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.
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.