Portrait of the artist as a well-traveled sophisticate, unsentimental littérateur, and cranky film critic.
Very little gets past the narrators of Marías’ recent novels, The Infatuations (2013) and Thus Bad Begins (2016). They’re onlookers, life’s minor characters, bearing detailed witness to a much bigger story than their own. The author proves to be a similarly absorbed and intelligent noticer in this collection of essays and newspaper columns from the past few decades, albeit one sometimes boxed in by a tight space. Although there are longer essays where he flourishes, the pieces often feel a little claustrophobic, and many end when he’s just getting going. Early in the book, Marías keeps himself (and readers) amused writing about family history or Venice, a city whose residents live in a world unto themselves. “Their indifference and lack of curiosity about anything other than themselves and their ancestors,” he writes, “has no equivalent in even the most inward-turning of villages in the northern hemisphere.” The author is at his best writing about books and movies, despite a certain reactionary streak. He takes joy in deriding a profession divided between the self-destructive and self-absorbed. His own idea of an artist-hero is The Leopard author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, who spent his last days reading rejection slips for his only novel. Marías also lets us in on his own writing process: “I force myself to be ruled by what I have already written, and allow that to determine what happens next.” As a cineaste, he’s decidedly old-school; he worships the Western, adores Ann-Margret, venerates It’s a Wonderful Life and (his favorite) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. He may be the only critic alive who believes the 1970s were “the worst decade in the history of cinema.”
A lively collection, on the whole, from a man of the world who is most
comfortable on his own turf.