The Daily Telegraph
Greatest Spanish novelist of his generation and Anglophile who provoked a scandal in Oxford
JAVIER MARÍAS, who has died aged 70, was by general consent the pre-eminent Spanish novelist of his time – to many readers, the greatest since Cervantes.
His best-known novels, A Heart So White (1992) and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (1994), begin with mysterious deaths and have the trappings of thrillers, although their heroes are keener on meditation than action. Marías’s passive protagonists tend to be reluctant to get to the bottom of the strange events they are caught up in – a sly commentary, in the view of some critics, on the collective inability of the Spanish to process the moral crimes committed during the Civil War.
In his home country the critical superlatives were tempered by what Marías himself described as his “reputation of being not quite Spanish”. He set so many of his novels in Britain – most frequently in Oxford, where he had once been a lecturer – that he was designated an angloaburrido, or “Anglo-bore”.
His protracted, serpentine sentences were modelled on those of Henry James. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy – from which he learned “that a novel may contain anything and still be a novel” – inspired his habit of digression. A love of PG Wodehouse fostered his facility with comic set-pieces.
Marías began writing at the fag-end of the Franco regime and his early fiction was out of step with the prevailing Spanish fashion for politically engaged social realism.
He maintained, however, that to write ludic, experimental novels with foreign settings, and resist the pressure to address the national identity crisis Franco had induced, was a political act in itself.
In time Marías became celebrated for more direct commentary on Spanish affairs, as a columnist for the Sunday newspaper El Semanal – until he was dropped for criticising the Catholic Church – and subsequently for El País. Combining Left-of-centre denunciations of the state with jeremiads against political correctness, his columns cemented his status as a public figure and helped propel his novels into the bestseller charts.
In his fiction, however, he strove not to convey messages and morals. His focus was on the evocation of human consciousness, with whole chapters being devoted to the delineation of thought processes lasting a few seconds.
“They’re very philosophical novels,” observed his longserving English translator, Margaret Jull Costa. “He’s like Picasso, who said he used to take a line for a walk. Javier takes a thought for a walk.”
It may explain why, despite his Anglophilia, Marías never became a household name in the UK. “The English shy away from anything that isn’t anecdote, fact, event or ironic gloss or comment. They don’t like speculation, they find reasoning superfluous,” observes one of his characters.
Elsewhere in Europe, however, his novels sold in their millions. It was A Heart So White that established his reputation outside Spain, after it was extravagantly praised on television by a leading German critic. “Obediently, as sometimes Germans in their history have been, they went out and bought it,” Marías recalled.
His most ambitious work was Your Face Tomorrow, a novel published in three fat volumes between 2002 and 2007, in which a Spanish translator is recruited into a shady branch of MI6 concerned with analysing people’s features and mannerisms, to anticipate their future behaviour. The Telegraph judged it a characteristically offbeat take on the spy genre, in which “vicious violence unfolds with mesmerising, Proustian slowness”.
For the back story of the protagonist’s father, Marías “borrowed without any disguise” the facts of his own father’s life. Julián Marías, an academic revered for his History of Philosophy, was denounced as a Republican at the end of the Civil War by one of his closest friends, and falsely accused of having links with the Soviet newspaper Pravda and the NKVD, predecessor agency of the KGB: he was imprisoned, narrowly escaping execution, and thereafter
banned from teaching in Spanish universities, while his betrayer became a professor.
Although his father never made the traitor’s name public, Marías sprinkled clues to his identity in the book, in an act of what he called “poetic justice, or rather, novelistic justice”.
His father’s travails bequeathed Marías an abiding suspicion of human beings – “you can find very base things in people who are otherwise noble” – and a preoccupation with betrayal. “We all betray all the time. I expect people to betray. In a way, what seems to me more odd is that some people feel solidarity.”
Javier Marías Franco was born in Madrid on September 20 1951, the fourth of five sons. His mother, Dolores Franco (no relation to the dictator), was a translator and editor. The family enjoyed a number of stints in the United States while his father, still blacklisted in Spain, taught at Yale and Wellesley College.
Javier’s maternal uncle was the eccentric film-maker Jesús Franco, best-known for erotic horror films such as Vampyros Lesbos (1971). The teenage Javier worked his scripts and appeared as a sword-wielding Chinese hoodlum running down a precipice in The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969) – “This suicidal descent, repeated several times, is, I think, the most dangerous thing I have ever done” – but was unable to see the finished films as they were banned under the Franco regime.
His first foray into writing came when he composed his own Just William stories. He was only 19, and studying philosophy and literary sciences at Complutense University in Madrid, when he published his first novel, The Dominions of the Wolf (1971), followed by Voyage Along the Horizon (1972), about a novelist who joins an expedition to the South Pole.
After this precocious start, however, he gave up writing fiction and made his name as a translator of Conrad, Nabokov, Updike and Sir Thomas Browne, whose antique cadences could often be detected in his spoken English. He won an award for his rendering of Tristram Shandy.
From 1983 to 1985 he lectured in Spanish literature and translation at Oxford, and became a great friend of Sir Peter Russell, the Hispanicist and ex-spy, who was bemused but delighted by his portrayal as “Sir Peter Wheeler” in several of Marías’s books.
The novels began to flow again and his distinctive mature style was fully in place by the time of All Souls (1989), a satirical portrait of Oxford. It precipitated an academic scandal, with some Oxonians furious at being caricatured and others lobbying him to play themselves in a proposed film: Marías chronicled the fall-out in a mischievous memoir, Dark Back of Time (1998).
One real figure he wrote about in All Souls, though assumed by most readers to be an invention, was the alcoholic poet John Gawsworth, who was often seen pushing pram-loads of empties around Piccadilly. In consequence, Marías was invited in 1997 to take up a position that Gawsworth had once occupied – that of “King” of Redonda, an uninhabited island in the Caribbean.
The writer MP Shiel had been the first person to declare himself monarch of this chunk of rock in 1929, and Marías eagerly joined the line of literary pranksters who had succeeded him, awarding dukedoms to deserving figures such as WG Sebald, AS Byatt and Francis Ford Coppola.
Marías’s last major work was a pair of linked novels, Berta Isla (2017) and Tomás Nevinson (2021), which saw him return once again to Oxford – there was even a cameo appearance by Inspector Morse – and the espionage genre. He wrote all his works on an electric typewriter, and claimed to regard himself as an impostor who got lucky. “It still surprises me, and to a certain extent bothers me, that I still don’t have any idea of what I’m doing,” he told the Telegraph in 2012.
Javier Marías married his long-term partner Carme López Mercader in 2018. She lived mainly in Barcelona, while he lived in a flat crammed with books and tin soldiers on the main square in Madrid, opposite the town hall – “which often makes me wish I had a rifle: the mayors here are awful”. A passionate Real Madrid supporter, he wrote superbly about football.
Latterly, he abandoned his regular visits to Britain, being horrified in equal parts by Brexit and anti-smoking regulations. He had been in hospital for several months after contracting Covid-19, and died of pneumonia.
Javier Marías, born September 20 1951, died September 11 2022