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Dark Back of Time Hardcover – May 22, 2001

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The Spanish novelist Javier Mar¡as has the ability, which he shares with Italo Calvino, to turn a metaphysical insight into a novelistic adventure. In his latest book, Mar¡as employs the old gambit of a novel within a novel, but the radical twist is that the novel on the inside is one of Mar¡as's real, previous novels All Souls. All Souls revolved around various fictitious and nonfictitious Oxford personalities, and was inspired by Mar¡as's temporary teaching position at the university in the early '80s. In the present novel, Mar¡as learns, to his dismay, that various factual Oxford personages upon whom various fictional personages were based are taking over his novel, in effect, by extrapolating fictitious facts from partial facts that were embedded in the original fiction. For instance, the fictitious narrator of All Souls has an affair with a married woman, Clare Bayes. This is translated, in the Oxford community, as proof that the real Mar¡as had a real affair with a woman at Oxford, who is variously identified. Other misidentifications and misreadings follow. In one of the funniest scenes, Mar¡as returns to an antiquarian bookstore in Oxford and finds that the couple who own it, the Stones, not only identify with the bookstore-owning Alabasters in his novel, but want to play them in the film version of the book. Meanwhile, the film, in a final turn of the screw, turns out to be a complete distortion of the novel. The second half of this novel is a virtuoso digression on the seedily adventurous circle around a minor British poet and Oxford figure, Gawsworth. Mar¡as has an antiquarian's taste for history's minor characters, in whose lives fact flows easily into fiction and back again.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


Dark Back of Time [has] confirmed Marías's status as Spain's leading writer of fiction. -- Bomb

Marìas...plays elegantly with the power of art and the mystery of memory. -- Village Voice, 6 March 2001

[A] writer who lives in our own time but speaks with the intensity of past. -- Wendy Lesser, The New York Times Book Review, 6 May 2001

[Marìas] is a literary magician who understands literature as a game of mirrors. -- Ilan Stavans, The Nation, 19 March 2001

[S]heer pleasure, not to be taken lightly or read swiftly. -- Maine Courier-Gazette, Marilis Hornidge, 14 June 2001

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: New Directions Publishing Corporation (May 22, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0811214664
  • ISBN-13: 978-0811214667
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.7 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,506,985 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By R. M. Peterson TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 10, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
DARK BACK OF TIME is an extraordinary work of literature, unlike anything else I have read. But like many good things, it is not readily accessible. Reading it, like reading anything by Marias, requires careful attention, even work. Moreover, for maximum effect, one probably should read at least two other works by Marias before tackling DARK BACK OF TIME (see the last paragraph of this review).

DARK BACK OF TIME is an extended essay on fiction and reality, and how they interpenetrate and influence one another in story-telling and, ultimately, in memory and in history. The springboard for the book is the minor cause celebre occasioned by the publication in England of Marias's earlier novel, ALL SOULS, the setting of which was Oxford University. In large part because Marias himself had taught for two academic years at Oxford, he was immediately identified with the nameless narrator of ALL SOULS. Furthermore, despite Marias's adamant denials, many readers, especially in England, insisted that ALL SOULS was a roman a clef, whose characters were based on real individuals with whom Marias had interacted during his two years at Oxford.

In DARK BACK OF TIME, Marias recounts and expounds on this confusion, this confounding of fiction and reality. Along the way, other subjects are also explored, including identity, death, time, the frailty of memory, the evanescence of life, and how "[e]verything is so random and absurd" (which is closely related to the question of whether there is, or can be, any meaning associated with our lives, and deaths).

Reportedly, Marias has described DARK BACK OF TIME as a "false novel." I don't quite know what he means by that.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By James W. Fonseca on November 23, 2011
Format: Paperback
This is a many-faceted book. First of all, it's a metanovel; a novel in reaction to another novel - the author's All Souls a fictional account of academic intrigue at Oxford. He fictionalizes an account of reaction to his novel, particularly how, despite his best efforts to NOT make it a roman a clef, everyone saw themselves and their colleagues in it. The author fictionalized reality and discovered that fiction became reality. It's also a metanovel because the author frequently draws a distinction between the narrator and the author and, in effect, challenges the reader: "guess who's speaking now?"

Against this dual fictional backdrop, about a third of the work consists of mini biographies of early and mid-Twentieth Century British authors. I'm tempted to say "obscure British authors," but some of these folks, such as Stephen Graham, had fifty published works in their day. "Where are they now?" it seems the author is asking us.

There are many recurring philosophical themes in this work. Death, of course, is the main one. World War I and the Spanish Civil War offer plenty of material. Fate is big. Another theme is authors seeking immortality through their books and actors through their films. Another is coincidence. Didn't Jung say there are no coincidences?

Marias expends the most biographical effort on the British author Wilfred Ewart, who spent his short life as if he were destined to be killed by a stray bullet entering his brain through his already-blind eye on a hotel balcony in Mexico City. The author constructs what-might-have-been scenarios, as he does with his three-year old brother who died before the author was born.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"I sometimes think that time must be different for someone who began writing and reading in reverse...than it is for most people who have never tried to go from back to front but have always progressed from front to back...I often move through what I've called in several books `the other side of time, its dark back' taking the mysterious expression from Shakespeare to give a name to the kind of time that has not existed, the time that awaits us and also the time that does not await us and therefore does not happen..." So says Javier Marias, very late in this masterpiece, which helps explain the title. He is not (particularly) talking about the space-time continuum, time warps and modern physics, but rather what is possible at the juncture of fact and fiction in the work of a creative writer, as well as the `what ifs' of history. Marias is simply marvelous, and reading him is like playing a game of three or even four-dimensional (to add the time continuum) chess. You turn the final page, and place it on your "must re-read list" and hopefully I'll "get" the other half, the second time around.

The author commences, first by identifying some real-life historical characters that he elaborates on later in his work, and then focuses on his "novel within a novel." In real life, Marias wrote "All Souls," based on his two years teaching at Oxford University. Is his previous novel a formal, "roman a clef," a novel based on real individuals? But aren't most novels? And for anyone who has ever written a book, there is the "squeamishness" of reading about the real life reactions of the people who are, or who think they are in Marias's earlier work. Why didn't he include me? Why was this fact omitted, that incident included, particular circumstances changed? Marias has a droll, self-deprecating style.
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