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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Dark Back of Time

Javier Marías

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To purchase Dark Back of Time

Title: Dark Back of Time
Author: Javier Marías
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998 (Eng. 2001)
Length: 336 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Dark Back of Time - US
Negra espalda del tiempo - US
Dark Back of Time - UK
Dark Back of Time - Canada
Dark Back of Time - India
Dans le dos noir du temps - France
Schwarzer Rücken der Zeit - Deutschland
Nera schiena del tempo - Italia
Negra espalda del tiempo - España
  • Spanish title: Negra espalda del tiempo
  • Translated by Esther Allen

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Our Assessment:

A- : digressive mix of fact and fiction, odd but well-done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Berliner Morgenpost B 17/9/2000 Stefanie Gerhold
The Nation . 19/3/2001 Ilan Stavans
The NY Times Book Rev. A 6/5/2001 Wendy Lesser
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction A Fall/2001 Alan Tinkler
The Spectator A+ 8/9/2001 John de Falbe
TLS . 18/4/2003 Martin Beagles

  From the Reviews:
  • "Diese überdrehten Dichterleben sind zum Teil ergötzlich zu lesen, aber auch ermüdend, weil man spürt, dass es um sie eigentlich gar nicht geht. Im Grunde nämlich schreibt Marías über sich selbst. Das ist an vielen Stellen selbstverliebt und daher schwer erträglich, wenn er sich über die Reaktionen von Verlegern und Kritikern auf Alle Seelen auslässt." - Stefanie Gerhold, Berliner Morgenpost

  • "By far the brainiest, most emblematic and abstruse book by Marías, as well as the most demanding, is Dark Back of Time, about, well, everything and nothing. (...) I'm inclined to describe the book as a meditative essay. But to pigeonhole it seems preposterous anyway, for its strength lies precisely in its amphibious, if not anarchistic, structure. This, after all, is a nonlinear opera aperta that functions as a circuitous rendezvous through the realms of knowledge and imagination." - Ilan Stavans, The Nation

  • "Like the work of Jorge Luis Borges, of which it may superficially remind you, Dark Back of Time deals repeatedly and amusingly with the relationship between reality and the written word. But where Borges is cold, Marías is warm: his breath is in our ear, his urban reality is essentially our urban reality." - Wendy Lesser, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(I)ts success stems from the effective interweaving of compelling narrative threads. (...) The strength of Dark Back of Time rests with the successful integration of the digressions." - Alan Tinkler, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "(A)t its heart is an astonishing meditation on identity and time. (...) It is his unique style -- witty and mesmerising, reminiscent of Proust or Sterne (no accident: he translated Sterne into Spanish) -- that makes the passage between truth and fiction fluid and convincing." - John de Falbe, The Spectator

  • "The core plot falls well short of fascinating, and the frantic pace at which throngs of the quick and the dead parade across its busy pages leaves scant time for characterization, but the chief attraction of the novel is its personal style, and derives from the assurance and extraordinary range of the authorial voice." - Martin Beagles, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Javier Marias taught at Oxford University for two years, between 1983 and 1985. In 1989 he published a novel, Todas las almas (All Souls), narrated by a Spanish writer who teaches at Oxford for two years. Marías maintains that few of his actual experiences found their way into the novel, and that the novel is, indeed, fiction.
       Dark Back of Time is a novel, narrated by a Spanish author named Javier Marías -- who wrote a novel called All Souls. Dark Back of Time describes, in part, the reactions to and reception of this novel. People, especially at Oxford, view it as a roman à clef, readily identifying themselves and others in it. Marías is surprised, knowing that it is not a roman à clef. But facts would seem to prove him wrong.
       Dark Back of Time reads like a memoir. Marías describes the publication of his book and the various reactions to it, especially amongst the Oxonians. He is surprised to find truth surfacing in what he knows to have been his inventions. He considers the reasons why people see themselves in the book. And it leads to him to other odd and unusual lives, books, and authors.
       Fact and fiction seem largely indistinguishable in this "novel". Truth is as unlikely as fiction. Possibly it is all truth. Or possibly it is all fiction. And the author -- or at least his narratorial alter ego -- seems as puzzled about it as the reader is.
       The book has a documentary character. Marías includes photographs, newspaper articles (from sources as varied as the Völkischer Beobachter and The Bookseller), the flaps from a book's dust jacket, maps, ex libris, and more. Much is patently true -- there are real Oxonians here (colleagues and booksellers, among others), real historical figures (notably "the inevitable John Gawsworth"), biographical detail about Marías and his family. And still it all seems like an incredibly elaborate construct, entirely of Marías' devising.

       Marias acknowledges at the beginning that "the elements of the story I am now embarking upon are entirely capricious, determined by chance, merely episodic and cumulative". It makes for an odd novel, the author easily tempted by the tangential, following and losing various leads and narrative threads.
       There is some fear and uncertainty about setting all this down in words, about the act of writing itself. Marías hedges in various ways. "Telling the story is what kills it", he writes. It is "what secures and delineates and solidifies our face". He writes: "I am burying myself by this writing and in these pages", and yet much of what he writes is clearly a struggle against this solidification, this death, this entombment. By not fixing the tale fast, by leaving open ends (as he does throughout, but especially in the last pages) he hopes, in part, to escape.
       The fact that "certain real people began to behave in real life as if they were characters in All Souls" suggests a different form of escape -- albeit an absurd one. It is a concern to Marías. He does not want to be held responsible. It is not what he meant to do when he wrote the novel. Troublingly, the fiction proves more powerful (and insubordinate) than the author intended or imagined.
       Marías considers a variety of characters and authors from earlier times as well, their memory -- their very existence -- found only in the pages of obscure tomes. He speaks fondly of a number of booksellers and collectors, acknowledging the role of booksellers who "time and again rescue and put back into circulation and resell the silent, patient voices" (acknowledging that it is these booksellers and collectors who will be the ones who will eventually keep him (i.e. his work) alive).
       On a personal note there is his brother, who died when he was only three, before Javier was born, and whose very existence both haunts Marías -- the memory pervaded the Marías household throughout his childhood -- and also strikes him as unreal. His brother never existed, for him, and yet he was an intangible but constant presence.
       Much of the book also focusses on Marías' reconstruction of the life and death of obscure writer Wilfrid Ewart. He was accidentally (apparently) killed by New Years' revellers, by a shot "so implausible that if it had occurred in a novel and not in life no one could give the slightest credence" to its unlikely trajectory. Marías fascination with this author, and with other characters -- the adventurer De Wet, for example, or Gawsworth --, takes the reader on some unusual journeys, recounting their odd and forgotten lives -- and the difficulty of determining the true facts of their lives (and deaths).
       Another author, Stephen Graham, is used as a contrast -- to Ewart, specifically, though Marías' point is more general. Graham "enjoyed a total of seventy or seventy-one years more in the world" than Ewart, putting his time to good use, publishing more than fifty books:

None of them, however, have enabled the old man he finally become (sic) to be any less mortal or forgotten today than the young man of thirty whose life and work were cut short
       Writing holds fast, but regardless of how little or how much one pens and publishes it is all so easily and readily and quickly forgotten. As Marías constantly realizes.
       All Souls, and all that has sprung forth from it, becomes Marías' hope: something to hold onto, to explore to its last detail. It promises to allow Marías to build a greater and -- significantly -- unending edifice. It has taken on a life of its own, and Marías finds himself invigorated by it as well. Two-thirds of the way through Dark Back of Time he warns that this is only the beginning:
So much has sprung from that novel into my life that I no longer know how many volumes I'll need to tell it all, this book won't be enough and its planned sequel may not be either, because eight years have passed since I published the novel and all of it continues to invade my days, stealing into them, and my nights, too, now more than ever
       If the book has no end, then it can not stand as a final testament. Death can be averted. Hope lies in continuing to write, in changing the character of the book. In living the book. Which is exactly what Marías does here, throughout. (With great flair, one must add.)
       He worries, at the end, whether "fiction is embedding itself in my life and making it even more unreal and chimerical, as well as absurd, indicisive (sic) and somewhat calamitous". The end of this novel is only a pause, as he steps back to consider the events (that continue to unfold around him). More is to come, in the next volume and volumes. We look forward to it.
       Fact ? Fiction ? The differentiation hardly matters. Marías' explorations entertain, regardless of the guise.
       His style may not be to everyone's taste -- parenthetical, sentences running on and away from one another. He is resolutely digressive in his approach. Self-referential. But he does what he does well.
       An unusual book, to put it mildly, but clever, literary, and very enjoyable

       Note that, presumably because of the numerous illustrations in this book, the New Directions edition is printed on a heavy stock paper, making for a weighty little volume. It is a pleasure to hold and behold.

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Dark Back of Time: Reviews: Javier Marías: Other books by Javier Marías under review: Books about Javier Marías under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Javier Marías lived 1951 to 2022.

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