- Javier Marías: An Appreciation
V.S. Pritchett, whose essays are an invaluable companion, a sort of Dante’s Virgil for navigating modern literature, once described Don Quixote as “the novel that killed a country by knocking the heart out of it and extinguishing its belief in itself forever.” This is no doubt an incisive statement, and perhaps truthful too. If so, it should be expanded to say that the novel also artfully extirpated Spain from Europe’s intellectual conscience. For beyond Cervantes, where are its influential figures to be found in the international sphere? This is not to say that Spain has given up on literature. On the contrary, tens of thousands of books (nonfiction, poetry, and as much fiction as mushrooms spring up in a forest after a rainstorm) are published there annually. The number of awards has multiplied dramatically in the last couple of decades: every major publisher has its prize and parades its winners with panache. But does anybody abroad pay any attention?
If this diagnosis—that the Spanish novel is in a centuries-long hiatus—sounds improbable and even a bit offensive, I suggest an exercise in improvised criticism. Stop for a moment at your local bookstore to find, say, a dozen Iberian novels, classics and commercials, on the shelf. I bet the task defeats you. You might stumble on a title by Camilo José Cela, whose Nobel Prize, like that of his fellow Spaniard, Jacinto Benavente y Martínez, only accentuated his obscurity, and you will surely come across the “brainy” thrillers of Arturo Pérez Reverte, probably the most popular español of all time. But beyond these, what? It would be easy to blame the publishing industry for this scarcity, but most editors, especially at university presses, are liberals; censorship is not a principle they endorse. The fact is, even in an atmosphere as fastidiously allergic to foreign cultures as ours, far more literature from France and Germany, even from Italy—not to mention the “quick eastbound trip” of scores of Britons—and fiction in particular, is released in the United States. Spain simply isn’t trendy; its intellectual life is of no consequence.
The problem is, in part, internal. It is symptomatic that whenever Iberian letters are discussed at home, critics recur to metaphors: “Benito Pérez Galdós was our Dickens,” it is said, “and Juan Benet was our Faulkner.” In all fairness, these comparisons are often to the Spaniards’ advantage; a handful of essayists and especially poets fare better: Unamuno and [End Page 176] Ortega y Gasset, still not fully translated into English, are possessed of pungent, incisive voices that remain delightful; Federico García Lorca, along with the poets of the Civil War (Machado, Cernuda, et al.), are true giants. But a quick survey of the landscape in fiction reveals a kind of wasteland: Miguel Delibes, Carmen Martín Gaite, Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, Alvaro Pombo, and younger figures like Almudena Grande, Juan Luis Cebrián, and Antonio Muñóz Molina—are these recognizable names? Even if his criticism isn’t taken at face value, Pritchett, I think, is onto something of significance: the country’s literary flame may not have been extinguished by Don Quixote, but it surely burns low. Spain is in a permanent state of eclipse.
Beyond national borders, one of the very few heralded talents of the last decade is Javier Marías. His work has tentatively appeared in bookstores and has been praised in literary supplements and reviews. It remains, not surprisingly, ignored by most readers. But Marías has much to offer, even if it isn’t consistently breathtaking, and a push should be made to bring him to the attention of a wider audience. From his 1971 debut novel, Los dominios del lobo, to his collections of essays, like Literatura y fantasma, his books have sold more than 3.2 million copies, mainly in Europe and Hispanic America. Sales and quality don’t always match, but in Marías’s case they do. He has been translated into twenty languages. It is time for Americans to wake up to the presence of this skillful littérateur.
Born in 1951...