It doesn’t surprise me to learn that Javier Marias has translated Tristram Shandy into Spanish. In both Marias and Sterne we find something of the same obsession with the seemingly irrelevant detail which grows and grows in importance as time goes by, the lack of concern for narrative linearity and the love of going off on a tangent. I have not heard him compared to Karl Ove Knausgård, but this was the author I was reminded of as I read this, my first book by Marias (but certainly not my last). The same fascination with the fluidity of margins between fact and fiction, the same ability to take the most mundane little detail and philosophise about it endlessly, the same long, meandering sentences… which must be contagious, as I find my own sentences growing longer and longer as I attempt to review this book.
If that sounds like I am trying to put you off Marias, you couldn’t be more wrong. In theory, he is everything that writing craft workshops warn us against; he breaks all the rules and gets away with it. He moves from a personal point of view to a generalisation or something abstract within the same sentence, separated by nothing but a fragile comma. His characters are slippery and unknowable, enigmas to themselves and others. He has sentences that run on into whole paragraphs, half a page or more. He often repeats himself (or his characters do). And yet, somehow it all works (thanks also, no doubt, to Jull Costa’s outstanding translation). He is compulsively readable and this was the book which got me out of my reading slump back in December.
There is a mystery at the heart of the book: Juan discovers that his father’s first wife, his aunt Teresa, shot herself in the heart in the bathroom in the middle of a family lunch shortly after they had come back from their honeymoon. As Juan is about to get married himself, he starts wondering why this happened and discovers that his father had another wife even before Teresa. So, at the most basic level, this could be called a ‘whydunit’, but of course it is a lot more complex than that. The protagonist and author question our ability to cope with full disclosure and the past, ponder on just how reliable our perceptions are, how we create stories that we can live with. Above all, it is a poignant meditation on what it means to love and be loved, and how (whether?) that fits in with marriage.
If you’re still not convinced, I probably won’t help matters by saying that the first few pages can seem like hard work, until you get used to the cadence and tumultuous flow of the Marias river of prose. However, if you stop resisting, if you surrender to the hypnotism of his sentences, there is so much to love here! And it’s not all doom and gloom; there are many funny moments too. The author is a sarcastic observer of the foibles of simultaneous interpreters and speakers at international conferences and there is a particularly enjoyable scene where Juan decides to ‘pep up’ a dull conversation between two senior politicians by mistranslating.
So I urge you to give him a go if you haven’t made his acquaintance already and I certainly want to read more by him. What would you recommend I read next?