All Souls by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

First published in Spanish in 1989, All Souls is my third Marías (you can read my thoughts on the other two here: A Heart So White and The Infatuations).

The unnamed narrator of All Souls is a man in his late thirties recently married and living in Madrid with his wife and young son. The narrative is comprised of a series of reflections on the two years the narrator spent in Oxford as a visiting lecturer in translation, a fairly recent period in his life but one that seems to belong to another time.

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As with Heart, the experience of reading All Souls feels a little like observing a sequence of vignettes – each one conveying a vivid picture, a scene from a life, but the narrative itself is somewhat episodic. Perhaps the strongest thread running through the narrator’s recollections is his affair with fellow tutor, Clare Bayes, a somewhat careless, nonchalant and at times, indifferent woman whom he meets at a college dinner.

Clare had few scruples, but then no one who knew her would ever have expected anything else, for her charm lay in large measure precisely in her lack of consideration both for other people and for herself. (pg. 23)

It’s a relationship with no future, an affair mostly played out in the brief intervals between classes. They meet in hotel rooms, at the narrator’s house and in Clare’s home where they run the risk of being ‘discovered’ by Clare’s husband, Edward, another lecturer at the University.

As his teaching duties amount to very little, our narrator spends most of his time meandering around the streets of Oxford, visiting second-hand bookshops where he develops an interest in the work of Arthur Machen, author of supernatural and horror fiction. In time, this interest extends to the life and work of another writer, John Gawsworth. There is a mischievous undercurrent to some of the passages in All Souls, and you can see it here in this description of Oxford bookseller, Mrs Alabaster:

Mrs Alabaster was a smiling, authoritarian woman, with one of those very English smiles that you see adorning the faces of famous stranglers in films as they’re about to choose their next victim. She was middle-aged with greying hair, fierce eyes and capped teeth and, wrapped in a pink woollen shawl, she would sit at her desk, writing incessantly in an enormous accounts book. (pg. 75)

By way of a neat counterpoint, Mrs A’s husband ‘was equally smiling, but his smile was more like that of the strangler’s anonymous victim just before he realises his fate.’

Now that I’ve read a few of Marías’ novels, I am beginning to notice some common themes in his work. One of the most noticeable is a preoccupation with the passing of time or, to put it another way, a growing awareness of one’s own mortality. In this story, the title All Souls could be seen as having a dual meaning – not only the name of the University College but also a reference to the souls that haunt the pages of the novel. The narrator’s closest friend and confident, fellow-lecturer Cromer-Blake, is seriously ill and not long for this world. (We know this from the outset.) Moreover, during his time at Oxford, the narrator comes into contact with Professor Emeritus Toby Rylands, a respected literary scholar. Rylands too feels his own death is not very far away, the only difference being that unlike Cromer-Blake he has had plenty of time to get used to the idea.

For years now I’ve watched the days pass with that slow downhill feeling we all experience sooner or later. It doesn’t depend on age really, some people experience it even when they’re children; some children already have a sense of it. I felt it early on, some forty years ago, and I’ve spent all these years letting death approach and it still frightens me. The worst thing about the approach of death isn’t death itself and what it may or may not bring, it’s the fact that one can no longer fantasize about things still to come. (pg. 136)

The ability (or not) to keep secrets is another Marías theme. In The Infatuations and Heart, the focus is on our desire to conceal information from those closest to us. There is an element of this in All Souls, with a ‘reveal’ in the closing stages that took my breath away, but there are whispers of other covert activities too. Rylands is rumoured to have been involved with MI5 in the dim and distant past. With his mastery of Russian, another academic by the name of Dewar (aka the Inquisitor) is called to London to assist in interrogating Soviet citizens seeking political asylum in the UK. In one of the novel’s many wonderful set-pieces, the narrator imagines Dewar interrogating a nervy, freshly escaped ballet dancer still wearing their ‘Peter Pan outfit’ with ‘that look of Robin Hood’ they all seem to have. And on his arrival in Oxford, the narrator soon learns that the gleaning and trading of information is a major form of currency within the colleges.

Giving information about something is, moreover, the only way of not having to give out information about oneself, and thus, the more misanthropic, independent, solitary or mysterious the Oxonian in question, the more information about other people one would expect him to provide in order to excuse his own reserve and gain the right to remain silent about his own private life. The more one knows and tells about other people, the greater one’s dispensation not to reveal anything about oneself. Consequently the whole of Oxford is fully and continuously engaged in concealing and suppressing itself whilst at the same time trying to winkle out as much information as possible about other people… (pgs. 26-27)

Like the other Marías novels I’ve read, All Souls meanders around. The style is philosophical, reflective and at times surprisingly funny too. There is more sly humour here than in Heart (which contains a few darkly comic scenes involving translators and interpreters, another recurring theme in Marías’ work). All Souls contains three glorious set-pieces: the interrogation of Russian ballet dancers I mentioned earlier; a marvellous high table dinner featuring a drunken, lecherous warden and an insufferable college bore whose only topic of conversation is an obscure eighteenth-century cider tax; and finally, our narrator’s recollections of nights lost to the local discotheque, a place frequented by loose women, young Oxfordshire dandies and the occasional bachelor don.

…but on my fourth night there I spotted my own boss Aidan Kavanagh, the author of the horror blockbusters, performing a wild, loose-jointed dance out of time with the music. I couldn’t see very well – amongst all those bodies lit by that feverish light – and at first I thought with some alarm that his usually sober, anodyne clothes had given way to an eau de nil waistcoat and little else, but I realised immediately afterwards – with only a modicum of relief – that only his arms were in fact bare albeit to the shoulder: that is, he was as usual wearing a shirt and tie (apricot and bottle green respectively) beneath the eau de nil waistcoat, but it was a strange kind of shirt comprising only a shirt front. I wondered if he wore the same model to the faculty and determined to have a good look next time I met him in the Taylorian to ascertain whether or not his shirtsleeves were visible beneath his jacket cuffs. (pgs. 116-117)

Heart remains my favourite of the three Marías novels I’ve read so far, but there is much to enjoy in All Souls. Once again, particular images and passages recur and reverberate throughout the novel in a slightly different context each time: a woman glanced in passing; a hand tugging at a companion’s sleeve; the light of a fickle, mellow moon…there are many more.

There is some wonderful writing here too, not least in the narrator’s recollection of a chance encounter with a woman one night. Never before has Didcot railway station sounded more atmospheric or romantic.

In England strangers rarely talk to each other, not even on trains or during long waits, and the night silence of Didcot station is one of the deepest I’ve ever known. The silence seems even deeper when broken by voices or by isolated, intermittent noises, the screech of a wagon, for example, that suddenly and enigmatically moves a few yards then stops, or the unintelligible cry of a porter whom the cold wakes from a short nap (rescuing him from a bad dream), or the abrupt, distant thud of crates that the invisible hands quite gratuitously decide to shift despite the complete absence of any urgency, at a time when everything seems infinitely postponable… (pg. 15)

For alternative views of All Souls, which I read for Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month, here are links to reviews by Richard (Caravana de recuerdos), Seamus (Vapour Trails) and Victoria (Tales from the Reading Room).

Please feel free to comment on All Souls, Marías or any of his novels, all are welcome – I’m convinced I want to read pretty much everything he has ever written.

All Souls is published in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 1/20, #TBR20 round 2.

51 thoughts on “All Souls by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

  1. erdeaka

    nice review, Jacqui! it’s a beautiful story, I think. you can always make me curious about Marias, I’m sure I’m going to read him one day. oh, there’s #TBR20 round two? you must be very determined to cut off your stacks! :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ratih. A Heart So White might be a good one to try if you’re thinking of giving him a go at some point.

      And yes, I’ve started another round of #TBR20 (well, it’s actually a restart as I ended up buying several books in May). Let’s see how I fare this time…

      Reply
  2. BookerTalk

    My first experience with Marias wasn’t a good one, I couldn’t finish The Infatuations, so I was hoping some of his other work would be more to my taste. Not sure I’d he is one for me but I’ll give him another go. Since you think Heart was the most enjoyable that should probably be the one to try.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      A Heart So White is definitely my favourite of the three I’ve read so far, but Marías does have a very distinctive approach. Lots of long, looping sentences and a meandering, philosphical style that blurs the margins between thoughts and speech. It’s difficult to say whether you’d take to Heart if you couldn’t finish The Infatuations. Do let me know your thoughts if you do give him another try, I’d be curious to hear.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Thanks, Joan. As you say, he does appear to be fascinated by this theme of keeping secrets, almost more so than the consequences of their revelation. I’ve noticed it in all three of the Marías novels I’ve read so far, particularly A Heart So White (which I know you love too).

          The Dark Back of Time sounds like a good one to try next. I’ll have to add it to the list. Thanks for the link to The Guardian article, I’m off to read it right now. Work can wait for a little.

          Reply
  3. Tredynas Days

    I loved the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, as I think we’ve discussed before. Must put All Souls on the list: your review revives happy memories

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Simon. The Your Face Tomorrow trilogy is definitely on my list – I’m sure I’ll enjoy the series. I feel as if I’ve found my desert island writer…

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review as always Jacqui. I too struggled with my first attempt at The Infatuations, but I do want to read him – I’ll try again!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. It’s worth trying again, but Marías does have a very particular style, and it might not be to everyone’s taste. I think he’s a great writer, but you have to be ready to immerse yourself to a certain extent. I find it easier to read his novels in chapter-sized chunks as there’s very little opportunity to pause once you’re in the midst of an extended passage. Otherwise, I suspect it would be relatively easy to lose the thread…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Victoria. Apologies for missing your review, I’ll add a link right now. Hypnotic is a great word for it as there is something dreamlike and ethereal about this one. Even though the narrator is looking back on a fairly recent period of his life, it feels as though he has distanced himself completely, almost as though he’s looking back at someone else’s story. Marías’s novels are unusual and rather episodic, and I always get the sense that there’s something deeper going on under the surface…

      Reply
  5. Jonathan

    I’ve read his s/s collection ‘When I was Mortal’ and really liked it. His style reminded me a bit of early Ian McEwan. I’ll have to read a novel by him soon.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m a fan of short stories, so I’ll have to take a closer look at those. Thanks for the recommendation, Jonathan. Maybe you could read a Marías novel for Spanish Lit Month, it’s never too late…

      Reply
      1. Jonathan

        I’ve got so many books lined up at the moment and I’m trying to keep, as far as possible, to a plan. But I may be able to sneak one in at the end of the month if all goes well.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Hurrah! I’m trying to stick to a plan too, albeit a fairly loose one. There’s a stack of books sitting on one of my bookshelves, the ones I’m very keen to read in the next three months.

          Reply
  6. Brian Joseph

    I really like the longer passage that you quoted, Indeed the writing is good.

    As I think that you know I like philosophical novels. Time and death are so often the themes that we find lurking in these books.

    Great commentary as always Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Brian – thanks. I find Marías an eminently quotable writer. He’s definitely worth trying at some point as I think you’d get a lot out of his philosophical style. Maybe not this one, but either A Heart So White or The Infatuations (especially as the latter contains some profoundly beautiful writing about grief and how death can alter our memories of someone).

      Reply
  7. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    You always make me so curious about Spanish literature, which I am overall very unfamiliar with. Since Dolce Bellezza just mentioned again too how much she loves A Heart So White, I really, really want to give it a try soon.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, A Heart So White is my favourite of the three I’ve read so far – Bellezza must be reading it right now to tie in with Spanish Lit Month. We read The Infatuations around the same time last year (for Stu’s IFFP shadow panel) and Marías’ insights into the grieving process struck a chord with both of us. I’d love to hear what you think of Heart. I’ve been very impressed with all the Spanish literature I’ve discovered of late – Nada by Carmen Laforet was another highlight from last year.

      Reply
  8. Scott W.

    I like how you’ve begun to link thematic and stylistic elements between the various novels (Marías’ Oxford days will briefly show up again in Your Face Tomorrow, btw). Once again, as with your Infatuations review, you manage to amplify the appeal of the work; after some hiatus from Marías, I’m ready to dive back in.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Scott. I’m beginning to wonder if All Souls may have been the genesis or test bed for some of Marais’ themes and stylistic elements. Maybe I’m consciously looking for links, but it seems as though these books are connected to one another in more ways than one. You’ll probably spot some of these elements in A Heart So White. The way certain passages or motifs seem to recur and reverberate through the narrative – it feels like a key part of his signature style.

      Reply
  9. Rise

    I remember Dark Back of Time was done by a different translator from Margaret Jull Costa and there are passages from All Souls quoted in its ‘sequel’ and translated in a different way. The slight difference in prose style and vocabulary may add a sense of vertigo to the already unique reading experience of Marias.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s very interesting. I wonder why they went with a different translator for Dark Back of Time. I’m a huge fan of Margaret Jull Costa’s work on these novels – not that I’ve been able to read the Spanish originals to compare, but her translations read very smoothly. The ‘sequel’ is sounding increasingly like a must-read.

      A sense of vertigo, that’s a very apt description…it can feel as though you’re sliding into a vortex.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Melissa. I’m glad I didn’t start with All Souls as I might have found it difficult to get to grips with as a first experience of this writer. I can definitely see connections between the three I’ve read to date. If I had to recommend one, it would be A Heart So White – it would make a great introduction to his themes and style. :)

      Reply
  10. MarinaSofia

    Sounds like the kind of book I would enjoy – especially the college theme, can never resist that (I suppose it reminds me of the happiest year of my life). I don’t know why I’ve never attempted Marias, but it sounds like you would recommend starting with one of his other novels. I don’t mind long convoluted sentences – very Latin, very familiar.
    So you are starting a new batch of #TBR20? Good for ou. I might embark on another one in September/October. Am having a lot of satisfaction with this one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s not your typical campus novel by any stretch of the imagination, but the set-pieces are quite something! You could start here (especially if the theme appeals), but I wonder how I would have found it as a first experience of Marias. If I had to pick one, I’d go for A Heart So White. It has one of the most intriguing opening paragraphs I’ve ever read – it’s guaranteed to pull you into the narrative. And it’s a great introduction to his themes and style…prepare to lose yourself in those long, looping sentences.

      Yes, I’ve started another round of #TBR20. (Well, it’s actually my third attempt at a second batch as I ended up buying far too many books in April and May!) Glad to hear it’s working well for you.

      Reply
  11. Richard

    I read this four years ago, retain many fond memories of it, and yet have forgotten many of its details (i.e. that witty line about Mr. Alabaster having “one of those very English smiles that you see adorning the faces of famous stranglers in films as they’re about to choose their next victim”), Jacqui, so it was a true pleasure to relive the novel through your typically juicy post. Dark Back of Time is a worthy follow-up choice as Tom suggests, but if you have the time anytime soon, I would head straight to the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy for what remains my favorite Javier Marías title to date. In the meantime, you’ve made me want to read All Souls again. Thanks for the great review!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Richard. Glad to hear my post rekindled your memories of All Souls! I couldn’t resist quoting those descriptions of Mrs A and her husband, they paint such a wicked image.

      Dark Back of Time is on my wishlist, along with the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, which I’m very eager to get hold of. And Tomorrow in the Battle is sitting on the bookshelf, I know it’s another favourite of yours. Plenty of treats to looks forward to.

      Reply
  12. Naomi

    Ok, you’ve convinced me that I should give this author a try. I don’t know if I’ve ever knowingly read any Spanish Lit.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think he’s a wonderful writer. His style might not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s worth giving him a try. A Heart So White might be a good entry point. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I don’t know how you’ll find Marías, Guy. He has a very distinctive style so you’ll probably love it or bounce right off. I’m not sure if All Souls would make the best starting point (even though you might enjoy some of the set-pieces here). A Heart So White might be the one to try first if you have it.

      Reply
  13. Séamus Duggan

    As others have said, your review has made me think what Marias I should read next. I’m off for a weeks holidays so I may take one along, although holidays don’t necessarily come with reading opportunities when there are kids around. I have a book of his short stories that I may try. Thanks for linking and apologies for not answering your question under my post. My memory wasn’t good enough to answer the question and then forgot the question itself.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hurrah! Yes, do take a Marias on holiday, it is Spanish Lit Month after all. As for the link, you’re very welcome and no need to apologise. My memory is so poor that I’d forgotten all about that question! I’ll have to head over to yours to take another look.

      Reply
  14. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  15. 1streading

    Unfortunately I read most of Marias’ novels pre-blog. Every time I read a review (especially a great one like yours) I want to read them all again!

    Reply
  16. Emma

    Great review. It’s interesting to decipher a pattern in a writer’s preoccupations. That’s the reward for reading several books from the same writer. You start seeing what is accidental and what is in the writer’s backbone.

    Contrary to what I told you on Twitter, I have read this one. In French, it’s “Le roman d’Oxford”, totally different from All Souls.
    I don’t have fond memories of it, I’m afraid. I remember being bored and when I was reading your review, the story triggered no memories at all. I checked on my shelf only because I thought it was unlikely that Marias had written two books set in Oxford.
    Perhaps I expected a more classical campus novel and I was disappointing.
    However, I had the same feeling when I read Tomorrow in the Battle, Think of Me. I have trouble finding interest in Maria’s musings. It’s odd, you know, because on paper, this is a writer I should love.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s funny, isn’t it, how sometimes we never quite gel with certain writers even though in theory they should be just our type of thing. I thought I would love Clarice Lispector. Several readers whose opinions I respect (and whose tastes tend to coincide with my own) rave about her, but I struggled to connect with Near to the Wild Heart when I read it earlier this year. I admired her writing, and the novel contains some dazzling passages of prose, but sometimes that simply isn’t enough.

      To be honest with you, I’m not sure what I would have made of All Souls if it had been my first Marias. I think you’re right, once you’ve read a bank of work by the same author you start to get a sense of their style, their themes and preoccupations. Having that knowledge helped with All Souls as I could start to see how Marias had gone on to develop some of these things in other novels such as A Heart So White. If, and only if, you ever want to try another Marias novel, A Heart So White might be the one to go for. I think it’s a more ‘complete’ work than All Souls – more accomplished and more satisfying as a result. All Souls contains some great set pieces, but I’m still wondering about the novel’s overall meaning or take-home message…

      Reply
  17. Pingback: While the Women are Sleeping – Javier Marías | Lizzy's Literary Life

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is indeed. I think you’d like this one, Helen. It’s worth it for the set pieces alone, but as ever with Marías there’s more going on than meets the eye.

      Reply
  18. Pingback: The Man of Feeling by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa) | JacquiWine's Journal

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