Do all those writers and poets outside your own country form part of your literary ancestry?

SOURCE: Bomb no73 80-5 Fall 2000

The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.     A Heart So White, originally published in 1992, converted an author branded “difficult” into the most notable European literary phenome non of recent years. Since then, novels like Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me and Dark Back of Time have confirmed Mr Marias’s status as Spain’s leading writer of fiction. His is the rare case of a skillful mix between stylistic elegance and a breathtaking narrative pace, between the uncanny and the detached, between criminal plots and complex literary devices.     There’s a certain justice in the author’s tremendous success abroad, for you couldn’t point to anything specifically “Spanish” in his writing or subject matter. What is more, Mr. Marias, born in 1951 in Madrid, has published a number of acclaimed translations, including Tristram Shandy, which won the National Award for Translation in Spain in 1979; prose by Joseph Conrad and Robert Louis Stevenson, and poems by Nabokov, Faulkner, and Wallace Stevens, among others. He has taught at Wellesley College, Oxford University (whence he derived the material for his novel All Souls), and the University Complutense in Madrid. All of his five last novels, which include A Man of Feeling, have won important literary awards in Spain, France, Italy, or Germany Javier Marias, who lives in Madrid, is also the author of various collections of stories and essays, along with his most recent publication, a book of essays on soccer.     paul ingendaay The obvious question first: How do you account for your extraordinary success? You make a lot of claims on the reader, and yet your books sell millions of copies.     javier marias I was as surprised as anyone. I published my first book when I was nineteen, in 1971, and since then there have been very different phases in my writing. But success came gradually. It started in the 1980s, with my fifth novel, The Man of Feeling (El hombre sentimental), and went on with the next, All Souls (Todas las almas). But perhaps the big thing was the one after that, A Heart So White (Corazón tan blanco), published in Spanish in 1992. When I finished the book I had various offers. One publisher offered to pay me 12 percent (instead of the usual ten) once the book had sold 20,000 copies. That sounded like a chimera to me. By now it has sold more than one and a half million copies. Back then I never expected that, so I didn’t publish with that house, which gives you a hint as to what I thought about my own writing. I’ve always written what I’ve felt like writing. Of course it’s pleasant to have success, meaning more readers–but it’s something I’ve never looked for. As you said, my books are, if not difficult, not exactly easy reading. But some of my novels aim to satisfy very demanding readers and less educated readers at the same time. I like the possibility of a book having different readings, and appealing to different kinds of readers. If that has happened with any of my books, it’s a real blessing. A Heart So White deals with several issues–secrecy, suspicion, persuasion, instigation, marriage and in an oblique way, love. Those issues are likely to interest anyone, because we all have secrets, we all suffer from other people’s secrets, we are all deceived sometime in life, or we deceive. We do not know anyone entirely, not even ourselves. If you were to try to tell your own story, you would find out soon enough that you cannot really tell it because there are so many elements having to do with other people whom you do not actually know, be it your wife, or your children–you never have complete knowledge of anyone, including yourself. Part of that is due to what I call secrecy, in the sense that we don’t show ourselves to two different people in the same way.     pi That partly explains why there are so many characters in your fiction who are translators, interpreters, and carriers of messages where the message gets warped in the transmitting.     jm Yes.     pi There are comical scenes in your books making fun of those warped messages.     jm Yes. The narrators of my four, maybe five latest novels are very much related, like cousins. The narrator of All Souls is someone who is just passing through, and he knows he’s not going to leave any trace. So he’s a rather ghostly figure. In A Heart So White the narrator is an interpreter, conveying what others say, translating from one language to another. He lacks a voice of his own. And in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me the narrator is a ghost writer, someone who puts his talents at the service of others. You could even say that the narrator in The Man of Feeling, who is an opera singer, is an interpreter, someone who is just reciting somebody else’s creation. They are messengers, they are no one. They are ghosts. At the same time, they love their own voices, which is what they mainly exist as.     pi Ghosts are, surprisingly, recurring subjects of your fiction.     jm I love literary ghosts. The concept of the ghost in literature supplies you with a point of view for telling your story: writing from the perspective of someone who has passed away. Nothing else can happen to them, because everything that could happen to them has already happened, and they are dead. But at the same time, they are not indifferent, which is precisely why a ghost comes back to haunt–to help the people he loves, to punish the people he hates or who did him harm. So a ghost is not indifferent and at the same time he’s objective, because he knows the end of the story.