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Javier Marías: Between Eternities review - matters of life and death from the Spanish master | reviews, news & interviews

Javier Marías: Between Eternities review - matters of life and death from the Spanish master

Javier Marías: Between Eternities review - matters of life and death from the Spanish master

Stylish, and spooky, essays on films, books, places and people by a world-class novelist

Ghosts in the machine: Javier MaríasEl Pais/Penguin Books

One of these years, Javier Marías will probably win the Nobel Prize in Literature. If and when that honour happens, critics may well discuss the Spanish writer’s fiction, in all its “intensity, complexity and power to convince”, in much the same terms as he applies to one of his favourite works of art.

This evergreen marvel is “not just extraordinarily complex as regards narrative and time, it is also chillingly ambiguous; and it does not attempt to explain anything about the grave matters it touches upon: identity, being and not being, the real and the hypothetical, memory as not something individual but shared”. It even raises “the possibility of never having been born, which has appealed so much to certain philosophers”.

Which monument of world culture is he talking about? That last idea may give the game away. Marías brings much more than a fan’s veneration to Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life. He transmits its qualities with the teasing elegance, irony and erudition that stamps these essays – on movies, books, cities or people – with an inimitable hallmark of style. And he champions the story of James Stewart’s angel-guided descent into non-existence, “a vast zone of horror and darkness”, not as corny Yuletide fare but an audacious foray into that twilight territory where past and present, self and others, being and nothingness, blur and merge. Indeed, he loves the dialogue so much that he knows it “almost by heart”. On some level, the enchanted limbo of Capra’s fable resembles the habitat of Marías’s novels, as their time-bending mysteries and secrets coil through serpentine sentences which mesmerise in English as effectively as in Spanish thanks to the superb artistry of his serial translator, Margaret Jull Costa. Read his astonishing “espionage” trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, for example, and you will slip into something like the world of John le Carre as filtered through the consciousness of Marcel Proust.

In addition to his 16 novels, and his youthful translations of Conrad, Stevenson, Kipling, Sterne and other English-language authors, Marías has for decades been a stalwart newspaper columnist, critic and pundit, mostly for the weekend supplement of the Spanish daily El País. Between Eternities selects around 50 of his occasional pieces. They range from family memories (his academic parents, Julián and Dolores, were courageous opponents of the Franco dictatorship who stayed in Madrid and suffered for their principles) to literary essays, movie criticism and evocations of cities such as Oxford, where he lectured, and Venice, where he later lived. We also have a batch of lighter, anecdotal columns: small gems of a tricky craft. Anyone with noisy upstairs neighbours, for instance, will know that “dragging the furniture around in the wee hours”, or playing petanque at dead of night, is routine behaviour for these nocturnal scavengers. Marías once concluded that the youngsters in the flat above were operating a printing press, which would account for those endless dull thudding sounds. Not at all. “‘Oh, we’re running an illegal whisky distillery’, they said.”

The oldest items here date from the early 1990s. A few have dated. His long-winded defence (from 1990) of the semi-autobiographical narrative voice in the Oxford-based novel All Souls hardly does justice to the wit and cunning of that donnish mystery. His reflections on Barcelona and London as “conceited” rather than show-off cities, “more enigmatic, more reserved and more elusive” that ostentatious Paris or New York, no longer quite fit – although recent anti-tourist protests in Barcelona hint that the Catalan capital’s “all-pervading introspection” has not wholly disappeared. However, an excoriating sketch of Silvio Berlusconi – with his phoney bonhomie that serves as “a front for resentment” – now hits another, even more toxic nail on the head. “It’s incomprehensible that anyone, far less an entire country, could have been taken in by him,” wrote Marías, a decade ago, about Italy’s populist strongman. We can supply the transatlantic update. 

A witty homage to Marías’ uncle Jesus Franco, a prolific director of cheesy B-movies and 1960s “skin flicks”, introduces the passion for genre cinema that runs through this collection. That love burns as brightly as his devotion to writers such as Conrad, Lampedusa and Laurence Sterne. Tristram Shandy is not just his favourite novel, but one that he – brilliantly, improbably – translated while still in his twenties. So when Marías announces that “as well as reading it, I have also written it”, he’s not quite certifiable. As he confesses, he also took on in his impecunious youth the job of translating Love Story. In Spanish, therefore, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” comes from the ever-versatile electric typewriter (he still detests computers) of Javier Marías. 

At the movies, he respects the antique heroism of John Ford’s Westerns, wrongly distrusted in these PC times by “the hypocritical mass of entrenched goody-goodies”, and warmly praises John Wayne as actor as well as icon. He also turns out to be an awestruck devotee of Vincent Price. Marías admires not the campy prince of horror but the worldly, ironic villain whose “mocking cynicism” hints at “a kind of hidden nobility”. Moreover, unlike most silver-screen monsters apart from George Sanders (subject of another fine salute here), Price “gave us the immediate, unequivocal impression that he had a past”. So we return, as so often in these essays, to the spectral convergence of then and now, memory and fantasy, the living and the dead. 

The collection begins with a dream (his brother’s, not his own) in which Marías’ parents appear, and chat amiably, both still at the age of their deaths. It closes with a classic Marías tribute to an undervalued movie: The Ghost and Mrs Muir, Joseph L Mankiewicz’s gently supernatural story of a lonely widow (Gene Tierney) who in her seaside house befriends its resident phantom – Rex Harrison’s cantankerous sea-captain. Quite as much as the dreamy portrait of his beloved Venice, that dissolving city where space contracts, time expands and the proud citizens live life “from the viewpoint of eternity”, Marías’s essay on this half-forgotten curiosity encapsulates what he loves in others’ art, and seeks to capture in his own. The film beguiles us into a “natural acceptance of the dead as an active presence”. It shows that “we must pass continually from one dimension to the other”. Yet an invisible, unbreachable wall will always divide the living from the lost. Nonetheless, on rare occasions cinema, like literature, may convey “the abolition of time, the vision of the future as past and the past as future”; above all, perhaps, our hope of “reconciliation with the dead”.

  • Between Eternities by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and edited by Alexis Grohmann (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99)
  • More book reviews on theartsdesk

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