The unnamed narrator is a visiting professor at Oxford university for two years. He describes Oxford as a place where people do nothing and "where simply being is much more important than doing or even acting". The first chapter describes an individual who embodies these characteristics, Will, the porter to the building in which the narrator works:
"But the person who most clearly gave the lie to all these feigned attempts at activity, and who truly embodied the stasis or stability of the place, was Will, the ancient porter of the building... Will literally did not know what day it was and spent each morning in a different year, traveling backwards and forwards in time according to his desires or, more likely, quite independently of any conscious desire on his part."The rest of the novel is similarly aimless and episodic such that each chapter could stand as a complete piece. The narrator has an affair with a married coworker and walks through Oxford visiting used bookstores looking for books of obscure authors. In that respect this book reminded me a bit of The Savage Detectives (or rather, I think The Savage Detectives reminds me of this book- All Souls was written first) in which some of the narrators spent a lot of time dreamily recounting authors of another generation.
I think this will be a book that I eventually buy and reread. It is an enjoyable read as long as I'm in the mood for a meandering story that isn't plot-driven. The descriptions are lovely and there is a lost dream-like atmosphere that I think would be perfect for a hot summer afternoon. At the same time, this is a difficult read due to the almost non-existent plot.
I think I remember someone once saying that the sign of a good book is that it makes you want to read more. In that respect, this is a good book. Not only do I want to read more of Marias's books but I also want to read those of Arthur Machen, one of the obscure authors that the narrator mentions. An old man, wandering with a three-legged dog, tells our narrator,
"Machen's horrors are very subtle. They depend in large part on the association of ideas. On the conjunction of ideas. On the capacity for bringing them together. You might never see the horror implicit in each of those ideas, and thus never in your whole life recognize the horror they contain. But you could live immersed in that horror if you were unfortunate enough always to make the right associations."Now, don't you want to read one of his books in order to find out what that horror is? I've requested a book of Machen's from the library and so will hopefully be able to find out soon.
As for the book that I'm going to read next. I think that is likely to be Falling Man by Don DeLillo. I also think that I'm going to brave the crowds at the stores later this evening and look for my single book purchase of the month!