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Posts tagged ‘Javier Marias’

The Trouble with Secrets


That’s the trouble with secrets, one can never ask for forgiveness.

In the highly refined world of Javier Marías, where any emotion, action, or statement can be surgically probed for pages in order to reveal every nuance and possible interpretation, the bar for what counts as an affront to the system is set frightfully low.  At the outset of Thus Bad Begins, Marías’s narrator, twenty-three year old Juan De Vere, is told by his new boss, the filmmaker Eduardo Muriel, that a friend of Muriel’s, a certain Dr. Van Vechten, has possibly committed some sort of heinous act in the past. It’s Madrid, 1980, five years after the death of Franco. Spaniards are tasting new freedoms, illicit drugs flow freely, the discos are packed until dawn, and unhappy couples await the legalization of divorce. “Is it something to do with the Civil War,” De Vere breathlessly asks? “Did he participate in a massacre? Did he carry out summary executions?” No, Muriel answers. His friend is believed to have “behaved in an indecent manner towards a woman or possibly more than one.” And with that bizarrely unexciting revelation, Marías sets in motion this fascinating, but overlong novel of lies and secrets.

Eventually, a second and somewhat more meaty mystery arises. Why does Muriel, a man deeply offended because his friend might have “behaved in an indecent manner toward a woman,” verbally abuse his own wife night after night? For a dozen years or so, he and Beatriz have had separate bedrooms and separate lives. But on multiple occasions, De Vere has overheard them arguing bitterly, during which Muriel maliciously insults his wife. Apparently, Beatriz once lied to Muriel in a manner that estranged the couple. But this tragic secret has somehow only managed to strengthen the force field that keeps the two clinging to each other despite their almost nightly bursts of anger. What is this terrible lie that Beatriz has told?

...[Muriel’s] was not, to put it in pedantic terms, a quotidian or perfunctory aggression. There was on his part a deep-seated antagonism, vital and pulsating and far from ordinary, and a kind of strangely inconstant desire to inflict frequent punishments. It was as if he had to force himself to remember (once the right ice-cold button had been pressed) that he must behave towards her with a complete lack of consideration, with revulsion and scorn, to make it clear to her what a curse and a burden it was to endure her presence; to mistreat and even abuse her, and certainly to undermine her and make her feel insecure and even hopeless about her personality, her work, her body, and he was doubtless successful; after all, anyone can do that, even the most stupid of us, it’s the easiest thing in the world to destroy and wound, you don’t have to be especially wily or astute, still less intelligent, a fool can easily crush someone cleverer, and Muriel was a clever man.

So far, all of this is standard operating procedure for Marías, who is a master at promising a big reveal and then diving into the minutiae of daily life for hundreds of pages. At one point, De Vere even seems to speak on behalf of Marías’s readers, as he listens to one of Muriel’s particularly long-winded tales :

I had a sense that he was enjoying keeping me hanging on: now that he had agreed to tell me the story, he would do so at his own pace and in his own way. That is the prerogative of the one doing the telling, and the person listening has none at all, or only that of giving up and leaving.

It will take Marías 400 pages before the answer to the initial mystery is finally laid bare, and the revelation of why Muriel’s friend “behaved in an indecent manner” is shockingly anticlimactic. Next, he discloses the secret to the second mystery, and, fortunately, the backstory to the ongoing arguments between Muriel and Beatriz is considerably more interesting than the first disclosure. But even then, Marías takes a leisurely and digressive thirty pages to slowly unwind the surprise.

So, with over 500 pages behind me and just a handful of pages left to go in Thus Bad Begins (the title comes from Hamlet), I found myself thinking that these revelations did not seem worthy of the promise held out at the beginning of the novel. And then, without warning, Marías dropped two bombshells that changed everything. And instantly I began to recognize and track some of the little breadcrumbs that he had dropped along the way and which I had overlooked, thinking they were insignificant. Like a great magician, Marías had me looking in the wrong direction all along.


Lying just beneath the surface of this novel of a marriage and its secrets is the troubling ethos and guilty conscience of post-Franco Spain. On several occasions, Marías’s characters speak about the almost Faustian bargain that Spain made to exit the four-decade era marked by the Spanish Civil War and the rule of Francisco Franco. “One of the conditions for granting us democracy and for that astonishing act of hara-kiri had been an agreement that, to put it bluntly, no one would call anyone else to account,” the narrator tells us. How one was likely to feel about this bargain, depends on which side of the Franco divide one was on. Regardless, “something strange happened.”

The social pact became so internalized that we ended up fulfilling the condition almost too scrupulously, especially when it came to talking about the past. It made good sense for us not to get embroiled in the courts and for the courts not to get clogged up with painful lawsuits that would have made it impossible for us to continue to live together and would have ended very badly. Preferring not to know and not to talk about it was another matter entirely. And yet most people chose that route, chose to remain silent, certainly in public, but often in private too.



There are two images in Thus Bad Begins. The first reproduces an 18th century painting owned by Muriel that depicts a cavalier on horseback. The painter is identified as “Casanova’s brother,” which is to say, Francesco Casanova, the brother of the more famous Giacomo. Muriel often stares at this painting during his often lengthy talks with De Vere. The cavalier looks back over his shoulder in the direction of the viewer, “as if,” Muriel muses dramatically, “wishing to retain, before he rode off, the image of the deaths he had caused.”

The other image is a press photograph of Mariella Novotny, a woman who appears as an extremely minor figure in Marías’s novel. The photograph shows her “wearing a ridiculous and yet very modest hat,” at the moment she is bring arrested by a thug-like FBI agent from the era of J. Edgar Hoover. Novotny was involved in several 1960s sex scandals (including a rumored fling with President John F. Kennedy). She was later associated with the notorious Christine Keeler, the woman at the heart of the Profumo Affair, which brought down the government of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. (If only it were so easy today.) For De Vere, this image demonstrates the “effect passing time has on reality, turning everything into fiction, and when we ourselves are long gone, any photograph of us will suffer the same fate and we, too, will look like invented people who never existed.”


Javier Marías. Thus Bad Begins. London: Penguin, 2016. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa.



Recently Read – January 25, 2013


Three recent books from my Kindle.

1. Javier Marias. The Infatuations. Knopf, 2013. For the moment at least, The Infatuations is my favorite book by Javier Marias. While it doesn’t have the scope of the three-volume series Your Face Tomorrow, it benefits from an unwavering intensity of focus that is both exhilarating and harrowing at times. With five main characters and a noirish murder mystery plot, The Infatuations focuses in on the psychology of the characters and minutely examines the social and interpersonal dance of their interactions.

Maria, the narrator, analyses seemingly every sentence, every movement that the other characters make in her presence. And when there are gaps in her knowledge, she obsessively fills the gaps with speculations, with stories carefully crafted to fit the facts as she knows them. “When we get caught in the spider’s web – between the first chance event and the second – we fantasize endlessly.” There is a continual push-pull relationship between knowledge and uncertainty. Each of the characters hungers to have their questions answered, their fears resolved, their hypotheses confirmed.  And yet each feels equally sure that there is never a final, definitive truth. “Being certain of anything goes against our nature.” Maria works in a Madrid publishing house, which allows Marias to toss off some jibes at the unpleasantness of self-important writers and, at times, to perhaps have a bit of fun at his own expense.

He had a marked tendency to discourse and expound and digress, as I have noticed to be the case with many of the writers I meet at the publishing house, as if it weren’t enough for them to fill pages and pages with their thoughts and stories…

2. David Rose. Vault: An Anti-Novel. Salt Publishing, 2013. An aspiring professional cyclist, who spent the Second World War as a sniper, reads a fictionalized account of his life, retelling the story in his own words and correcting the novel’s errors chapter by chapter. (“Hasn’t he checked any of the history?”) While Vault is not really the anti-novel it sounds like it ought to be, there is a beautiful spareness to Rose’s writing in this short debut novella. 

Surrender to the bias of the weight in my pocket? My God. Is that what my life has been reduced to? Amateurish purple?

Look, I don’t so much mind my life being borrowed. It’s what novelists do. They have to make a living. I understand that. And besides, I can correct it, put the record straight.

What I do mind is having my death stolen.

3. Donald Richie. The Inland Sea. Stone Bridge Press, 2002. When this was originally published in 1971, Donald Richie had already lived in Japan for more than two decades. Richie, who just died last year, was the consummate guide to the people and culture of Japan, and The Inland Sea deserves to be one of the great travel classics. He combined an impeccable insider’s knowledge with the awareness that he would always be an outsider. The reader quickly learns to trust the set of eyes through which we view Japan. As the book moves farther into the Inland Sea, Richie brings us deeply and intimately into his own interior. This edition includes a insightful new Introduction by Pico Iyer.


Javier Marias on Using Photographs


In case you have not already read Oli Hazzard’s substantial and excellent interview with Javier Marías over at The White Review, I highly recommend it.  Among other topics, Marías addresses the use of photographs in his novels, starting with Todas las Almas (All Souls) in 1989, a year before W.G. Sebald inserted photographs into his first volume of prose fiction Schwindel. Gefühle. “I remember the surprise of my publisher then – photographs in a novel? Yeah, why not. It was a really strange thing to do then, now it’s not strange any more of course.”

The main reason is very simple. I discovered reading Erwin Panofsky and others, art historians or art theorists, what a pleasure it is to look at an image and read about it at the same time. When Panofsky describes something it you can check and say, yeah, he’s right, I can see it, I wouldn’t have thought of this but now he mentions it, I see it. And then it’s only fair, if in a novel someone talks about a painting or photograph, to show it to the reader a well. That’s mainly it. There is no hidden purpose or enhancement of things – I’m talking about an image, let’s show the image, let’s allow the reader to see it.

Marías then proceeds to discuss the ethical issue of showing photographs of violence and the long debate he held with himself (and others) before deciding not to include in Your Face Tomorrow a much-discussed photograph of a teenager who had been tortured and murdered during the Spanish Civil War. The episode, he tells us, was based on the true story involving his mother and her brother. (I discussed this ” curious decision of discretion”several years ago when I wrote about Your Face Tomorrow.)

One reason the interview is so fascinating is Marías’ infectious, self-deprecating candor.

If I didn’t know myself, I wouldn’t read my works. If someone came to me and said you must read Javier Marías, Spanish guy, contemporary, written a novel of 1500 pages? Come on. Give me one Dickens I haven’t read and then maybe I’ll read it, but not this contemporary thing by a Spanish writer.

If you want even more Marías, you can find the same interview on his extensive blog and then take some of the other pages for a spin.  Here is a link to my numerous posts on the books of Javier Marías.