Dark Back Of Time Hardcover – Jun 5 2001
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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.
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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
Top Customer Reviews
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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."
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 ½. 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.