Javier Marías, a personal recollection

It was the Oxford don Eric Southworth, Javier Marías’s closest English friend (to whom two novels are dedicated and he appears in three others) and an old friend of mine, who put me in touch with the writer.  

The first time we met was in 2008 when he invited me to his induction into the Real Academia Española. Another time our paths crossed in Soria, to where he would go from his home in Madrid, to shut himself away and write uninterrupted. Tipped to win the Nobel Prize, his many novels were translated into more than 40 languages and sold millions of copies. Over 14 years, we established an epistolary relationship – I received 14 postcards and 12 letters or notes, which, on his untimely death in September at the age of 70, I dug out and re-read. This was nothing compared to the 238 letters and postcards received by the fellow writer Vicente Molina Foix.

Javier Marías and his “famous” electric typewriter. He did not have a computer and only in his last years email and a mobile phone. Getty Images.

Javier was viewed in some circles as antipatico and a bit of a curmudgeon, perhaps due to his weekly column in El País, where he took issue with everything from smoking bans (he was an ardent smoker) to the sorry state of Spanish politics. These traits were not something I ever personally experienced. El País put his death on the front page and ran 10 pages about him over two days.

His first postcard in 2010 was in response to me asking whether he would like to contribute to restoring the commemorative stone of the emigré writer Arturo Barea (1897-1957), best known as the author of the trilogy La forja de un rebelde, who died in Faringdon, Oxfordshire. He responded with a cheque for £100, which was far more than I needed and I returned most of it.  He noted that his birthday was the same day as Barea’s and of Barea’s wife Ilsa. “He is unhappily and badly known in Spain, except, of course, by those who take advantage of that and steal from his trilogy,” he wrote.

In another postcard, which showed the tomb of Lawrence Sterne in North Yorkshire, whose novel Tristram Shandy Marías had translated and which won the Premio Nacional de Traducción in 1979, Marías asked me to give Barea “un respetuoso saludo de mi parte” at the unveiling of the restored stone.

In 2011, while visiting my mother in Oxford Eric gave me a splendid watch chain to give to Javier, as he did not want to mail it. I left it with his portero. Javier responded generously, as he often did, by mailing me a copy of one of his books in English or Spanish, usually the former as I had told him I preferred to read him in English, thanks to the wonderful translations of Margaret Jull Costa. Far from being offended at my preference for his English editions, he passed on my comment to his longtime translator. His own work as a translator, which he taught at Oxford University in the early 1980s, played a formative part in him becoming a novelist, the subject of an excellent book by Gareth Wood (a pupil of Eric’s), Javier Marias’s debt to translation: Sterne, Browne, Nabokov, published by OUP in 2012.

He also sent me several of the 41 books published by Reino de Redonda, the publishing house he founded which is named after the tiny, uninhabited Caribbean island of Redonda, except for boobies, of which he is the current monarch, ruling as King Xavier I. The kingdom’s peers, ennobled by Marías, include AS Byatt, Duchess of Morpho Convexo and William Boyd, Duke of Brazzaville.

Javier knew I was an obsessive fellow bibliophile (he left a library of some 30,000 books). Sometimes I would leave first editions with his portero for him to sign, including the very scarce All Souls, set in Oxford and published in English in 1992, which I had bought for £10. He congratulated me on my find, telling me only 600 copies had been printed and he had sought an extra copy but it was far too expensive.

My complete collection of Javier Marias’s books in English, all signed and with thoughtful dedications.

Published in 2006, Marías delves into the lives of 20 writers and treats them as if they were fictional characters.

Javier Marias’s second novel, Travesia del horizonte, published in 1973 when he was 21 and in English in 2006.

Sometimes in my correspondence, always in English, which Javier spoke fluently, I would comment on his weekly columns in El País. In one of them in 2011, titled “El lento y rápido viaje de los abrigos”, he used the death of a fellow member of the Real Academia Española, to which he was elected in 2008, to comment on mortality.  RAE members have a designated coat rack with their name and when someone dies everyone moves up one space. “Ese avance en el perchero es un tácito recordatorio de nuestra mortalidad,” he wrote in his column. In his postcard to me, Javier hoped his coat rack would stay in the same place “for a long while, even if, given la media de edad de los académicos, that seems a difficult thing to happen.”

In another column, “Piel de rinoceronte o desdén”, published in 2012, he expressed his displeasure at a former Popular Party minister and diplomat, whom he detested and included in an article, titled “Pero quiénes son estos patanes”, in 2004. The unnamed person spotted Javier and two friends in a restaurant and at the end of the night approached their table and invited everyone to a drink. “Que sepas que se te lee y admira,” the diplomat addressed Javier, who declined the invitation. Asked whether he was going to the country where the diplomat was posted, Javier replied in the affirmative. “Te llamaré antes de tu venida,” said the diplomat. “El tuteo,” wrote Javier in the column. “Jamás lo había visto con anterioridad y, ya digo, lo había tildado de patán como mínimo, en el pasado. ¿No se enteran los políticos de lo que se dice de ellos?”.

I wrote to Javier identifying the diplomat as Federico Trillo, the ambassador in London, which was easy to do. “As for tuteo, it is so extended in Spain it doesn’t bother me if I comes from a reader or a friend’s friend,” he replied. “I am not so stiff. But it does when it comes from an ambassador I had never been introduced to, and I dislike too. So you can tutearme. My pleasure.”

In our last exchange in October 2021, I sent him an email saying how much I was belatedly enjoying Understanding Spain (1992) written by his philosopher father, Julián Marías, who was briefly imprisoned following the Spain’s Civil War for his republican activities, after he was denounced by a colleague, an episode his son drew on in the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy. 

I asked Javier why the book was not better known. He replied: “The answer is simple. My father was badly seen, first by the Francoists, then by the left. Something similar is happening to me (salvadas las distancias), or I am badly seen by both right and false left.”

I will miss our correspondence.