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The inventions of Javier Marías

Discussed in this essay:

Thus Bad Begins, by Javier Marías. Knopf. 464 pages. $27.95.

About a third of the way through Thus Bad Begins, the narrator, a young man named Juan de Vere, follows a woman through the streets of Madrid. She is Beatriz Noguera, the wife of his boss, Eduardo Muriel, a movie director who has taken Juan on as a gofer. Eduardo strikes Juan as being an admirable man, intelligent, witty, generous, except when it comes to his treatment of Beatriz. The couple sleep in separate rooms, and at night Juan hears Beatriz beg Eduardo to let her embrace him. (Eduardo’s response: “No, I’ve already given myself an embrace, thank you.”) In moments of irritation, Eduardo calls her a “lump of lard,” or likens her to Oliver Hardy or, more hurtful still, to a cask of amontillado. It’s clear that a secret, a past transgression, lies behind his distaste for her.


Madrid, 1982 © Jean Gaumy/Magnum Photos

Juan considers Eduardo’s taunts unfair. To his eye, Beatriz is remarkably attractive, though out of respect for his employer, and for Beatriz’s status as an older woman (she’s in her early forties; Juan is twenty-three), he nurses only “vague or theoretical feelings of sexual admiration for her” — feelings with no bearing, or none that he cares to examine, on his impulsive decision to find out where her melancholy afternoon strolls take her.

Beatriz isn’t difficult to follow. She’s tall, wears high heels, and knows how to walk in them. Juan can “contemplate at my leisure the sway of her skirt.” All the same, he loses sight of her when she slips through the gateway of a German Catholic sanctuary dedicated to Our Lady of Darmstadt. To Juan, the place has “a strong whiff of the far right about it”: it’s 1980, five years after Franco’s death, and everyone still “knew the stench well, it was unmistakable.” As he prowls through the sanctuary’s garden, searching for Beatriz, he finds himself thinking of the Hitchcock movies he has recently watched with Eduardo, and starts to imagine that “the exquisite James Mason or the ominous Martin Landau” might suddenly confront him.

A movement catches Juan’s eye. In the window of an upstairs room, Beatriz’s back appears and disappears. She seems to be thudding against the glass to a rhythm, as though someone is shoving her around. For a moment, Juan thinks he should call for help, but even before she brusquely turns, leans forward, and grips the windowsill, her eyes shut tight, he understands that “someone — a man — was fucking her . . . standing up, with no preliminaries and fully clothed.”

Juan climbs a tree to get a better look. “The man’s certainly got stamina,” he thinks. But now it’s over; the man steps back and draws himself up. Juan recognizes his white coat and his distinctive fair hair, “high and compact, so that from a distance, he looked as though he were balancing a baguette on his head rather than hair, his hair being the same colour as a lightly baked crust.” Yes, it is Dr. Van Vechten, an old friend of Eduardo’s and the subject of several rumors. What strikes Juan most forcefully is the look in the doctor’s “satisfied blue eyes.” They’re filled not with “sexual satisfaction, as would have been logical, but mental satisfaction,” as though Van Vechten is

thinking “Take that” or “Job done” or — even more puerile — “I certainly gave her a good seeing-to” or perhaps something more comprehensive, “I can still wreak havoc when I want to and the list continues to grow”; as if he wasn’t so much pleased with the physical pleasure he had felt as with his awareness of having experienced it in an unseemly place and at an untimely hour, and with a married woman, the wife of a friend, even if that friend didn’t even want to touch her.

A “disagreeable voice” interrupts these reflections: “What are you doing up there, my child?” An elderly nun is standing beneath the tree. Juan climbs down, subjects her to some nonsensical bluster — in spite of being anxious to make a swift getaway, he finds the time to mull over her antiquated turns of phrase — and hurries back to the street before anyone else can spot him.

The tone Juan uses in recounting this adventure is difficult to pin down. It’s filled with irony, but also takes care to give the comic details and noirish goings-on a certain amount of gravity and reality. The long analytical, self-qualifying sentences, and the frank-sounding way in which they address the reader, treat everything — moral mysteries and hairstyles, the state of the nation and funny names — to the same patient, almost pedantic, open-minded inspection. Elaborate gestures toward decorum mostly serve to underline an unblushing attention to sexual matters and a ribald sense of humor. The cultural allusions feel natural rather than heavy-handed or merely decorative — Juan, a movie buff, thinks of specific scenes from North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much instead of emphasizing a more obvious resemblance to Vertigo — and there’s a similarly unforced air to the suggestion of a link between Spain’s fascist past and the fog of secrets and lies through which the characters tiptoe.

All this is fairly typical of the work of Javier Marías, the leading light of a generation of Spanish novelists that also includes such figures as Enrique Vila-Matas, Antonio Muñoz Molina, and their younger contemporary Javier Cercas. (Roberto Bolaño, a Chilean raised in Mexico, who wrote the books that made him famous after settling in Spain, functioned as a tangential member of their cohort.) In spite of varying regional, political, and cultural affiliations, these writers have several things in common, starting with a profound lack of interest in the folkloric or social-realist imperatives that had weighed on the preceding generation of Spanish novelists. Each responded, early in his career, to the pure dullness of life under Franco by seeking imaginative energy elsewhere — mostly in French, British, and American books and movies. Each has written without much regard for the notional boundaries between fiction and non-fiction or high and low culture. Most of them have also found a subject in their country’s long silence about its civil war and what came after it, a silence that, for a complicated range of reasons, still hasn’t been fully dispelled.

Marías was born in 1951 into a grandly intellectual family. His mother, Dolores Franco, had worked as a translator and anthologist; his father, Julián Marías, was the designated intellectual heir of the liberal philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. One of Dolores’s teenage brothers had been murdered during the civil war, and after Franco’s victory Julián had been briefly imprisoned for having written in defense of the Republic. He was barred from teaching and from writing for newspapers — though not from publishing books: his History of Philosophy (1941) became a standard text in the Spanish-speaking world — and had to look for lectureships abroad, one result of which was that Marías spent a year of his childhood in New Haven, Connecticut.

Not everyone in the family was so respectable. Another of Dolores’s brothers, Jesús “Jess” Franco, became a cult figure on the strength of the exploitation movies he directed in the Sixties and Seventies, such as Vampyros Lesbos, The Bare Breasted Countess, and many more, plus a string of Fu Manchu and Dracula pictures, which he made for the disreputable British producer Harry Alan Towers.

“I was ‘rebellious,’ ” Marías has said of his outlook when he started writing novels, which he did very young: his first two books, pastiches respectively of Hollywood B movies and pre–World War I British fiction, were printed before he reached the age of twenty-two. He wrote much of the first, The Dominions of the Wolf (1971), when he was seventeen, having temporarily run away from his parents in Madrid to stay at his uncle Jesús’s Paris apartment. By “rebellious,” Marías seems to mean that he rejected a high-minded academic career and hoped to make his way independently of his father’s cultural clout. But as Francoism disintegrated — a process that started well before the dictator’s death in November 1975 — there was a growing feeling among the young and impatient that hedonism, frivolity, taboo-busting, and cosmopolitanism weren’t only fine things in themselves but more or less a political duty.

At that time, Marías’s transposition of the rhythms and tones of Joseph Conrad and Henry James into Spanish, in the service of no particular cause other than his own amusement — which is what he was up to in his second novel, Voyage Along the Horizon (1972) — could be seen as, if not a decisive blow against the provincialized literature of the Francoist state and the over-worthily committed opposition writing, then at least as an elegant razzing. (Italo Calvino did something similar in the late Forties, channeling Robert Louis Stevenson as he became disillusioned with the Italian Communist Party.) It was hardly a heroic posture — explaining, maybe, Marías’s scare quotes around “rebellious” — but it wasn’t wholly out of step with the times, and it led him to a more disciplined interest in something that would become the hallmark of his later books: the distancing effect of re-creating somebody else’s voice in another language. Though he continued to publish novels intermittently, Marías was best known in the Seventies and early Eighties as a translator from English. He specialized in daunting projects: Nabokov, James, Laurence Sterne, Sir Thomas Browne.

By his own account, Marías hit his stride as a novelist with The Man of Feeling (1986), which he followed up with All Souls (1989) and A Heart So White (1992). The last of these was championed on German television by the critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, then known locally as the “pope of literature,” and the resulting increase in Marías’s sales and renown there had a knock-on effect across Western Europe. Helped, perhaps, by its being the setting of All Souls and large swaths of his three-part sequence Your Face Tomorrow (2002–07), Marías even acquired a modest readership in the United Kingdom, a country that’s nearly as resistant to translated fiction as the United States. In Spain, where he’s also known for a deliciously scornful weekly column in El País, he’s often touted as a candidate for the Nobel Prize, which might explain why The Infatuations (2011) features a prima donna–ish Madrid-based novelist who works hard at keeping up the pretense that he’s “frequently invited to Stockholm” and spends every spare moment fine-tuning an acceptance speech “in garbled Swedish (those who had heard him practising assured me that his accent was execrable).”

Marías’s mature novels act out a paradox, or a joke. They’re nearly all narrated by people who make a living from words that are, in some sense, secondhand — an opera singer, a translator, an interpreter, a ghostwriter, a publisher — and who are, by philosophical conviction as well as personal temperament, watchful, passive, semisilent types. But they can’t stop talking about it. “One should never tell anyone anything or give information or pass on stories or make people remember beings who have never existed or trodden the earth or traversed the world”: that’s how the first installment of Your Face Tomorrow — a work that adds up, in English, to just under 1,300 pages — begins. Ostensibly tight-lipped characters unfold themselves in sentences of extravagant length, sometimes of great syntactic complexity in the manner of Proust or James, sometimes heaped up using run-on clauses in a way that’s more like Beckett or Céline: in Spanish as well as in translation, Marías often reaches for a comma where normal usage would dictate a period or a semicolon.

His giant sentences — and paragraphs — look like tokens of serious artistic intent, and so they are. As an admirer and translator of Tristram Shandy, though, Marías enjoys the comedy of long-windedness. He likes to let his sentences inflate with irony through sheer duration, or to spiral away from the subject at hand before pouncing on it from an unexpected angle. Another favored move is to establish an authoritative tone and then throw in a dubious assertion — for instance, that the dessert stage of formal dinners at Oxford colleges is commonly referred to as “eating bananas in the moonlight” — or a strong opinion on such topics as hats (worn only, these days, by “enormous phoneys”), men with goatees (“not usually to be trusted”), or a character’s choice of glasses (“the glasses of a rapist or a hard-working civil servant, or both, for they are not mutually exclusive types”). Your Face Tomorrow is mordantly well informed about the less exportable aspects of British popular culture. To a British reader, it’s a bit like watching Proust display a working knowledge of Carrot Top.

Against the sly jokiness, Marías sets a ruminative, quasi-poetic level of language that’s more appropriate to the matter of his novels. Among his main subjects are sex, love, marriage, the impossibility of fully knowing other people, and the way in which persons, events, and actions can take on a ghostly, unpredictable existence once they’ve passed into public and private memory. His characters are troubled by their own and others’ inability not to think of everything as a story; “narrative horror,” the feeling that a humiliating end will reorganize one’s biography around itself, leads its sufferers into gruesome errors. The books rely on echoes and repetitions of situations, as well as of passages and phrases, and often suspend their webs of talk from a narrow range of surefire plot points: adultery, suicide, murder. It’s a fair bet that the narrator of a given novel will have a wife, ex-wife, or girlfriend called Luisa, that the novel’s title will be taken from Shakespeare, and that there will be a cameo appearance by the bald, lovably arrogant Professor Rico, a character with a close resemblance to Marías’s friend Francisco Rico, a storied figure in Spanish academia.

A Heart So White and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (1994) explore this world with freshness, economy, and feeling. Each has an arresting opening — in the former a young woman comes back from her honeymoon and shoots herself; in the latter a married woman gets into bed with a man she means to have an affair with and dies, leaving him wondering about his obligations to her husband — and each contains one of Marías’s most inspired set pieces. In Tomorrow in the Battle, it’s an episode in which the narrator picks up a prostitute, who, he thinks, then doesn’t think, then thinks again, might be his ex-wife. In A Heart So White, it’s a scene in which the narrator, Juan, is the lead interpreter at a meeting between two unnamed politicians, identifiable as Felipe González Márquez and Margaret Thatcher. Juan causes the two prime ministers to have an interesting discussion by deliberately mistranslating González’s offer of tea as “Tell me, do the people in your country love you?” When the backup interpreter, Luisa, doesn’t intervene, Juan knows she’s the one for him.

All Souls, a nameless Spaniard’s recollections of teaching at Oxford University, has some notable scenes, too. They’re sharply comic: a ruthless survey of the drunks and bores at a college dinner, a visit to a nightclub where off-duty academics slobber over bored, gum-chewing girls. The rest of the book is more lugubrious and inaugurates Marías’s practice of incorporating people and stories drawn from reality, complete with grainy photographic documentation. The material in this case — the narrator’s research into an eccentric minor literary figure, John Gawsworth — isn’t, in itself, especially incendiary. But the resemblance between the narrator and Marías, who spent two years in the mid-Eighties teaching Spanish and translation theory at Oxford, caused lasting confusion among his readers and stirred up academic gossip, thanks chiefly to the narrator’s affair with a large-breasted, married colleague. In Dark Back of Time (1998), a figure who is and isn’t Javier Marías explains that he had no such affair, and that he isn’t married to a woman called Luisa or to anyone else, in the course of some heavily stylized reflections on the relationship between life and writing.

Marías’s time at Oxford also provided the germ of Your Face Tomorrow, which wraps up all these themes, and more, into an improvised-looking shaggy-dog story. The narrator from All Souls, now called Jacques Deza, is recruited by a British intelligence outfit that concerns itself with interpreting people’s inner lives. It’s important to the sequence’s project that two of the main characters — Deza’s father and the Oxford grandee who inducts Deza into his new career — have an equivocal existence as not-so-fictionalized versions of Marías’s father and Peter Russell, an illustrious Oxford Hispanicist and former intelligence officer who died in 2006. There are long discussions of the father’s proud refusal to speak out against the man who betrayed him after the civil war, of the professor’s involvement with the security services, of Deza’s theories about history and violence and celebrity culture. And there’s some of Marías’s funniest writing — especially in the middle volume, an extended nightclub scene with a starring role for an oafish Spanish diplomat. Even so, after many hundreds of pages of poeticophilosophical musings, it’s hard not to think of the Borges story, narrated by a figure who is and isn’t Jorge Luis Borges, that speaks of “that basest of art’s temptations: the temptation to be a genius.”

Thus Bad Begins — the title comes from Hamlet — runs to about five hundred pages, but it isn’t a work of such overwhelming ambition. By Marías’s later standards it’s surprisingly conventional, with a tightly organized plot and a more forgiving balance between storytelling and analysis. Eduardo Muriel and Juan de Vere are differentiated from Jesús Franco and the young Marías by way of traditional novelistic devices: Juan is a few years younger than his creator, and the son of a diplomat rather than a philosopher, while Eduardo, unlike Jesús, wears an eyepatch, lives in Madrid rather than Paris, and commands respect as an artist and intellectual. (In keeping with Marías’s seeming fondness for nomenclature that looks faintly absurd in English — such as Custardoy, the family name of a father-and-son team of unpleasant, possibly sexually aberrant picture restorers who appear in several of the books — Juan usually refers to Eduardo as Muriel.) At the same time, the novel has lots to say about the political and social changes that have shaped Marías’s outlook. It’s also a kind of tragedy in comic form, or perhaps the other way round.

The novel is set in 1980, the height of La Movida Madrileña, the tide of all-night partying and sexual license depicted in early Almodóvar movies, which swept the city in the years after Franco’s death. There’s a bit of that in the novel: Juan has a run-in with a civil servant who wears a very short skirt, and he provides a nostalgic description of the late-night traffic jams caused by people with exciting places to get to. But there’s more of a focus on the touch-and-go quality of political reform — no one could be sure that army officers wouldn’t stage a coup d’état, as they did, abortively, in February 1981 — and the widespread agreement that, to keep the Francoist regime in the crypt it had unexpectedly agreed to shuffle off to, it was best to let its former servants go unpunished. Juan isn’t sure that the agreement was wrong under the circumstances, but expresses his sadness and indignation that the regime’s old opponents, “accustomed to losing and to keeping quiet,” found it hard to break their silence, while those who’d prospered under Franco began to reinvent themselves as lifelong democrats.

Silence also hangs over Eduardo’s apartment, where the state of his and Beatriz’s marriage is, Juan soon learns, the result of a failure to keep the past locked up. Staying over one night, Juan finds a hidden doorway that affords him a view of Beatriz, in a revealing nightdress, knocking on Eduardo’s bedroom door. (The novel portrays Juan as an observer who’d quite like to become a participant, along the lines of Vertigo or Blue Velvet.) From the conversation that follows, he understands that Eduardo despises Beatriz as much for having told him of her mysterious transgression as for the transgression itself: “Ah, what a fool you were. . . . Not just once, but twice.” But they’re condemned to stay together, partly because Beatriz still loves him, though at some cost to her sanity, and partly because Franco’s unbendingly Catholic divorce laws are still in place — a circumstance that lets Marías elaborate this consciously Jamesian plotline against a backdrop of coke-fueled bar crawls and one-night stands.

These two zones of silence, public and private, converge in the figure of Dr. Van Vechten, a wealthy pediatrician with a reputation for being one of the most repentant of Franco’s former supporters: he’s even said to have treated the children of blacklist victims for free after the civil war. Someone, however, has told Eduardo such a shocking story about Van Vechten that he refuses to pass it on in the course of asking Juan to find out whether it’s true or not, saying only that it involves despicable behavior toward women. Juan goes to work on the question, as well as, more covertly, on that of his boss’s grudge against Beatriz, and finds himself “beginning to enjoy it, the habit of espionage or voyeurism, whatever you choose to call it, the latter being only a pretentious term to describe the former.” Along the way, he gets to meet the real-life actor Herbert Lom, who — in a digression that’s less digressive than it seems — fills him in on the real-life story of Harry Alan Towers’s lurid legal difficulties.

Marías never seems seriously troubled by the long list of technical challenges he has to tackle to develop all this. With immense adroitness, he makes sure that Eduardo isn’t simply a wronged husband or a vengeful sadist and keeps Beatriz from turning into a doormat, a hysteric, or a vamp, and thereby maintains the reader’s sympathy for both even as the narrative requires them to step into those roles. To the problem of coming up with payoffs spectacular enough to justify the amount of plot strung off them, he offers two solutions. Anyone who’s read his short story “When I Was Mortal” will already know about Van Vechten’s despicable past, so in this new iteration Marías puts more effort into developing the doctor into a memorable monster than into making it hard to guess his secret. As for Beatriz’s misdemeanor, he offsets the staginess of having a long speech in which it’s finally revealed by following that up with a neatly worked twist, a twist that lets Juan become more than a passive observer.

There’s also, of course, a walk-on part for Professor Rico, who extends the novel’s network of Shakespearean references. And there’s a sense, here and there, that Marías is intervening in present-day debates about the desirability of investigating and commemorating Franco’s victims — still a charged proxy battleground for the left and right in Spain. (Marías, not surprisingly, stands somewhere on the left, but Juan has harsh words for those who care about the question “only in an artificial, dubiously idealistic way.”) Above all, the repertoire of trademarked gestures somehow works as an old-fashioned storyteller’s trick. The more Juan likens or contrasts himself to people in films or books, brings in real material, and lavishes equal attention on details large and small to inscrutably comic effect, the more you’re seduced into believing in him. “Sometimes it’s as if, like very young children, we can only really enjoy one drama or one story, albeit with infinite variations,” Juan says on the opening page. It sounds like orotund throat-clearing, but when the thought comes round again, the novel having shown the same patterns working themselves out through generations of characters, you’re more inclined to agree.

is a contributing editor of the London Review of Books. His most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “We Was All Bent, Son,” appeared in the December 2015 issue.

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