My friend didn’t recommend this book, exactly, but she did recommend the author, Javier Marias, or at least said she was impressed with him, and this title is what my neighborhood library had on the shelf, so here we are.
Dark Back of Time is a book about writing a book, and the book it’s about writing is Dark Back of Time. Marias here recounts the reaction to his earlier novel All Souls, which is set at Oxford University and which apparently was suspected of being a roman a clef. Assuming that All Souls itself, which I haven’t read, but which my friend is, apparently, about to read) contains a bit of that post-modernist inclination toward including comments on the art being created, Dark Back of Time is possibly a book about writing a book about writing a book about writing a book which was itself is about writing a book. True or false (and little in this hybrid memoir/novel can be pinned down as either) it’s true, I’d lay odds, to Marias frame of authorial mind. Toward the end, he says,
Some time will have to pass before this voice or writing speaks more clearly and I can tell what it tells, I have to take a certain distance … I prefer to pause here and wait a while, everything is still changing.
By that point, we’ve been through a catalogue of characters, some of whom are involved in All Souls, many of whom are not. The All Souls people are from Oxford and often fancy that they’ve spotted themselves or someone they know in the pages of Marias’s novel. Some are offended at their portraits at first, but all end up by being flattered or indifferent. Marias contends that he never simply recreated people. However, he comes so close–sometimes admitting it, sometimes not–that the line between fact and fiction is not only blurred but obliterated.
Along the same lines are explorations of the lives of a number of his acquaintances. Some of them Oxford, some not, some connected with All Souls, some not. But all are united by the difficulty of finding out who they were or what they did. The direction in those cases is the opposite of trying to match All Souls characters to “real” people, some of them contemporary, some of them historical. Marias acts like a private investigator, tracking down newspaper articles, letters, other evidence (some of it reproduced on the book’s pages) attempting to picture the lives of these figures. Whether you start from reality or fiction, the result seems to be the same. What is real and what is not depends on where you stand and who you are.
He explicitly debunks any idea that he might be searching for a purpose to it all. Camus-like he declares:
Everything is so random and absurd, it’s incomprehensible that we can grant any transcendence whatsoever to our birth or our existence or our death.
Unlike Camus, he posits the existence of the Dark Back of Time where all that was expected or foretold, but never happened, people never born or even imagined, events which never manifested in our lives or history, move in some sort of dynamic purgatory and may yet emerge into the light.
“This is not fiction,” he says of Dark of Time, “but it must be a story.” To me, that statement nails its weakness. For all its virtues–wonderful ideas, heady prose–there’s not much of a story and no juice. Too much of the head and not enough heart and gonads. There are some wonderful anecdotes, such as the one with the bookstore couple who want to play their own characters in the movie of All Souls, and the scene between Franco and the one-eyed soldier of fortune. However, I’d prefer more show and less tell. Maybe it’s all too subtle for me. I’ll probably be once again overruled by the marketplace.