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All Souls - Javier MarĂ­as, Margaret Jull Costa

”I’ve been slowly wearing away at my ignorance and, as I said, I’ve always kept on learning. But that ignorance is still so vast that even today, at seventy, leading this quiet life, I still cherish the hope of being able to embrace everything and experience everything, the unknown and the known, yes, even those things I’ve known before. There’s an intense longing for the known as there is for the unknown because one just can’t accept that certain things won’t repeat themselves.”

The Spaniard, unnamed, but most assuredly based on the author Javier Marias, is teaching at Oxford for two years. Teaching might be an overstatement. He has two classes assigned to him, but his main job seems to be that of being a celebrated Spanish author who adds some panache to their list of professors. He is arm candy for the university. He increases their already prestigious name with his presence. He is single and has only a handful of acquaintances among the Oxford teaching staff, so time stretches before him with no horizon.

He has two main hobbies. Women and Books.

Is there a better place for a collector of books than the Oxford area? ”For those with a taste for them, England’s second-hand bookshop are a dusty, sequestered paradise, frequented, moreover, by the most distinguished gentlemen of the realm. The variety and abundance of these shops, the limitless wealth of their stocks, the rapidity with which those stocks are replenished, the impossibility of ever exploring every corner of them, the circumscribed but vigorous and vital market they represent, make them an endlessly surprising and rewarding territory to explore.”

I’d swear I was more related to Javier Marias than I am to anyone in my own family. To be a writer is one thing, but to be a collector of books is a whole other level of madness reserved for a select group of “gently mad” individuals. Anyone who has ever been in my basement can attest to the evidence of the extent of my disease in the teetering stacks of books as well as the shelves and shelves of books that have been properly, alphabetically filed in bookcases. If I lived in the London area, I would have to subscribe to the Thomas De Quincey method of renting houses just for my books. You move to the next house when the present house becomes too full of books.

If I ever get the chance to meet Marias, I’m sure the distinctive scent of book dust that is as heady to me as the smell of baking bread or brewing coffee will reveal his malady to me as readily as red spots on the skin reveal chickenpox to a physician.

When he isn’t book hunting, our narrator is quite possibly rendezvousing with someone else’s wife or going to the local discotheque (this is the early ‘80s) to score with one of the “fat” girls who hang out there. They are girls that aren’t really slim, trim, and pretty enough to be a mistress or a girlfriend, but are reasonably attractive enough for sex. Even with casual sex, he is preoccupied with things beyond the act itself. ”It’s far less comprehensible than the fact of placing my cock, as I very soon will, inside her vagina, for--or so one hopes--there will have been nothing else in her vagina in the last few hours whilst in her mouth there’s been chewing gum and gin and tonic and ice and cigarette smoke and peanuts and my tongue and laughter and also words that I did not listen to. (The mouth is always full, abundance itself.) Now she doesn’t drink or smoke or chew or laugh or speak, because my cock is in her mouth and that keeps it occupied, there’s no room for anything else. I don’t speak either, but I’m not occupied in doing anything, I’m thinking.”

The Fat Bottom Girls are just a temporary diversion from an ongoing adulterous affair he has going with the wife of a colleague. Clare is on again off again as her married life and her life as a mother interfere with her afternoon delights with the writer from Spain. Because she is intelligent and educated, it is no surprise that she is more complicated than the girls from the discotheque. ”’You’re a fool,’ Clare said to me. ‘Fortunately you’re not my husband. You’re a fool with the mind of a detective, and being married to that kind of fool would make life impossible. That’s why you’ll never get married. A fool with the mind of a detective is an intelligent fool, a logical fool, the worst kind, because men’s logic, far from compensating for their foolishness, only duplicates it, triplicates it, makes it dangerous.’”

Since the Spaniard is not married, Clare is taking all the risks, but he is more worried about getting caught than she is. He is the one that cocks an attentive ear for the bells of Oxford to determine if it is time for her to go. He places layers of subterfuge in their meetings that she finds to be amusingly childish. Another advantage to being single is that adultery is very cheap entertainment. Instead of the expense of hotels they can use his flat for their “dangerous liaisons.” No time or opportunity for wooing with expensive restaurants and bottles of bubbly. Eating out together is simply too dangerous. They can talk, and they can screw; anything much more than that puts everything at risk.

The revelations and the details you will have to discover for yourself when you read this book.

There is an interesting substory to the plot of this novel. This book was such a huge international hit that it actually changed Marias life in more ways than one. The poet John Gawsworth is a minor character in the book. He also happened to be the King of Redonda. When the current King of Redonda, Jon Wynne-Tyson, read this book, he abdicated the throne in favor of Javier Marias. Another reason why I need to meet Marias is that he is giving away Royal titles like Reeses Pieces at a Bingo Palace.

The following has been copied from Wikipedia:

Pedro Almodóvar (Duke of Trémula), António Lobo Antunes (Duke of Cocodrilos), John Ashbery (Duke of Convexo), Pierre Bourdieu (Duke of Desarraigo), William Boyd (Duke of Brazzaville), Michel Braudeau (Duke of Miranda), A. S. Byatt (Duchess of Morpho Eugenia), Guillermo Cabrera Infante (Duke of Tigres), Pietro Citati (Duke of Remonstranza), Francis Ford Coppola (Duke of Megalópolis), Agustín Díaz Yanes (Duke of Michelín), Roger Dobson (Duke of Bridaespuela), Frank Gehry (Duke of Nervión), Francis Haskell (Duke of Sommariva), Eduardo Mendoza (Duke of Isla Larga), Ian Michael (Duke of Bernal), Orhan Pamuk (Duke of Colores), Arturo Pérez-Reverte (Duke of Corso), Francisco Rico (Duke of Parezzo), Sir Peter Russell (Duke of Plazatoro), Fernando Savater (Duke of Caronte), W. G. Sebald (Duke of Vértigo), Jonathan Coe (Duke of Prunes), Luis Antonio de Villena (Duke of Malmundo), and Juan Villoro (Duke of Nochevieja).

In addition, Marías created a literary prize, to be judged by the dukes and duchesses. In addition to prize money, the winner receives a duchy. Winners: 2001 – John Maxwell Coetzee (Duke of Deshonra); 2002 – John H. Elliott (Duke of Simancas); 2003 – Claudio Magris (Duke of Segunda Mano); 2004 – Eric Rohmer (Duke of Olalla); 2005 – Alice Munro (Duchess of Ontario); 2006 – Ray Bradbury (Duke of Diente de León); 2007 – George Steiner (Duke of Girona); 2008 – Umberto Eco (Duke of la Isla del Día de Antes); 2009 – Marc Fumaroli (Duke of Houyhnhnms)

I adore lots of writers, but probably no writer has vaulted so quickly to my top ten favorite writers of all times list than Javier Marias. His musings about the smallest details, which all impact the larger picture in sometimes subtle, but also in critical, ways is like putting my own eyes in his head. He is a thoughtful, philosopher of literature whom I sometimes swear is a conjurer of the thoughts of others...or...at least of my thoughts. My next Marais will be Dark Back of Timewhere he discusses what he calls a “false novel,” the impact of All Souls on his career and life. A Highly Recommended Writer!!

Here is my review of A Heart So White also by Javier Marias.

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