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.

 

Javier Marías, ‘The Infatuations’

Javier Marías, The Infatuations. Hamish Hamilton, London, 2013.

…the dead are quite wrong to come back, and yet almost all of them do, they won’t give up, and they strive to become a burden to the living until the living shake them off in order to move on.

The first dilemma facing Margaret Jull Costa, the brilliant translator of The Infatuations, by Javier Marías, was how to render the Spanish title of the original, Los Enamoramientos. There is no direct English equivalent. María, the first-person narrator of the novel, discusses the problem in the text, where she points out that most languages other than Spanish and Italian have the same deficiency; she defines the word thus –

..the state of falling or being in love, or perhaps infatuation, I’m referring to the noun, the concept; the adjective, the condition, are admittedly more familiar, at least in French, though not in English, but there are words that approximate that meaning…Some people think that being in love or infatuated is a modern invention that appears only in novels.

Several of Marías’ central concerns appear here: the nature and etiology of love (and, by implication, of the precarious human condition); the modes of narrating this in fiction – which exists in a state of uneasy symbiosis with reality.

The style is typical, too: it has the intricate, baroque complexity, with mixed registers and loping, cadenced rhythms captured unerringly by the translator, but in all of Marías’ novels this is taken to a higher level – slowly accreting clauses, loosely linked by the punctuation – the paratactic, endless commas in lengthy sentences and paragraphs often pages long, take some getting used to, but they drive the narrative relentlessly and hypnotically. There are verbal repetitions at the level of the sentence and the paragraph but also in the longer view.

Marías, Infatuations One of these crucial refrains that punctuate the narrative like a repeated musical phrase is the concept of ‘envidia’; María admires but also envies the connubial bliss of the Perfect Couple she observes, in her solitude, in the café. When the Perfect Husband, Miguel Desvern or Deverne, is murdered, the grieving widow admits she can feel hate for the ‘instigators’ of the killing, someone perhaps who resented his success, possibly a close colleague. She’d seen this definition in an early Spanish dictionary and wondered how it compared with the English word ‘envy’ (Marías is always erudite, fascinated by words and their significance, how they translate):

‘Unfortunately, this poison is often engendered in the breasts of those who are and who we believe to be our closest friends, in whom we trust; they are far more dangerous than our declared enemies.’ [Covarrubias, Dictionary of 1611]

Marías delights in slowly uncovering (never fully revealing) this murder mystery’s secrets to demonstrate the ironic accuracy of the widow’s cryptic remark, which recurs several times in the narrative: he explores how passion, love, fidelity and treachery can drive our actions and cloud our judgement. When the brutal murder of Miguel takes place, María becomes involved in the consequences in a way that compromises her integrity, her sense of justice, and her loyalty to the man she is enamoured/infatuated/in love with.

Despite these philosophical investigations and narrative digressions, Marías is still a consummate story-teller, the translator of Stevenson and Conrad (as well as the more playful, metafictional Sterne and Faulkner, and of the sonorous, meandering prose of Sir Thomas Browne).

Another refrain is from Macbeth: ‘she should have died hereafter’. Macbeth is reacting to the news of his wife’s death. What does he mean? This riddle permeates The Infatuations: when is it timely for an event to take place? And what if we aren’t ready or able to process its significance? What part does memory play as we listen to the stories our thoughts narrate internally? – ‘sometimes a memory can be a devouring thing’.

This intertextuality is also found in all of Marías’ (not María’s) novels – but it’s not a postmodern game or ostentatious trick, it’s a fundamental feature of the writer’s serious purpose. Two other characters from texts that illuminate this novel are Balzac’s eponymous Colonel Chabert, a soldier pronounced dead on the Napoleonic battlefield, but who miraculously survives and comes back to confront his less-than-thrilled ‘widow’, and Dumas’ Milady de Winter, who in an earlier guise had survived being hanged by the musketeer Athos and had come back to haunt him in another incarnation. The Infatuations is a similarly haunted and haunting novel: another refrain is ‘the dead should not return’.

A related theme is what we do when telling or listening to stories – which also pervades other novels by Marías – as María thinks what the stories she hears and is implicated in might signify (most of the novel represents her thoughts, free-indirectly or directly narrated). This is her lover’s commentary on these fictitious revenants (Chabert and de Winter), and her reflection on his pronouncement:

“What happened is the least of it. It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with…” That isn’t true, or, rather, it’s sometimes true, one doesn’t always forget what happened…

This musing on the fictive representation of reality (‘It’s quite shameful the way reality imposes no limits on itself’) recurs throughout the novel. This leads María to speculate on the events that take place in the story narrated here in terms that often become highly conditional, with intricate modalities:

I find it hard to believe that what should never have happened while you were alive wouldn’t happen once you were dead. Would you want to die knowing that? More than that, you would be encouraging it, procuring it, propelling us into it.

Desvern would have remained silent for a few seconds, thinking, as if he had not considered that scenario before formulating his request. Then he would have given a rather paternalistic laugh…

Her dilemma, like the translator’s over the noun ‘inamoramiento’,  is the subject of this novel: how can she determine the truth-status of the tangled story she’s involved in? Especially, as we’ve seen, as all novels’ plots are ‘imaginary’ and soon forgotten; here is her response to the story her untrustworthy lover is about to tell her to account for his role in it:

Perhaps he is going to deceive me with the truth…Perhaps he’s telling me the truth now so that it will seem like a lie. An apparent or genuine lie.

Marías is probably the most rewarding and original novelist writing today, and here we see him probing and assessing the nature of narrative and the practice of writing and reading narratives at a high level of philosophical and aesthetic cognition, while at the same time conveying a story – a novel of his own – that is gripping, wittily intelligent and exciting. I wrote several pieces about his ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ trilogy a while back; some can be found here, here, here and here.

Marías’ style can be hard work, but if you’ve never read him before I’d recommend you start with The Infatuations, which is perhaps his most accessible novel to date, and then move on to the rest of his back catalogue. There’s so much more to be said about this novel: its wicked humour at the expense of vain, vacuous writers in general, for example (‘Like so many writers, he was a mean, spineless little scrounger’, María thinks of one particularly irritating client), and of Luddites like Marías himself who still tap out their novels on a typewriter, not a computer, much to the annoyance of María, who works in publishing, and would have to scan their typescripts.