'Falling in love has a very good reputation. But I have seen kind and noble people behave very badly because they are in love'
Javier Marías: regularly tipped for the Nobel prize. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian
When Javier Marías was a student of English Philology in Madrid in the 1970s he says it was with a sense of "awe and reverence" that he would buy copies of "the then grey-spined Penguin Modern Classics. The authors ranged from Conrad to James, Faulkner to Joyce, Thomas Mann to Ford Madox Ford, Woolf to Camus. Not even Nabokov was allowed to be there." Last year Marías himself became one of just a handful of living writers to join that same list. "I must assume, therefore, that these are much less demanding times than the 1970s," he explains modestly. "But, still, I feel very honoured, even if I can't help thinking I must be a fraud."
by Javier Marías
Far from being a fraud, it is difficult to think of many other living writers who are such an obvious fit for the list. In brute commercial terms, as was noted at the time, you could say his inclusion is not a bad hedge bet from his new publisher Penguin in the event of his winning the Nobel prize, something he is regularly tipped to do. In purely literary terms there is an even more compelling case. Few writers have sustained such an engagement with the classic (Anglophone) canon. As a translator he has rendered into Spanish work by Hardy, Yeats, Conrad, Nabokov, Faulkner, Updike, Salinger and many others. As a novelist, he has threaded his work with traces of these writers, and is explicitly underpinned by an empathy with Shakespeare and Sterne, as well as Cervantes and Proust.
"I've never had a literary project and feel I have been improvising all my career," he recently claimed. "But I do recognise certain recurring themes: treason, secrecy, the impossibility of knowing things, or people, or yourself, for sure. There is also persuasion, marriage and love. But these things are the matter of literature, not just of my books. The history of literature is probably the same drop of water falling on the same stone only with different language, different manners, different forms adequate to our own time. But it remains the same thing, the same stories, the same drop on the same stone, since Homer or before."
This flair for improvisation has seen him selling millions of books that have been translated into more than 40 languages. His 12th novel,The Infatuations, is published in English next month, and work such as All Souls, A Heart So White, and, more recently, his monumental Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, have received almost universal critical acclaim. And he has not only been garlanded with prizes. Among his other titles he is King of Redonda, a real, if uninhabited, lump of Caribbean rock, the monarchy of which has been passed down through a line of writers.
"I've taken my responsibilities lightly," he smiles, "but I do follow the tradition of an intellectual nobility." He funds a literary prize and awards dukedoms to the winners, which so far have included among others Alice Munro, AS Byatt, William Boyd and Umberto Eco. "JM Coetzee was the first winner, and I was delighted that he accepted and joined in with the playfulness of it. Maybe it is time that I should start thinking about an heir. I inherited through an abdication, so I shall have to find another writer, as it is not passed on by blood but by letters."
Marías has never visited Redonda and lives in a book-packed apartment overlooking one of Madrid's oldest squares where he works on an electric typewriter, doesn't have internet and is equally old-fashioned in his prodigious cigarette consumption. He has a long-term partner, but she lives in Barcelona. "And that is usually my lot. Either my girlfriends have been married at a time when there was no divorce in Spain, or they lived somewhere else or there was something else in the way."
The Infatuations, featuring a rare Marías female narrator, is, among other things, a cool-eyed examination of love; in fact "Los enamoramientos", the Spanish title, could also be translated as "The Crushes". Maria has breakfast in the same café every morning, where she observes a married couple with the same routine. Some time after the couple stop coming to the café Maria learns that the husband has been brutally murdered, and she becomes embroiled in the life of the widow and the emotional ramifications of the husband's death.
"Loving and falling in love have a very good reputation," he says. "That may be justified sometimes, but sometimes it is the opposite. I have seen very generous, kind and noble people behave very badly because they are in love. Equally there is this idea of destiny. People remember how they met and wondered what would have happened if they hadn't gone to that bar or that dinner. But we are in fact very limited in our choices of partner by location, class, history and who is willing to accept our advances. How many times are we not the first choice? Or even the second, or the third?"
The book has sold more than 160,000 copies in Spain and was awarded the national narrative award, which Marías declined because the €20,000 prize was funded by the state. He has been criticised as a novelist for not engaging directly in Spain's turbulent political life – although in fact the civil war and Franco's rule have been dark presences in his books – but he has shown no reticence about engaging in the day-to-day as a newspaper columnist for the last 18 years.
"As a columnist I write as citizen and maybe have too many opinions" – he has published a whole book of just his football articles – "but writing as a novelist is different. I don't like the journalistic kind of novel which is now rather fashionable. If a book or film takes a good subject from the everyday press – say domestic murders in Spain, which are a historic disgrace – everyone will applaud, but it is easy applause. Who will say it is bad? People say the novel is a way of imparting knowledge. Well, maybe. But for me it is more a way of imparting recognition of things that you didn't know you knew. You say 'yes'. It feels true even though it might be uncomfortable. You find this in Proust, who is one of the cruellest authors in the history of literature. He says terrible things, but in such a way that you know that you have experienced those thoughts too."
Marías was born in Madrid in 1951, the fourth of five sons. Three of his brothers – the eldest died before he was born – went on to have careers in the arts. Their father was Julián Marías, a leading philosopher whose republican activities had seen him briefly imprisoned following the Spanish civil war, an episode Javier drew on in Your Face Tomorrow. Their mother, Dolores Franco, was a translator and an editor of an anthology of Spanish literature before starting a family. As a child Marías was taken for several trips to America where his father was teaching, having been blacklisted at home. Back in Madrid, his early writing came directly out of his reading; he created his own musketeer and Just William stories when he had finished all the books. "Richmal Crompton had been very popular in Spain since my parents' time."
The family home was full of books, art and elevating conversation. But Marías's introduction to professional writing was facilitated by an uncle who was a maker of soft porn and horror films. During the six weeks the 17-year-old Marías stayed at his uncle's Parisian apartment he not only watched 85 films but also broke the back of a debut novel, Los dominios del lobo ("The Dominions of the Wolf") that was published in 1971 when he was only 20.
"It was a sort of a tribute and parody of American films of the 1940s and 50s. A youthful work, but not the usual autobiographical story of most young writers. And also not deadly serious in the way young people often are. As such, I'm actually not ashamed of it."
He says the dominant trend in Spain at the time was social realism. "Franco was still alive. The idea was that writers, as far as censorship would allow, must try to raise the consciousness of the people about the terrible situation. I thought it was well meant, but had nothing to do with literature. My generation knew that a novel couldn't end the dictatorship, and so as writers we did as we wanted."
In fact over the next decade he published only another two novels as his career as a translator came to the fore, most notably with his 1979 version of Tristram Shandy, which won the (not state-funded) national translation prize. He categorises a translator as both a "privileged reader and a privileged writer. If you're capable of rewriting in a different language something by Conrad or Sterne then you learn a lot. I've not got involved with the creative writing industry, but if I ever had my own creative writing school I would only admit people who could translate, and I would make them do it over and over again."
During his years translating he found that some writers helped the translator by being stylistically contagious. "There is a pace and a rhythm of prose that, if the translator catches it, you can surf the wave of cadence. I certainly felt it with Conrad and in a way with Sir Thomas Browne. But it is not essential to good writing. It was not there with Yeats's prose, or Isak Dinesen's or Thomas Hardy's. I like to think that my prose has some cadence that can contaminate, in the good sense, and help a translator. And I always want to help as much as I can because I remember being so annoyed that I couldn't ask Conrad what the hell he meant."
He says that what is now regarded as his own distinctive style – the long, digressive, almost musical sentences that loop around observation, reflection and supposition – took many years to achieve and wasn't really in place until his 1986 novel about an opera singer, A Man of Feeling. "I had written four novels before then. The impatience of the publishing world today might mean that I wouldn't have been given a chance to get that far. So many worthwhile writers must have been lost because of this impatience. The change has been brutal."
His next novel, All Souls (1989), based closely on his experiences teaching at Oxford in the 1980s, was a success, but it wasn't until A Heart So White in 1992 that he first became a fixture on the bestseller lists. After selling well in Spain it became a global hit after "the Pope of German critics", Marcel Reich-Ranicki, recommended it on television. "He was known as a tough critic who had once, literally, ripped up a Günter Grass book. But he said some exaggerated things about my book and that it should be number one. Obediently, as sometimes Germans in their history have been, they went out and bought it."
The book sold 1.3m copies in Germany and later won the Impac prize. Marías's novel-writing technique – "which I know could be suicidal" – is to set out with only minimal planning (all his notes for the 1,200-pageYour Face Tomorrow trilogy were scribbled on just four sheets of A5 paper; not all of them were used) and then not to redraft the book, "although I do go back to change a Tuesday to a Thursday and things like that". It is a high-wire act that is sustained by what must be a remarkable memory as he shapes his story round complicated digressions and repetitions. "What Sterne said always struck me as true: 'I progress as I digress.' And you realise that what seemed anecdotal is actually part of the story. I like to use a system of echoes and resonances and characters that reappear not only within the same book, but from one book to another."
He describes the current situation in Spain as "scary", and lambasts the government for using the economic crisis to impose labour reforms, toughen abortion laws, cut education and culture spending, and privatise the health system. "Those opinions I stand by. It is not quite the same as a novelist. A novel is a more savage and wild thing in the sense that you can say anything, and your narrators or characters can say anything. Yet it still arrives at a kind of truth. It is like the theatre where you know the name of the playwright, but when the curtain rises the accepted convention is that the audience doesn't take all the actions or opinions on the stage as the author's. It is the same with a book. You turn from the cover to the biographical note, then maybe a dedication until you reach page one and the curtain rises. From that moment on the name on the cover doesn't matter any more."