June 2013

Josh Zajdman


All Souls by Javier Marias

If college is supposed to be a microcosm of "real life," are college novels then supposed to be a microcosm of the experience and a micro-microcosm of "real life?" Or is that simply too much supposition? In either regard, certain campus novels succeed in varying degrees. There are the great (think Lucky Jim), the middling (think Wonder Boys) and the godawful (think I Am Charlotte Simmons). Yet, there are certain college novels that mirror certain unique college experiences (fortunately The Secret History isn't one of those). Javier Marķas, the criminally un-Nobeled Spanish author, is that witty, wise, sardonic seminar teacher who accepts only a handful of kids a year, makes up the syllabus as he goes along and irrevocably changes the life of every student who comes into contact with him. As such, his campus novel, All Souls, is an unfettered, mind-bending delight I would recommend to every person who's been to college and still enjoys reading. John Banville, in his terrific introduction to this reissue, writes that "All Souls is as stylishly vengeful as the most embittered and rancorous junior lecturer could wish for; it is also profound, moving, delightfully strange and wonderfully funny." In a book that barely crosses the 200-page mark, it's an especially stuffed treasure. Additionally, it's a treasure which one shouldn't ruin by dumping the contents of the chest out. Suffice to say that there is plenty of literary gold and more than enough aphoristic gems to go around.

Marķas is an acquired taste, but like pāté and truffles, one all the richer and more satisfying once you get used to it. Passages like this are par for the course: "The person recounting here and now what he saw and what happened to him then is not the same person who saw those things and to whom those things happened; neither is he a prolongation of that person, his shadow, his heir or his usurper."

One becomes so accustomed to them, even dependent. The style, which is now perhaps the dominant point in considerations of Marķas and his writing, was nearly crystalline twenty years ago when All Souls was first published. As a result, the reading experience is fresh and vital, but not without a Marķasian tipping of the hat to those who came before him. His voice has notes of Proust and James, albeit with a very significant Spanish tint. That goes as much for Marķas as the characters that people his fictions. They are fairly typical characters surrounded by the wonder and acuity of his prose. The sharpness of perspective juxtaposed with an unnamed narrator makes our protagonist a more civilized aboveground, if you will, version of Dostoyevsky's famed thinker. These are weighty comparisons but apt. At the onset of All Souls, we are introduced to the narrator. This person, or that person should we say, is a visiting lecturer at Oxford. Marķas himself considered him "someone who conveys knowledge that is not his own, it is inherited." Though he occasionally lapses into Spanish, his trenchant powers of observation aren't remotely hemmed in by any lingual boundaries. One of my favorite passages in the novel deals specifically with a very particular brand of isolation experienced by the narrator: "When you're alone, when you live alone and live, moreover, in a foreign country, you take more notice than usual of the rubbish bin, because at times it may be the only thing with which you maintain a constant, no, more than that, an ongoing relationship."

In fact, his facility with words and his style, as demonstrated above and throughout the novel, serve only to buttress the points about university life made by Marķas in this novel, Dark Back of Time and the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy. Having traversed the grounds of Oxford so regularly in his fiction, they are a lot less hallowed by the time he's done.

At its root, All Souls is a novel that traffics in observational asides, philosophical discussion, enigmas, misunderstandings, infidelities, and all other sorts of shadowy human behavior. As for human behavior, and the way people relate, the narrator offers a salient consideration: "I'm just the same as ever, veering between rage and laughter, whichever life provokes in me, with no medium term; they're my two complementary ways of relating to and being in the world..."

Within that continuum lies the whole range of emotion and by extension, the novel. All Souls may be the name of the college, but it's also kind of an invitation. So much of life is captured in this novel that anyone willing to give it a shot will find something relatable in that rarified world of Oxford and its very human foibles. Elsewhere, Marķas has written of a concept he refers to as "pensamiento literario," or literary thinking. All Souls, between the laughs and sharp intakes of breath, will teach you how to do this. To enjoy a book this much and have your thinking changed as a result makes for the most fortunate of reading experiences.

All Souls by Javier Marķas
ISBN: 978-0307950772
240 pages