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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

When I Was Mortal

Javier Marías

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To purchase When I Was Mortal

Title: When I Was Mortal
Author: Javier Marías
Genre: Stories
Written: 1996 (Eng. 1999)
Length: 162 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: When I Was Mortal - US
Cuando fui mortal - US
When I Was Mortal - UK
When I Was Mortal - Canada
When I Was Mortal - India
Quand j'étais mortel - France
Als ich sterblich war - Deutschland
Quand'ero mortale - Italia
Cuando fui mortal - España
  • Spanish title: Cuando fui mortal
  • Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

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Our Assessment:

B : solid if unexceptional collection, with the occasional very nice touch

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 23/3/1999 .
The NY Times Book Rev. . 21/5/2000 Elizabeth Judd
TLS . 10/9/1999 Michael Kerrigan
Die Welt . 27/3/1999 Hans Christoph Buch

  From the Reviews:
  • "Wenn Marķas' Imagination jedoch Raumnot hat und Eile, wie in diesen Erzählungen, dann reißt er wie ein Einbrecher, alles aus den Schubladen." - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "These 12 stories are throwbacks: two are about ghosts; one is a classic whodunit; and nearly all are narrated by reserved, innocuous minor characters straight out of 19th-century British literature. (...) Marias is a startling talent: in this smart translation by Margaret Jull Costa, his prose is ambitious, ironic, philosophical and ultimately compassionate, forgiving of the vulnerability that compels us to destroy." - Elizabeth Judd, The New York Times Book Review

  • "At best, there is an air of consolidation about it, an unexpected caution in a writer accustomed to live more dangerously. (...) Marias himself shows no interest in varying the viewpoint of his tales or of trying on different personas, giving us essentially the same narrator in story after story. (...) There is little sign here of any serious attention to the possibilities of the short-story form as a form; several of these pieces read like lopped-off branches of novel-narrative" - Michael Kerrigan, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Trotz blendender Formulierungen wirkt Marķas' Schreibweise konventionell, und die in den Text eingeschobenen philosophischen Reflexionen sind fad und manchmal von entwaffnender Banalität. Die Kunst des Autors liegt im Handlungsaufbau und in der Charakteristik der Personen." - Hans Christoph Buch, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       When I Was Mortal collects twelve stories, almost all of which were commissioned by newspapers and magazines -- and thus came with some constraints (mainly as to length, sometimes also as to content). Marias has tweaked them a bit for publication, but their origins are still evident -- though not always obviously so: the commission for "Unfinished Figures" required five specific elements, though Marías writes that he can only recall three (the sea, a storm, and an animal).
       Death -- often violent and at the hand of another -- figures very prominently throughout. One story, "Spear Blood", -- by far the longest in the book -- is a mystery of sorts, opening with a murder and then determining the circumstances surrounding it. Others, generally quite effectively, begin harmlessly enough, only to move towards murder or other violent death. (All in all, he perhaps relies on this twist a bit too often.) And in two of the stories the afterlife figures prominently.
       The collection is also filled with a variety of voyeurism: people watching, often unobserved (but also caught in the act). There are even two stories each with two sets of binoculars. Some of the life-stories and episodes characters recount to one another are similarly revealing, almost too intimate to be comfortable, as if seing things one shouldn't see. In "Fewer Scruples" a mother auditions to be in X-rated film -- but it's the story a fellow actor shares with her that is even more brutally revealing.
       Marias comes up with some decent twists, but as far as plot goes most of the stories aren't that remarkable. The pleasure of the texts is in the presentation, and specifically in a few very nicely rendered scenes, such as the way a narrator captures the mental exhaustion of speaking in a language one doesn't speak fluently. But Marías' strengths as a storyteller flourish best when they have adequate space to unfold in -- hence the pleasure of "Spear Blood", where he takes time to construct a more complex narrative, which ultimately also yields more rewards.
       Enjoyable if unspectacular, When I Was Mortal is a fine but not essential story-collection.

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When I Was Mortal: Reviews: Javier Marías: Other books by Javier Marías under review: Books about Javier Marías under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Javier Marías lived 1951 to 2022.

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