As an approach to this interview, I decided I would read all of Javier Marías’ published novels and short stories (just as much for an excuse to read them as fitting preparation for the interview). Moving from one book to the next, each felt like different neighborhoods of the same majestic city, one to which we long to return after we’ve left, where we recognize similarities in the streets and signs and the attentions of its inhabitants, even if the different topography (or subject matter) from book to book is evident. The first sentence frequently thrusts us right into the middle of a crisis, one that, for all its immediacy and urgency, can wait. We experience time differently. Or, rather, our time is replaced by his. Every book encloses within it a notion of time (or perhaps multiple notions of time). In Marías’ books, while intrigue carries the reader forward with urgency and speed (as we wonder how things will fit together, how a stain of blood on a banister will be explained, or why the man who accompanied a woman in her death and whose identity is not known has sought out the company of her father, or whether the depressed woman will succeed in killing herself the next time), it is the sustained attention given to details and reflection that carries a distinct and separate rhythm, delaying events, postponing their outcomes, carrying the reader forward through sentences and pages via lengthy meditations that represent a depth of vision and contemplation so incisive and revealing of humanity and its workings that it’s almost as if we have been given keys to the laboratory where everything is designed, as we remain stationary, often parked in some blind spot in the corner, watching various scenes unravel before us in slow-motion.

Time is often his subject, time as an expression of human emotion, of loss, of aging, of perplexity. It is time, Marías shows us, that can be most evocative of horror. In Dark Back of Time, one of my favorite meditations is about a man thrown overboard from a ship: “The worst part was realizing that the ship, despite its shudderings and grindings, had moved away from the place where the loss had occurred within only a few seconds, enveloped in the wail of its siren which already sounded more like a first lament than a cry of alarm...By the time the ship reversed it was too late, there wasn’t even a place to go back to. That was the worst, for the living, the ship’s unstoppable wake, ‘like a white scar,’ voracious upon the ocean, the all-too-visible manifestation of time that never waits and goes more quickly than any human will—for truce or salvation or hope—and so forces everything to remain unfinished; that, and the unceasing awareness that the only way to disrupt time is to die and emerge from it.” A person’s relationship to the things around him or her is immediately transfigured at the moment of death, a meditation constantly present in Marías’ work (the creased skirts will never be ironed again, this person can’t be counted on for the answer to even the most petty of questions...); the fact that this can happen within mere seconds is frightening because in that instant even the most banal aspects of time—even those things we tend to associate with the negative side of time: being late or losing track of it or getting old—have also ceased to exist. The first chapter of The Infatuations ends rather dramatically not with the character’s death, but with the horrible fact that his wife would never “wait” (that most evocative of temporal verbs) for her husband again: “She waited twenty minutes for him at a restaurant table, puzzled but not overly concerned, until the phone rang and her world ended, and she never waited for him again.” 

In a sense, in writing and reading fiction, one emerges from time, adjourning to a space where nothing has ever happened—what Marías has described, taking the phrase from Shakespeare, as “the other side of time, its dark back,” a time that “does not happen, or happens only in a sphere that isn’t precisely temporal, a sphere in which writing, or perhaps only fiction, may—who knows—be found.” Fiction, whose exchange rate with the world in which it is enfolded is determined by each writer, is free to wander, revel, linger or speed forward and backward as it pleases. Not bound by a chronological clock, or by a strict obligation to duplicate reality, fiction is a thing of infinite potential, one whose possibilities Marías maximizes, slowing the ships as they pass through the sea, beholding events as they slow to a near-standstill, contemplating reality and human nature and design (“Listening is the most dangerous thing of all, listening means knowing, finding out about something and knowing what’s going on, our ears don’t have lids that can instinctively close against the words uttered, they can’t hide from what they sense they’re about to hear”/A Heart So White), alerting us to our most up-to-the-minute tendencies (“There is a taste today for exposing oneself to the base and the vile, to the monstrous and the aberrant, for peering in at the infra-human and rubbing up against it as if it had some kind of prestige or charm and were more important than the hundred thousand other conflicts that besiege us without their ever plumbing quite those depths”/Your Face Tomorrow), revealing something about our psychology, often those things of which we are most unaware, without reference to psychological jargon or theories (“If we are staunch supporters of a lover, a friend, a teacher, we tend to welcome all those who surround them...idiot children, demanding or poisonous wives, boring, even despotic husbands, dubious or disagreeable friends, unscrupulous colleagues on whom they depend, people in whom we can detect not a single good quality, not the slightest attraction and who lead us to wonder about the origin of the admiration expressed by those beings whose approval we ourselves crave...”/Thus Bad Begins), or greater, universal truths (“Love always has an imaginary side to it, however tangible or real we believe it to be at any given moment. It is always about to be fulfilled, it is the realm of what might be. Or, rather, of what might have been”/Man of Feeling), holding the details up to the light frequently at an angle from which they have never before been beheld, almost as if we are listening to the universe’s deepest and darkest secrets through a door slightly ajar. In all books, we are eavesdroppers (reduced to a single sense), in Marías’ books often quite literally; this flattened reality, existing in a different dimension, a different time, is a potent symbol for fictions that take advantage of the shape and space of a novel and accomplish something truly rare, original, crucial and delectable.

In our age of distraction, Marías’ gaze and what it falls on remains steadfast and penetrating. It does not move on until it has concluded looking at what it must—while the gaze of our century may seem to do more and more of the opposite, abandoning depth and reflection, preferring instead the topical or the tawdry. As Marías writes in Your Face Tomorrow, our times are “the enemy of inner dissatisfaction and, therefore, of constancy, they are organised so that everything quickly palls and our attention becomes frolicsome and erratic, distracted by the mere passing of a fly, people cannot bear sustained investigation or perseverance, to immerse themselves properly in something in order to find out about that something. The prolonged gaze...the gaze that ends up affecting everything it gazes at, is not permitted.”

Marías’ books do not distort the world or engage in any sleight of hand—you won’t find magic realism in his work, nor allegory or symbolism, incursions into surrealism or fantasy, or special effects. He captures the likeness of the world through something much more like a mirror, but mirrors see and reflect so little in comparison.

—John M. Keller


Questions and Answers:

JK: A word that appears from novel to novel is “usufruct,” which means a temporary right to enjoy and use something, generally property, without owning that thing. (One way it is used is in the novel All Souls, where it describes university funds, the apartments of the dons, university life in general.) Do you know when this word came into your dictionary, and when you began seeing its metaphorical possibilities?

JM: As far as I know, that word has always been in my ‘‘dictionary,” or at least ever since I was a young man. It does probably appear in Tristram Shandy (but that is by the by), which I translated into Spanish when I was about 25. But the word is perhaps less uncommon in my language than in English, and it may serve to describe even our lives. I think I have quoted somewhere something said by I can’t recall who: “All the living are dead on leave,” or something similar. So, in this sense, even our crossing the world is an usufruct as well.

JK: I learned the word usufruct from discovering it in your books, after which I felt I couldn’t do without what can be understood through it. Are there any other words, either in Spanish or another language, that you remember discovering through a particular book and that lend corporality to something previously for you without corporeality?

JM: Not that I can remember. When you are a translator (and I was one for some years, a long time ago) you get acquainted with “new” words all the time. Not just because you find them in the original text, but because you are always looking, among dozens of possibilities, for the best equivalent to a particular word or expression in your own language. So you are dismissing or accepting them constantly. Perhaps the unusual word “conticinio” (pure Latin, even if we keep it in the Spanish dictionary) was one of those I “discovered,” probably as early as in 1983, when I was writing my novel El siglo.

JK: There’s a meditation in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me about a word the narrator has forgotten, “an ancient verb, no longer in use,” describing “the relationship or kinship acquired by two or more men who have lain with or slept with the same woman.” It’s interesting that such a word, if it even ever existed, should have existed, and then disappeared. (And words don’t exist in isolation—they implicate other words: systems of belief, politics, entire visions of the world). Are there any other words that you find are disappearing and that you would be happy to save from extinction, or the opposite, that you wouldn’t mind seeing disappear?

JM: Words should never disappear, but they do disappear, ever more. People’s vocabulary has become surprisingly scarce in the last twenty or thirty years. For the moment, people do not use words they know, but at least they still understand them if they see them in a text, or hear them. Lately, they are starting not to even understand words that were not particularly rare, but rather common, not so many years ago. We have to “translate” within our own language more and more, and that is ridiculous and depressing. In the Real Academia Española there is a rule: a word disappears from the dictionary if there is no written record of it after 1500 AD.

(It does not totally disappear, of course, but goes to the Historic Dictionary.) A few years ago the pretty word “acercanza” (which means proximity, nearness, closeness; we also have “cercanía,” but it is not so evocative) was “condemned” because of that. So a few “académicos” decided to use it in our paper columns or in our books in order to make it survive. So we did, and it survived.

JK: In Dark Back of Time, you speak to readers’ and critics’ insistence on a direct correlation between reality and fiction. You write, “It is always said that behind every novel lies an episode, however pallid or tenuous or intermittent, in the life or reality of the author, though it may have been transfigured. This is said as if in distrust of the imagination and the inventive faculties, and also as if readers and critics needed something to hang onto, to keep from falling prey either to the strange vertigo of that which is absolutely invented and without experience or basis—as if they did not want to feel the horror of something that appears to exist as we read it, that breathes and whispers and sometimes even persuades, yet has never been—or to the ultimate absurdity of taking seriously what is only a representation, as if they were struggling against the lurking awareness that reading novels is a childish pastime, or at least inappropriate to the adult life that is always gaining on us.” Where do you think this fear of the imagination comes from?

JM: Nowadays, there is a boom of that fear. I think it has to do with the rather primitive mind that is being imposed on many people. Writers have renounced to invent, to a certain extent, and too many of them are just telling their biographical misfortunes, their sad childhoods, the abuses they suffered and so on. Or even their dull marriages and their even duller divorces, things like that. And readers do read this stuff, I do not know why. It usually bores me to death. But, to give you a recent example of people’s need to think that what they read in a novel hides true events, yesterday I was told that, on a BBC radio programme in which my novel Berta Isla was discussed, someone said he, or she, thought I might have been a spy myself. As if I could not know about their world, or convincingly invent about it, unless I had been part of the Secret Service, sometime in my life.

JK: In A Heart So White and Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico, the narrators are translators, and in both books there are scenes that involve mistranslation, often to comic effect. In Dark Back of Time you write: “one is always tempted to throw in some blots and smudges, for love of transgression and to betray oneself, and to see if they can pass for unblemished text.” What is it about mistranslation and error (or transgression and self-betrayal) that delights you, and/or your narrators?

JM: The usual thing is that all we say or write is subject to interpretation, and to misunderstanding. We think we understand each other, but that is never a sure thing, and, as I said before, we often must translate within our own tongue. By blatant errors or mistranslations you see that more clearly. Nothing is ever certain, not even what just happened, what we just witnessed or heard.

JK: You were once involved in introducing the biographies of obscure writers in an anthology of short stories entitled Unique Tales, in which the bios of the authors were so bizarre and fragmentary that some readers felt you had outright invented them. It occurred to you to “adopt the same approach with more familiar and famous writers,” the result of which was the book Written Lives. “The idea,” you wrote, “was to treat these well-known literary figures as if they were fictional characters, which may well be how all writers, whether famous or obscure, would secretly like to be treated.” Why might all writers, whether famous or obscure, secretly like to be treated in such a way?

JM: Well, this is mainly a hint. But somehow I think most writers decided, by their writing, to become “ghosts,” that is, people who no longer exist but did exist, and still care for what they left behind. It is not infrequent to wish you had never been born, but, as we were born, an acceptable way of passing through life (or the afterlife) is as a figment of the imagination, as a fictional character. Sherlock Holmes or Don Quijote live in the minds of many readers and non-readers, without any of the inconveniences of being real, that is, being bothered, harassed, attacked, threatened, worried or hurt. It is a much more “comfortable” way of being “there.” Or here.

JK: In Written Lives, you later write, “It is as if the books we still read felt more alien and incomprehensible without some image of the heads that composed them; it is as if our age, in which everything has its corresponding image, felt uncomfortable with something whose authorship cannot be attributed to a face; it is almost as if a writer’s features formed part of his or her own work.” For someone who writes about other writers, and a writer yourself, how do you feel about viewing a writer’s work through such images? Can something be gained from it?

JM: I do not “view” a writer’s work through such images. In Written Lives I seldom talk about the authors’ work, just about their faces and attitudes, and about a few anecdotes that I found then amusing or significant, or just good to complete a brief portrait of them as individuals. You have a good example in the cases of Thomas Mann or Joyce: I dislike them as men (as far as I can judge), but not as writers. On the contrary, I very much like Stevenson or Conrad or Faulkner or Dinesen or Conan Doyle or Lampedusa, both as authors and as people. But I never mix both features.

JK: Among my favorite of your inventions is the phrase “biographical horror,” the horror one feels at one’s biography leaning heavily on one embarrassing detail or another. A subcategory of this is the Kennedy-Mansfield syndrome (another of your inventions), where one’s life is viewed through the lens of its moment of cessation. Nowadays, not just celebrities live with the constant fear of biographical horror—ordinary citizens, even children, do as well. Our reputations precede us, and follow us, and to the degree to which, as you write in Dark Back of Time, “we lose everything because everything remains except us. And therefore any form of posterity may be an affront, and perhaps any memory, as well,” is there any escaping this?

JM: Not quite. We must just pretend things are not the way I pointed out there. Be it only because you cannot depress people around you. You can briefly do that in a book, that readers tend to forget soon. But not in real life. Or you shouldn’t.

JK: I know at one point you expressed that the idea of a male writing as a female, or vice-versa, was absurd, or unbelievable, and that you didn’t feel you would be able to sustain this for the entirety of a novel. A few years later, you wrote the book The Infatuations, which was told from the viewpoint of a female character. There’s a view, an increasingly mainstream one, that says writing beyond your race, gender, etc., constitutes a kind of appropriation. What do you feel about this?

JM: That is one of the most stupid things our stupid contemporary world has brought. Have people forgotten what is fiction? What is an impersonation? According to that, only a real Mexican could ever disguise himself as a Mariachi, only a Spaniard as a bullfighter (perhaps only an actual bullfighter?). Only a native from La Mancha could play the role of Don Quijote, only a Dane that of Hamlet, only a Scotsman that of Macbeth? Funnily enough, the people talking about “appropriation” are the same who claim that a female actor, or an actress, may play King Lear or Othello. Everything is pure contradiction, nowadays. That is what usually happens when silliness is in charge. Or in command. We tend to give more and more power to sheer fools.

JK: In Dark Back of Time you write, “It is so difficult to know what will turn out to be incidental or fundamental once our book or story or life is over and has become known or past time which cannot be reproduced. Or maybe the book can, each time it’s read, but no, each reading changes it, though none of them rewrites it.” Does this leave you with some satisfaction, the idea that even though every reader may ultimately distort the book, the original still stands?

JM: Well, the original is similar to the score of a musical piece. It can be played very differently (Bach’s scores vary a lot, apparently, if played by Leonhardt, Kempff, Gould or Tureck), but the score is always there. Only variable in translation. Borges said that he could read the Iliad in many different French or English versions, but not Don Quijote. So, I know what I wrote, and I know how I would (or have) read it aloud, what the pace and the rhythm and the cadence and the tone are in my mind. My mind is not the only one, once I have published a book. But it is the one that conceived that text.

JK: While in your books there is certainly plenty of descriptive detail, some of your most potent scenes describe characters who cannot see each other but can only hear one another. Many times this effect is doubled, tripled, quadrupled, where, for example in Thus Bad Begins, you have the character Muriel on one side of a wall, his wife Beatriz on the other, the narrator on the other side of the next wall, and then the reader, in a sense, on the other side of the final one. Scenes frozen in such positions sometimes go on for dozens of pages, and we find the blueprints of this in even your earliest novels (like Voyage Along the Horizon). One of the goals of many writers is the attempt to re-create the physical world inside a novel, describing that world to the point in which we actually see it. These scenes seem to do something else, almost as if instead of re-creating the world, they were re-creating the experience of reading a novel, inside a novel. What is your sense of a novel’s physical space?

JM: I haven’t thought of that. Space is not so important in the novel, is it? I am more interested in the space of the mind, I am afraid. Proust, anyway, was a master of both mental and physical spaces.

JK: Is there another writer or novel you admire that makes of the use of space in the novel something new?

JM: Frankly, I don’t have one.

JK: In The Infatuations and Thus Bad Begins, there are many short chapters of two or three pages. In many cases, it is the beginning of the next chapter that brings us to the next line of dialogue or subsequent event begun in the previous chapter (or the one before that...)—were you conscious of having evolved this new shape in these books? Has your sense of the architecture of your story construction changed over the years?

JM: Perhaps I just realized that readers tend to advance, and turn the next page, if they have the feeling of having “achieved” some “goal.” In my latest books the same scene goes on in different brief chapters. They might have gone on in just one very long chapter. But today’s readers need that kind of “incentive,” I am afraid, and the result of the text is nevertheless the same. I don’t think I impoverished or harmed it by these briefer chapters. It is similar to poetry’s not filled pages, I suppose.

JK:  Was there a different muscle or process involved in writing the 1,592-page novel Your Face Tomorrow that made the writing of this book different from your other novels? 

JM: Well, there certainly was. I felt as if each volume was a different novel, though it wasn’t. Fortunately, when I started writing YFT, I had no idea it was going to be so long (I would have despaired). And when I finished the first volume I thought the whole thing would be two volumes only. The third is the longest of them all. In a way it made me feel a novel could last forever. Well, until you are dead. Couldn’t Don Quijote have had more and more adventures? Don’t most novels end up with things unresolved and some of their characters still living? It is rather arbitrary at which moment you put an end to a story, or to a “world.” I could live forever in some books, or even in some TV series, like The Sopranos. Exhaustion is one of the reasons why you stop, I am afraid.

JK: In multiple books, you mention the famed Madrid attitude toward the night. (From Thus Bad Begins: “It was a time when almost no one slept in Madrid, because after a night on the town, with the exception of students and artists and professional layabouts, every night owl, unlikely though it may seem and at a remarkably early hour, could be found at his or her desk the following one could entirely avoid the nocturnal ferment of those anomalous was not unusual to find traffic jams in various parts of the city in the early hours of a Wednesday or a Monday or even a dull Tuesday.”) While other cities may have what in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me is described as the conticinio, “a Latin word meaning the time of night when, by mutual agreement, everything keeps silent,” why do Madrileños have a different attitude toward the night? Are these late hours something that predated Franco, or that came to be solely after his decline?

JM: Yes, of course that predated Franco. As far as I know, it has always been like that. By 1900, the Madrid cafes were open at 4 a.m., it was a very natural thing. And it was also like this during Franco’s dictatorship. No one could ever put Madrilenians, or even Spaniards in general, early to bed. Still now we have dinner at 9:30 p.m. or 10 p.m., that is the usual dinner-time. Why, I don’t know. Perhaps we enjoy the night, when duties are finally over.

JK: Reading these out of order, I had a feeling while reading Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me that I knew who the narrator’s love interest would be after coming upon a certain character’s name. I knew Ruibérriz’s last name without turning the page. Whether either of these predictions come true or not, I’ll leave up to your readers to discover. Do you have the sense your books work together, interact with one another, tell a larger story, or are these repetitions much more incidental?

JM: There are “echoes” or “resonances” within my books and also from one book to another. I suppose all of them are a kind of “fabric,” a rather unintentional one. These echoes or resonances form a system, or a pattern, but do not ask me what is it. They are shaped “in the making,” as it were.

JK: In multiple moments in Your Face Tomorrow, the narrator decries the concept of patriotism and fatherland as abominable: “an inextricable phrase, meaningless like all tautologies, empty words, a rudimentary concept—that of fatherland, homeland, mother country—and fanatical in its application.” (Fever and Spear). And in Poison, Shadow and Farewell: “She felt entirely English, which was interesting, she would never suffer any conflicts of loyalty; her reaction betrayed even a certain patriotism, which was more worrying, as is anyone’s patriotism.” While some of the things in our societies that were once sacred (religion, pride, formality...), have disappeared or waned in value, do you have thoughts or a sense as to why patriotism has hung on, even in this most globalized world?

JM: Well, suffice it to recall Dr. Johnson’s saying (I can’t remember his original words in English). He wrote something like this: “Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.” Would a world like ours, full of scoundrels, renounce their last refuge? No.

JK: In Your Face Tomorrow, volume one, Deza, your narrator talks about a certain gaze, “the prolonged gaze...the gaze that ends up affecting everything it gazes at, is not permitted...It is the kind of gaze that barely exists now in our societies, it is disapproved of and is being driven out. It is, of course, rare in England, where ancient tradition requires the gaze to be veiled or opaque or absent; but it’s just as rare in Spain, where it used to be commonplace, and yet now no one sees anything or anyone or has the slightest interest in seeing, and where a kind of visual meanness leads people to behave as if others did not exist, or only as shapes or obstacles to be avoided or as mere supports to keep one upright or to be clambered up, and if you trample them in the process, so much the better, and where the disinterested observation of one’s fellow man is seen as giving him an entirely unmerited importance which, moreover, diminishes that of the observer.” Would you say that this phenomenon has only become more pronounced today? Where does this gaze exist now? Does this affect the life of the novelist? Of all the things on the brink of extinction, why does no one seem to be coming to its rescue?

JM: Yes, that phenomenon has become more pronounced, for sure. To gaze used to be free, and not subject to punishment. Our societies, ever more authoritarian, are repressing gaze, and thought, let alone words. There is a most worrying tendency to censor, to prohibit, to ban. To see everything with suspicion and disapproval. In Spanish we say “Mirar con malos ojos.” It is applied to the people who see everything as ill-will, as aggression, as bad-intentioned. Unfortunately, theirs is the kingdom nowadays. I really don’t know how we have come to that. To permanent Inquisition, in fact.♦