Tuesday 26 July 2016

All Souls

What with all these butterflies, I realise that I haven't written about a book for quite a while now. It isn't that I haven't been reading, rather that I've been having to read a lot of books for review (in that excellent magazine Literary Review, since you ask). However, one book I have managed to read recently for my own pleasure was Javier Marias's All Souls.
 Reading A Heart So White gave me an appetite for more, so I moved on to one of his slightly earlier novels, All Souls. The Penguin edition of this comes emblazoned with two wildly misleading review quotations: 'Probably the wittiest novel set in British academia since David Lodge's Changing Places' (Daily Mail) and 'A dazzling example of the Oxford novel' (TLS). A dazzling example of the Marias novel perhaps, but anyone expecting a witty campus comedy is in for a few surprises.
 There is some acute observation of Oxford's curious ways by Marias's narrator - a visiting Spanish academic, detached and mildly bewildered - and there's one comic set piece, an account of a high table dinner descending into chaos, that owes more to Tom Sharpe than David Lodge. A couple of other scenes use the grammar of comedy, but not really for comic effect. For the rest, this is a ruminative tale of time and memory, love and death - of 'all souls', dead and alive - centred on the narrator's two-year stay in Oxford, his rather desultory love affair with a married woman, and his obsession with an obscure author (who actually existed, and two black-and-white photographs of whom are embedded in the text, Sebald-style).
 As with A Heart So White, Marias builds his narrative out of elements that initially seem quite unrelated, even irrelevant, but which feed back into the story as it develops, with all the relations between them revealed by the end. It's a clever and intriguing way of writing a novel, but I didn't find All Souls quite as clever or as intriguing as A Heart So White; it didn't seem to have as much depth, there wasn't quite as much going on. But never mind: they say Marias is an author whose quality can't really be judged by a single work, as many of the novels resonate with each other, even sharing characters and situations. I'm certainly going to read more of him (indeed my current bedtime reading includes his little book of biographical sketches - or glimpses - of authors, Written Lives). I've got the Marias bug.
 By the way, there's more about Marias on a fascinating blog called Vertigo, which has the works of W.G. Sebald as its core interest but ranges far beyond them.

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