Javier Marías is one of Spain’s most celebrated novelists, a master of the form whose digressive, metaphysical books, sometimes disguised as thrillers, have made him a perpetual contender for the Nobel Prize in literature.
In Europe, his elegant, ruminative style — often compared to Proust or Henry James — has led to a towering literary reputation. One of his early books from 1992, “A Heart So White,” sold 1.3 million copies in Germany alone. His novels, admired by J.M. Coetzee, Salman Rushdie and the late Roberto Bolaño, have been translated into 42 languages.
Despite these accolades and the acclaimed gifts of his English translator, Margaret Jull Costa, Mr. Marías remains something of a niche author among English-speaking readers.
“Why isn’t he as well known as, say, Orhan Pamuk or Saramago? That’s a real nub,” said Barbara Epler, the president of New Directions, the independent publisher that has brought out 12 of Mr. Marías’s books in the United States since 2000. “I don’t think there are many hyper-intellectual writers who are so obsessively propulsive in their own way. You look at his writing and you say, ‘Oh my God, these long sentences.’ But actually it kind of gets you by the throat.”
Mr. Marías’s newest novel, “Así empieza lo malo” (“Thus Bad Begins”), comes out this month in Spain. While it will not appear in the United States for at least another year, Mr. Marías’s popularity there has been on a steady rise. His previous work, “The Infatuations,” a kind of meditative murder mystery, outsold all his earlier books in the United States and was named a finalist for the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award.
That book was published not by New Directions but by Random House’s prestigious literary imprint, Knopf, further raising Mr. Marías’s American profile. Meanwhile, Vintage in the United States and Penguin Modern Classics in Britain have reissued Mr. Marías’s back catalog in handsome new editions — a move that some have described as a bet on his chances of winning the Nobel.
Mr. Marías writes on an electric typewriter inside a dark, sprawling apartment filled with shelves upon shelves of books arranged by country of origin. Before he became a famous novelist, he was a successful translator of English literature into Spanish who tackled writers as diverse and challenging as Faulkner, Yeats, Wallace Stevens and Thomas Browne. At 25, he translated Laurence Sterne’s pun-riddled, looping 18th-century masterwork “Tristram Shandy.” In Sterne, he discovered a mantra: “I progress as I digress.”
“In a way I think my way of writing my own things has been somehow influenced by my having been a translator,” Mr. Marías said during an interview earlier this year at his apartment near Plaza Mayor, in the heart of the Spanish capital. “I write a first draft of one page — I usually never write three, four or five pages in one sitting. Then, when I have this first draft, even if it’s very imperfect and very hasty, whatever it is, I feel as if I have an original text. I make my amendments and my corrections with a pencil, then I retype it again. Then, if I’m not convinced, I do that again. Sometimes I do it five or six times.”
The result of such labors are sentences that are too long to quote in full, like one from “The Infatuations,” in which he likens distant memories to “fragments of gravestones in the room in a museum that no one visits, as cadaverous as ruined tympana with their fractured inscriptions, past matter, dumb matter, almost indecipherable, nearly meaningless, absurd remnants preserved for no reason, because they can never be put together again, and they give out less light than darkness, are not so much memory as forgetting.”
Mr. Marías, 63, taught translation theory at Oxford and speaks in an amusingly punctilious English that is dotted with fusty Britishisms. He refers to his cleaning lady as a “charwoman” and says things like “Oh dear” if there’s an unexpected knock on the door. During the interview, he smoked constantly, politely getting up after each cigarette to open the window to let in some fresh air. He wore a black suit with no tie and an antique lapel pin with the image of Shakespeare — seven of his books have titles taken from Shakespeare, including the latest, “Thus Bad Begins,” from “Hamlet”: “I must be cruel, only to be kind:/Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.”