Mr. Marías’ body of work – more than 15 novels and collections of short stories and essays – was hugely popular in the Spanish-speaking world and translated into dozens of languages, including English. It sold nearly 9 million copies, led by its three-book spy saga “Your Face Tomorrow” often considered his masterpiece.
He remained less well known in the United States, however, despite American connections through his father’s academic positions and reviews that often placed him among famous contemporary authors such as Orhan Pamuk, JM Coetzee and Paul Auster.
The dominant themes of Mr. Marías’ novels were very varied: mysterious murders, international espionage, family secrets, etc. He could keep it light or get graphically violent. Yet all of his novels had a heavy layer of emotional and moral fog that left the characters – sometimes interpreters and translators as he once was in real life – trying to grope their way through.
“He wrote thrillers like a poet,” said a tribute to the author in the Guardian.
Mr. Marías has often spoken of memory as having its own intrinsic weight. The past always puts pressure on the present, he told interviewers. It can be as personal as a memorized conversation. Or as collective as the repression of the dictatorship led by General Francisco Franco in Spain from 1939 to 1975.
He built his prose like scaffolding to support the weight of his characters’ memories, decisions, and dilemmas. He could create sentences of several hundred words. Adjectives and adverbs grow everywhere. He could veer off into rabbit hole digressions that could go on for dozens of pages.
In “Your Face Tomorrow,” a 1,274-page three-volume spy tale first published in Spanish as “Tu Rostro Mañana” between 2002 and 2007, Mr. Marías takes 150 pages to fully unfold a scene in which someone is almost killed by a sword.
“A description is also a digression, just like dialogue,” he said in 2017. “You could do without one of those things. Writing is precisely that, delving and digressing.
This style almost always worked, giving Mr. Marías a reputation as a virtuoso storyteller whose canvas was much bigger than the story itself in the mold of Marcel Proust or Herman Melville.
“As in the best novels and the most successful magician’s acts, one emerges heavy with emotion, wondering how he succeeded,” said a 1997 review in the Sydney Morning Herald of the English translation of “Un Corazón Tan Blanco”. or “A Heart So White,” an elliptical plot in which a performer realizes he barely understands his family or himself.
This kind of onion-skin plot was Mr. Marías’ favorite terrain. Its main characters have often faced moral ambiguities and crossroads. In the epic “Your Face Tomorrow” – a reference to Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” when eldest son Hal begins to realize he is turning against his former companions – a Spanish translator is recruited by British intelligence but later questions his role as an interpreter and everything the spy cell stands for.
His imaginary worlds oscillate between the moral dullness of John le Carré’s spy novels and the allegorical significance of Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote”. Fiction, he said, can be more reliable than reality in getting closer to truths.
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“The only things that can be fully said, without rectification, without the possibility of someone saying, ‘No, no, no, no, no. It wasn’t like that, it’s fiction,” Mr. Marías told the Danish arts website Louisiana Channel in 2018.
In his own life, Mr. Marías also presented many aspects.
He held libertarian views skeptical of the government, but praised the way the European Union helped Spain become “a normal European country” after the dictatorship. He sometimes supported the national agreement, the “pacto de olvido”, or pact of oblivion, after Franco’s death prevented blame from being cast on his regime for decades; other times he wondered if the pact left the country in a psychological straitjacket.
In Madrid, he rented two almost identical apartments near the Plaza Mayor. One had dark furniture, the other had the same decor in white. A Paris Review reporter wrote that both were cluttered with stacks of books, DVDs of American movies (many of which featured comedian Jerry Lewis), and TV series such as “Bonanza” and “Friends.”
He liked to playfully note that his own literary journey had begun in decidedly unchic Paris in the summer of 1967 helping his filmmaker uncle, Jesús Franco, who mainly produced low-budget films such as “In the Castle of Bloody Lust” and “Marquis de Sade: Justine” with Jack Palance and Klaus Kinski. The B-movie sets became the backdrop for Mr. Marías’ first novel, “Los Dominios del Lobo” (“The Domains of the Wolf”) in 1971.
Mr. Marías had fun being the “king” of the imaginary monarchy of Redonda, a veritable uninhabited Caribbean island in Antigua and Barbuda that was once self-proclaimed “kingdom” by an eccentric shipping magnate at the end of the 19th century.
Redonda has become something of a whimsical kingdom for authors, artists and others who create what is commonly called an “intellectual aristocracy”. Mr Marías became “Xavier I” in 1997 after the abdication of British author Jon Wynne-Tyson, who had once visited the island. Mr. Marías never succeeded.
“I’ve never been monarchical,” he joked in a tongue-in-cheek interview with the Paris Review.
‘Dialogue’ as translator
Javier Marías Franco was born on September 20, 1951 in Madrid, the son of writer Dolores Franco and Julián Marías, a philosopher who opposed Franco’s nationalist side during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 and was threatened with execution after the takeover of Franco’s forces. (Mr. Marías’ mother’s last name has no relation to the dictator.)
Mr. Marías’ father was banned from teaching and held two visiting professorships in the United States, first at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and then at Yale University in Connecticut. This experience gave young Mr. Marías a foundation in English that he would refine as a translator after graduating in 1973 with a degree in Philosophy and Literature from the Complutense University of Madrid.
From 1983 to 1985 Mr Marías lectured at Oxford University on translation theory – and used his time there as fodder for “All Souls” (1989) about a fictional relationship between a student and a visiting Spanish teacher.
Many literary observers, such as the University College London professor Gareth J. Wood, has made connections between Mr. Marías’ expressive style and his ability to convey nuances and complexities in Spanish “in dialogue” with writers such as Laurence Sterne, Thomas Browne, Vladimir Nabokov and William Faulkner.
Mr Marías said his ideal literature school “would require students to know at least two languages and translate books”.
Survivors include his wife of four children years, Carme López Mercader, editor; two stepchildren; and three brothers. Complete information about the survivors was not immediately available.
Among his awards were the 1997 Dublin International Literary Prize for ‘A Heart So White’ and Spain’s highest literary award for the crime novel ‘The Infatuations’ (2011). He turned down the Spanish award, saying he didn’t want to be seen as “favoured” by the government.
In the book, he may have taken a self-deprecating swipe at the Nobel Committee for never receiving the prize. A supporting character, a pompous author, has already written his Nobel acceptance speech — in Swedish.