I have just had a lovely weekend away in the Welsh countryside. Saturday was spent at a birthday garden party complete with high tea, while on Sunday I ate yet more delicious food and went for a walk in the sun, watching lambs leaping in the fields and birds of prey soaring through the skies!
I’d never been to this part of Wales before and I don’t know if it was because I subconsciously thought I might get homesick that the book I took with me was set in a place I know very well. All Souls by Javier Marias is about a Spanish academic who spends two years as a visiting academic in Oxford, and has an affair with another tutor, Clare, who is married with a son. I am always drawn to books set in universities, but this one was a little different from the typical campus novel. It was certainly quite funny and contained its fair share of the scandalous relationships and eccentric tutors that are usually found in the university novel, but there are several things that set it apart.
One was a tendency towards philosophical digressions on subjects such as identity, memory and the ritual significance of emptying a rubbish bin. Some of these I found funny (the rubbish bin episode, for example), others rather off-putting and tedious, although this could be down to my own state of exhaustion while reading, rather the book itself. I found some of the abstract and reflective sections quite heavy-going, until the plot acquired some more momentum and I became interested again. I wasn’t particularly drawn to the character of Clare, as she seemed rather vague and distant, and didn’t come alive to me somehow. Perhaps this reflected the slightly apathetic nature of their affair, which seemed partly a way for the main character to fill his time and amuse himself while in Oxford, where he admits, he has ‘minimal duties, a fact that often made me feel I was playing a purely decorative role there’. I was more interested in his friendships with other academics, and his experiences living in Oxford, which is described as ‘a city preserved in syrup’.
Another way the book was quite unusual was the surrealist aspect to it. For example, one subplot of the book was the narrator’s ‘morbid’ interest in collecting rare books, which is a distraction from the emptiness of his life and his inability to see Clare as much as he wants to. This leads to him becoming obsessed with two neglected writers with bizarre life histories and being stalked around second-hand bookshops by a strange antiquarian bookseller. I quite liked this part of the book. It was definitely more entertaining than the narrator’s half-hearted relationship with Clare!
Part of the interest of the book for me was the setting, since the author is very precise about location throughout the novel, and I enjoyed imagining the incidents against backdrops I know well, and being able to work out exactly where the main character’s house was! Although All Souls was published in 1989, Oxford is clearly a place that doesn’t change that much (I realised this while watching the TV series of Brideshead Revisited recently), and most of the places, including some of the bookshops mentioned, are still in existence.
However, another way the book differs from the usual Oxford novel or film is its absence of nostalgia or romanticism. As well as the university, it describes the other lives of Oxford, including the homeless people with whom the narrator becomes obsessed in his wanderings around the city. The book doesn’t just talk about the centre of Oxford, but also mentions the towns and villages surrounding it, and reveals an obsession with Didcot Station (a very dreary, deserted place), where the narrator briefly meets a young girl, an encounter that seems to haunt him for a while. I also liked the description of the narrator’s trip to a sleazy nightclub and the groups of people who go there. Of course, All Souls does concentrate mainly on the university, since all the main characters are academics, but it doesn’t romanticise this either; in fact the narrator’s main feeling towards the place is one of unease. It is seen as a place where nothing changes, where people don’t have enough to occupy them and their academic work is merely a distraction from their real preoccupation with relationships. It is also described, disturbingly, as a place where people exist outside time and reality… This book definitely didn’t have much of the Brideshead spirit about it, or if it did, only the negative flipside.
This wasn’t one of my favourite university novels, since it lacked a certain passion and excitement, but it was pretty entertaining and unusual. I’m still not really sure what to make of it, but I liked how it made me see a place I know well in a different way.