No cure for marriage: Javier Marías, Thus Bad Begins

Javier Marías, Thus Bad Begins (Hamish Hamilton hardback, 2016) 503pp

When I started this blog back in 2013, Javier Marías was one of the first novelists I posted about. He’s surely one of the most important and gifted writers of fiction alive today.

Two years ago I wrote about his 2013 novel The Infatuations (link HERE, with further links there to my several posts on his superb ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ trilogy).

If you’ve ever read Marías you’ll be aware that he tends to work over the same themes, tropes and motifs in most of his work: love and death, fidelity, memory and treachery – in the domestic sphere, especially in a marriage, and the public – justice, truth and lies. Sex features prominently, and Shakespeare. Perhaps most important of all: what we do when we tell stories about these things, or listen to such stories – is it possible to represent reality? Do stories represent reality, like novels?

Marías, Thus Bad Begins Once read, novels are ‘soon forgotten’, Marías wrote in The Infatuations. In his 2016 novel Thus Bad Begins it’s people’s lives that are said to be transitory and forgettable. Most of all of these themes are rehearsed in the opening three pages of the novel. It begins:

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…

Except of course Marías is going to devote 500 more pages to this story, not ‘a few sentences’. One of his better jokes; oddly, for such a dark, disturbing novel, there’s a lot of humour.

He introduces his two central characters, Eduardo Muriel, a director of B-movies, and his wife, several years his junior, Beatriz Noguera. The events our narrator, Juan de Vere or Vera (ie ‘truth’) relates took place in 1980 when he was just 23, and the Muriels some 20 years older than that. Spain was still reinventing itself after that long, estranging dictatorship of Franco, and divorce was still illegal.

Marriage was, then, ‘for life’ in those days, and ‘an escape route’ hard to find: hence the need for deceit, secrets; harder for women, who, if they’d had an extramarital ‘escapade’,  would have to live the life of an ‘impostor’, ‘disguise a new being before it even had a face to show the world’ (one of many resonances from Marías’ previous novels; the Oxford Hispanist Peter Wheeler, a central character in ‘Your Face Tomorrow’, pops up in a bit part). But these bitter thoughts are those of de Vere, who finds it hard to understand why anyone would ‘contract’ a marriage; only disease and death share that verb, as if all ‘augured ill or presaged doom or were, at the very least, painful’:

…but, unlike them, there was definitely no cure, no remedy for marriage, no resolution. Or only through the death of one of the spouses, a death sometimes silently longed for, and, less often, sought or induced or prompted, usually even more silently or in deepest secrecy.

All that would then remain of them would be ‘a brief memory. Or, on occasions, a story. A tenuous, rarely told story, since people tend not to tell stories about their personal life’…

The style is instantly recognisable as that of Marías: that convoluted syntax with its accumulating parallel or subordinate clauses (he habitually deploys ‘or perhaps’, ‘and yet’, ‘I suppose’, ‘or so it seems’ – all of these appear on the first page), which delay resolution and pile on alternative possibilities and modalities. The truth is as elusive or evasive as syntactic closure in a Marías novel.

Therein lies his appeal. He teasingly, with endless circumlocution, spins his thrilling plot from such multiple, beautiful threads – for his plots are comparable to those of great thriller-noir film auteurs like Hitchcock, who’s namechecked prominently in the narrative (there’s a trace of ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Rear Window’ in this one, with its unsettling sense of voyeurism and obsessive, secretive observation of characters, men and women, unaware of the male gaze upon them), or novelists like Hardy, Conrad and Stevenson, all of whom he translated into Spanish (sexual deception and coercion in Tess, perhaps, and a prominent plot device involving a crucial letter; spies, secret agents and skulduggery from the other two authors).

But he does it with a highly original, knowing, postmodern flourish, relishing the telling (and withholding) of his story and his manipulative, entrancing magician’s craft as much as Faulkner, Nabokov and that arch spinner of shaggy dog stories, Laurence Sterne (and yes, he translated all of them, too.)

So this is a gripping, heartbreaking novel of love and betrayal in a marriage, and the shame and remorse of traitors, and desire for vengeance and retribution in the betrayed. Forgiveness is withheld too long; love festers. A tragic marital secret revealed lies at its heart, and its disclosure to the reader, long delayed, is devastating.

The plot of Hamlet provides a kind of template (although Rumour’s Prologue to Henry IV.2 is also a running thread). De Vere is recruited by the wronged husband to act as his spy. Not on the treacherous wife, but on the husband’s lecherous old friend, who he suspects committed ‘vile acts’ against women.

De Vere portrays himself from the outset as a modern Polonius – ‘there’s nothing original about me’ he says, twice (although on the second occasion he adds, ‘nor, I suppose, about any of the others’). He gains the confidence of a man ‘in order to betray him’, a deception that causes him frequent spasms of guilt. Instead of an arras, de Vere spies on his target, engaged in a sordid tryst inside a Catholic sanctuary, from the top of a tree. When he’s challenged by a nun when he descends, the scene is like a comic take on Hamlet’s ‘get thee to a nunnery’ speech.

There are the usual lengthy monologues on all of these key themes. Their presence in this domestic tragedy is linked overtly to their counterparts in the bloodstained, labyrinthine Spanish political past: the stories, crimes, denunciations, blackmail, revenge and brutal atrocities perpetrated during the Civil War, and then worse that followed during the aftermath, then again after Franco’s death.

There was a ‘pact of forgetting’ after Franco, when Spaniards collectively showed ‘open distaste for and aversion to revenge and betrayal’, and ‘fallacious tales’ and brazen, ‘barefaced lies’, ‘secrecy and concealment’ proliferated. They erased or embellished memories, all traces of these earlier crimes and cruelties — a central factor in this novel, echoed in the domestic tragedy enacted in the Muriel household. Private talk mirrors the public discourse; ‘concealment and disguise’ became the order of the day.

De Vere comes to learn the expediency of ‘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 experience and witness seems more like a story told to us…’ And:

Households are full of rejections and slights and mortifications and insults, especially behind closed doors (and sometimes one gets shut inside with them by accident).

Once we learn the ‘facts’ of what happened,

Perhaps it’s best to shrug one’s shoulders and nod and ignore them, to accept that this is the way of the world.

Only then does ‘worse remain behind, because at least it is over. And thus bad only begins, the bad that has not yet happened.’

I’m not sure I get that. It seems to be a philosophy of stoical resignation – Hamlet’s lesson. Readiness is all (an axiom quoted in the narrative).

I didn’t find this ‘public/private’ structure is robust enough to sustain such a lengthy narrative. For the first time in my reading of Marías I found myself wanting to skip yet another meandering, portentous discourse on a philosophical topic that teetered on the edge of banality (so death is final, is it?).

In this post-truth world, however, there’s a sad contemporary relevance to a novel that, despite these longueurs, is still a stirring read.

Apologies that this post has become so long. It’s a long, richly complex novel, and I found it difficult to be brief.

 

‘The evil in the air was corrupting everybody’: Gamel Woolsey, ‘Death’s Other Kingdom’

When I was studying Spanish at school back in the late 60s, my teacher, who then seemed to me an old man, but who was probably younger than I am now, used to beguile us all with his misty-eyed reminiscences of his youthful days in 30s Spain, which seemed to be spent bathing in icy mountain pools and eating delicious peasant food in country inns. Gamel Woolsey’s autobiographical account of her experiences of the outbreak of Civil War in Andalucía in 1936, and in particular the beginning of the attacks on Malaga, belongs to that same era, when the pastoral tranquillity of the country was shattered irrevocably.

My copy is in the Virago Travellers series

My copy is in the Virago Travellers series

Published in 1939, Death’s Other Kingdom is a lyrical and deeply personal record of her feelings and perceptions as the rugged but idyllic village life she shared in Churriana, just outside Malaga (now absorbed into its post-tourist-resort urban sprawl) with her husband, the Hispanist author Gerald Brenan, turned into a nightmare the morning she woke to the news of Malaga burning ‘under a pall of smoke’.

The opening chapter beautifully evokes that pre-war idyll:

It was the most beautiful day of the summer…The sky at dawn was cloudless and the ‘pink band’ of the tropics, the band of rosy light which ascends the sky from the horizon at twilight, rose to the zenith and faded into the growing light. Then the sun rose suddenly with a leap into the air: the long hot southern day had begun.

 It’s a world of placid serenity, when the Brenans did little more, in the summer heat, than ‘bask in the day like lizards, in the shade of the high white garden wall’ which surrounded their big old house with its walls ‘four feet thick’, and its huge garden, ‘gay with bright flowers, immaculate and cool in any weather.’

She describes the place with sensual, poetic fervor:

I always loved waking in Spain. The sun fell in stripes from the slatted shutters on the red and white diamonded tiles of the floor. Noises from the street below floated up; the pattering feet of the milk goats sounded like rain drops…

 More sounds rise up: the ‘melancholy call’ of the fish sellers ‘their hampers full of fresh fish just coming up from the sea on their lean donkeys’ — Sardinas and boqueronis – ‘the food of the poor, the cheapest of fishes.’ Then come the cries of the vendors of ‘grapes fresh and plump’, tomatoes and ‘pimientos gordos’, ‘melons, lettuces and plums, squashes, peaches and pumpkins were passing, a perfect harvest festival going by on donkeys.’

This is the dominant tone of the book: Woolsey’s profound sympathy for village life and the desperately poor rural inhabitants of these remote mountain and coastal pueblos. There are affectionately vivid portraits throughout the book of the Brenans’ domestic staff: Enrique, ‘a gentle, charming young man’, their passionate gardener, and his mother María the ‘severe’ and crotchety but ‘devoted’ cook-housekeeper and her daughter, a ‘melancholy widow’ called Pilar, whose brief experience of romance is cruelly and violently ended, leaving her in sad solitude again.

Woolsey evokes a now largely vanished rural Andalucia:

For a village in Spain is a unity; its inhabitants are like members of a clan, they have a close and indissoluble bond. ‘My village’ is constantly in the mouth of a Spanish countryman. It is more than ‘my country’.

 The villagers view with deep suspicion anyone from a different village, no matter how close; as for the nearby town of Malaga – it’s seen as the abode of evil people.

But when Malaga is set on fire and the air-raids begin, the peace is shattered. Lorries thunder by constantly:

The young men wave their pistols and throw up their clenched fists in a gesture of triumph.

 All is confusion. The ‘Revolution from the Right’ is countered by a ‘Revolution of the Left’. Rumours fly rapidly. Everyone is fearful, most especially of ‘El Tercio’ – the seasoned Foreign Legion ‘worthy of Lucifer’, and its most feared contingent, the Moors, the expectation of whose arrival ‘ran like a cold wave of horror through the countryside’. Patrols enter the house and the countryside looking for enemies. Arrests and imprisonments are commonplace, and summary executions and brutal reprisals from both sides terrify the people. Former friends become mistrustful enemies. Irreparable fissions form in the village’s life. The Brenans are protected from the worst atrocities by their foreignness – Gerald flies a Union Jack over the house and this acts like a lucky charm. But many of their neighbours and friends are less fortunate.

There are vivid descriptions of their visits to Malaga to see for themselves the terrible destruction wrought by the newly erupted Civil War. There are rueful touches of humour: they meet an Englishman in Malaga who regales them with tales of the night the houses around him were torched:

But I suppose it seems worse for British subjects to lose their luggage than lesser races their lives.

 

Most of the narrative relates with grim impartiality the catastrophic impact of the war on the people. A kind of madness grips the civilians, who indulge their ‘uglier instincts’ and take malicious pleasure in spreading stories of atrocities. It’s the ‘pornography of violence’ as she memorably puts it. ‘Hate is the other side of fear’, she suggests, ‘and it was horrible to see and feel this hate-fear rising around us like a menacing sea.’ The people are gripped by the ‘suspicion and bitterness’ that ‘thrive on fear’; ‘the distrust of Spaniards for other Spaniards is bottomless’.

The strangest section of the book is devoted to the Brenans’ providing refuge in their house to the aristocratic family from whom they’d bought it. Well-known supporters of the Falangists, they were in mortal danger if they stayed on in their own estate near the airport, so they accept the offer of a hiding place for their entire family and retinue. It’s an extraordinarily dangerous gesture of generosity, and would have cost the Brenans their lives, foreigners or not, if their guests had been found by the vengeful workers who searched for them and any other Franco supporters. Our sympathies are hardly engaged when Don Carlos, the head of the family, dances with glee on the Brenans’ rooftop as he watches Malaga burn in a fascist air-raid.

Gamel Woolsey (1895-1968) was an interesting character. Born Elizabeth Gammell (her mother’s maiden name; she later shortened it to Gamel and dropped her first name) Woolsey to a wealthy South Carolina plantation owning family, she was brought up with a sense of morality and virtue that are so apparent in this memoir. Her aunt was the author of the Katy books, Susan Coolidge, whose real name was Sarah Chauncey Woolsey.

She had an affair with a member of the literary Powys family, Llewelyn, whom she followed  to England in 1929, settling in Dorset to be near him. There she met Brenan (1894-1987), and left for Spain with him where they settled as man and wife. He had been a member of the Bloomsbury group, and had been romantically involved with Dora Carrington; Gamel was pursued by the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Leftist in politics, Brenan had served as one of the youngest British officers in WWI. His terrible experiences there explain some of his responses to the brutal behaviour of some of their Spanish neighbours when the Civil War broke out, and his determination to help the oppressed, whatever their politics or religion.

In Spain they were visited by a stream of eminent artists, including Virginia Woolf, the Partridges (Frances wrote the Introduction to my Virago edition of DOK), Hemingway and V.S. Pritchett.

The book’s title is taken from T.S. Eliot’s Dante-influenced poem ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925):

Those who have crossed

With direct eyes, to death’s other kingdom

Remember us – if at all – not as lost

Violent souls, but only

As the hollow men

The stuffed men…

 ‘Death’s other kingdom’ is one of three of death’s kingdoms in the poem, and it relates to that heavenly zone entered by those who have left behind a state of spiritual nothingness (in hell or purgatory) and entered into an enlightened state of knowledge where they are capable of seeing the inner truth. The hollow men are those who fail to reach such heights. Eliot was one of Gamel’s favourite poets (she was primarily a poet herself, though she published very little verse or prose in her lifetime), and the line’s significance for her memoir is apt: it could signify the higher truth to which she felt those who experienced war should aspire, rather than the hypocrisy, lies and deception that so many around her (the hollow men) wallowed in when hostilities broke out, who lost sight of their morals and values.