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Dark Back of Time

Dark Back of Time

by Javier Marias

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A book by Spain's greatest living writer weaves fiction and fact into a completely original and unforgettable hybrid.

Called by its author a "false novel," Dark Back of Time begins with the tale of the odd effects of publishing All Souls, his witty and sardonic 1989 Oxford novel. All Souls is a book Marías swears to be fiction, but which its "characters"


A book by Spain's greatest living writer weaves fiction and fact into a completely original and unforgettable hybrid.

Called by its author a "false novel," Dark Back of Time begins with the tale of the odd effects of publishing All Souls, his witty and sardonic 1989 Oxford novel. All Souls is a book Marías 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. With the sleepy world of Oxford set into fretful motion by a world that never "existed," Dark Back of Time begins an odyssey into the nature of identity and of time. Marías weaves together autobiography, a legendary kingdom, strange ghostly literary figures, halls of mirrors, a one-eyed pilot, a curse in Havana, and a bullet lost in Mexico.

Editorial Reviews

Ilan Stavans
[Marìas] is a literary magician who understands literature as a game of mirrors.
Village Voice
Marìas...plays elegantly with the power of art and the mystery of memory.
Wendy Lesser
[A] writer who lives in our own time but speaks with the intensity of past.
New York Times Book Review
Marías is a startling talent.
Dark Back of Time [has] confirmed Marías's status as Spain's leading writer of fiction.
Maine Courier-Gazette
[S]heer pleasure, not to be taken lightly or read swiftly.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's 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. (Apr.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The densely tangled prose and meditative intensity that made Spanish author Marias's All Souls and A Heart So White (both 1996) memorable (if demanding) reading experiences is put to decidedly different uses in this clever and amusing 1998 novel. It's a partially autobiographical metafiction that brings back characters and situations from All Souls (itself a semiautobiographical tale of a visiting Spanish scholar's experiences at Oxford University)—only to find that that novel's characters are dissatisfied with Marias's "creation" of them, and insist on reinventing themselves. Further complications—and pleasures—are provided by a (hilariously unfaithful) film version of the novel-in-progress, as well as interpolated illustrations and diagrams, allusions to Marias's literary heroes, and arch digressions very much in the manner of Laurence Sterne's seminal 18th-century masterpiece Tristram Shandy (which Marias has translated into Spanish). An invaluable gloss on one of contemporary fiction's most provocative and accomplished bodies of work. And—despite a certain donnish smugness that tends to surface at even Marias's most outrageously melodramatic moments—a surprisingly entertaining book.
From the Publisher
"By far Spain's best writer today." —Roberto Bolaño

"The most subtle and gifted writer in contemporary Spanish literature." —Boston Sunday Globe

"Dazzling.... Javier Marías writes with elegance, with wit and with masterful suspense."—The Times Literary Supplement

"Stylish, cerebral...Marías is a startling talent...His prose is ambitious, ironic, philosophical, and ultimately compassionate." —The New York Times

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
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Random House
File size:
7 MB

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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 has done anything but tell and tell, or prepare and ponder a tale, or plot one. Anyone can relate an anecdote about something that happened, and the simple fact of saying it already distorts and twists it, language can't reproduce events and shouldn't attempt to, and that, I imagine, is why during some trials—the trials in movies, anyway, the ones I know best—the implicated parties are asked to perform a material or physical reconstruction of what happened, repeating the gestures, the movements, the envenomed steps they took, the way they thrust the knife to become the accused; they're asked to simulate seizing the weapon once again and delivering the blow to someone who, because of it, ceased to be and is no more, or rather to empty air, because it isn't enough for them to say it, to tell the story impassively and as precisely as possible, it must be seen, and an imitation, a representation or staging of it is required, though now without the knife in hand and without the body—sack of flour, sack of flesh—to drive it into, this time in cool detachment and without racking up another crime or adding another victim to the list, but only as pretense and memory, because, what they can never reproduce is the time gone by or lost, nor can they revive the dead who are lost within that time and gone.

    This indicates an ultimatemistrust ofwords, among other reasons because words—even when spoken, even at their crudest—are in and of themselves metaphorical and therefore imprecise, and cannot be imagined without ornament, though it is often involuntary; there is ornament in even the most arid exposition and frequently in interjections and insults as well. All anyone has to do is introduce an "as if" into the story, or not even that, all you need to do is use a simile, comparison or figure of speech ("he was acting like a jerk," "she flew into a rage"—the kind of colloquial expression that belongs to the language more than to the speaker who chooses it, that's all it takes) and fiction creeps into the narration of what happened, altering or falsifying it. The time-honored aspiration of any chronicler or survivor—to tell what happened, give an account of what took place, leave a record of events and crimes and exploits—is, in fact, a mere illusion or chimera, or, rather, the phrase and concept themselves are already metaphorical and partake of fiction. "To tell what happened" is inconceivable and futile, or possible only as invention. The idea of testimony is also futile and there has never been a witness who could truly fulfil his duty. Anyway, you always forget far too many moments and hours and days and months and years, and the scar on a thigh that I saw and kissed every day for years during its known and lost time. You forget whole years, and not necessarily the least important ones.

    Yet in these pages I'm going to place myself on the side of those who have sometimes claimed to be telling what really happened or pretended to succeed in doing so, I'm going to tell what happened, or was ascertained, or simply known—what happened in my experience or in my fabulation or to my knowledge—or perhaps all of it is only consciousness that never ceases—as a result of the composition and circulation of a novel, a work of fiction. It certainly isn't anything momentous, nor is it serious yet, or pressing, though it may be entertaining to the curious reader who is willing, on principle, to accompany me; and for me it has the diversion of risk, the risk of narrating something for no reason and in almost no order, without making an outline or trying to be coherent, as if I were telling it in that fickle and unpredictable voice we all know, the voice of time when it has not yet gone by or been lost and perhaps for that reason is not even time; perhaps time is only what has already happened and can be told, or so it appears, and that is why time is the only thing that is ambiguous. That voice we hear is always fictitious, I believe, and perhaps mine will be too, in these pages.

    I am not the first writer nor will I be the last whose life has been enriched or poisoned or only changed because of what he imagined or made up and wrote down and published. Unlike those of truly fictional novels, the elements of the story I am now embarking upon are entirely capricious, determined by chance, merely episodic and cumulative—all of them irrelevant by the elementary rule of criticism, none of them requiring any of the others—because in the end no author is guiding them, though I am relating them; they correspond to no blueprint, they are steered by no compass, most of them are external in origin and devoid of intention and therefore have no reason to make any kind of sense or to constitute an argument or plot or answer to some hidden harmony, and no lesson should be extracted from them (nor should any such thing be sought from real novels; above all, the novels themselves should not want it)—not even a story with its beginning and suspense and final silence. I don't believe this is a story, though, not knowing how it ends, I may be mistaken. I do know that the beginning of this tale lies outside it, in a novel I wrote some time ago, or before that (in which case it's even more amorphous), in the two years I spent as an imposter in the city of Oxford, teaching entertaining but on the whole quite useless subjects at its University and observing the passage of a previously agreed-upon period of time. Its ending must also lie outside it, and will surely coincide with my own, some years from now, or so I hope.

    Or it may happen that the ending survives me, as almost everything that arises from us or accompanies us or that we bring about survives us; our intentions last longer than we do. We set too many things in motion and then leave them, and their inertia, weak as it is, outlives us: the words that replace us and that someone occasionally remembers or passes on, not always confessing to their provenance; the letters smoothed flat, the bent photographs, the notes written on yellow paper, left for a woman who will sleep alone in the aftermath of wakeful caresses because we leave in the middle of the night like a scoundrel who is just passing through; the objects and furniture that served us and that we allowed into our homes—a red chair, a pen, an image of India, a toy soldier made of lead, a comb—the books we write but also those we buy and read only once or that remain closed on the shelf to the last and then carry on somewhere else with their life of waiting, hoping for other eyes more avid or more placid than ours; the clothes that will go on hanging among mothballs because someone may insist on keeping them, for sentimental reasons—though I don't know if there are mothballs anymore—the fabrics fading and languishing in their airlessness, each day more oblivious to the forms that gave them meaning, the scent of those forms; the songs that will go on being sung when we do not sing or hum or listen to them; the streets that shelter us as if they were endless hallways and chambers that pay no attention to their ephemeral and inconstant residents; the footsteps that cannot be replicated, that leave no trace on asphalt or are quickly erased on dirt, those footsteps don't stay behind but depart with us or even before us in their harmlessness or their venom; the medicines, our hurried scrawl, the cherished photos we display, which no longer look back at us, the pillow, our jacket hanging from the back of a chair, a pith helmet brought back from Tunisia in the 1930s aboard the ship Ciudad de Cádiz, it belongs to my father and still has its chin strap, and the Hindu lieutenant made of painted wood that I've just brought home with some hesitation, that figurine will also outlast me, or may. And the narratives we invent, which will be appropriated by others who, in speaking of our past existence, gone and never known, will render us fictitious. Even our gestures will continue to be made by someone who inherited them or saw them and was unknowingly mimetic or repeated them on purpose to invoke us and create a strange, momentary and vicarious illusion of our life; and perhaps there will remain, isolated in another person, certain of our traits which we will have transmitted involuntarily, as affectation or unconscious curse, because features can bring luck or misfortune, the eyes verging on Oriental and the mouth as if sketched on with a pencil—"beaky lip, beaky lip"—the chin almost cleft, the broad hands, a cigarette in the left one; I'll leave no feature to anyone. We lose everything because everything remains except us. And therefore any form of posterity may be an affront, and perhaps any memory, as well.

Meet the Author

Javier Marías was born in Madrid in 1951. He has published ten novels, two collections of short stories and several volumes of essays. His work has been translated into thirty-two languages and won a dazzling array of interna­tional literary awards, including the prestigious Dublin IMPAC award for A Heart So White. He is also a highly practiced translator into Spanish of English authors, including Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Thomas Browne and Laurence Sterne. He has held academic posts in Spain, the United States and in Britain, as Lecturer in Spanish Literature at Oxford University.

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