DARK BACK OF TIME is an extraordinary work of literature, unlike anything else I have read. But like many good things, it is not readily accessible. Reading it, like reading anything by Marias, requires careful attention, even work. Moreover, for maximum effect, one probably should read at least two other works by Marias before tackling DARK BACK OF TIME (see the last paragraph of this review).
DARK BACK OF TIME is an extended essay on fiction and reality, and how they interpenetrate and influence one another in story-telling and, ultimately, in memory and in history. The springboard for the book is the minor cause celebre occasioned by the publication in England of Marias's earlier novel, ALL SOULS, the setting of which was Oxford University. In large part because Marias himself had taught for two academic years at Oxford, he was immediately identified with the nameless narrator of ALL SOULS. Furthermore, despite Marias's adamant denials, many readers, especially in England, insisted that ALL SOULS was a roman a clef, whose characters were based on real individuals with whom Marias had interacted during his two years at Oxford.
In DARK BACK OF TIME, Marias recounts and expounds on this confusion, this confounding of fiction and reality. Along the way, other subjects are also explored, including identity, death, time, the frailty of memory, the evanescence of life, and how "[e]verything is so random and absurd" (which is closely related to the question of whether there is, or can be, any meaning associated with our lives, and deaths).
Reportedly, Marias has described DARK BACK OF TIME as a "false novel." I don't quite know what he means by that. To me, it is essentially a work of non-fiction, at least insofar as literary essays, imaginative and contemplative in nature, are non-fiction. Some I guess would call it "meta-fiction." Within the pages of the book there are, however, a few flights of pure fancy. There also are extended digressions involving actual minor historical figures not associated with Oxford, people like Wilfrid Herbert Gore Ewart (a WWI veteran and writer, touted by Conan Doyle and T.E. Lawrence, who was mysteriously shot and killed in Mexico City around the moment 1922 became 1923) and Hugh Oloff de Wet (a mercenary soldier who survived imprisonment as a spy in Nazi Germany).
Members of Marias's family also make their appearance, including Javier's older brother who died suddenly, at the age of three, before Javier even was born. This happenstance occasions one of Marias's reflections on the "dark back of time" -- the "what-ifs" and "might have beens" in this world of randomness and absurdity: "If the child had lived longer, I might not have been born or might might not have been the same person, the two things are identical. And so what, if I hadn't been born, and so what, if my brother faded away and said goodbye so soon, as if [time] rushed to rid itself of his incipient will and forced it to cross over to its opposite side, its dark back, transformed into a ghost."
Elsewhere Marias expands on the "dark back of time," such that it becomes a universal or omnipresent concept to him. (The phrase, and perhaps the concept itself, is borrowed from Shakespeare: "What seest thou else / In the dark backward and abyss of time?", The Tempest, act I, sc. ii, line 49.)
There are distinct similarities in style and tone to the fiction of W.G. Sebald (principally "Rings of Saturn" and "Vertigo"), which are highlighted by Marias's use of photographs, although for the most part the photographs in DARK BACK OF TIME are more closely, or obviously, related to the text than in Sebald. Thus, it was intriguing to learn that Sebald was an admirer of Marias's work, and that he provided an endorsement for the cover of the English edition of DARK BACK OF TIME. (For what it's worth, the original German publication of "Schwindel, Gefuhle", or "Vertigo", was in 1990, while DARK BACK OF TIME was not published until 1998.)
Translating DARK BACK OF TIME must have been more daunting and demanding than most books, but Esther Allen seems to have done a superb job. (Still, the book is one of those rare works of literature that I would very much like to be able to read in their original language.)
Finally, to return to the point of preparatory reading: DARK BACK OF TIME undoubtedly will be vastly more rewarding, and easier to get into and understand, if the reader has already read ALL SOULS. Unfortunately, ALL SOULS, by itself, is not a superior work of fiction, at least to my mind. What is a superior work of fiction, and what I think provides an excellent introduction to Marias' style and his existential ambiance is TOMORROW IN THE BATTLE THINK ON ME. Thus, my recommendation would be to read TOMORROW first, then ALL SOULS, and only then DARK BACK OF TIME. That's quite a bit of reading, to be sure, but Marias is one of the truly great contemporary writers and, in my experience, well worth the effort. I look forward, keenly, to reading more of his work.