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Dark Back Of Time [Hardcover]

Javier Marias , Esther Allen
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 31 2001
Called by its author a "false novel," Dark Back of Time, the latest work of "the most subtle and gifted writer in contemporary Spanish literature" (Boston Globe) is a splendid new hybrid. Javier Marías's singular new production Dark Back of Time begins with the tale of the odd effects of publishing All Souls, his 1989 Oxford novel. All Souls, narrated by a visiting Spanish lecturer, is a book he swears to be fiction, but which its "characters"—the real-life dons and professors and bookshop owners who have "recognized" "themselves"—fiercely maintain to be a roman à clef. They claim certain roles for their own, and for others: the narrator's invented mistress has been firmly identified as one of the professors' wives. Marías views with astonishment a world that seemed nearly asleep set into fretful motion by a world that never "existed." Yet this backwash of All Souls only begins an odyssey into the nature of identity ("We do not know anyone entirely, not even ourselves"), and of time ("which is not yet past nor lost and maybe isn't even time at all"). With the flair of Sterne, his "false" novel manipulates time, weaving in autobiography, a legendary kingdom, strange ghostly literary figures, halls of mirrors, a one-eyed WWI veteran, a curse in Havana and a bullet lost in Mexico. Dark Back of Time becomes a brilliant ironic puzzle about the powers of art and of memories, which become only more mysterious the more Marías remembers.

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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

The Spanish novelist Javier Mar¡as has the ability, which he shares with Italo Calvino, to turn a metaphysical insight into a novelistic adventure. In his latest book, Mar¡as employs the old gambit of a novel within a novel, but the radical twist is that the novel on the inside is one of Mar¡as's real, previous novels All Souls. All Souls revolved around various fictitious and nonfictitious Oxford personalities, and was inspired by Mar¡as's temporary teaching position at the university in the early '80s. In the present novel, Mar¡as learns, to his dismay, that various factual Oxford personages upon whom various fictional personages were based are taking over his novel, in effect, by extrapolating fictitious facts from partial facts that were embedded in the original fiction. For instance, the fictitious narrator of All Souls has an affair with a married woman, Clare Bayes. This is translated, in the Oxford community, as proof that the real Mar¡as had a real affair with a woman at Oxford, who is variously identified. Other misidentifications and misreadings follow. In one of the funniest scenes, Mar¡as returns to an antiquarian bookstore in Oxford and finds that the couple who own it, the Stones, not only identify with the bookstore-owning Alabasters in his novel, but want to play them in the film version of the book. Meanwhile, the film, in a final turn of the screw, turns out to be a complete distortion of the novel. The second half of this novel is a virtuoso digression on the seedily adventurous circle around a minor British poet and Oxford figure, Gawsworth. Mar¡as has an antiquarian's taste for history's minor characters, in whose lives fact flows easily into fiction and back again.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

Review

Dark Back of Time [has] confirmed Marías's status as Spain's leading writer of fiction. -- Bomb

Marìas...plays elegantly with the power of art and the mystery of memory. -- Village Voice, 6 March 2001

[Marìas] is a literary magician who understands literature as a game of mirrors. -- Ilan Stavans, The Nation, 19 March 2001

[S]heer pleasure, not to be taken lightly or read swiftly. -- Maine Courier-Gazette, Marilis Hornidge, 14 June 2001

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
I believe I've still never mistaken fiction for reality, though I have mixed them together more than once, as everyone does, not only novelists or writers but everyone who has recounted anything since the time we know began, and no one in that known time  Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

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By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
As a long-time admirer of Javier Marias, I was very disappointed by this latest novel. Aside from a few bright moments here and there, this book is a self-indulgent dissertation about a series of utterly obscure British authors who, from the sounds of it, are deservedly so.
I, for one, found the whole John Gawsworth/Redonda business rather dull even in All Souls. But to have a significant part of a second book devoted to a rehash of the matter is too much of a bad thing.
There is decidedly little of the usual Marias spark and wit in this book. Forget all the hype about novels within novels. It is a bizarre and largely unpalatable salad of autobiographical notes, mostly superficial, and various pointless meanderings about minor British eccentrics.
It is a great pity. Perhaps he has won too many awards or had too much attention, at least on the European side of the Atlantic. Marias is a considerable talent, without a doubt one of the world's greatest living authors, but you wouldn't know it from this book. Read A Heart So White and discover the sheer genius he is capable of.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Just trying to even out the average. Oct. 3 2001
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
I'm not into writing amateur reviews for books I care about, but I feel duty-bound to help this one's average star rating. Maria's novel deserves more than the two stars the reader below gave it. After all, it's a fantastic and complex book--difficult to slog through at times, but that's what makes it fun. And New Directions (the best and most adventurous publisher around) ought to be thanked for taking Marias to the States. It's a shame the bigger houses tend to poach its writers.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fiction? Or non-fiction? Whichever, this is extraordinary literature. Jan. 10 2009
By R. M. Peterson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
DARK BACK OF TIME is an extraordinary work of literature, unlike anything else I have read. But like many good things, it is not readily accessible. Reading it, like reading anything by Marias, requires careful attention, even work. Moreover, for maximum effect, one probably should read at least two other works by Marias before tackling DARK BACK OF TIME (see the last paragraph of this review).

DARK BACK OF TIME is an extended essay on fiction and reality, and how they interpenetrate and influence one another in story-telling and, ultimately, in memory and in history. The springboard for the book is the minor cause celebre occasioned by the publication in England of Marias's earlier novel, ALL SOULS, the setting of which was Oxford University. In large part because Marias himself had taught for two academic years at Oxford, he was immediately identified with the nameless narrator of ALL SOULS. Furthermore, despite Marias's adamant denials, many readers, especially in England, insisted that ALL SOULS was a roman a clef, whose characters were based on real individuals with whom Marias had interacted during his two years at Oxford.

In DARK BACK OF TIME, Marias recounts and expounds on this confusion, this confounding of fiction and reality. Along the way, other subjects are also explored, including identity, death, time, the frailty of memory, the evanescence of life, and how "[e]verything is so random and absurd" (which is closely related to the question of whether there is, or can be, any meaning associated with our lives, and deaths).

Reportedly, Marias has described DARK BACK OF TIME as a "false novel." I don't quite know what he means by that. To me, it is essentially a work of non-fiction, at least insofar as literary essays, imaginative and contemplative in nature, are non-fiction. Some I guess would call it "meta-fiction." Within the pages of the book there are, however, a few flights of pure fancy. There also are extended digressions involving actual minor historical figures not associated with Oxford, people like Wilfrid Herbert Gore Ewart (a WWI veteran and writer, touted by Conan Doyle and T.E. Lawrence, who was mysteriously shot and killed in Mexico City around the moment 1922 became 1923) and Hugh Oloff de Wet (a mercenary soldier who survived imprisonment as a spy in Nazi Germany).

Members of Marias's family also make their appearance, including Javier's older brother who died suddenly, at the age of three, before Javier even was born. This happenstance occasions one of Marias's reflections on the "dark back of time" -- the "what-ifs" and "might have beens" in this world of randomness and absurdity: "If the child had lived longer, I might not have been born or might might not have been the same person, the two things are identical. And so what, if I hadn't been born, and so what, if my brother faded away and said goodbye so soon, as if [time] rushed to rid itself of his incipient will and forced it to cross over to its opposite side, its dark back, transformed into a ghost."

Elsewhere Marias expands on the "dark back of time," such that it becomes a universal or omnipresent concept to him. (The phrase, and perhaps the concept itself, is borrowed from Shakespeare: "What seest thou else / In the dark backward and abyss of time?", The Tempest, act I, sc. ii, line 49.)

There are distinct similarities in style and tone to the fiction of W.G. Sebald (principally "Rings of Saturn" and "Vertigo"), which are highlighted by Marias's use of photographs, although for the most part the photographs in DARK BACK OF TIME are more closely, or obviously, related to the text than in Sebald. Thus, it was intriguing to learn that Sebald was an admirer of Marias's work, and that he provided an endorsement for the cover of the English edition of DARK BACK OF TIME. (For what it's worth, the original German publication of "Schwindel, Gefuhle", or "Vertigo", was in 1990, while DARK BACK OF TIME was not published until 1998.)

Translating DARK BACK OF TIME must have been more daunting and demanding than most books, but Esther Allen seems to have done a superb job. (Still, the book is one of those rare works of literature that I would very much like to be able to read in their original language.)

Finally, to return to the point of preparatory reading: DARK BACK OF TIME undoubtedly will be vastly more rewarding, and easier to get into and understand, if the reader has already read ALL SOULS. Unfortunately, ALL SOULS, by itself, is not a superior work of fiction, at least to my mind. What is a superior work of fiction, and what I think provides an excellent introduction to Marias' style and his existential ambiance is TOMORROW IN THE BATTLE THINK ON ME. Thus, my recommendation would be to read TOMORROW first, then ALL SOULS, and only then DARK BACK OF TIME. That's quite a bit of reading, to be sure, but Marias is one of the truly great contemporary writers and, in my experience, well worth the effort. I look forward, keenly, to reading more of his work.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Death, Fate and a Few British Authors Nov. 23 2011
By James W. Fonseca - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is a many-faceted book. First of all, it's a metanovel; a novel in reaction to another novel - the author's All Souls a fictional account of academic intrigue at Oxford. He fictionalizes an account of reaction to his novel, particularly how, despite his best efforts to NOT make it a roman a clef, everyone saw themselves and their colleagues in it. The author fictionalized reality and discovered that fiction became reality. It's also a metanovel because the author frequently draws a distinction between the narrator and the author and, in effect, challenges the reader: "guess who's speaking now?"

Against this dual fictional backdrop, about a third of the work consists of mini biographies of early and mid-Twentieth Century British authors. I'm tempted to say "obscure British authors," but some of these folks, such as Stephen Graham, had fifty published works in their day. "Where are they now?" it seems the author is asking us.

There are many recurring philosophical themes in this work. Death, of course, is the main one. World War I and the Spanish Civil War offer plenty of material. Fate is big. Another theme is authors seeking immortality through their books and actors through their films. Another is coincidence. Didn't Jung say there are no coincidences?

Marias expends the most biographical effort on the British author Wilfred Ewart, who spent his short life as if he were destined to be killed by a stray bullet entering his brain through his already-blind eye on a hotel balcony in Mexico City. The author constructs what-might-have-been scenarios, as he does with his three-year old brother who died before the author was born. He writes about special objects owned by us, such as a comb or cigarette lighter: "...it may be that objects are the only things that reconcile and balance past and present, and even the future, ... They go on living without missing us and for that very reason they don't change, and in that they are loyal to us."

There are many lyrical passages. Some samples: "...his irises yellow under the stationary July sun;" "...launching of quick anecdotes sharp as fencers' thrusts;" and "...laughing in slow percussive bursts like pistons backfiring..."

If there is another author's work I am tempted to compare this book with, it is Proust. That's quite a comparison and I debated a while about giving this book a 4 (there are some tedious sections) or a 5. I decided on the latter because, how often do you encounter a work of this scope and depth? I think it's a work of genius. Not light reading, but worthwhile reading. As the author unabashedly notes near the end of the work, "...if the reader should wonder what on earth is being recounted here or where this text is heading, the only proper answer, I fear, would be that it is simply running its course and heading toward its ending, just like anything else that passes through or happens in the world."
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A dyslexic's view of time... and history, literature, and the human condition... June 7 2010
By John P. Jones III - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
"I sometimes think that time must be different for someone who began writing and reading in reverse...than it is for most people who have never tried to go from back to front but have always progressed from front to back...I often move through what I've called in several books `the other side of time, its dark back' taking the mysterious expression from Shakespeare to give a name to the kind of time that has not existed, the time that awaits us and also the time that does not await us and therefore does not happen..." So says Javier Marias, very late in this masterpiece, which helps explain the title. He is not (particularly) talking about the space-time continuum, time warps and modern physics, but rather what is possible at the juncture of fact and fiction in the work of a creative writer, as well as the `what ifs' of history. Marias is simply marvelous, and reading him is like playing a game of three or even four-dimensional (to add the time continuum) chess. You turn the final page, and place it on your "must re-read list" and hopefully I'll "get" the other half, the second time around.

The author commences, first by identifying some real-life historical characters that he elaborates on later in his work, and then focuses on his "novel within a novel." In real life, Marias wrote "All Souls," based on his two years teaching at Oxford University. Is his previous novel a formal, "roman a clef," a novel based on real individuals? But aren't most novels? And for anyone who has ever written a book, there is the "squeamishness" of reading about the real life reactions of the people who are, or who think they are in Marias's earlier work. Why didn't he include me? Why was this fact omitted, that incident included, particular circumstances changed? Marias has a droll, self-deprecating style. Concerning the woman who was identified as the person who had an affair with the author, which the author at least formally denies (which side of time are we on with that one?), he says: "...and thus not only would her reputation be placed in question but her good taste as well."

"I must make a digression--this is a book of digressions..." Indeed, it is, as Marias writes about three real life characters, and sometimes writers. Wilfred Ewart, who managed to survive World War I in the trenches, participated in the spontaneous Christmas truce of 1915, but latter was felled by a bullet in his "dead" eye on the last moment of 1922, in Mexico City. Was it an accidental shot from New Year's revelers, or something more sinister? Marias plays at a bit of "C.S.I." 80 years later. There is also John Gawsworth, the "King of Redonda," an uninhabited island in the Caribbean. (Marias is now "credited" as being the Spanish king of Redonda.) Gawsworth wrote well, and was to die `in the gutter.' The third writer, as well as one of life's adventurers, was Hugh Oloff de Wet, whose own history was widely woven fact and fiction. There is a marvelous scene when de Wet meets Franco, the then dictator of Spain, and tries to solicit funds for his effort to overthrow the Soviet Union. Since Marias' real-life father had been on Franco's death list, you can assume the "Admiral" did not come off very well in this passage. (The books written by these three authors, which Marias mentions, obscure though they might be, are generally available at Amazon.)

Marias interlaces this wonderful rich soufflé, with literary illusions, high and low, obscure historical reference and definitive opinions on the poverty of the human condition. Since Marias has toiled in academia, rest assured they do not come off well. Consider: "Accustomed to the robbery, looting, plagiarism and endless espionage of the contemporary university..." Or, in taking on humanity as a whole: "...I've seen from certain social-climbing businessmen when they were crossed: contemptible, insecure people who inspire no respect and need to convince themselves of their eminence, crushing anyone they can, anyone who is weak, to ceaselessly renew their always scanty confidence..."

In the midst of this wild literary pastiche of erudition, there is a poignant half chapter, on his "older" brother, Julianin, who died at the age of 3 . The author explores the "what ifs" of history, how the author himself might not even be alive, or would be a different person - the same thing he says - if Julianin had lived. There is a heart-breaking portrait, and an even more moving picture of Julianin. RM Peterson, in his own review of this book, notes the parallels between Marias, and W.G. Sebald. Indeed there are, including the obscure photos placed with the narrative. It was reassuring to hear that they were friends (Sebald died in 2001).

I'd only fault Marias on one issue: he has apparently fallen for one of history's fakes and scoundrels, TE Lawrence, as in, "Lawrence of Arabia," who makes repeated appearance in this work, including: "...and Lawrence of Arabia, the unattainable ideal of all adventurers..."(p 302).

Overall, a Pychonesque novel in scope, breadth, and quirky erudition, and I would give it to Marias "on points" in terms of insight into the human condition. A re-read within the next five years...if, of course... In the meantime, without hyperventilating, or even breathing deep, it certainly deserves 6-stars for the first time around.
6 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Just trying to even out the average. Oct. 3 2001
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I'm not into writing amateur reviews for books I care about, but I feel duty-bound to help this one's average star rating. Maria's novel deserves more than the two stars the reader below gave it. After all, it's a fantastic and complex book--difficult to slog through at times, but that's what makes it fun. And New Directions (the best and most adventurous publisher around) ought to be thanked for taking Marias to the States. It's a shame the bigger houses tend to poach its writers.
0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars nothing sensational June 7 2011
By Sally Johnson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Do yourself a favor and read other essayists. I got nothing out of reading this, and stopped 3/4's of the way through.
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