BOOKS / Dons and other dead men: James Woodall meets a controversial Spanish novelist, whose tale of Oxford life is published next week

FOR OVER two decades, fiction in Spanish has been dominated by Latin American writers. It is almost as if Spain itself didn't exist. There was some sign of change with the English publication in 1988 of Eduardo Mendoza's City of Marvels, one of the greatest hymns to a city - Barcelona - in post-war fiction. In Britain, however, it proved to be something of a one-off; not even Camilo Jose Cela's winning of the Nobel Prize in 1989 drove Spanish novels in English into more than a trickle.

The publication of Javier Marias's All Souls (Harvill pounds 14.99) next week hardly constitutes a torrent. But it will firmly place its author on the British literary map. Two further novels are planned, including The Man of Feeling, published in 1986, and A Heart So White, now in its sixth edition in Spain. All Souls, meanwhile, his first novel to be translated into English (by Margaret Jull Costa), is likely to set plenty of professorial tongues wagging.

It is the elegantly-told story of a young Spanish lecturer's two-year posting at Oxford, based loosely round Marias's own time there from 1983 to 1985. The text is preceded by a disclaimer about resemblances being 'purely coincidental'. There are rumours, however, that some might not be so coincidental after all.

'It is true,' says Marias, 'that I and the narrator held the same post for two years. Many of the things I observed in Oxford went into the novel, although the physical perspectives, for example, are deliberately impossible. As for the characters, Ian Michael (Oxford's head of Spanish) told me and his colleagues that All Souls is most emphatically not a roman a clef. And he should know.'

Still, a college warden, Lord Rymer, described as 'a notorious intriguer' on the European scene and 'an influential politician known for holding lifelong grudges', along with an economist called Halliwell, 'an obese young man with a bright red face, and a small, sparse military moustache', and 'a supercilious, pontificating luminary of the social sciences called Atwater', might well find correspondences in Oxford's identity parade. Marias is giving nothing away: 'it's likely that there are some resemblances to people I knew, but that can't be helped. There's no one full portrait of a single individual. In fact, the only thing that might cause anger is if some people don't recognise themselves in any character.'

All Souls crackles with deliciously sly observations about Oxford mores. A riotous high-table dinner scene has already caused much mirth in Spain, as have comments such as: 'In Oxford the only thing anyone is truly interested in is money, followed some way behind by information.' But the novel is about much more than its setting. Back in Madrid, married and with a small son, the unnamed narrator recalls his two years with a mixture of wit and playful melancholy: one object is to lay to rest the ghosts of an affair he had there with a married woman, Clare Boyes. All Souls is her story too.

At 41, Marias has been both garlanded and lambasted in his own country. His first two novels were published when he was 19 and 21; both were set in the United States. 'Some critics asked, why isn't this young novelist writing out of his own environment? It was precisely that - Spain - I didn't want to write about. In the intellectually mediocre country I grew up in, in which everyone thought Franco was eternal, people like me took shelter in the movies. The American pictures of the 40s and 50s were our stimulation.'

Making a literary name for himself must have been easier for Marias than for some. His father is a famous philosopher, a member of the Spanish Language Academy and author of over 50 books. Because of his republicanism during the civil war, he was barred from teaching in Spanish universities afterwards, and found posts in America instead, taking his family with him. The young Javier read English from an early age; today, as well as writing fiction, he also translates: 'I have never translated professionally, to commission. I'm always free to choose. It's the best possible exercise for a writer. You renounce your own voice and in doing so take on someone else's . . . Translators are often called privileged readers; as far as I'm concerned, they're privileged writers.'

Marias's credits to date include Conrad, Hardy, Thomas Browne, Stevenson, Yeats, Faulkner and, most prominently, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, which won Spain's National Translation Prize in 1979. 'Sterne has this wonderful capacity to travel through three dimensions at once. Everything in his novel is happening in the past, present and future . . . Sterne taught me that the best way to write a novel is as if all your characters are in fact dead.'

Marias is also drawn to Anglo- American literature because of the relative paucity of great Spanish novels from the 18th and 19th centuries. He has taken flak over this too: 'In an interview about 12 years ago, I said I hadn't read many Spanish novels, which was partly recognition of a fault in me. However, some took it as a belittling of Spanish literature, and I was called a traitor.'

This was compounded by outspoken pieces in El Pais, where Marias criticised Spanish letters for their lack of imagination, and predictability - such as the heaping of prizes on Cela. 'It was always Cela, Cela, Cela. This smacked of provincialism to me, and I said so.'

El Pais has since nominated All Souls as the second best novel published in Spain since 1975 (the first was City of Marvels); as a thoroughly modern man of Spanish letters, Marias's position seems vindicated by the accolade. 'There is a new generation at work,' he says, 'of which I feel a part. The heavy social realism of Cela's generation is not something that interests us. For too long Spanish novelists have been obsessed with Spain. I'm much more concerned with returning the Spanish novel to literature itself.'

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine