It has long been rumored that Spanish author Javier Marías is a perennial presence on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and reading through his many novels, it’s easy to see why this elegant and reflective prose stylist would remain top of mind.
The prolific Marías began writing short stories in childhood, publishing his first novel, Los dominios del lobo
, while in his teens. A polymath, Marías is also highly regarded as an English-to-Spanish translator, translating notoriously difficult material like Shakespeare
, and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy
, which won him Spain’s National Prize for the Best Translation. For the last 34 years, Marías’s protagonists have been likewise preoccupied with translation, interpretation, and the keeping or cracking of secrets, both within the intimate worlds of love affairs (The Man of Feeling
) and the world stage (A Heart So White
). His most recent novel to appear in English, the sensational Berta Isla
, examines the intersection of the personal and the political by closely following a married couple whose relationship is complicated by the husband’s dual British-Spanish citizenship and secretive job with British intelligence.
Marías’s interest in exploring interiority and connection finds purchase in his winding prose, which dwells, somewhat contradictorily, both on abstractions and meticulous examinations of how and why people think, do, and feel. His longtime English translator, Margaret Jull Costa, told The Guardian
, “’He's like Picasso, who said he used to take a line for a walk. Javier takes a thought for a walk. In a way they're very philosophical novels.’” While the often propulsive plots, featuring betrayals, deaths, passions, and revolution, keep readers moving speedily through the text, one gets the sense that Marías’s sentences are constantly striving to deliver the most precise description possible — of characters, but also of times and places — and doing so requires a lot of space on the page; sentences can run a page long. A short example from Berta Isla
: “Tom laughed. It was true that he was restless — although his was a rather diffuse kind of restlessness, the sort that abates over time — but not like your average man of action, not in the way we usually understand the expression.” It is not enough to call Tom “restless”; that restlessness must be defined as particular to Tom.
Marías’s blend of ruminative and specific can be draining if you’re not the mood to think through a novel (escapist literature it’s not), but it’s also delightful, refreshing, and frequently funny since Marías allows himself so much space to consider the humor of the situations his characters find themselves in. Packed with intrigue and love and an acute understanding of the modern human condition, we promise you won’t regret giving his work a try.
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