Javier Marías: Messages from the master

When the novelist Javier Marías died in September, he was hailed in the press as a key figure in Spanish literature of the past 50 years. Tipped to win the Nobel Prize, his many novels were translated into more than 40 languages and sold millions of copies. 

BAS Editor William Chislett recalls their correspondence

Javier Marías and his “famous” electric typewriter. He did not have a computer and only in his last years email and a mobile phone. Getty Images.

I first met Javier Marías in 2008, when he invited me to his induction into the Real Academia Española.  We had intially been put in contact with each other by the Oxford don Eric Southworth, Javier’s closest English friend to whom he dedicated two novels (he appears as a character in three others). Our paths crossed again later in Soria, where Javier would go from his home in Madrid to shut himself away and write uninterrupted. Over 13 years, we established an epistolary relationship; I received 14 postcards and 12 letters or notes, which, on his untimely death at the age of 70, I dug out and re-read.

My first postcard from him, in 2010, was in response to me asking whether he would like to contribute to restoring the commemorative stone of the emigré writer Arturo Barea (1897-1957), best known as the author of the trilogy La forja de un rebelde, who died in Faringdon, Oxfordshire. He responded with a cheque for £100, which was far more than I needed, and I returned most of it.  In his message, he noted that he shared the same birthday as Barea (and Barea’s wife Ilsa), also writing: “He is unhappily and badly known in Spain, except, of course, by those who take advantage of that and steal from his trilogy.”

In another postcard, which showed the tomb of Lawrence Sterne in North Yorkshire, Javier asked me to give Barea “un respetuoso saludo de mi parte” at the unveiling of the restored stone. Javier had translated Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy, for which he was awarded the Premio Nacional de Traducción in 1979.

In 2011, while visiting my mother in Oxford, Eric gave me a splendid watch chain to give to Javier, as he did not want to mail it. I left it with his portero. Javier responded generously, as he often did, by mailing me a copy of one of his books in English or Spanish, usually the former as I had told him I preferred to read him in English, thanks to the wonderful translations of Margaret Jull Costa. Far from being offended at my preference for his English editions, he passed on my comment to his long-time translator. His own work as a translator, a subject he taught at Oxford University in the early 1980s, played a formative part in him becoming a novelist, and was the subject of an excellent book by Gareth Wood (a pupil of Eric), Javier Marias’s debt to translation: Sterne, Browne, Nabokov, published by Oxford University Press in 2012.

William Chislett’s complete collection of Javier Marias’s books in English,
all signed and with thoughtful dedications.

Javier also sent me several of the 41 books published by Reino de Redonda, the publishing house he founded. It is named after the tiny Caribbean island of Redonda, uninhabited except for boobies. He was the island’s monarch, ruling as King Xavier I. The kingdom’s peers, ennobled by him, include AS Byatt, Duchess of Morpho Convexo and William Boyd, Duke of Brazzaville.

Javier knew I was an obsessive fellow bibliophile (he left a library of some 30,000 books). Sometimes I would leave first editions with his portero for him to sign, including the very scarce All Souls, set in Oxford and published in English in 1992, which I had bought for £10. He congratulated me on my find, telling me only 600 copies had been printed. He had sought an extra copy but it was far too expensive.

Sometimes in my correspondence – always in English, which Javier spoke fluently – I would comment on his weekly columns in El País. In one published in 2011 and titled “El lento y rápido viaje de los abrigos”, he used the death of a fellow member of the Real Academia Española to comment on mortality.  RAE members have a designated coat rack with their name, and when a member dies everyone moves up one space. “Ese avance en el perchero es un tácito recordatorio de nuestra mortalidad,” he wrote in his column. In his postcard to me, Javier hoped his coat rack would stay in the same place “for a long while, even if, given la media de edad de los académicos, that seems a difficult thing to happen.”

Although these traits were not something I ever personally experienced, Javier was viewed in some circles as antipático and a bit of a curmudgeon, perhaps due to his weekly column in El País, where he took issue with everything from smoking bans (he was an ardent smoker) to the sorry state of Spanish politics. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, he was incredibly well respected: El País put the news of his death on the front page and ran 10 pages about him over two days.

In a 2012 column for El País, “Piel de rinoceronte o desdén”, Javier expressed his displeasure at a former Popular Party minister and diplomat, whom he detested and had featured in the 2004 article, “¿Pero quiénes son estos patanes?”. The unnamed diplomat had spotted Javier and two friends in a restaurant.  At the end of the night he approached his table and invited everyone to a drink. “Que sepas que se te lee y admira,” the diplomat said to Javier, who declined the invitation. Asked whether he was going to the country where the diplomat was posted, Javier replied in the affirmative. “Te llamaré antes de tu venida,” said the diplomat. “El tuteo,” wrote Javier in the column, “jamás lo había visto con anterioridad y, ya digo, lo había tildado de patán como mínimo, en el pasado. ¿No se enteran los políticos de lo que se dice de ellos?”.

Javier Marias’s second novel, Travesia del horizonte, published in 1973 when he was 21, and in English in 2006.

I wrote to Javier identifying the diplomat as Federico Trillo, the ambassador to London, which was easy to do. “As for tuteo, it is so extended in Spain it doesn’t bother me if it comes from a reader or a friend’s friend,” he replied. “I am not so stiff. But it does when it comes from an ambassador I had never been introduced to, and I dislike too. So you can tutearme. My pleasure.”

In our last exchange, in October 2021, I sent him an email saying how much I was belatedly enjoying Understanding Spain (1992) written by his father, Julián Marías. The philosopher was briefly imprisoned following the Spain’s Civil War for his republican activities, after he was denounced by a colleague, an episode his son drew on in his trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow

Published in Spanish in 2000 as Vidas Escritas and in English in 2006, Marías delves into the lives of 20 writers and treats them as if they were fictional characters.

When I asked Javier why the book was not better known, he replied: “The answer is simple. My father was badly seen, first by the Francoists, then by the left. Something similar is happening to me (salvadas las distancias), or I am badly seen by both right and false left.”

I will miss our correspondence.