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All Souls - Javier Marías, Margaret Jull Costa

Sometimes you know from the very first words in a novel: I’m gonna’ like where this takes me. Now, as I start All Souls (and this review), I’ve read over 1600 pages penned by Marías, and he never fails to catch me up immediately and run with me. In this novel’s case, by the narrator’s distancing of himself from the character he was at the time of the events he’s yet to reveal.

An unnamed Spanish professor at Oxford teaching contemporary Spanish literature and translation (during the classes for which he lies outrageously to his students about the meanings and etymologies of obscure Spanish words) recounts his experiences at the university, the true natures of the faculty, and his affair with the wife of another faculty member. His account of high tables, the dinner where he meets his future lover, is Marías operating at the most comic level I’ve yet seen in his work. Amid the formality of high tables’ etiquette, which in this case degenerates rather quickly due, in part. to the drunken lechery of the Warden

It’s getting close to the girl’s bedtime, but before she goes one more train must pass, just one more, because the fresh image of the passing train and of the river illuminated by its windows (the men on the barge look up at it and grow dizzy) helps her to go to sleep and come to terms with the idea of spending another day in a city to which she does not belong and which she will only perceive as hers once she has left it and when her only chance to recall it out loud will be with her son or her lover.
The description is that of the narrator considering, not only the childhood of his soon-to-be lover and her earliest years spent in India or Egypt, but also the evaluative looks the two share over the course of the dinner; one of those passages which seems to say everything, and then ultimately says even more.

The high tables debacle briefly mentions the attendance of one Toby Rylands, a character who plays a significant role in the Your Face Tomorrow sequence and leads me to assume the narrator of that sequence is the narrator of this book (I could verify that, I suppose, but I’m too lazy, think it doesn’t really matter, and would rather readers of this review read those novels as well—having read further now, it seems apparent the narrator of this and YFT are in fact the same man, he goes unnamed in this novel).

At turns reflective, comic, then poignant, this is the one I wish I’d started my Marías odyssey with—characters pop in and out of subsequent novels, playing large roles in one and minor roles in the next—weaving stories back on themselves and other stories—for fans of [b:The Sea Came in at Midnight, the works of Marías operate on a larger, if not epic scale. This one leaves me psyched for Dark Back of Time, a novel in which the Real members of the Oxford community during the narrator’s (Marías’ ?) stay there react to their portrayal in this novel. Called a ‘false novel’ by its creator (odd itself, in that, the characters of that novel are supposed to be the real Oxfordians, promises to be equally compelling.