Thursday, June 5, 2008

All Souls

The Invention of Marias

by Jay Johnson

First, let me write that I own my fellow bookseller and great friend Joe Lisberg a debt of gratitude for his unending advocacy for the works of Javier Marias, without which I would have likely never sought his amazing works. Joe has been telling readers about Marias likely as long - and as eloquently - as anyone in American bookselling.

Rather than begin my exploration of Marias Voyage Along the Horizon, his earliest work which was recently released by McSweeney's in 2006, I chose All Souls. After much discussion and debate between this short novel and A Heart So White and When I Was Mortal, I felt my interests in authorship, the blurring of fiction and nonfiction, and my leanings towards metafiction, among other things were well-served. As a bonus, reading All Souls allows for a more thorough reading of Dark Back of Time, a "false novel" based on the writing and reception of All Souls.

I'm happy to write that it was a great choice. All Souls delivers on many levels: a tight narrative with unending insight into memorable characters, some romance and - above all - the highest quality prose*. As Joe often quotes: you don't read Marias to necessarily find out what happens next, you read him to find out what his narrator will think next. And you, dear reader, will be rapt. This is by no means a perfect novel; it is, however, well-paced, always interesting and readable, and has just enough balance between plot and high-mindedness to easily carry the reader to end of All Souls - and into the beginning of Dark Back of Time.

(* Certainly, Margaret Jull Costa, Marias' tranlsator for all of his English editions, besides Dark Back of Time, deserves a note of admiration. Though, when you read Dark Back of Time, it becomes clear that Marias' talent is true.)

All Souls begins with the following disclaimer:

Given that both the author and narrator of this novel spent two years in the same post at the University of Oxford, some statement may be in order on the part of the former, before he finally yields the floor to the latter, to the effect that any resemblance between any character in the novel (including the narrator, but excluding “John Gawsworth”) and any other person living or dead (including the author, but excluding Terrence Ian Fytton Armstrong) is purely coincidental as is any resemblance between any event in the story and any historical event past or present. –J. M.

The novel All Souls presents an interesting problematic to the traditional notions of the realist novel. Boundaries of fiction and nonfiction, truth and lies, memory and representation are being crossed—and, more importantly, confused. The specific interest I have in this novel, since many other “novels” or “memoirs” achieve this confusion, is the role the author plays in the destabilization of the text.

One way of looking at the novel is as realistic artifice, a representation of the real world, authored by a hidden being whose name appears only on the cover and a few inside pages, and narrated authoritatively by either a character or omniscient being. Barthes and Foucault (among many others, if not all) do not see the novel in this way, as evidenced in “The Death of the Author” and “What is an Author?”, respectively. While post/modernism may argue for the end of realism, certainly many contemporary readers still approach novels in the aforementioned manner (ie reading for pleasure v. criticism). Which is one of the reasons why the specific case of Javier Marias is interesting to me. Largely unknown in the United States, he is very recognizable in his native Spain, where he also writes a weekly column for the Madrid daily el Pais. His novels regularly appear on bestseller lists; his readership is relatively wide. While Marias is not averse to experiment and intellect and long, challenging—yet unmistakably beautiful—sentences, he enjoys popular success while addressing critically challenging ideas.

In All Souls, time is employed as a tool in undermining the authority of Javier Marias/Javier Marias. Being an acknowledged recollection of his time at Oxford, the narrator admits to the subjectivity of his memory and its effect on the narrative he tells. Will, the porter at the Taylorian building, has no firm connection to the concept of the present. This porter experiences a different year each day and his experiences are without pattern. The only instance that the faculty (including the narrator) are able to determine what year the porter might be occupying at any given moment is the year of his wife’s death, which Marias ascertains by consoling him. This hidden information of memories is a recurrent theme in All Souls, where the narrator attempts to probe both his own and others’ reconstructions of the two years that concern the written narrative.

Marias the narrator admits to the imperfection of this exercise in writing. Will refers to the faculty by names of faculty members belonging to whatever time period he might be inhabiting that day. Marias is admittedly unsure of his own intentions, whether to reject or to forget portions of memories, and acknowledges the opacity of self-revelation intrinsic to the rumor-fueled Oxonian politic. In form, this dichotomy between truth and fiction is further explored. Marias the narrator employs a first person present tense in recounting thoughts during a specific scene, which has been narrated in a past tense.

Javier Marias is not the only proper name of an author within the covers of All Souls. A few lesser-known writers become the object of antiquarian book searches, the most prevalent of which is the British writer John Gawsworth, whose “real” name was Terrence Ian Fytton Armstrong. Disregarding Gawsworth’s own fascinating narrative involving, among many things, the Realm of Redonda for the purpose of this, how can a reader distinguish between the writer Marias and the character/narrator Marias? Through the (enjoyable) instability of the text, I don’t believe a distinction can (or should need to) be made. Like memories, fiction is imperfect, in the sense that the Author can never perfectly subtract himself from the writing. An analog to this argument can be found in Barthes’s and Foucault’s concerns with intertextuality and the assemblage of preexisting ideas/texts into a new product.

Within All Souls, Marias seems to argue for a different type of truth—a personal memory that is tangible, if not universally tenable. He writes “that’s why I am now making this effort of memory and writing, because I know that otherwise it will all be obliterated”. Memory is an effort, not a default, which is a reflection of its malleability. In All Souls, it isn’t simply preserved, though, as claims of truth are undermined at most every opportunity. Memory—and narrative, here—are a variety of personal truth; writing can create its own validity, without ties to the actual or experiential. Or, as Marias superbly writes, “when true knowledge proves irrelevant, one is free to invent.”


StacieMichelle said...

It's funny, I was looking through some old books awhile back, after having been introduced to Marias by Joe. In my boxes I discovered a second-hand copy of All Souls I had picked up at a used bookstore some time in the past. I hadn't read it, but something about it was clearly interesting enough to catch my eye. Thanks for the review! It seems that roads continue leading me back to this particular title of Marias'. I though A Heart So White was astounding.

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