Lovers of literature mourn the passing of Javier Marías

A portrait of Javier Marías (Amadalvarez, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Javier Marías has passed away aged 70. He had been hospitalised in a Clinic in Madrid due to pneumonia.

Marías was considered one of the most important contemporary authors. He wrote a great number of novels and stories that were acclaimed by the critics and the public. Marías was born in Madrid in a family of anti-francoists and intellectuals. He graduated from Complutense University of Madrid and published his first novel, Los dominios del lobo, in 1971. In 1992 he obtained international recognition thanks to A Heart So White, then proceeded to published Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, When I Was Mortal, The Man of Feeling, Tomás Nevinson. In addition to writing, he translated the work of authors such as Nabokov, Sterne, Faulkner, and Salinger.

In 2009, Javier Marías was hosted by Ca’ Foscari University of Venice during the Incroci di Civiltà/Crossroads of Civilizations Literary Festival. On the stage Teatro Malibran, he engaged in conversation with Elide Pittarello, Professor Emeritus of Spanish Literature at Ca’ Foscari. Professor Pittarello was also the author’s friend and a translator of many of his published works. Excerpts of the conversation between the two were published in the book Voglio essere lento (Passigli, 2010), in which Marías talks about Italy, a country he cherished. 

Javier Marías and Elide Pittarello, Incroci di Civiltà 2009 (Ph. Giovanni Porpora)

Professor Enric Bou Maqueda from Ca’ Foscari’s Department of Linguistics and Comparative Cultural Studies tells us about the Spanish author and his relationship with Italy. 

Tell us about Javier Marías’s relationship with Italy. 

Javier Marías had a special relationship with Italy and with Venice. In Venice he finished writing what I believe was his greatest work, Todas las almas (All Souls), a novel that drew inspiration from the two years he spent as a university teacher in Oxford. It is a ‘campus novel’ that enables us to better understand his fictional world. In 1979, one year after the publication of his third novel, El monarca del tiempo, Elide Pittarello — who was then a young Italian academic — commented insightfully in Ca’ Foscari’s journal ‘Rassegna Iberistica’ on the “irruption of the unpredictable in everyday life” and the domination of reality that was displayed in the novel. It was one of the first reviews of the works of Javier Marías in Europe, and it was also the start of a long friendship.

As Marías himself sometimes stated, “[Venice] is a city that I incorporated, that is always inside of me. When I’m in Madrid and I want to go somewhere, I just go. I feel the same way about Venice — it’s a little bit ‘mine’.”

Javier Marías has been regarded as an author that broke with the Spanish literary tradition. Why was he so successful among critics and the public? 

Javier Marías started writing when the aesthetics of Realism was still prevalent in post-World War II Spain — even though in the 1960s this narrative paradigm had begun to be discussed and reconsidered. Realism aimed to register a specific historical moment and to reflect on contemporary society. The labels “social Realism” and “Critical Realism” were regarded as tools to criticise Franco’s dictatorship and to denounce the cultural and economic backwardness of the country. In his novels, Javier Marías refused to adhere to the “experimental” model, which refuted realism and was influenced by post-Structuralism, and he also steered away from the ‘nouveau roman’. Juan Benet was a forerunner, a friend and a model for Javier Marías.

In the 1990s, Javier Marías started to find international recognition. He was aware of the implicit freedom that the novel genre afforded him, allowing him to write in ways that he more than once described as “erratic with a compass.” He stated: “I don’t know what I want to write, nor where I want to go. I don’t have a plan” — so the storyline, the novel’s structure and its topics emerge during the writing process. This approach resulted in a very peculiar style that merges storytelling and reflection, intrigue and thought. He could write digressions and detailed descriptions of scenes without hindering the development of the narrative or the resolution of the story. He was also a well-known translator of English and American classics, including the works of Sterne, Conrad, Stevenson, Wallace Stevens, Faulkner, Ashbery, Auden, Isak Dinesen, Sir Thomas Browne, Hardy, and Yeats. He was “a writer for writers”. Shakespeare was woven into many of his novels, and the thoughtful digressions of Marías’s narrators share a quality with Shakespearian characters in the way they serve to channel their inner selves without revealing them openly.

Javier Marías has never written a history novel. To what extent are Spain’s history and politics presented in his novels?

He refused to write “another novel on the Spanish civil war.” Maybe his political opinions — which could be controversial — were clearer in the articles that he would publish every week in "El País", which were written in a peculiar, almost tearful style, and often contained strong criticism. 

What do you remember about his participation in the ‘Incroci di Civiltà” Literary Festival in 2009?

I was not able to attend his public conversation, but I had the pleasure of dining with him and Salman Rushdie on the Grand Canal. I remember he spoke at length with J.M. Coetzee. I also remember a quote from the book Venice, an Interior

“Venice is the only city in the world whose past you do not have to glimpse or intuit or guess at: it's there before you, at least its past appearance is, which is also its present appearance. Even more exciting and disquieting is the fact that the city’s present appearance is also the city's future appearance. Looking at Venice now, not only do you see it as it was one hundred, two hundred, probably even five hundred years’ time. Just as it is the only inhabited place in the world with a visible past, so it is also the only one with its future already on display.”