Todas las almas [All souls]
As I sit and listen to the rain banging on the roof of my balcony, I wonder if I can concentrate enough to write about this little novel. All souls, aptly named after the Oxford college (I presume 😉 ) is a first person recount of a Spanish professor’s 2-year stay in the very small, very quaint, very British Oxford and happens to be an enjoyable, even if entirely unexceptional way to spend a few hours.
This 2 year period is marked by the affair with Clare Bays, a professor, just as her husband (and most characters actually), even if Clare is, in fact, the main character in only a few scenes, while the other vignettes feature influential personas, burgeoning hobbies turned to obsession and, of course, the outsider’s obligatory funny take on academic life and British anachronisms – the high table scene. Added to that, there’s the paternal figures (as the author himself calls them): Cromer-Blake, the gay professor, friend, confidant and initiator in “the law of the land”; Toby Rylands, famous writer figure, mentor in a truer sense of the word, supposed ex-spy, there’s Kavannagh, the ironic Irishman; Alec Dewar, with an inquisitorial reputation among his students and an espionage involvement; and even the doorman, an colorful figure well into his 90s whose mind is constantly skipping through time.
They all constitute our Spaniard’s “academic universe” and outside of it we have the florist on the corner, the second hand bookshops and their owners indulging his obsession for some long forgotten writers and the everpresent beggars. A fixation on the whole idea of the “wise, alcoholic street dweller”, born from the fact that said forgotten writers had ended up in anonymity on the streets (none of them was Mozart though, so neither their work nor their fame outlived them) starts bugging our professor until he pictures a similar future for himself. But, of course, as most fantasies born out of loneliness and temporary boredom (his trysts with Clare are stalled by the arrival of her son) are short lived and fickle, once they fulfill their purpose (which here was to make some sort of “full circle” with Clare’s childhood story through a very Lost-like coincidence) they vanish and leave the way for real life. In this case – Madrid, a wife, a new born child, a possible lucrative deal – an average existence in the best possible sense.
I like the Brits depicted by Marias – restrained, polite, cold, with their rules, their sense of what is appropriate and what not, with their turning away from embarrassing situations or public displays of truthful intentions; in fact, I connect to them a lot more than to the impetuousness and openness of the Latins. But most of all, I liked the depiction of each one’s eyes at the high table – who was hiding perfectly well, who accidentally let something slip, who was throwing inappropriate glances and how the eyes of those born far away (even Clare’s, who had spent most of her adult life in UK) eventually betrayed them by mirroring their innermost thoughts.