The San Juan Daily Star
Javier Marías, to many the greatest living Spanish novelist, dies at 70
By Clay Risen
Javier Marías, a Spanish novelist whose elegant style and intricate plots centered on espionage, murder and betrayal won him comparisons to Marcel Proust and Ian Fleming, died Sunday at his home in Madrid. He was 70.
His publisher, Alfaguara, said the cause was pneumonia.
Although he was not particularly well known in the United States, Marías was among the few writers to combine critical praise with a bestseller readership: He sold about 8 million copies of his 14 novels, four books of short stories and dozens of essay collections. His books were translated into 46 languages; his 1992 novel “Un Corazón Tan Blanco,” published in English in 1995 as “A Heart So White,” sold 1.3 million copies in Germany alone.
Marías occupied a reputational perch in Spanish culture that would be almost inconceivable for an American author. His novels were greeted like blockbuster summer films, he received practically every prize available to a Spanish writer, and he was regularly considered a favorite to win the Nobel Prize in literature, one of the few awards to elude his grasp. Most critics considered him the greatest living Spanish writer; some said the greatest since Miguel de Cervantes.
He was more than just a famous novelist. Marías wrote a widely read weekly column in El País, Spain’s leading newspaper, where he set down his thoughts on everything from bike lanes (he hated them) to the Spanish government (which he also detested, regardless of the party in power).
He cultivated a public image as a curmudgeon, but in person he was generous and witty, inviting interviewers for long conversations in his dimly lit study, his fingers tweezering an ever-present cigarette. (One column he wrote in 2006, for The New York Times, castigated Madrid’s anti-smoking laws as “far more befitting of Franco than a democracy.”)
Marías wrote in a looping, discursive style that critics often compared to that of Henry James or Laurence Sterne, whose epigram “I progress as I digress” Marías took as a personal motto.
He knew Sterne quite well: At 25, he translated the Irish writer’s famously difficult, uproarious novel “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” (1759) into Spanish, one of nearly a dozen British and American books that he rendered into his native tongue.
Although he did most of his translation work in his 20s, Marías made the character of the translator — and the idea of translation, in all its meanings — a central theme in his work. Opera singers, directors and spies — in his fiction, all of them confront the tension between the urgency to know and the difficulty of understanding.
His novels were never overtly political, but they dealt with many of the themes that have occupied Spanish society since the fall of the country’s fascist regime in the 1970s: betrayal, memory, moral ambivalence and the unexpected weight of the past.
Although he was a staunch opponent of Francisco Franco’s, the dictator who led Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975, Marías went against the instincts of many of his fellow liberals by remaining skeptical, even critical, of the public urge to dwell on the memory of the fascist era.
“Some things are so evil that it’s enough that they simply happened,” he told a reporter with The New York Times Magazine in 2019. “They don’t need to be given a second existence by being retold.”
Then, reverting to his familiar ambivalence, he said, “That’s what I think on some days, anyway,” adding, “Other days I think the contrary.”
Javier Marías Franco was born Sept. 20, 1951, in Madrid, the son of Julián Marías, a philosopher, and Dolores Franco, a writer unrelated to the country’s ruling dictator. In fact, his father, a follower of philosopher José Ortega y Gasset’s, had opposed Franco during the Spanish Civil War and was nearly executed afterward. He received a last-minute reprieve but was forbidden to teach.
When Javier was a few months old, the family moved to Massachusetts, where his father had a visiting professorship at Wellesley College. Another temporary position a few years later took them to New Haven, Connecticut, where his father taught at Yale.
The Marías household was liberal and intellectual, and Javier devoured books, particularly tales of adventure by Joseph Conrad and Robert Louis Stevenson. When he was 17, he ran away to Paris to spend a summer with his uncle Jesús Franco, a B-movie director (“Vampyros Lesbos” and “Virgin Among the Living Dead”) and occasional pornographer whom Marías later called “something like the Spanish Ed Wood.”
He returned to Spain to study at the Complutense University of Madrid, graduating with a degree in philosophy and literary sciences in 1973. He wrote another novel, then spent the next several years as a translator, taking on not just novels but poetry, too, including volumes by Wallace Stevens, William Butler Yeats and John Ashbery.
Marias is survived by his wife, editor Carme Lopez Mercader, and his brothers Fernando, an art historian; Miguel, a film critic and economist; and Álvaro, a musician.
He wore his fame lightly, and joked that such comparisons said less about his talents than they did about a general decline in literary achievement. When “The Infatuations” won the state-run National Novel Prize, one of Spain’s highest literary awards, he rejected the $20,000 in prize money, saying he did not want to be indebted to a government of any kind.
He did maintain one such relationship, though: In 1997, he became king of Redonda, an uninhabited island in the Caribbean. The fictional Kingdom of Redonda is something of a running in-joke among European artists, who occupy the throne and make up most of its peerage. After his predecessor, author Jon Wynne-Tyson, abdicated in his favor, Marías took the royal name Xavier I.
Like most modern monarchs, his role was largely ceremonial, his primary duty being to dispense noble titles to other artistic worthies — he named director Pedro Almodóvar the Duke of Trémula and Ashbery the Duke of Convexo.
As of press time, a successor to King Xavier I had not been named, although several pretenders claim the throne as theirs.