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Javier Marías: Todas las almas (All Souls)

This book was very successful in Spain and in other European countries but, frankly, it is difficult to see why. Not that it is a bad book – on the contrary – but it is nothing very special and, indeed, it is not really a novel. It is narrated by an unnamed narrator who, when he is referred to, is either called something like our Spanish friend or is given a pseudonym. The narrator is, of course, based on Marías and recounts his time in Oxford, teaching Spanish and Spanish literature. Other critics have said that it is a series of vignettes and that is more or less what it is, though there are a few plot lines running through it.

The main plot concerns his relationship with his colleagues, which is generally fairly ordinary. He has a few friends, with whom he converses and socialises and one – a married woman, Clare Bayes – with whom he has an affair. The other main plot line is the whole function of Oxford University which, according to both the narrator and others, exists not so much for academic studies but more as an exchange of information, primarily gossip-type information. Everyone talks about everyone else and the more you know about others, the better it will be for your career. Our narrator is not exempt from this – indeed he makes a great point about the English word eavesdropping, for which he is unable to find an equivalent in Spanish.

The vignettes are certainly well done. They start with Will, the ninety-year old doorman, who lives in a different year of his life every day, though rarely in the present. One day he might be in 1916 and is worried about the Battle of the Somme, while another day it is 1966, the day his wife died and he is, of course, very sad. Our narrator is eventually able to get an approximate fix on the date by the name Will calls him, which will be the name of a contemporary student. Other well-written and often amusing vignettes include the scene at high table, with complex rules on behaviour, his neighbour regaling him on his only topic of conversation, a 17th century tax on cider, and the bottles about to fall off the table; the strange owners of a local second-hand bookshop (but all second-hand bookshop owners in England are peculiar, just ask Driff whose classic All The Secondhand and Antiquarian Bookshops in Britain provided such brilliant commentaries as If only she was as sober as her books) and, in particular, his pursuit of the books of relatively unknown English fantasy writers, especially Arthur Machen and John Gawsworth. Indeed his knowledge of Gawsworth helps him possibly identify a key character in the life of Clare Bayes.

His love for Clare Bayes – which, as he later realises, was only fleeting – is the key plot element in the book and, like the rest of the book he tells it well, both the period when he is without her as she is caring for her sick son and their affair, including the story linking her to John Gawsworth. It is certainly an enjoyable book, as it is well written, humorous and gives an interesting perspective, namely that of a Spaniard seeing Oxford with its quirks. However, I don’t feel it fully deserves the reputation it has.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1989 by Anagrama
First published in English 1992 by Harvill
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa