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Winter 2015

Please Buy One

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Javier Marías

For writers, the Book Fair in Madrid is a unique occasion that really tests our mettle and reminds us that we are not so very different from street vendors and old-fashioned storekeepers. For once in our lives (or once a year), we novelists, essayists, or poets are charged with selling or at least witnessing the sale of what we produce. This is a radical departure, for few other creators of artifacts are so removed from the fate of their artifacts once they’ve been made available to buyers or consumers. We write our books at home, receive published copies of the book at home, read reviews at home, and at the end of the year receive—again at home—a statement giving sales figures which, whether large or small, seem completely abstract to us. It’s rare to see someone in the street or on a beach reading one of your books, largely because almost no one reads in the street or at the beach. I remember my excitement when some very kind or possibly mendacious person told me that on a recent flight he had seen three, yes, three different people reading one of my novels (now I know that all people are different, but the adjective is there simply to emphasise the number three, rather as bullfight posters always used to advertise ‘6 toros 6’). I thought: what a delightful plane, what a very distinguished flight that must have been.

The signing sessions at the Book Fair are not always quite so delightful or so distinguished, but they are always instructive, for they are at once faintly humiliating and vastly amusing, at least for those of us who feel that a little humiliation now and then does us good. The writer arrives at his stand at the appointed hour and sits down behind the counter along with the sales clerks, who have taken the trouble to produce a large poster announcing his name, possibly in vain. His books, old and new, his merchandise, those works conceived and written at home, are laid out before him, and he sits behind them like a decoy, as if his face and torso might lure people in to buy them. Some authors have queues of people waiting and barely have time to look up; others get so bored that they spend their time either reading several newspapers from start to finish or helping out the sales clerks. I imagine, though, that the normal state of affairs is to have some busy times signing books and some periods of idleness and waiting, an alternation that allows three very interesting things to happen: guessing who is going to buy a book, imagining why they are going to buy it, and even eavesdropping on their conversations. People stroll past, pause, leaf through a book, look at the price, think about it, glance at the photo, skim-read the blurb, look at the author, then back at the book. During this whole process, the writer is entirely at the mercy of that potential buyer, and while he may affect indifference or unconcern, he is secretly urging the buyer on, mentally whispering: “Buy, buy.”

I have shared stands and signing sessions with various colleagues, an experience that is both interesting and enjoyable. I remember that Álvaro Pombo, when confronted by such acquisitive vacillation, would mutter in my ear in tones of feigned anguish: “I can’t stand it, I can’t stand them handling my books like that, it’s as if they were handling my very soul!” If the passerby left without buying anything, I would add: “And they rejected it too.” “Well, really!” he would cry. “How dare they reject my soul!” With a colleague beside you, you can play at guessing who is going to buy and who isn’t. I have to say that I have never once lost when betting on the latter category. For some reason, whether it’s the way they stand or look or hold the book, I can tell instantly, from the expression on their face, who isn’t going to buy one of my books, as if incompatibility and rejection were far more decisive and immutable qualities than their contraries.

Another advantage of having a fellow writer for company is that, while you cannot or should not try to convince an undecided buyer to purchase your own book, you can praise your colleague’s book and vice versa. At previous book fairs I’ve recommended many books by Félix de Azúa, with him there beside me, but he is so competitive that he kept a note of the books each of us sold and listed in his column not only every copy sold of his own books—Story of an Idiot Told by Himself and Diary of a Humiliated Man—but also any copies of my books —A Man of Feeling and All Souls—which he judged had been sold thanks to his persuasive powers. Needless to say, as in any game, he cheated.

Another day, when I was on my own at the stand, I, being a man of feeling, felt duly humiliated and idiotic. A young woman happened by and, seeing me alone, asked if I would mind signing a copy of a book she had bought elsewhere. I said no, of course I wouldn’t mind, and then she produced from her bag a novel by Azúa, in which I, with heavy heart, painstakingly forged a dedication in my friend’s name.

It’s not easy to guess why buyers buy, although some are considerate enough to tell you straight out. However, watching them as they haver and hover before reaching a decision helps one to imagine their reasons: sometimes it’s the title, sometimes it’s the cover, sometimes it’s the blurb, sometimes it’s the photo, sometimes it’s the literary supplement which they brandish as if it were the Bible itself. You occasionally catch a buyer looking first at your photo, then at you, then back at the photo and again at you, as if checking that you really are one and the same. Whenever that happens, I remember the first time my photo and I were scrutinized in this way, and it wasn’t very pleasant: I was crossing from West Berlin to East Berlin via the gloomy Friedrichstrasse station, and the Volkspolizei or VoPo on duty was, inevitably, looking back and forth from my passport to me, carefully ticking off each feature before allowing me through: eyebrows, eyebrows; eyes, eyes; nose, nose; lips in the photo, lips in the flesh. It’s as if the close resemblance between a person and his photo were considered worthy of commendation and reward: the VoPo gave me his seal of approval, just as some readers decide in my favor after checking that there isn’t too much of a discrepancy between photograph and reality.

It’s even more amusing and humiliating when people stand looking at the books on display, not realizing that the person responsible for writing those books is actually there. They talk about him in that frank, open way we all do when talking about someone in his absence. Unfortunately or perhaps fortunately, this doesn’t happen often, but often enough for many of us to return home feeling very small indeed. On those rare occasions, you find out precisely what sins you have committed: appearing on TV without a tie, writing a particular article, looking effeminate or unfriendly in a photo, arguing with another writer, being too easily confused with someone else. It’s a real education.

The very best bit, however, is when people tell you stories about your own books instead of you being the one doing the telling. The most delightful tale came from a besotted pair of adulterers, who confessed to me that they had been partly provoked into becoming adulterers by one of my novels. Since things weren’t working out for them, and since both they and their respective spouses were suffering, I initially felt terribly guilty and almost regretted having written the book. Later, though, I couldn’t help wondering what happened to them. Generally speaking, buyers are deferential and even understanding. Another of my fellow writers—all right, yes, Pombo again—would kick up a fuss whenever someone bought one of my books: “But how is it possible,” he would cry, “how can you possibly buy his novel and not buy one of mine? How absurd!” My fellow human beings rose greatly in my estimation, for nearly all those on the receiving end of my colleague’s reproaches obediently took out their wallets or purses again and bought one of his books too. I would never be as bold as he, but I must confess that, more than once, I have found myself thinking what for centuries far less fortunate people have had to say out loud: “Buy one, will you, Miss. Please, Sir, buy one.”

(Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa)

Javier Marías, Spain's foremost contemporary novelist, has had his work translated into more than forty languages; his latest novel, Asi empieza el malo, was published in Spain in September. Margaret Jull Costa has been his translator since 1992; her most recent publication is Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós, published by the New York Review of Books, and she has just been awarded an OBE for her services to literature.

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