What I’ve been Reading: Javier Marías


This was originally intended as a short little post on ello, but after I finished, it seemed long enough to post (slightly extended and modified) here, too.

I’ve just finished a collection of short stories by Spanish author Javier Marías, my second one in the past month or so. The first collection was When I was Mortal, the second was While the Women are Sleeping. Marías was one of the authors featured in the anthology A Thousand Forests in one Acorn (which I reviewed here), and in that anthology, I noticed that one of his novels was described as a critic as “hybrid-genre” — which has overtones of “This has the plot of the sort of book I’d never admit to reading, but Marías writes well, and interestingly.” Whatever. If you read my blog, you probably don’t worry too much about the literary/genre fiction dichotomy.

Marías (at least in his short fiction) writes a lot of stories that I would classify as “crime fiction” — but often from a somewhat different perspective than you would expect from “typical” crime fiction. By this, I mean that the crime isn’t necessarily the focus of the story, but almost the excuse for the story, the frame on which to hang what Marías really wants to write about. His ghost stories also also usually not “typical” ghost stories, in that same sense. Often, his crime stories have a touch of the fantastic, the “weird” (not necessarily supernatural).

When I was Mortal was the more conventional collection overall; Marías notes that eleven of the twelve stories included were written on commission. But there’s still that “something else” about most of them. “Everything Bad comes Back” reminded me of Julio Cortázar’s “The Pursuer.” The title story, my favorite, is told by a ghost, who thought he had lived a good, contented life. But there was some darkness there he didn’t know about. And now he knows, because when you are dead, you know everything.

I not only remember what I saw and heard and knew when I was mortal, but I remember it in its entirety, this is including what I did not see or know or hear… but which affected me or those who were important to me….

In other words, the fact that it’s a ghost story is a choice about the style of storytelling, not a choice about the story’s genre.

A couple of the stories in When the Women were Sleeping were pale imitations of stories told better in When I was Mortal — but it still had some excellent, interesting tales. The title story was… interesting. It could be a crime tale, it could simply be a “literary” short story. Whatever one would call it, it’s worth reading. “Isaac’s Journey” felt a bit like something Borges would have written, and “The Resignation Letter of Señor de Santiesteban” is a delightful almost-“straight” ghost story. I’ve already posted about “Lord Rendall’s Song”.

Marías was a good discovery. I will have to check out some of his novels, too.


Image: The Novel Reader, Vincent van Gogh, 1888. Sourced from WikiArt.

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