It is the first weekend of December, and most of us will soon throw ourselves into non-stop list-making to clarify our sense of the year going by swiftly — to narrow down its big global and political themes, but also to track experiences and changes each of us has personally felt in this twelvemonth. Whether you write this down neatly with bullet points, or just rummage distractedly through your thoughts on your journey over the year, there is a kind of reading that seems to go with the season. There is something about random collections of essays and columns by a favourite writer that jogs the mind, provides a framework for appraisal, allows maverick takes. Two collections published this year particularly fit the bill: Between Eternities and Other Writings by Javier Marias, and Lines in the Sand: Collected Journalism by A.A. Gill.
Marias is a Spanish novelist who increasingly needs little introduction, with the pre-Nobel buzz now as a rule lingering on the odds of his winning the big literature prize. His last two novels, TheInfatuations and Thus Bad Begins , have pretty much sealed his place among the greats — but Between Eternities , a selection of the newspaper column he has published “every Sunday since December 4, 1994 (except for the Sundays of the month of August when he takes a holiday)”, presents quieter, less fraught prose. The collection is translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa, and is introduced by Alexis Grohmann, a professor of Spanish literature in Edinburgh. Grohmann recaps Marias’ childhood, spent between Spain and the U.S. as his father suffered repression under Franco’s rule, and was not allowed to teach in the country for a time. Marias’ father, in fact, helped in writing Spain’s 1978 Constitution. The Franco era, expectedly, forms the backdrop for much of Marias’ fiction.
Grohmann informs us that along with the bracing legacy of resistance, Marias also benefited from his parents advice: “Don’t specialise, learn about everything.” In this collection of columns, then, the canvas refreshingly takes in everything — from meditations on the ways in which old friends are lost to that strange phenomenon so widely experienced in urban living, but so little written about: the late-night sounds from neighbours’ flats that suggests furniture being moved around. On this large canvas, the reader is given the space and metrics to carry out her own stocktaking.
A categorisation that’ll keep me going for a while is Marias’ classification of cities — all large cities — into “the boastful and the conceited”. “Boastful cities,” he writes, “tend to be insecure, childlike and chatty (even vociferous), unenigmatic and exhausting, impatient places eager for praise and in a hurry to captivate.” Among their ranks he includes Paris, Rome and Madrid. “Conceited cities” share with boastful ones “a belief in [their] utter uniqueness”. But: “They are far surer of themselves and, therefore, lazier. They are also enigmatic, more reserved and more elusive. True, they couldn’t live without praise, but they prefer envy. They like to hold back, to appear unassailable…” And in the ranks of these “conceited cities” he lists Barcelona, London, New York, Venice. It’s obvious where Marias’ preference lies. And perhaps, as cities separate between the boastful and the conceited, so do individuals?
Year of the refugee
Gill, who passed away last year after a struggle with cancer, was a British critic too often controversial to be the obvious guide for an exercise in self-appraisal. But Lines in the Sand , as the title suggests, places front and centre one of the biggest moral and humanitarian challenges today: the refugee crisis. “As we sit here,” he wrote in an introduction dated July 2016, “there are 60 million displaced people in the world, carrying all they own on their backs, in their pockets, knowing their children will never get the education they need or deserve.” Gill could not have known of the coming Rohingya flight from Myanmar for safety beginning August 2017, with UN estimates putting the number who have fled since then to Bangladesh exceeding 600,000, but his essay on a visit to a Rohingya refugee camp in 2014 is heartbreaking to read.
Based on interactions with the refugees in the Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh, he wrote: “They pray and they hope and not one of them can tell me why the Burmese turned on them with such implacable violence and hostility.” He added: “And the rest of the world has the historic repetition of turning its back on the problem that isn’t loud or gaudy enough, that doesn’t fit the current plot or threaten anything we want and is too small, too distant and too awkward to try and fix.” Sadly, it doesn’t take even a perfunctory pros and cons list to know that in 2017, the rest of the world continued to keep its back turned on the Rohingya.