Javier Marías, who died on Sunday in Madrid from pneumonia, contracted after a bout of Covid, was probably the Spanish writer best-known outside his native country. His work ‑ sixteen novels as well as many volumes of short stories and essays – was translated into more than forty languages. In English translation he may be best known for A Heart So White, which won the Dublin International Literary Prize in 1997, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me and the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow.
Marias’s mother, Dolores Franco, was a professor of literature, and his father, Julián Marías, a philosopher, a disciple of José Ortega y Gasset. “I was a privileged child,” Marías told the newspaper ABC in 2013, in so far as he had parents who were “cultured” and “fundamentally honest”, “with what one calls principles, which today can sound a little old-fashioned, but shouldn’t.” His horizons were also broadened by his childhood stays in the United States, where his father, barred from teaching in Spanish universities because of his republican past until 1964, worked as a guest lecturer.
The young Javier became fluent in English and in the years before his breakthrough as a successful novelist worked as a translator – of, among others, Sterne, Hardy, Conrad, Nabokov, Faulkner and Updike. He also taught in the early 1980s at Oxford (one of the cities in the world in which the least work is done, he said). Out of this experience came the 1986 campus novel Todos los Almas (translated as All Souls). As an avid reader as a young man of English-language literature he developed a particular affection for novels published in the Penguin Modern Classics series, which he says he handled “with awe and reverence”. In 2012 his own novels were republished in that list, a rare distinction for a living writer. He commented: “I must assume … that these are much less demanding times than the 1970s. But, still, I feel very honoured, even if I can’t help thinking I must be a fraud.”
Marías was sometimes criticised for not being a more political novelist. But he seems to have preferred to keep comment on politics – and on football: he was a fan of Real Madrid ‑ for his considerable body of journalist work, much of it in the leftish newspaper El País. He was not slow to criticise the conservative Rajoy government of the early 2010s for its privatisations, labour “reform” and cuts in education and cultural spending:
As a columnist I write as citizen, and maybe have too many opinions, but writing as a novelist is different. I don’t like the journalistic kind of novel which is now rather fashionable. If a book or film takes a good subject from the everyday press – say domestic murders in Spain, which are a historic disgrace – everyone will applaud, but it is easy applause. Who will say it is bad?
In his own work, Marías recognised “certain recurring themes: treason, secrecy, the impossibility of knowing things, or people, or yourself …” “There is also persuasion, marriage and love. But these things are the matter of literature, not just of my books. The history of literature is probably the same drop of water falling on the same stone only with different language, different manners, different forms adequate to our own time. But it remains the same thing, the same stories, the same drop on the same stone, since Homer or before.”
Sources: Le Monde, The Guardian, El País. Photograph: The Irish Times