"One life, one writing," Robert Lowell said. The writer’s experience is all of a piece, and so too, however disparate it may seem, is the work to which it gives rise. The personal emphasis here is typically poetic, but novelists have long shared the desire to give a higher unity to their careers, transform a succession of works into something larger and more coherent. The method selected is apt to reflect its time. In the nineteenth century—a period whose greatest inventions, it’s been said, were society and history—Balzac and Zola produced vast sociographic supernovels, many volumes long, that sought to transcribe the whole of contemporary society. Hardy, defending his provincial world from metropolitan encroachment, gathered his work within an autonomous imaginative principality—a method emulated by Faulkner and García Márquez. High Modernism’s self-mythologizing artist-heroes took a different tack, Proust placing his own figure at the center of a single never-ending, all-encompassing epic—the self expanding to fill the work, the work expanding to fill the career—with Joyce and Musil doing roughly likewise.
Different unifying strategies appear today. The autobiographical persona that runs like a spine through Philip Roth’s corpus represents a multiplication and refraction of the authorial image that is perfectly in tune with our culture of mediated self-exposure. David Mitchell, one of British fiction’s brightest stars, forges his links surreptitiously, characters from one novel showing up, as if by chance, in the margins of others—a strategy that mimics the fortuitous, far-flung connections of a globalizing age.
And then there is Javier Marías, the acclaimed Spanish novelist: annual Nobel speculation, 5 million books in print, high praise from Pamuk, Sebald and Coetzee. As his oeuvre has lengthened—and in particular, with the gradual publication of his magnum opus, the three-volume Your Face Tomorrow—its coherence has gathered only slowly and in retrospect. He seems to be unearthing it himself, as he goes along, and to be holding it open for constant revision. It is a unity, like Proust’s, that rests on the presence of an authorial self, but a self that, unlike Proust’s (or Joyce’s, or Roth’s), is also only retrospective and provisional. Proust begins his work from a single point and expands it ever outward; Marías has started from different places and seems gradually to have found them leading toward a common intersection. Proust builds his work around that stable, single self; Marías starts with the work and seems to stumble upon the fact that a self has been in there all along. It is a self that speaks to our present condition of centerless mobility in ways that can more easily be sensed than understood: a self of borrowed language and uncertain voice, of rumors and dreams, of no name or too many names, a self dislocated and lost in translation, distilled from the air and deliquescing in our hands.
For Marías, born in 1951, dislocation came early and translation followed as a consequence. His father, a prominent philosopher long banned from teaching in Spanish universities because of his opposition to Franco, took a temporary position at Wellesley for what turned out to be the earliest years of his son’s life. English, encountered by chance, became for Marías a vocation and later a fate. A prolific translator as well as novelist, he has rendered an entire bookshelf into Spanish—works by Shakespeare, Sterne, Hardy, Kipling, Faulkner, Updike, Auden, Heaney and on and on, many of whose voices reverberate through his fiction. But in his early 30s, he also did a two-year stint at Oxford, and that’s where things get really interesting.
Oxford inspired a novel, All Souls, about a visiting Spaniard (unnamed); his affair with Clare Bayes, a don’s wife; his friendship with Cromer-Blake, secretly gay and secretly dying; and his admiration for the venerable Toby Rylands. But the main narrative is interleaved with the story of a real writer, John Gawsworth, and as if to insist on the man’s existence, the book provides a couple of photos. Fact and fiction intermingling, but that was only the start. All Souls was promptly taken (perhaps because of the strenuous disclaimer to the contrary that prefaces the book) as a roman à clef, with various figures stepping forward to nominate themselves as originals. Knowing a good thing when he saw one, Marías chronicled the turnabout, nine years later and with even more copious visual documentation, in Dark Back of Time, a "false novel" that opens by declaring that "language can’t reproduce events and shouldn’t attempt to," for the act of telling necessarily distorts. The book also recounts the story of its author’s coronation as King of Redonda, a notional realm with a real address (Redonda is an uninhabitable island in the Lesser Antilles) that, with dignitaries like John Ashbery (Duke of Convexo) and A.S. Byatt (Duchess of Morpho Eugenia)—Marías himself initiated the practice of ennoblement—is meant to constitute something like a Republic of Letters. Apparently the reigning king abdicated in Marías’s favor out of admiration for the latter’s portrait, in All Souls, of the previous incumbent—who was, in fact, John Gawsworth.