Javier Marías on Dictatorship, Shakespeare, and Literary Ghosts
"You know, I hate novels about writers, they are terribly boring and predictable."
Javier Marías is the author of 14 novels, 3 story collections, and 20 works of collected articles and essays. He also happens to be a king. His novel All Souls, released in English in 1992, included a portrayal of John Gawsworth, a British poet who was at one time the King of Redonda, a Caribbean micronation associated with a tiny uninhabited island. The portrayal is said to have so affected Jon Wynne-Tyson, the then-reigning king, that he abdicated in 1997 and left the throne to Marías, who has ruled from Spain ever since.
In the interview that follows I didn’t ask Marías about his monarchical duties, nor about the occasional challenges to the legitimacy of his reign, and I also decided not to interrogate him about the peer titles he has allegedly bestowed on writers he admires: Orhan Pamuk (“Duke of Colores”), W.G. Sebald (“Duke of Vértigo”), A.S. Byatt (“Duchess of Morpho Eugenia”). In my admittedly limited experience, kings like to keep their secrets, and I suppose I also feared that he might make me his fool. I focused instead on his new novel, Thus Bad Begins, released by Knopf in the US this week, translated by Margaret Jull Costa. It is set in Madrid in the 1980s and begins with the following lines:
This story didn’t happen so very long ago—less time than the average life, and how brief a life is once it’s over and can be summed up in a few sentences, leaving only ashes in the memory, ashes that crumble at the slightest touch and fly up with the slightest gust of wind—and yet what happened then would be impossible now. I mean, above all, what happened to them, to Eduardo Muriel and his wife, Beatriz Noguera, when they were young […]
Our narrator, Juan de Vere, is coming to the end of his university degree when he takes a job as the personal assistant to Mr. Muriel, a secretive film director. He is drawn into the married couple’s present and their past. He overhears things that he shouldn’t. He imagines his way into their memories and dreams. Marías’s books have been translated into 43 languages, in 55 countries, and have sold more than 8 million copies throughout the world. Thus Bad Begins, with its long, looping sentences and its characteristic mix of meandering philosophical enquiry with tantalizing plot, is a good reminder that he is one of the best novelists alive. I asked him about his love of Shakespeare, the personal experiences with his uncle that informed the novel, and how his reasons for writing have changed over the course of his career.
Jonathan Lee: You once said that “one of the best possible perspectives from which to tell a story is that of a ghost, someone who is dead but can still witness.” Do you see Juan, the narrator of Thus Bad Begins, as another kind of ghost—a “silent witness” in the life of the movie director he assists?
Javier Marías: I would not say that I see Juan de Vere as a ghost—or, at least, I see him less as a ghost than others in some of my novels. This young man—he tells the story when he is much older, but he is only 23 when the action takes place, in 1980—does finally intervene, unlike, for example, the narrator of A Heart So White. He is not a mere, silent witness, or at least not throughout the whole novel. His doings have an influence on other characters, even on their fates. In the end, you might say he is not more “innocent” than the rest of them. But in a way, yes, you could also say he shares some of the ghost features, in the sense that he tells the story when he is a very different man from the one he was. As if the man he was then is somehow dead when, perhaps in his fifties or so, he tells us the story. The goodness of ghosts as narrators is that they are people—of course, I am referring to “literary ghosts”—to whom nothing else can happen, but they still care for what they left behind, they are not yet indifferent to it, and somehow they try to benefit or harm the ones who have survived them, even if everything that could happen has already happened. It is an interesting perspective, indeed, from which to tell a story, I think.
JL: The titles of your books are frequently taken from Shakespeare—in this case Hamlet: “Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.” Why Shakespeare, and why did this particular line feel appropriate for the new book?
JM: Most authors avoid re-reading Shakespeare and other great predecessors. It may be depressing and dissuading, it may make you think “What is the point in writing anything else?” But, funnily, for me Shakespeare is fertile. He is so mysterious so often, he suggests so many things he did not fully explore, he opens so many byways and side streets, that he prompts me to write a little more. And his words often make good titles, as we all know—there are dozens of titles coming from him, so many that we don’t even know they come from him. In this case, Thus Bad Begins refers to several things: for one, the situation in Spain after a long dictatorship. We did renounce “justice,” for instance, which was bad, but thanks to that, “worse remained behind”—that is, Franco’s dictatorship and the possibility of a new civil war. But the title also mainly refers to the characters in the novel. One of its “themes” is what to do about the past. Must it be ever remembered, or is it necessary to delete it at a certain point, in order to go on? The answer is not very clear to me. And, in fact, that does not worry me.
JL: I’m curious as to the process by which you matchmake a character to a profession. Why did you decide to make Eduardo Muriel, in the new novel, a producer of B-movies?
JM: Many of my characters and narrators are people who, by their profession, have renounced their own voices: a professor (who conveys knowledge previous to him), an interpreter, a ghost writer, an opera singer . . . The character of Muriel has to do with my uncle Jesús Franco, or Jess Frank, the European Ed Wood, as he has been termed. He made hundreds of films of all kinds and sub-genres—in a few of them I participated when I was very young, and saw Herbert Lom and Jack Palance, who feature in the novel, as well as Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski and Mercedes McCambridge—and not even he knew how many. So I somehow know this world. Harry Alan Towers, who also appears in the novel, was his main producer for a number of years, and I met him too.
You know, I hate novels about writers, they are terribly boring and predictable. A B-movie director is much more attractive, as a character.
JL: Another phrase from that same Hamlet passage that struck me as relevant to the novel is “use almost can change the stamp of nature.” Can people, and characters, authentically change?
JM: Well, yes, people can change, people do change—not often for the better, by the way. Sometimes it depends on your taking one particular step, on your making a decision. Then you get used to it, to that choice, and then “the stamp” of your nature is changed forever. Habit is a very difficult thing to quit, isn’t it?
JL: Let me ask about names. One reviewer, on the UK release of Thus Bad Begins, noted that the surname you chose for Juan—de Vere—may deliberately carry a “linguistic echo of verity, truth.” For me, the name brought to mind, as I mulled it over, English aristocracy and privilege, Shakespeare, and the silent film actor Harry De Vere. I wonder how much importance you attach to the process of naming your characters, and I also wonder why certain names, like Luisa, come to be applied throughout your work to so many different people involved in different plots.
JM: There are just a few first names with which I feel comfortable—some are too common, some sound too literary. Luisa is one of them, and I have no problem in using it once and again, for different characters in different novels. Also Marta, Berta, Juan, Miguel, Eduardo . . . As for surnames, I have often used some coming from my family, as with Custardoy, or Ruibérriz de Torres or Roy. I think they are good, and I feel comfortable with them, as they are familiar to me.
In the [new] novel, it is explained that the surname [de Vere] was originally Vera, a rather common one in Spain, and some ancestors of Juan added the “de” and changed the final “a” for an “e”, in order to make it more uncommon. Pretentious people, you know . . . Of course, that allows me to play with Edward de Vere’s name, the “real” William Shakespeare according to some scholars. But no linguistic echo of verity. In fact, readers tend to forget that a narrator in the first person is as much a fictional character as any other. Only, he has the privilege of telling the story as he pleases, and of course he may lie, he may hide facts or feelings, he may be untruthful about his motives and interests. Not everything said by a first person narrator is reliable.
JL: The Infatuations, your last novel published in English, also concerned, to my mind, an isolated outsider eavesdropping on other lives. Does a special relationship exist between that novel and Thus Bad Begins?
JM: Most of my novels are somehow connected. There are “themes” that appear and reappear, such as what to do with what we know: divulge it or keep it to ourselves? I mention that because that is certainly present in those two novels you mention. Or, even, do we want to know what we know? Can we pretend not to know it? Can we erase what we did hear? In A Heart So White, it is said something like this: “Ears do not have eyelids, or ‘earlids.’ We can close our eyes if we expect to see something terrible, but we cannot do that with our ears.” So, that preoccupation was already there, in a novel of 1992.
JL: You have dealt with the Franco years and their legacy in previous novels and stories, but in this book the aftermath of Franco’s reign seems to become more and more of a focus as we turn the pages, the past resurfacing and swamping the present. For Eduardo, “everything has to do with the war.” Did you set out to write—I hesitate to use the word, and have a hunch you will reject it—a “political” book?
JM: No, it is not a political book at all. On the contrary, it is a book on private lives, on people, on characters. Now, they happen to live in 1980, only five years after Franco’s death, and you find then in Spain a situation which is interesting also for people’s lives in general. As I said before, what do we do with the ugly past? Do we need oblivion or remembrance? To what extent? Should we be prisoners of our past or get rid of it? There is a political background, or parallelism, in the novel, that’s for sure. But no more than that. It is interesting to see how the same problems may appear both in the person, individual sphere, and in the collective sphere of a whole country.
JL: Is there a distinction between being a politically-engaged citizen and being a politically-engaged writer? You have written, in addition to fiction, a great deal of journalism.
JM: Certainly there is a distinction. Any citizen should be politically-engaged, and as such I have been writing my Sunday columns for over 20 years now. But writers shouldn’t. Not if they want to be, in their novels, as ambiguous and complex and contradictory as life is, as we all are in our own lives. Whenever I read literature, I am not interested in receiving a message or a thesis or a pamphlet, or a lesson, or a moral. That makes very bad, obvious literature, usually. And we have too much of that, nowadays. Many novels and films “shield” themselves against criticism by being politically correct and defending causes which are popular. It seems as if you are criticizing the good cause if you criticize the novel or the film. Their intention may be good, but the works may be awful, artistically speaking.
JL: There seems to be a preoccupation in your work, as there perhaps is in the work of Laurence Sterne, who you have translated into Spanish, with mistakes. In Thus Bad Begins, Beatriz speaks English “almost like a native” but “sometimes [makes] mistakes” in syntax that give her true past away, and Eduardo Muriel’s actions depend on him dismissing the idea that something he has heard about a friend could be only “a mere calumny or a simple mistake.” Then, towards the end of the novel, this thought is expressed: “‘it took me a long time to learn my mistake. I’m not even sure I’ve learned it now. But what can you do? Life may teach you some bitter lessons and force you to be more cautious, but if that’s not in your nature, those lessons may have an attenuating effect, but little more.” Are mistakes the stuff of good fiction?
JM: Inasmuch as life itself is also full of errors, mistakes, misunderstandings and misinterpretations. I have always said that, even if we speak the same tongue, we are permanently “translating,” trying to grasp the real meaning of other people’s words, when on many occasions not even the speakers themselves know what they really mean. One of my preoccupations is the impossibility of ever knowing anything with absolute certainty, not even what we have lived, what we have witnessed. Everything is or becomes unstable uncertain, memories blur themselves, facts are denied by others, and we doubt. Life consists in that, to a great extent: we constantly grope in the dark, or at least in penumbra, even about the facts in our own lives.
JL: Do you think your work as a literary translator influenced your own fiction?
JM: For sure. Not only did I learn a lot from the authors I did translate, or at least from some of them, notably Sterne, Conrad, Sir Thomas Browne, Stevenson, Faulkner, Nabokov. Translation has also marked my way of writing. In translation you have something that shall never fail: the original text. It is always there, waiting for you to re-write it, to do your own wording. Now, when I write, the moment I have a first draft of one particular page, that acts as an “original text,” to a certain extent. Then you correct, amend, add, suppress, change. But you already have a starting point. It is most useful to me.
JL: When I lived back in Britain I listened to a radio interview you gave to the BBC World Book Club. At one point, I remember an audience member saying that she liked your work, but that the sentences were far too long . . . When did you begin to experiment with the longer, more digressive style of sentence-making that you are now known and (mostly!) loved for, and what effects do you hope this style achieves?
JM: I do not know when, exactly. Not in my first novel—published when I was 19, and not translated into English. But, you see, simple, short sentences are easy, and they can be good to convey simple strains of thought. Sometimes you need longer sentences to convey more complex ideas, even facts. It strikes me that, mainly in the United States and Britain, some critics are surprised by my long sentences. You have in your tradition Faulkner and Henry James, or even Melville. Not to mention Proust in our literary tradition, the universal tradition. What I try to do is give my sentences a rhythm, a pace, almost a musicality—that is very pretentious on my part—that helps the reader to advance, as if he or she was on the top of a wave and is cradled by it, as it were. I wish I did achieve that, but I can’t know, of course. If I did, the readers, or some readers, would not even realize they are crossing very long sentences, they would just be swept over by them, if you can say that in English.
JL: Have your reasons for writing changed over the years?
JM: I guess so. Now I sometimes think I go on writing because what else would I do, if I didn’t? Not a very strong reason, I know. But one thing has not changed over the years: while writing a novel, I think “better,” or at least with more intent, than under any other circumstances. And that is something I would not like to give up or lose, as it is very dear to me.