Marsé was born Juan Faneca Roca in Barcelona. His mother died in childbirth, and he was soon adopted by the Marsé family. At age 14 he started to publish some of his writings in Insula magazine and in a cinema magazine while working as an apprentice jeweller. One of his stories won the
Sésamo Prize, and in 1958 he published his first novel, Encerrados con un solo juguete (Locked up with a Single Toy), which was a finalist of the Biblioteca Breve Seix Barral Prize.
Afterwards, he spent two years in Paris working as "garçon de laboratoire" at the Pasteur Institute and translating screenplays and teaching Spanish. Back in Spain he wrote Esta cara de la luna (This Side of the Moon), repudiated and never included in his complete works. In 1965 he won the Biblioteca Breve Prize with Últimas tardes con Teresa (Last Evenings with Teresa).
He married Joaquina Hoyas and began working in advertising and writing dialogues for films. He wrote La oscura historia de la prima Montse (The Dark Story of Cousin Montse), which was not very successful, and Si te dicen que caí (If They Tell You I Fell), which was published in Mexico due to Francoist censorship and won the Novel International Prize.
In 1974, he started a column in the magazine Por Favor while continuing writing for the film industry. His novel La muchacha de las bragas de oro (Girl with Golden Panties) won the Planeta Prize in 1978, which made him known to the general public.
He wrote two novels about post-war Barcelona, Un día volveré (One Day I'll Come Back) and Ronda del Guinardó, followed by the collection of short stories, Teniente Bravo.
In the 1990s, he received numerous prizes, including Ateneo de Sevilla Prize for El amante bilingüe (The Bilingual Lover) and the Critic Prize and Aristeion Prize for El embrujo de Shanghai (The Shanghai Spell). In 1997 he was awarded the Juan Rulfo Prize for Latin American and Caribbean Literature. After seven years of silence he published Rabos de Lagartija (Lizards' Tails), which won the Critic Prize and Narrative National Prize. Marsé was the winner of the 2008 Cervantes Prize, the most prestigious award for Spanish-language literature.
On 6 March 2014 MacLehose Press will publish The Calligraphy of Dreams.