Exclusive Q&A: Spanish Author Javier Marías

Javier Marías is the most important intellectual figure that you’ve probably never heard of. The Spanish author, translator, and columnist has published 14 books (11 of which are available in English), translated everyone from Thomas Hardy to Joseph Conrad to Vladimir Nabokov, and has been profiled and reprinted in such publications as The New Yorker, The Believer, and The Threepenny Review, but is somehow still not a household name. Ahead of a speaking engagement with already-a-household-name-author Paul Auster at the 92nd Street Y tonight, Marías chatted with Flavorpill about how translations can actually improve books, the Spanish authors you should be reading, and what it’s like being the king of a tiny, uninhabitable Caribbean island.

Flavorpill: A lot of literature tackles unanswerable questions and subjects — what is the purpose of writing for you?

Javier Marías: I think it was Faulkner who once said that when you strike a match in a dark wilderness it is not in order to see anything better lighted, but just in order to see how much more darkness there is around. I think that literature does mainly that. It is not really supposed to “answer” things, not even to make them clearer, but rather to explore — often blindly — the huge areas of darkness, and show them better. So in my opinion it does not really matter if subjects are unanswerable (all of them are, possibly), as literature is not expected to solve riddles or mysteries, but just to show them — perhaps putting them in a slightly new light, perhaps calling attention to overlooked aspects of them.

FP: Do your dual roles as a writer and an English-Spanish translator intersect?

JM: I have not translated a book in the last 20 years or so. Writing and translating are too similar to cope with at the same time. What I can say is that translation is the best possible school for a writer. If you are capable of “rewriting” acceptably (that is what a translator does, he or she rewrites) texts by Laurence Sterne or Joseph Conrad or Thomas Browne, it means you have learned a lot, it means that your instrument or tool is ready for rather ambitious enterprises. Of course, translating does not give you talent or imagination, but it tunes your instrument — language — and that’s a lot.

FP: What is it like to have your work translated into English by someone else? Have you ever considered translating your own work?

JM: I would never try to translate my own work. It would be terribly boring — I already write and rewrite and correct so much in Spanish that it would become a never-ending task. Luckily I have a wonderful English translator, Margaret Jull Costa — and Esther Allen was excellent too with Dark Back of Time. They send me lists of queries and doubts, and by the quality of them I see that my texts are in very good hands. In the past, when I had more free time, I supervised translations into the languages I know (English, Italian, French), but I cannot do that any more. I trust my translators and help them when they find themselves in distress, as I would have loved to be able to ask Conrad, Sterne, or Yeats what the devil they meant here or there. On the other hand, I think that translations tend to improve the originals — when they are good, that is. Sometimes I feel that my novels must sound better in English, Korean, or Hindi than they do in Spanish.

FP: Why do you think so many American readers are unfamiliar with Spanish literature?

JM: I suppose there are several reasons for that. The United States translates very few books, all in all, as literary production in English is enormous. On the other hand, during all the long years of Franco’s dictatorship, the Spanish literary output was not extraordinary, so there has been a long period of ignorance about my country. It is not easy to get accustomed to the existence of a country after so many years of forgetfulness, as it were. Also, because of geographical reasons, the United States has been more interested in the literature of South America, which seemed more attractive and exotic.

Spain is — and always has been, despite our anomalies — a European country like most others. The country has more to do, in my opinion, with France, Italy, or even Great Britain than, say, with Mexico or Argentina. It is not easy for an American audience to see and accept that. Perhaps they still expect bullfighters and gypsies with knives in their stockings in most Spanish literary works. Nowadays, our literature is very varied and some authors are really worth reading: from the past La Regenta should be better known, and from the present Eduardo Mendoza, Juan Marsé, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, and Antonio Muñoz Molina should be better read.

FP: You are currently the “king” of Redonda and have even granted “titles” to other famous literary figures and filmmakers. Can you please explain the concept behind the uninhabitable island’s history and its monarchs?

JM: Redonda’s old motto is “Ride si sapis,” which is Latin for “Laugh if you know how to,” more or less. The second “king” of Redonda, the poet/drunkard/beggar John Gawsworth, created an “intellectual aristocracy” or “literary nobility” and gave titles to peers like Dylan Thomas, Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller, and Vincent Price. I thought I should follow the tradition and the joke, and all “my” peers have understood the jovial character of the legend. Some of them I created directly, some others have become “dukes” or “duchesses” after winning the Realm of Redonda Prize, which is given yearly by the other peers. Winners so far have been: J.M. Coetzee, John H. Elliott, Claudio Magris, Eric Rohmer, Alice Munro, Ray Bradbury, George Steiner, Umberto Eco, and Marc Fumaroli. The jury includes John Ashbury, Pedro Almodóvar, William Boyd, Francis Ford Coppola, A.S. Byatt, Antony Beevor, Mario Vargas Llosa, as well as the previous winners. I don’t think there is a more prestigious jury in the world. I don’t vote in order to keep it so — I just organize and fund the prize. The winning “dukes” and “duchesses” are distinguished authors and filmmakers, and, as Redonda is a bilingual “kingdom,” their works must be available in English and in Spanish. Fortunately there are no subjects, and peers have no duties whatsoever — not even that of loyalty. As in all good kingdoms, they are allowed to conspire.

FP: If you could have five books on a desert island — say, for example, Redonda — what would you bring and why?

JM: Five is very generous, as most people usually just allow one book on desert islands. To be sure, Shakespeare’s works, from which I have taken four or five titles for my novels and stories; Cervantes’ Don Quixote, because it is a very long, re-readable book, and also to be in touch with good Spanish; Sterne’s Tristram Shandy because it makes you laugh often and because it would help me recall my youth when I translated it into Spanish (I was about 25 then); T.S. Eliot’s poetry, as it is very good to be read aloud; Jorge Manrique’s Coplas a la Muerte de mi Padre because it is one of the most moving books of poetry I have ever read — or re-read.

Note: If you missed Marias at the 92nd Street Y, you can catch him on December 3 at the New York Public Library, where he’ll be in conversation with Paul Holdengräber.