“I can’t think they are less demanding”

Javier Marías joins select group of Spanish-language writers in Penguin Modern Classics collection

Spanish author Javier Marías in his home in the center of Madrid.
Spanish author Javier Marías in his home in the center of Madrid.ÁLVARo Garcia

The hall of Javier Marías’ house contains a sample of what is causing his “implausible” joy. Stacked on the floor, in semi-darkness, are several piles of books. The writer grabs four and walks ahead to the living room, which is flooded in the relentless light of the afternoon sun. He looks happy, and before putting down the pocket books, confesses: “There is something implausible about my now being part of the collection of Penguin’s Modern Classics. When I was studying in England, I used to buy them to read writers such as Conrad, Faulkner, Joyce and Virginia Woolf… It’s an honor to be there.”

Then he cracks a smile and adds: “I cannot think that they are simply less demanding now in their author selection.” His smile expresses what it feels like to be one of the precious few Spanish-language writers in the prestigious collection, along with Federico García Lorca, Borges, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel García Márquez and Octavio Paz.

Marías, 61, is the son of the philosopher Julián Marías, a member of the Spanish Royal Academy and one of Spain’s most internationally acclaimed writers.

His first four books for the Modern Classics collection, which he has just received in the mail, are All Souls (with a foreword by John Banville), A Heart So White (with a foreword by Jonathan Coe), Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me and The Man of Feeling. He leaves them on the table and picks up some of the title page proofs of the three other novels soon to be published by Penguin, which he has been asked to approve: Dark Back of Time, When I Was Mortal and Written Lives.

And there is an extra piece of good news to add to this “honor”: in the spring, his latest novel, Los enamoramientos, will come out in the UK, Norway and Finland, with the same cover image as the original Spanish.

After a glimpse of this exciting future, Marías sits down on a sofa that is stuck against the wall, right on the edge of where the sun’s rays fall in vertically, and starts talking about the present, which involves the recent publication of an anthology that brings together his two books of short stories.

But this is a rather unusual anthology — perhaps unique — because of the way the stories were selected. The author himself divided his own work into Accepted (“which I am still not ashamed of”) and Acceptable (“which I find a little embarrassing, but not too much”). This collection of 30 tales includes his very first work, written at the age of 14: La vida y la muerte de Marcelino Iturriaga (or, The Life and Death of Marcelino Iturriaga).

Most of those stories were commissioned work. Marías, who is wearing black trousers and a gray shirt with rolled up sleeves, notes that a good many paintings and musical compositions were commissioned by art patrons or monarchs, and that in his case he wrote the stories for several publications, including EL PAÍS Semanal. This book represents his contribution to the “noble genre of the short story,” to which he doubts he will ever return.

Regarding the difference between a novel and a short story, he says that even the best novel in the world is something that has its ups and downs as he is reading it. “Whereas with short stories, I have had a feeling of completeness, of thinking ‘Why, this is absolutely perfect!’ Occasionally, reading a short story can be an elating experience. A few of them can induce something akin to euphoria, a feeling that you are before something complete, perfect, a masterpiece, and this is something that is harder to achieve with a novel.”

As he continues to share his enthusiasm for the effect of a good short story, Marías pulls out a cigarette and his fingers toy with it. Then, he confesses that his own best literary passages may well be found in his short stories. Those he is the proudest of are Mientras ellas duermen (a story that is soon to be made into a movie),Todo mal vuelve, Cuando fui mortal, Lo que dijo el mayordomo and Mala índole.

As for his favorite authors of short stories, Marías mentions Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling and Guy de Maupassant.

And what about the ongoing story featuring Spanish politics and politicians, which he covers regularly in his weekly columns for EL PAÍS? “They are balcony suicides, like those foreign tourists who practice ‘balconing’ [jumping from balcony to balcony, sometimes with fatal consequences]. I don’t know what else we can do, but I don’t want them [the politicians] replaced with millionaires or technocrats.”

The interview was conducted shortly before this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature was announced, and Marías said he would like to see the Canadian writer Alice Munro get it, or else the US author Cormac McCarthy. As for Philip Roth, “He wearies me. His literary world does not interest me.”

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