Friday 5 November 2010

All Souls

This post is included in the first edition of the new >Language >Place blog carnival, published on 13 November 2010.  

My friend who died last winter was the one with whom I shared Spanish novels. In tandem, we devoured the complete works in Spanish of Arturo Pérez Reverte, Matilde Asensi, Almudena Grandes - two middle-aged British women on a jaunt into a language and culture we both loved. We shared the cost, too, of Spanish paperbacks, which aren't cheap. Now it's just me, embarking alone in autumnal London on this winter’s ‘escape’ into the hefty, much praised oeuvre of Spanish novelist Javier Marías (pictured), and I wonder, all the time I’m reading it: would C have liked Todas Las Almas / All Souls, his quiet, rambling, cerebral novel about a visiting Spanish lecturer at an Oxford college? I'd been thinking for a while that I should read Marías and picked this one to start with when I saw it on the shelf at Grant and Cutler, just off Oxford Street, because it's only two hundred-odd pages, and because of its setting (a non-British colleague had just been recounting her recent experience of an Oxford college – some archaic and exotic features evidently persist). I only found out while researching this blog post that the author's three-part magnum opus, Tu Rostro Manana / Your Face Tomorrow, has the same protagonist. I've ordered the first volume.

The nameless first-person narrator of All Souls is deeply introspective, the incarnation of that lovely Spanish word, ensimismado (insideyourselfed) - interesting that the famously sociable Spaniards have a word for that. Since the word describes me too, alas (ensimismada), I liked this. The story unfolds entirely from within his copious, complex musings and memories. The narrative view is through the corner of an eye, the corner of a mind, events related not as they happen, but as the Spaniard thinks back on them at random moments in the future. At the heart of it is the story of a love affair, but the start of the affair is never seen, only the first, wordless meeting at High Table and memories of scattered later occasions. Digressions and theorising swirl around like fog, clearing now and then to reveal a sparkling scene or character sketch: a limping man comes down the street with his three-legged dog; a glossy, eminent old scholar stands in his riverside garden discoursing at length while feeding the swans; our hero lurks behind a pillar at the Ashmolean Museum, spying on his lover on an outing with her father and her young son, all three of them with the same face. Diamonds in the mist: I don't need to page through the book in search of these scenes for they stay with me vivid and whole. Marías is brilliant at writing conventional narrative, but doesn't do it very much. What he does is much more dense and challenging, but isn't dry. The resonances of this novel, slowly evoked through a layering of images, allusions and meanderings, ripple slowly outwards - resonances of one man, a Spaniard abroad, and of his lostness, rippling outwards to merge with the shadows of many lost souls.

After dinner I went up to Cromer-Blake’s college rooms for a while, for a last drink before going off to bed, and while he was getting out the glasses and opening a bottle with sure and methodical movements, still wearing his college gown, I was thinking: "It’s not just that I’m a stranger here and nobody knows or cares anything about me, nothing of any biographical importance, and that I won’t be staying here for ever, the most serious and decisive thing is that no one here knew me in my youth or childhood. This is what I find so disturbing, this no longer being in the world and not having existed in this world before. That no one here is a witness to my continued existence, as if I’d just come out of the water. Cromer-Blake knows something about me, has done for some time, through my predecessors from Madrid and Barcelona. But that’s all, facts acquired when I was still just a name, without a face. But this is sufficient reason already – this second-hand friendship – to condemn him to serve as my strongest link to this city, the person to whom I’ll put those questions that have to be put and whom I’ll always turn to while I’m here if a problem comes up, some illness or disgrace or real madness. He’s the person I’m going to ask right now about the woman at dinner, Clare Bayes - as soon as he’s poured the drinks and sat down I shall ask him about her and her husband. Cromer-Blake, with this greying hair and pale face of his, with this always doubtful moustache that he allows to grow and then shaves off every few weeks, with his inimitable English diction which his admiring students say evokes the BBC ‘of yore’, with his biting wit and his extraordinary interpretations of Valle-Inclán, with his look of an excommunicated churchman and his complete lack of any family feeling, is condemned to be both father figure and mother figure to me in this city, although he didn’t know me - not in any way – during my childhood or youth (I’m over thirty now, so he didn’t know me in my youth). That woman at dinner didn’t know me then either, but somehow, I don’t know how, she saw my childhood and allowed me to see hers, to see her as a little girl. I know, though, that I won’t be able to count on her to serve in this city as the father figure, or even the mother figure that we all have to have at all times and in every place, however old, however worthy or unworthy we may be. Even the oldest and most powerful of men, until the end of their days, need such figures - however hard it is for them, however impotent they are to pin this role on anyone, their need, their fantasies, their feeling of something lacking, their demanding and hoping and imagining never lessen".
This is my quick translation - really difficult, those very long sentences! The published English translation, which I don't have, is by Margaret Jull Costa, so it will be excellent. Here she talks about the challenges of translating Marías.

I was struck by this passage because, having long ago abandoned my birth family and thereby seemingly lost the facility for sustaining any relational context for very long, the feeling described here is the way I feel all the time, wherever I am.  I'm attracted to southern European cultures, of course, because of what the Spanish narrator in Oxford is fiercely missing, that sense of family and community that remain much stronger there than in England. The novel speaks profoundly, if obliquely, to my sense of homelessness and lifelong attraction to abroad (both the physical abroad of foreign travel and the mental abroad of foreign languages), to the fruitless, contradictory, simultaneous quests for home and away, familiarity and novelty, for something that has long since proved to be 'not here'. It speaks to this quest both bleakly, as the narrator finds emptiness and dislocation in Oxford's quiet streets, eccentric souls and strange rituals, and beautifully, wherein perhaps lies some redemption.

So would C, a woman of considerable intellect and zero intellectual pretensions, have liked this novel or found it dull and pretentious? It pleases me to think she would have liked it's combination of deep, wandering thought and spare, but emotionally powerful storylines, one of which (oh, creeping up on me near the end!) turns out to be a story I know, about the premature death of a good friend.


Beth said...

Jean, this moving post speaks so well of the pleasure of reading books with others, something I've done with a friend for a long time and would miss terribly. You've inspired me to check for "All Souls" through interlibrary loan here, and I've requested it -- though I can't appreciate the Spanish, at least we could talk about the book itself.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Wonderful passage. Makes me want to read the book. And I like his face too (very sexy eyes!).

Dale said...


litlove said...

What a beautiful review. I very much enjoyed All Souls when I read it, and wish you still had your friend around to compare notes with.

Beth said...

I'm almost through with the book - reluctantly - will finish it tonight. Thank you so much for the recommendation; re-reading what you wrote here makes me want to talk to you about it at much greater length!

Jean said...

Beth, I'm so glad you liked it!

If you feel like reading more, you've probably gathered by now that Marias' body of work, both fiction and non fiction, is huge, with plenty in English translation.

Beth said...

Definitely. What would you recommend next?

Nicolette Wong said...

this moving post strikes a chord in me as i too had a friend i shared books with and now he's gone.

i'm hosting the Dec edition of Lang/Place and i hope you'll send something again.

Jean said...

Hi Nicolette! I'm glad you liked this. I will try to contribute to and will certainly promote the next issue of language and place blog carnival.