Javier Marias, so the cover goes, is known primarily (by us) for his novels. However in his native Spain he is also a respected essayist and critic. Between Eternities collects and translates previously published work, spanning decades, with the aim of introducing English speakers to his non-fiction. Before going any further, I should say that I had certain expectations from this book. What I got was not what I was expecting, and that will undoubtedly colour this review. These are not the kind of essays which unpick an idea and give you the tools to see it in a new light. They are short opinion pieces originally published as newspaper columns (mostly for El Pais) and which conclude like this:
“Nowadays, on the other hand, people give importance to childhood itself, as if humanity’s sole crazy aim was to shape and create eternal, perennial children. Not a good idea. But that’s how it is.”
There will be someone out there who read that quote and is now nodding their head and muttering ‘spot on’. Mutterer, this book is for you.
Marias shares his thoughts on a whole heap of topics: family anecdotes, England’s second hand bookshops, egotists, noisy neighbours, Barcelona vs Madrid and the pain of mothers whose children have left home. There’s an almost embarrassingly scathing character assassination of Berlusconi and some slightly longer reflections on books and writing. The articles are written primarily to amuse, and the tone reflects this. Marias isn’t afraid to go against the grain or write something controversial (he writes that he terminated his relationship with El Semanal when they censored one of his articles).
Unfortunately it didn’t do it for me. I have nothing against reading opinions I don’t agree with, but I prefer them to be backed up with facts and persuasion. As someone who finds Shakespeare difficult to decipher, when I read something like the following quote, I don’t feel dazzled, I feel alienated.
“The extraordinary thing about Shakespeare is that we don’t even notice the often enigmatic nature of his words, which don’t get in our way when it comes to ‘understanding’ what we’re reading. They don’t slow us down, they don’t appear cryptic or abstruse. We have a sense that we’re capturing everything he says without any difficulty.”
It’s not easy to take the reader with you in nine hundred words and that isn’t the point here. These pieces feel like they were written for an existing fan base, and either you’re in the club or you’re not.
Any Cop?: There’s no space in these fun sized pieces to develop an argument, so you either agree with what Marias is saying (and the way he says it) or you don’t. If you do, you have a whole book full of entertainment. If you don’t, well, there probably isn’t enough here to convert you.