Javier Marias: In search of lost time

The bestselling Spanish writer Javier Marias has been tipped as a future winner of the Nobel prize. Christina Patterson meets a masterly magician
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The Independent Culture

The King of Redonda lives in a flat in Madrid's oldest square, next to a medieval tower which was once a prison for King Francis I of France. His own kingdom is far away: a rocky island in the Caribbean, first named by Columbus and inhabited largely by goats. It is, says King Xavier I, who resumed the (metaphorical) throne in 1997, "a realm inherited through irony and writing, never solemnity and blood."

King Xavier I knows a great deal about irony. He knows a great deal about writing, too. He is better known, in fact, as Javier Marias, the Spanish novelist tipped as a future winner of the Nobel prize. Sales of his books worldwide have now topped five and a half million - and it's not hard to see why. Once bitten by the Marias bug - a mesmerising mix of fantasy, meditation and memory - readers are hooked. "Nothing will stop me from devouring all Marias's previous books," said Antony Beevor after reading his last novel, Fever and Spear. Well, Beevor can rest easy. Dance and Dream, the second volume in the trilogy (Chatto, £17.99; translated by Margaret Jull Costa), is published this week.

A Marias sentence is like a labyrinth. It is a place of infinite richness and surprises, a place full of fascinating byways and glimpses of a distant landscape that hoves into view and then fades away. It was, Marias tells me, in sentences that match the meandering quality of his written prose, a style he discovered only with his fifth novel, The Man of Feeling. His first novel, published when he was 19, was written in "much shorter sentences, like a script". After a second youthful effort, published when he was 21, he didn't publish anything for six years. At least, he didn't publish anything in his own name. Instead, he worked as a translator from Spanish to English, tackling not texbooks or travel guides, but Updike, Hardy, Faulkner and Conrad.

"Look!" says Marias, leaping up from his big, squashy sofa. "I have a letter from Conrad." He grabs a wooden frame from where it's propped up on the bookshelf, and takes it over to the window. Together we look at the polite words of that other word-perfect Anglophile, written to a prospective publisher in 1914. We are, in fact, surrounded by the literary greats. This room, overlooking that ancient square, is Marias's "English library". It is, like the whole flat - and another one downstairs - lined with beautiful old books. Collecting books is, as he explains in his memoir-cum-novel Dark Back of Time, one of Marias's obsessions. So, it seems from the piles of DVDs and videos, is film. And so are tiny tin soldiers.

"A translator is a very privileged reader," says Marias, returning to the sofa,and lighting a cigarette, "but he's also a very privileged writer - because he does rewrite a sometimes wonderful book. There is not such a big difference between writing and translating as people usually suppose... The way I write my own novels, I make a draft, and once I have a draft, even if it's a very rough draft, I work in a way that's not so different. I type it once and again, and then I make corrections and amendments, and then I retype it again. People are always telling me that I should use a computer, but I'm not interested in going fast. Precisely one of the reasons I type novels is to lose time."

Certainly, only someone with a major interest in "losing time" would have undertaken one of Marias's early translation projects, a Spanish version - with more than 1,000 footnotes - of Tristram Shandy. Sterne's "novel in digressions" clearly had a profound, and enduring, influence on his own work as a writer. "One of the things I learnt," confides Marias, "and Sterne learnt it from Cervantes, of course, is that the novel is the genre, or even the art, in which you can do more unlikely things with time. What interests me in a novel is to make exist the time in life that life doesn't allow to exist at all."

In The Man of Feeling, the narrator, an opera singer who lives much of his life in hotels in foreign cities, muses on a possibility glimpsed and then remembered. In that novel, the possibility, evoked with such extraordinary intensity that it sometimes makes you gasp aloud, is of romantic love. In A Heart So White, it is the possibility of a different version of the past, one triggered by a reported memory - the suicide of the narrator's father's previous wife - and one that will have a profound impact on all the relationships across the generations. "We have this tendency to tell what did happen," explains Marias, as he fiddles for another cigarette, "and we forget that we are also made of the things that didn't happen, of the things we discarded."

Marias has, in fact, devoted an entire book to this realm he calls, in a phrase culled from Shakespeare, the "dark back of time". Dark Back of Time was written as a follow-up to All Souls, a novel that drew heavily on his own experience as a young lecturer in Oxford. His witty portrayal of a community immersed in one-upmanship and gossip was greeted with an enthusiasm that proved remarkably literal-minded. Some of the greatest minds in the country were, it seemed, unable to distinguish between fact and fiction. Marias decided to set the matter straight, or at least to pretend to, in a book he playfully called "a novel", describing the reception of All Souls and the varieties of paranoia it provoked.

One of the characters whose fictionality was not questioned was, in fact, real: the "ill-fated, calamitous and jovial writer", John Gawsworth, whose real name was Terence Fytton Armstrong, but who also bore the splendid title "Juan I of Redonda". It was Marias's obsession with this wild beggar poet that led to the literary wild goose chase that ended, in a series of surreal twists, with his own inheritance of the Redonda crown. It is hard to think of a more appropriate metaphor for the wafer-thin line between truth and fiction, that "dark back of time", according to Marias, that "happens only in a sphere that isn't precisely temporal, a sphere in which writing, or perhaps only fiction, may - who knows - be found."

Marias's new novel, Dance and Dream, the second in a trilogy with the overall title Your Face Tomorrow (a trilogy that Marias claims is one long novel, published in three parts) continues to explore this theme, this time in the more dramatic fictional context of surveillance and espionage. In Fever and Spear, the narrator, Jacques Deza - yet another Anglophile Spaniard - is approached at a party in Oxford by an enigmatic figure whose occupation remains hazy. Deza is invited to work for a mysterious group whose activities seem to be based largely on the close observation of people's character and the prediction of their future behaviour. The prediction, that is, of their "face tomorrow".

Dance and Dream is based around a single evening in a nightclub, one that culminates in a violent scene with a sword in a disabled toilet. This being a Marias novel, it also drifts back to memories of the narrator's failed marriage, conversations with an old friend, the host of the party at Oxford, and with his father. At the heart of the novel is his father's betrayal by a close friend in the Spanish Civil War, a betrayal Marias's own father actually experienced. "We think we know people's faces," explains Marias, "we think we know more or less what we can expect from them.

"My father," he continues, "suffered a tremendous disappointment, but we have all had disappointments. Sometimes, afterwards, we think, yes, I did see this coming - or yes, I did see it, but I didn't want to see it. In the middle of a war," he says, "you can find the very worse behaviours and probably the very best as well. Everyone has his possibilities inside his veins, and it's a matter of time and it's a matter of circumstances. In a way that's the terrible thing in this book, you don't even know what you would do."

Marias is half way through the third volume in the trilogy and he doesn't yet know how it will end. "With the third volume," he declares, with a rueful smile, "I might ruin the whole thing, of course". I suppose he might, but I doubt it. This writer, who has always "felt like a foreign writer in my own language and in my own country"; this writer who lives in Madrid but writes a weekly column in El Pais attacking Spanish culture; this writer who inherited the crown of a legendary kingdom and who keeps the legend - and the joke - alive, has always done exactly what he wants - and he has done it brilliantly. "I just do my own thing," he shrugs. And then he lights another cigarette.

Biography: Javier Marias

Javier Marias was born in Madrid in 1951. He spent some of his childhood in the United States and wrote his first novel in Paris when he was 17. After studying literature in Madrid, he worked as a translator, translating the work of writers ranging from John Updike to Wallace Stevens. He has held academic posts in Spain, the United States and Britain and his books have been translated into 34 languages. They include the IMPAC-award winning, A Heart So White, All Souls, The Man of Feeling and the first two novels in a trilogy: Fever and Spear and Dance and Dream. Following the abdication of the "reigning" king, Jon Wynne-Tyson, in 1997, Marias was made King of Rodonda in 1997. He runs a small publishing house, Reino de Redonda.

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