Thus Bad Begins

Thus Bad Begins Cover Crop

Americans can be proud that the person many consider Spain’s greatest living novelist and a prospective Nobelist, Javier Marías, is much influenced by writers and films from the United States. Although he has translated a number of English-language authors, the novelists he considers most important for his work are Henry James and William Faulkner. Those influences were not readily apparent in The Infatuations, his last translated novel that was widely and positively reviewed in English. But Thus Bad Begins improves upon that 2013 book by incorporating the baroque style of late James and the historical orientation of middle Faulkner.

A weekly journalist for El País, Marías surely knows the risks of these two unfashionable models, so he employs Hitchcockian plot devices (think Rear Window) and lightens the proceedings with a comic narrator, a bumbler out of Nabokov, another novelist Marías has translated and praised. Like the grandiose confabulator Kinbote of Pale Fire and the fumbling Humbert of Lolita, Marías’s narrator, called “young De Vere” by other characters, has, in Humbert’s words, a “fancy prose style” that attempts to cover up but unwittingly reveals his limitations as a person, his unreliability as an author, and ultimately the serious consequences of his moral obtuseness when the comic “bad” of the title becomes tragic “worse” by novel’s end. The full Humbert quote is “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”

I admit to having a soft spot for writers who employ this kind of narrator or focal character. The moralistic stalker in Poe’s “Man of the Crowd,” the imperceptive captain of Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” Jason Compson in The Sound and the Fury, the false innocent Papa Cue Ball in John Hawkes’s Second Skin, and, most recently, the garrulous dupe in Norman Rush’s Mortals are some of my favorites. They seem peculiarly American, feeling entitled to their viewpoint, confident in their understanding, optimistic, supposedly well meaning in their interpretations and actions — and dangerous to others. I enjoy how the creators of these men make fun of certain readers’ nostalgia for nineteenth-century omniscience, for the passive assumption that fiction writers are earnest truth-tellers and not, fundamentally, elaborate liars like — how could I forget him? — that supposedly naïve, tale-telling hick Huckleberry Finn.

At 450 pages, Thus Bad Begins is certainly elaborate and sometimes over-elaborated as the twenty-three-year-old Juan De Vere struggles to see his acquaintances clearly, understand their complicated relationships, and push forward the investigation his employer asks him to perform as the new assistant of a fiftyish film director from Madrid named Eduardo Muriel. The year is 1980, and Muriel believes a physician friend, Jorge Van Vechten, has done something dishonorable with women in the past; he asks De Vere to entertain the much older man at nightclubs to see what can be learned, an intrigue that leads to some embarrassing moments when the old lecher is more successful with women than the junior informer. Because Muriel and his somewhat younger wife, Beatriz, are unhappy in their marriage (which De Vere learns by some humorous eavesdropping), the randy youth wrongly assumes Muriel believes Beatriz may be sleeping with the doctor. De Vere begins stalking Beatriz, follows her to a religious site, and climbs a tree to get a better view of an upstairs room (Marías is not above parodying the snooping first-person narrator). From the tree, De Vere sees something — that he believes is Beatriz and Van Vechten having sex. But after Van Vechten performs a life-saving favor for the Muriel family, Muriel refuses to hear what his assistant believes he has found. De Vere’s discovery is not wasted, though, for it emboldens him to have sex with Beatriz when she is in psychological extremis.

De Vere’s unexpected shift from loyal acolyte to live-in betrayer is plausible enough but may also be partly the result of Marías’s method of composition, which is the strangest I’ve ever come across. In his Paris Review interview, Marías states that when he begins a novel he has only a very general plan and never alters the first pages (and succeeding pages) that he writes. To avoid being bored, Marías says he changes his plan as his narrator/protagonist develops and changes. Unlike other novelists, Marías does not backfill for consistency. This means some incongruities and even contradictions between early pages and middle pages, so the author may seem no more reliable in plotting than his narrator is in reporting. Accidents, coincidences, and digressions are allowed to control events as they do, Marías suggests, in life.

In the second half of Thus Bad Begins, however, the plotting becomes more pointed and conventional as De Vere turns his attention away from the present of Muriel’s family to how they and others have been scarred by the past of Franco’s dictatorship, which ended shortly before the novel begins. I won’t name names, but De Vere discovers, sometimes by indirection and happenstance, that characters who seemed to be relatively neutral do-gooders, helping leftists despite positions in Franco’s government, were blackmailing helpless women for sex. Ultimately what De Vere stumbles upon leads back to secrets in Muriel’s family, and the political and personal merge — but with little credit for De Vere, who simultaneously advances upon and retreats from a history in which his own diplomat parents may have been complicit.

Although De Vere is telling this story some thirty or more years after the events, he claims to have an excellent memory that permits him to “quote” page-length paragraphs of others’ discourse and to remember equally long passages of his internal monologues. But punctuating and sometimes puncturing his pompously assured style are “seems,” “perhaps,” “might have,” “probably,” and other Jamesian qualifiers. Here is our amateur detective analyzing nameplates outside a building to which he has followed Beatriz:

The name “221B BS” made me suspect it was a detective agency; I couldn’t help associating that strange name with 221B Baker Street, where Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson lived and received their various intriguing commissions. It seemed more likely to me that Beatriz would be visiting them: unhappy people often insist on trying to uncover the full magnitude of their unhappiness, or choose to investigate other people’s lives as a distraction from their own. She could have been visiting Gekoski or Meridianos, whatever they were, or Marius K and his journeys to the Middle East, or someone else, who had no plaque. However, I inclined towards Deverne Films, after all, they were in the same line of work as her husband and she would probably know them.

De Vere remembers all these irrelevant details but shows himself guilty of arbitrary literary associations, projection of his own emotional state, and a suspect “inclination” that may have resulted from finding letters in his name embedded in “Deverne.” Of the dozen or so tenants in the building, De Vere rules out the one — Dr. Arranz — that Beatriz is visiting, an error that might well have shortened his investigation and the novel.

De Vere’s narcissistic personality and verbose style create a “mist” (his word) over the whole account. Marías has said the “filter” through which a story is told is crucial to him. Does Thus Bad Begins imply that De Vere intentionally creates this mist or filter because he feels guilty about taking advantage of an extremely vulnerable woman as several other characters have? Or does Marías imply that three decades after the end of Franco’s regime and after the amnesty provisions of 1977, we can’t be sure of how to distribute guilt for a past rife with turncoats and shrouded in secrets? Maybe by “we” I really mean “I.” The novel includes historical characters — such as the movie producer Harry Alan Towers, the actor Herbert Lom, and the director Jess Franco, Marías’s uncle. I sense that beyond these real people Thus Bad Begins is a roman à clef and that readers in Spain familiar with the convoluted betrayals of their recent past know whom the novel implicates in its compendium of sins.

Marías says that the quality he most values in readers is “patience,” a word that occurs frequently in the novel. Those who don’t read James and Faulkner with pleasure may be impatient with Marías’s slow-developing and unpredictably ramifying plots, but his barbed wit and Nabokovian puzzles entertain as Thus Bad Begins slouches forward, lurches sideways, and winds back upon itself. The title comes from Hamlet — “Thus bad begins and worse remains behind” — and points to a pattern of Shakesperian allusions and quotations worthy of the Russian gamemaster. Because De Vere shares his name with a man sometimes claimed to be the author of Shakespeare’s plays, characters discuss artistic fraudulence and imposture in general.

Like Pale Fire, Thus Bad Begins is metafictional and metalinguistic, for De Vere continually comments on how life resembles fiction, whether written or cinematic, and shares his hyperconsciousness of words themselves, their roots and hidden connections. Some of Marías’s wordplay, though, may have been lost in Costa’s translation, for Thus Bad Begins has occasional odd diction and unidiomatic sentences perhaps more appropriate for the British than the American reader.

Much of Marías’s earlier fiction turns upon secrets, as does The Infatuations. In that novel, the man who dies is named Deverne; De Vere, in the quoted passage above, sees the nameplate “Deverne Films.” In this self-reference, Marías may suggest (it’s always “suggest” or “imply” with Marías) that he considers The Infatuations more like a movie than, ironically, the movie-saturated Thus Bad Begins. The narrator of The Infatuations works for a publisher, but this new novel is a more bookish and more ambitious book because of its range and scale, its coiled stories of Franco’s abuses, and its detailed portrait of a marriage undone by secrets and even unnecessary revelations.

Perhaps the success of The Infatuations has made Marías fearless, for Thus Bad Begins pushes his methods right up to the edge of excess that his earlier narrator notes when she describes a murderer: “He had a marked tendency to discourse and expound and digress . . . which, with few exceptions, are either absurd, pretentious, gruesome or pathetic.” One of these methods is borrowing from writers he admires. Like Faulkner, Marías carries over characters from one novel to another. Along with Deverne, the pedantic Professor Francisco Rico and Dr. Vidal Secanell return in this new book. Like W. G. Sebald, Marías includes some photographs for his compulsive interpreter De Vere to analyze and project himself upon. The abstract discourse and self-referential qualities of Thus Bad Begins resemble the recent fiction of J. M. Coetzee, another writer Marías respects and a man who, like Marías, grew up under an oppressive dictatorship and distrusts all authority, including his own. With these and earlier comparisons, I don’t mean to suggest that Thus Bad Begins is a pastiche of other novelists’ work but to point out that Marías, like his narrator, who continually poses alternatives and possibilities, incorporates influences and allusions to show that any story can be told — filtered — in many different ways, as Marías may well have learned when he translated that encyclopedia of undecideds, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.

Classic comedies end with a wedding, so De Vere describes his in the final pages Thus Bad Begins. He believes his marriage demonstrates what an upright character he is, but Marías undermines this belief when he reveals the shocking identity of De Vere’s bride. A more serious backstabbing of the narrator by the author also occurs near the end when De Vere barely mentions a pregnant woman’s suicide for which readers, who have been carefully investigating De Vere, may find him partly responsible. In Studies in Classic American Literature, D. H. Lawrence wrote that “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” A man whose family and country were victimized by Franco, Marías didn’t need to read American fiction to understand killing. But like the creators of those “innocent” American narrators I mentioned earlier, Marías knows that naïfs such as “young De Vere” are dangerous men.

The Barnes & Noble Review

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