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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)