All Souls by Javier Marias
translated by Margaret Jull Costa
published in Spanish 1989, English version 1992
The shoes Clare Bayes wore were never English, always Italian, and I never once saw low heel or buckle or a rounded toe on any of them. When she came to my house (which was not that often) or when we managed to end up together at her house (even less often) or we met in a hotel in London or Reading or even Brighton (though we only went to Brighton once), the first thing she would do was to ease her shoes off at the instep and then with a kick, one for each shoe, send them ricocheting against the walls, as if she were the owner of innumerable pairs and cared nothing for their ruination. I would immediately pick them up and put them where we couldn’t see them: the sight of empty shoes always makes me imagine them on the feet of the person who has worn them or might wear them, and seeing that person by my side – with their shoes off – or not seeing the person at all upsets me terribly.
observations: It’s hard to know who the British equivalent of Javier Marias might be: he is a wonderful novelist, something of a superstar in his own country, and an academic, and he has also translated many classic English authors into Spanish. Perhaps it’s unfair to say that you can’t imagine Ian McEwan or Martin Amis doing a new version of Don Quixote.
All Souls is narrated by a Spanish academic working at Oxford University (he is talking about his mistress above) and is very very funny, but also unexpected, you never know where he’s going next. There is quite a lot about a very very obscure English writer called John Gawsworth. A photo of Gawsworth appears in the middle of this novel, suggesting a move into WG Sebald territory (always a good thing). But there is also a very strange follow-up to this book, intertwining the real legacy of John Gawsworth and the life of Javier Marias – it is far too complicated to describe, but readers should certainly look at the relevant Wikipedia entry.
Links up with: WG Sebald and a particularly beautiful photo, Gatsby always claimed to be an Oxford man, and Dorothy L Sayers imagines a young man attracting attention there. What women wear in Oxford is also the subject of this DLS entry.
The photograph is from the State Library of New South Wales.