’s wonderful eye for detail, we are shown the curious split between the university and the ‘real’ town, moving from the vagrants on the street to the behaviour at the colleges, both behind doors and in public. One of the comic highlights of All Souls is a bizarre extended scene at a ‘high table’ (a formal dinner), which at moments, in its farcical nature, is akin to something from Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue.
In fact, All Souls is a book which meanders between subject matters and styles at times. In parts, there’s a feeling of a more eloquent Bill Bryson, Notes from a University Town, perhaps. Later, as a new obsession develops, that of a long-dead minor writer, the book turns Sebaldian, culminating in the appearance of a photograph (which I’m assuming is actually of the writer in question). It’s here that the line between fiction (which the majority of the novel is) and the writer’s own stories becomes most blurred; lest we forget, Marías did spend those years in the city.
While I doubt many readers would make the connection, for me Marías’ story of an academic abroad also has echoes of another writer sent to England, eighty years earlier. Natsume Soseki’s time in London was far from what he’d hoped for on leaving his native shores, and like him, the narrator of All Souls feels the dull, grey, tedium of English life at times:
“But even before that, right from the start and especially at weekends, I’d always taken a lot of notice of the rubbish bin, for Sundays in England aren’t just ordinary, dull Sundays, the same the world over, which demand simply that one tiptoe through them without disturbing them or paying them the least attention, in England they are, as I believe Baudelaire described them, Sundays in exile from the infinite.” (p.73)
Harsh as that sounds, as someone who lived through Sundays in the UK in the 1980s, I can only concur…
However, Marías’ stint appears to have been a far more comfortable and exciting time than that of his Japanese counterpart. Yes, both enjoyed days wandering around bookshops, but at least the Spanish writer (or at least his fictional alter-ego) had a comely companion with whom to while away the hours. I also doubt that Soseki spent his nights at tacky discos on the outskirts of Oxford, deciding which of the slightly overweight young visitors from surrounding villages to take back to his bachelor pad 😉
Despite the meandering style (which is reflected in my meandering review…), there is, in a very Marías-like manner, a central idea to the book, and just as is the case in A Heart So White, everything comes together nicely at the end of the novel, allowing the reader (and the narrator) to bid farewell to those dreaming spires with a sense of closure. In a book which looks at transience, it’s apt that we realise that we are just a small part of an ongoing story. The narrator knows that Oxford will go on forever, and that Will the porter might one day greet future visiting dons with his name, the Spaniard’s brief stay having been woven into the fabric of the university’s history…
Another enjoyable read, then, with Margaret Jull Costa on her usual wonderful duties, for, let’s face it, much of the joy of reading Marías comes from his prose, and the translator has more than a small part to play in ensuring that the English reads as it does. The writer certainly owes his translator thanks for ensuring that the English version brings his style and tone across. Perhaps All Souls isn’t one of Marías’ biggest successes, the mixture of themes and ideas distracting at times, but it’s certainly a nice warm-up for some of the writer’s major works.
Before I go, there’s one final aspect of All Souls I haven’t really mentioned, and that is that it frequently touches upon the number of Oxford academics who find employment in the British secret service, a point which will be more important in the writer’s Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, also largely set in Oxford. I’m not sure how long it’ll take me to get around to those books, but All Souls has been good preparation for that – and a very pleasant way to while away a couple of cold, very English-like winter days. Tea, anyone? 😉