Thus Bad Begins: The Intimate World of Javier Marías

Javier Marias
Left: Javier Marías, Spain’s most eminent novelist and perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Right: his latest novel, Thus Bad Begins, published in the UK by Penguin and translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

A reader today has access to more stories than ever – and the more there are, the easier they are forgotten. When we read fiction, we do it in the hope that one of these stories will stick: that it will stay with us and widen our existence; that it will happen to us, even though it didn’t really take place; that we can incorporate it into ourselves. A story with a profound, long-lasting impact, rather than a piece of soon-to-be detritus buried in the stream of stories to come.

Javier Marías is an exceptional storyteller. His skilfully plotted novels go well above telling an absorbing and beautifully written story; he somehow produces the plot that will not simply be replaced by the next book you read. An extraordinarily gifted writer, he published his first novel at the age of 19 and has, since, been creating and fine-tuning a universe of his own, a fictional world which is now extremely polished. Glossy in its surface and dense in its essence, his novels are filled with curious, well-read characters and attractive narrators whose erratic minds trap them in their own observations. As readers, we have a privileged access to their perceptive and obsessive thoughts, which portray them as mischievous and hard-to-read individuals. They are insightful and witty, and can be very funny too. As with intriguing people, we feel lucky to know them, but we also feel we ought to be cautious and a little vigilant for there is a sense that they are not trustworthy and that, under the right circumstances, they could also be dangerous. They are generally convinced that everyone can be, in fact. The impossibility of ever knowing yourself or others is a preoccupation of them. ‘So one day you, too, will do something bad’ (315) is what filmmaker Eduardo Muriel tells his young personal assistant, Juan de Vere, the narrator of Marías’s latest novel.

Known for his meditative and lyrical prose, Marías’s world is filled with insightful and playful intertexts and references both to highbrow and lowbrow culture; the attention to language remarks and what they reveal about the text give way to some hilarious passages. When reading Thus Bad Begins, expect to laugh, even when you are inclined to condemn someone’s behaviour. The conversations of the narrator and his milieu are dominated by a latent humour that is often brought to the surface. Language serves de Vere to reflect upon issues that both concern and amuse him. Isn’t it curious, he wonders, that as well as marriage, it is only debts or illnesses that one can use the verb ‘to contract’ for? (The protagonist of A Heart So White already reflected about the semantics of the term ‘status’ and the connotation of ‘to change one’s status’ when getting married.) And yet, despite the humorous tone, there is a disquieting tension in his prose, a pulsing threat that places readers in a somewhat uncomfortable situation. It is the tension implicit in weighing out the importance of one’s acts. ‘What to me was a grave and important fact – perhaps some vile deed I committed – becomes instead merely another story, nebulous and interchangeable, an original tale intended to amuse’ (323). The fact that reality turns into fiction (into ‘a tale to amuse’) once it is rendered into words is certainly a significant preoccupation for Marías. His characters struggle in weighing the significance of their actions and those around them, upon which they reflect incessantly.

In fact, Marías confers his narrators with what he has termed ‘literary thought’, which responds precisely to this meditative reflections and intensive (often erratic) form of thinking. They often ponder on the fallibility of memory; de Vere isn’t the first of Marías’s narrators to say: ‘Or perhaps that isn’t what I thought, but only how I remember it now’ (22). The dangers involved in speaking and revealing something without offering a clear-cut alternative (silence not always being the solution) is another issue upon which they reflect insistently: even though Muriel warns de Vere to be careful with what he reveals (‘don’t let your tongue run away’, 442), it is the tongue which both ‘condemns and saves us’ (492). Through this form of thinking, Marías’s novels often seem to propose one thing and then its opposite; our principles shaken, our opinions shattered. We both warm to and despise some of the characters; and through them, like in a distorted mirror, we see ourselves. And looking inwards has never been more disturbing. His stories are, thus, far from being yet another narration that will be replaced by the next.

The characters’ literary thought and the underlying tension will draw you in and even when you have finished the last page, you will be aware of certain looks and silences; you will not miss someone’s touch again. You will notice not only what is patent, but also everything that is latent in life, and the moon, who watches over with a permanent vigilance, ‘the moon’s somnolent, half-open eye’ (80), becoming aware that ‘right from the very moment we come into the world, things begin to happen to you […], even if you hide away or stay very still and quiet and take no initiative or do anything’ and, as the narrator states himself, he ‘wasn’t totally passive nor did I pretend to be a mirage, to make myself invisible’ (4). At this point you will dive into his world to discover how he was not passive and how, despite his alleged invisibility in Muriel’s household, he shaped his own life by his being there.

The story recounts the family events in which Juan de Vere saw himself involved as a result of taking a job as an assistant of filmmaker Eduardo Muriel and practically moving into his family home. There, he witnesses the unusual and unhappy relationship he has with his wife, Beatriz Noguera, whom de Vere starts following during her outings in Madrid. Divorce is not legal in Spain yet but the post-Franco permissiveness and liberalization have already been set in motion during the time in which this novel is set, the so-called movida madrileña of the early 80s. De Vere joins the party and, like many, favours Chicote and other Madrid venues over sleep. He also takes part in suppers and gatherings with his boss’s circle of friends and acquaintances, which include the eminent professor Francisco Rico, Dr Van Vechten, Roy and occasionally the Hispanist Peter Wheeler, as well as bullfighters and film folk (the producer Harry Alan Towers, Herbert Lom and Marías’s uncle Jess Franco – and even the occasional Bond girl – all play their part in this most original and intriguing novel). During the time he spends in their company, de Vere sees his life irrevocably shaped – often, it seems, despite himself – as a result of what he witnesses. His life becomes tangled with theirs and with the secret that Muriel first does and then does not want him to find out for him. And yet, de Vere asserts ‘How little it takes for what exists not to have existed’ (500), one of the many interesting remarks which envelopes this story in an aura of uncertainty by questioning the irreversibility of it all. Within the intrigues of the novel, the issue of desire arises as an essential part of marriage and youth. Like everything else, it becomes distorted by the passage of time and memory but it emerges as a powerful force. ‘Sensations are unstable things, they become transformed in memory, they shift and dance, they can prevail over what was said or heard, over rejection or acceptance. Sometimes, sensations can make us give up and, at others, encourage us to try again’ (91). Even though Muriel talks only about himself when he mentions falling into a kind of ‘hubris’ (459) at one stage of his life, the term could be adequate to describe the impulsive (sometimes excessive) behaviour of various characters in the novel, whose leitmotif is certainly not the measured or reasonable concept of its opposed notion, sophrosyne.

‘Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.’ That is the Shakespeare quotation Muriel was alluding to when he spoke of the benefits or advisability of – the comparatively minor harm involved in– giving up trying to know what we cannot know, of removing ourselves from the hubbub of what others tell us throughout our life, so much so that even what we ourselves experience and witness sometimes seems more like a story told to us, as it moves further off and becomes besmirched by time, or grows faded by the tick-tock of the passing days or grows dim beneath the breath of all those moons and the dust of all those years, and it’s not so much that we then begin to doubt its existence (although occasionally we do), it’s more that ‘it loses its colour and its importance wanes’ (366). Indeed, the conundrum of whether it is possible and/or desirable to know the truth lies at the core of this narration. There is, as you might have guessed from previous novels, no easy answer. ‘It’s illusory to go in pursuit of the truth, a waste of time and a source of conflict, sheer folly. And yet we can’t not do it’ (25); a failed enterprise that we cannot stay away from, then. Timing is an issue that always plays a part when the irreversible revelation of a truth is at stake. ‘The truth is a category that remains in suspension while we’re alive’ (24), says Muriel, abandoning any hope to attain it, whilst also acknowledging its inevitable pursuit. The outcome of its being unattainable is perhaps even more disturbing because, as de Vere asserts, ‘In the face of ignorance, one is always free to invent’ (106). But we shall not forget that, as Marías has said before, the etymological root of ‘to invent’ is the Latin invenire, which is ‘to discover’ because the discovery of something is not as far removed from its being invented as one might initially think.

Not only is the concept of an absolute truth challenged, time will also render truths and untruths void since the importance and colour of the actions which embodied us and seemed all-encompassing at once do eventually wane. Muriel alerts de Vere to the expression ‘take place’, which is used as a synonym of ‘happen’ or ‘occur’ and which, he asserts, ‘it’s curiously appropriate and exact, because that is precisely what happens with the truth, it has a place and there it stays; and it has a time and it stays there too. It remains locked up inside that time and place and there’s no way we can undo that lock, we can’t travel back to either time or place in order to get a glimpse of their contents’ (25-6). The issue of timing, therefore, emerges as key in the impossibility to attain the truth and it is by accepting this when, even if bad begins, worse, says Shakespeare, says Muriel, remains behind.

As with some of Marías’s best-known novels, the title is taken from Shakespeare (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 4); the phrase is a central motif which is repeated throughout and it refers to various elements of the plotline. Here, one can take it to also refer to the period of the Spanish Transition, if we think of the historical context of the novel. This historical context is only present as a background through a thin veil; the novel takes place largely within the four walls of Muriel’s apartment, a confined enclave that contributes towards the claustrophobic air which tinges the pace of the novel. One of the elements that contributes towards this claustrophobia is the metronome. A symbol of the passage of time (which in Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ film adaptation (1960) spooks the narrator– he believes it is his victim’s beating heart), the metronome makes an appearance in Thus Bad Begins as a new motif in Marías’s universe. ‘The metronome, which ticked away for long periods without a single note or chord being played, as if it were a perpetual threat or a representation of the tempo of her thoughts or the insistent beat of her sufferings’ (128). The ominous beating of the metronome reminds readers of the other rhythmic sound in the flat, namely, the drumming of Muriel’s fingers on his eye patch – cric, cric, cric – (184), ‘ominous and unhinging’ (280), which mesmerises the narrator; seemingly unimportant onomatopoeias that contribute towards the incessant nature of Marías’s obsessive narrators (the protagonist of All Souls noticed Toby Rylands’s laughter – ta, ta, ta – as well as the dog’s walking pace – tis, tis, tis – when, thirteen years later, someone was following him on a rainy night in Your Face Tomorrow).

Marías’s unreliable narrators who, like everyone else are only aware of one part of the story, are perhaps epitomised here in Muriel (not the narrator in this novel, but one of the main characters), whose eyesight is literally partial as he only has one eye and wears an eyepatch on the place of the missing eye. His arbitrary decisions relating to forgiveness and the randomness of his actions seem to be symbolised by this partially sighted nature. And on some of those nights, while he executes his decisions and actions ‘take place’ in his U-shaped flat on Calle Velázquez, ‘our cold, sentinel moon must have blinked its one somnolent eye in disbelief’ (234): only one eye, like Muriel. As is the case in Marías’s fiction, the effects of having or lacking witnesses to our actions plays a significant part in the plot. Marías’s narrators often act as witnesses to their own lives, which has an obvious effect on the reliability of the narration: ‘I couldn’t help looking at us for a moment with the eyes of a spectator or a collector, with the eyes of the imagination, which are the eyes that best remember a scene and best recall it later’ (221), says de Vere. Here, much as when it was stated that imagination can easily replace the truth or the fact that what has happened could have just as easily not have happened, it is clear that there is a carefully and meticulously planned-for narrative ambiguity, a trademark of Marías’s fiction which turns his stories into haunting tales.

Marías’s fictional world is indeed unique and recognisable. It is populated by an array of characters who move across his novels. These recurring characters – generally friends or acquaintances of the narrator or of one of the protagonists – are a mixture of fictionalised real and fictionalised people and are never less than captivating. Marías’s construction of them and of their circumstances ensures that, while a reader familiar with Marías’s world will surely feel like bumping into an old friend, a new reader will not feel left out either.

It is not just Marías’ recurrent characters that parade in and out of his novels, however: there are many motifs that have been making their way into the author’s world for a number of years. With every novel Marías continues the persistent weaving of his world in which a set of novelistic concerns, as well as his unmistakable style and the literary thought that he confers upon his narrators, make up for stories that will be hard to replace. For example, one of the characters states: ‘It’s a very ancient fault in all of us, to see the present as final and forget that it’s inevitably and infuriatingly transitory’ (175). This remark, far from casual, is a preoccupation of the author, which he elaborated in 1978 in the as-yet-untranslated-into-English El monarca del tiempo (Reino de Redonda, 1978). Similarly, Marías’s readers will recognise a number of images in Thus Bad Begins: the snow which falls but does not settle; the attention that narrators pay to women’s legs (they cross and uncross, their thighs visible if the glance is quick, tights laddering easily); the index finger raised to someone’s lips indicating silence; the hand on someone’s shoulder (to keep someone at a distance, also to back them or to threaten); the act of looking up at a window and what lies beneath it or the figure of the eavesdropper who spies on private conversations. These evocative, sensual or unsettling images form Marías’s world, which is also typically filled with comparisons to films that add ‘an element of unreality about it all’ (489), an unreality which, much as in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (The Harvill Press, 1996), is bolstered by these extra layers of fiction within the fictional domain as this narrator behaves ‘imitating Hitchcock’s creations’ (178).

The English version of this novel has a couple of editorial oversights. Whether they are oversights of the skilled Margaret Jull Costa or the Hamish Hamilton editors, I do not know. On page 343, the English translation refers to ‘us’ as the third-person plural, when in fact ‘us’ is first-person plural; third would have been ‘them’. On page 377, the first mention of The World of the Small Man should read The Man of the Small World, which is Vidal’s mistake and what the original reads. This error is the reason why Professor Rico corrects him by saying: ‘You mean The World of the Small Man’, but the dialogue does not make sense if Vidal has used the correct title the first time and the title is then repeated by Professor Rico (as is the case in the English version). These two minor errors, it should be noted, do not affect the flow of the narration at all.

As is widely recognized, Margaret Jull Costa is a meticulous translator whose prose conveys Marías’s style exceptionally and whose idiomatic solutions for Spanish structures are nothing short of brilliant: ‘in a right pickle’ (168) is an excellent old-fashioned translation for Rico’s ‘estaríamos medrados’, as is ‘wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am’ (166) for ‘polvo echado, visita terminada’. She confidently uses English idioms where Marías does not, which is an efficient way of transferring some of the sarcasm in the characters’ speech: ‘best to call a spade a spade’ (177) is used to translate ‘mejor entendernos’, while she uses ‘pleased as punch’ (401) for ‘encantados’ and translates ‘gente que siempre ha sabido favorecerse’ as ‘people who have always known which side their bread was buttered on’ (396). Like I said, nothing short of brilliant. As is the case with some translations, humour is often one of the most problematic elements to render into the target text. She does a marvelous job in this regard too, especially when a gulf opens between two cultures and she rises to the challenge of breaching it with her translation. The scene of Juan’s encounter with the nun is an interesting example; Spanish readers are likely to find Juan’s accusatory remark: ‘Haga el favor de no llamarme “hijo”, madre’ more funny than its English equivalent, ‘Be so kind as to not address me as “my child”, Mother’ (167). The connotations implied in ‘Haga el favor’ are very powerful and almost impossible to render into English: the use of ‘usted’ with the imperative of the verb ‘hacer’ is relatively old-fashioned and common amongst part of the Spanish population; somehow it conveys perfectly the image of an old Spanish nun, the kind that most Spaniards will have encountered in rural areas. The final address to the young male as ‘hijo’ completes this picture flawlessly. Similarly, all the connotations of ‘haberse dado una buena toña’ are perhaps not present in ‘taking a tumble’ (168). This is not to say that it is not the best option: it is just that in Spanish, as the narrator identifies, ‘darse una toña’ leads him to think of a specific kind of woman from a small Spanish village. The image painted on the Spanish reader with those two utterances is that of a typically Spanish character (both real and fictional), which makes the interaction funnier. And yet the issue here is not the translation but how evocative it is for a Spaniard to put those phrases in the mouth of a recognizably Spanish figure; specific language associated to a specific image. Even if some connotations are impossible to maintain, the way Margaret Jull Costa transports the image into English is genius, particularly when the cultural differences are this significant.

De Vere’s words are, both in Spanish and English, not just witty: with their obsessive dimension, they can be penetrating and unshakeable. To paraphrase Muriel, who warns de Vere that ‘flirting with insanity is never risk-free’ (178), reading Marías is ‘never risk-free’. His voice is likely to echo unexpectedly – and when it does, you can jump right back into his world, a world which may at once enrich and complicate yours, as you wish ‘to remain indefinitely in that world and with those invented people’ (187).

Thus Bad Begins is published by Penguin Books.

Marta Pérez-Carbonell

About Marta Pérez-Carbonell

Marta Pérez-Carbonell is from Spain and lives in the US. She is a professor at Colgate University (NY). She specialises in contemporary Spanish fiction and has taught Spanish literature, translation and Spanish language at the University of Cambridge and Royal Holloway, University of London, where she undertook her PhD. Her first book, The Fictional World of Javier Marías– Language and Uncertainty, is published by Brill.

Marta Pérez-Carbonell is from Spain and lives in the US. She is a professor at Colgate University (NY). She specialises in contemporary Spanish fiction and has taught Spanish literature, translation and Spanish language at the University of Cambridge and Royal Holloway, University of London, where she undertook her PhD. Her first book, The Fictional World of Javier Marías– Language and Uncertainty, is published by Brill.

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