All Souls, by Javier Marias

I enjoyed All Souls by Javier Marías in a detached, intellectual kind of way. It’s not the kind of book that wins over your heart, or not in any obvious way at least. It’s set in Oxford and tells the story of a visiting lecturer from Spain who is looking to pass his two years as pleasantly as possible. He has minimal teaching duties and frequently finds himself bored. He looks around for and then finds a woman, an Oxford tutor, with whom to have an affair and this helps fill his days. But his life is fairly flat. He finds amusement looking through used book shops — this is, as Amateur Reader pointed out to me, a book shopping classic — and he also observes British life and particularly university life and reports to us on its oddities. Most memorable for me was a lengthy set piece describing a college dinner in which one of the dons behaves spectacularly badly and everyone else pretends not to notice. We also get lengthy descriptions of the things that fill the narrator’s life: the beggars he sees on the streets as he takes long walks, the author whose work he is trying to track down, the garbage that accumulates in his apartment.

All this sounds dull, but it’s not. Somehow, through the satirical tone, the dry humor, the detached observations, a deeper feeling comes through. I’m not sure how to describe it; perhaps it’s melancholy, sadness, and nostalgia all mixed together. The narrator is writing from a time after his stay in Oxford is over; he is back in Madrid, married and moving on with his life. We learn early on that two of the men most important to him while in Oxford have died, and he is writing in part in order to describe them and his interactions with them. So a sense of loss hangs over the whole book. It’s not only these friends — or, perhaps, acquaintances — that he has lost, though; he recognizes on the novel’s first page that the person he was then is gone, replaced by someone entirely different. Even memory doesn’t hold him together as a coherent being. He didn’t make much of a mark in Oxford, and it seems that this is his fate: not to make much of a mark on the world. All he can do, it seems, is to write down his story, and to seek out the nearly-lost stories of others, which his bookshop haunting allows him to do.

The pleasures of this novel are quiet, but real, nonetheless. For a lengthier review of the book, make sure to read Litlove’s take on it. I think I might like to read more Marías at some point. All Souls has intrigued me.

13 Comments

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13 responses to “All Souls, by Javier Marias

  1. And this review has intrigued me. Thanks.

  2. I confess I had forgotten so much of this book that I had to reread my own review (and it was very nice of you to link to me, thank you!). It’s not a sticker in the mind. But there was something oddly hypnotic and oddly beautiful about the reading experience. If I describe him as Proust without the jokes, he looks even less appealling, but it’s eccentrically good. I really like what you say about the deeper feeling that comes through, despite the dry tone. That really conveys the main quality of the book, I think. I’d definitely read him again too, though I’d have to be in the right mood for him.

  3. I find the book to have been a sticker, but that is in part (maybe large part) because of What Happened Next. Some strange things happened next, in real life, not just in fiction.

    Marías writes about them in his semi-novel Dark Back of Time, a book that turns All Souls inside out.

    The pair of books is fascinating, and significant, but All Souls has almost become the preface to the later book. It is an unusual artistic move.

    I am told by reliable sources – actually, how do I know they are reliable? – that Oxford used book shopping has gone downhill since the time Marías was there.

  4. Ok, I am even more intrigued by this book and author now than I was before. I see I am going to have to try and read him sometime.

  5. This is the second time in two days that I’ve had my attention drawn to Marías’ work and as I don’t believe in coincidence the powers that be must be pointing me in his direction. I’m interested in what Tom says about the way the two books work together because I always find that fascinating. So, I shall be looking for time to read both. Oh, and Tom’s sources are correct. Used book shopping in Oxford is definitely not what it was.

    • I definitely like the idea of the two books working together as well. How fun that the universe seems to be leading you in the direction of reading Marias! But bad news about Oxford. That’s a sad, sad thing.

  6. I like quiet books, and I’m a real sucker for reading about the pleasures of book shopping, so I might give this a try. Have heard good things about Javier Marias but never tried him. Thanks for giving me a good idea of what to expect. From your review and litlove, it sounds dull but oddly satisfying, which intrigues me.

  7. You review has intrigued me, too. I love novels set in academia and Oxford in particular.

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