“Souls” thinned out long ago. And when Javier Marias writes, in his campus novel, and Oxford novel, All Souls, that “Dewar was a dead soul,” the word is limp, rather than limpid. Marias takes for his title the name of the college, the most oddly prestigious, but he wants for us to feel how removed the name is from the life within, or from the beliefs about lives that Oxford can preserve or sustain: as if anyone there really thought on “the soul.”
John Banville, in his introductory remarks to the novel, asserts: “For what lies at the heart of All Souls is that deepest of mystery: other people.” This is perverse: the novel is populated, like the city of Oxford, only with routines, bodies, habits, whims, and chance meetings which conspire to form persons. Hardly a criticism of the novel, this is the novel’s criticism of life.
Oxford is the location because Oxford, in the novel’s vision, preserves persons in just such a state as no other place can; the novel is a fictional memoir, not of life as another person, but as what life was like in a place where being a person meant (means) something else entirely.
The world of the novel, and of the Oxford of the novel, is not one of time and space, but time and motion. In it, personhood occurs as a detached awareness of the paths of movement in which one runs, and the movements one brings about in and around others. Some objects, memories, feelings are caught, as it were, in the membrane, but others, most, pass through; willpower is a matter of chance.
Even the philosophizing feels both contingent and ephemeral; not provisional, because not to be built upon later, but monocarpic; blooming, dispersing itself, possibly wasted, except that nobody cares to ascertain. Like so much in the novel, feelings, relationships, duties, it is disavowed in the moment of its avowal: “(and there is no greater proof of indifference than skepticism.)” Parentheses often serve to catch at the inability or lack of necessity to owning up entirely to what is said or thought.
The most magnificent scenes are closest to Dickens: the automized interactions by which persons find themselves bound, re-constituted, and warped. But not like Dickens because the interactions are always recollections of oneself as another, or as something not a person at all: is that who I was? is that a person at all? is this who I am now or is the recollection of the past a further intricately mechanized interaction? does one only know oneself as a person in the recollection of the automatic interactions, feelings, and habits into which one is lodged, from which one is dislodged? These are not questions raised by the book; they are questions it ponders.
The novel is, as Dickens’ Great Expectations also is, in grisaille: the contours and contrasts remain, but the colors have been replaced by gray, like the Oxford dusks of which we are given several accounts. We are left to wonder whether that world did, or even could, harbor richer vibrancies of tone.
Scene, character, sentences are, like persons, in the novel, always simultaneously coming into being and fading away; narrative structure, conflict, tension, affirmation is always, like other people in the novel, simultaneously approached and retreated away from. Bodies impinge often in the book, setting in motion and moving, but the commitment to imagining the corporeal life is abandoned as arbitrarily as it is commenced; the flesh comes and goes its consequences no greater than a train of thought set in motion, and then set adrift, and forgotten.
The novel finds form to the near formlessness of life in that place. A place at ease with detachment, disavowal, and the dispossessed, all of which are dressed up in cloaks of learning, authority, residence, inheritance—though all of these latter belong to the place, which is invested in the people on account of their being there, which means, for them, on account of their being the sorts of persons that Oxford cradles and confines.
The risk of the novel, a risk it cannot avoid, is in weakening itself by collusion with detachment, disavowal and dispossession. It does not suffer from the narrator’s being a spectral presence, recovered from Oxford by memory, and recovered at the price of some loss of what he was when he was there; that is one of its wonders. But it suffers from the refusal or failure to distinguish between the narrator and the subject; we need a Dante the poet if we are to make sense of Dante the pilgrim. We need Marias the Madrileno to make sense of Marias the Oxonian. But we really only get the latter, though there is a brief interlude where the man in Madrid recalls his surroundings (only to notice that they seem to have slipped away; it is very much a conscious choice that Marias does not give us the Madrid life). We do not need it for any reason of comprehension: but we need it if we are to accept that Oxford, the place, has the power and suasion that the novel claims for it. If we feel that the narrator, escaped from Oxford, looks on the world, experiences life, in much the same way as the man in Oxford did, then it is not the city that is the subject.
But perhaps that is the joke and the end: either that Oxford taints, carried forever after within like Satan’s Hell, or else that Oxford only discovers, and can only entertain (even for abbreviated stays), the persons of abbreviated longings, passive pursuits, and inborn indifferences that the narrator claims it invents.