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Mysteries and hauntings

Javier Marias’s elegant new volume is a collection of ghost stories, but its alluring dust jacket, illustrating the first tale, shows us a sunny midsummer image of a woman in a bikini admiring herself on a beach.

18 December 2010

12:00 AM

18 December 2010

12:00 AM

While the Women are Sleeping Javier Marias

Chatto, pp.129, 10

Javier Marias’s elegant new volume is a collection of ghost stories, but its alluring dust jacket, illustrating the first tale, shows us a sunny midsummer image of a woman in a bikini admiring herself on a beach.

Javier Marias’s elegant new volume is a collection of ghost stories, but its alluring dust jacket, illustrating the first tale, shows us a sunny midsummer image of a woman in a bikini admiring herself on a beach. All is not as pleasant as at first it seems, of course, and we soon enter his characteristically darker world of voyeurism, jealousy, revenge, doppelgängers and crime passionel. But the tone throughout the volume is playful rather than tragic, which is a relief to the reader after the extraordinary levels of violence and sadism of his last full-length work, Your Face Tomorrow, the novel which concluded a powerful, not to say almost overwhelming trilogy. This little volume is much less taxing.

Marias is an Anglophile, fascinated by English manners, culture and antiquarian bookshops, and we find here some of his favourite themes and characters, including mentions of the well-known book dealer Bertram Rota and the reappearance (from his 1989 novel All Souls) of John Gawsworth, a minor (very minor) English writer and eccentric also known as the King of Redonda. (Marias himself has now inherited the title to this uninhabited Caribbean island.) Marias’s trick of mixing real and fictitious characters is well-suited to ghostly terrain. Is the beggar with a reddish beard who accosts the manager of Rota’s shop in Long Acre really Gawsworth himself? We shall never know.


Marias is a literary trickster, and he tells us in his introduction that the doppelgänger story called ‘Lord Rendall’s Song’, based on the well-known ballad of revenge, was originally attributed in an earlier 1989 publication to a fictitious writer called James Denham (1911-43) whose work Marias had purportedly translated into Spanish. Well, maybe. We are in the realm of reflecting mirrors and false identities. ‘The Resignation Letter of Señor de Santiesteban’, set in the British Institute in Madrid, also has an English protagonist named Lilburn, a lowly and lonely teacher who becomes obsessed by solving the problem of a nightly institutional haunting. We learn that his parents were

a couple of second-rate actors who achieved a certain degree of popularity (if not prestige) during the early part of the second world war with an Elizabethan repertoire that included Massinger, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Heywood the Younger, but which scrupulously avoided authors of greater stature like Marlowe, Webster or, indeed, Shakespeare,

but that he has inherited nothing from them save ‘an emphatic, smug or affected way of speaking’. I feel sure that there are some clues, some allusions to some forgotten Elizabethan drama lingering in this Spanish tale, but cannot for the life of me place them. They will continue to haunt and nag. Nor can I quite account for this major Spanish writer’s fixation on minor English authors. It is all part of the mystery.

Much the most horrifying story is, the author claims, his earliest, indeed his first published piece, which appeared in 1968 in El Noticiero Universal when he was 16. He thinks, from the typewritten original, that he was only 14 when he wrote it and asks us to be kind to it. No need to request clemency: this is a brilliant and chilling debut, herald to an outstanding career. It would spoil the shock to describe it, but here is a preview:

It was the first anniversary of my death. In the morning my wife Esperancita had brought a bouquet of flowers which she very carefully placed on top of me. I rather wished she hadn’t because the flowers blocked my view…

Read on at your peril. It fulfils your worst fears.


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