The World Is Never Just Politics: A Conversation with Javier Marías

By Gregg LaGambinaFebruary 9, 2017

The World Is Never Just Politics: A Conversation with Javier Marías

Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías

ON NOVEMBER 1, 2016, Margaret Jull Costa’s translation of Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías was published in the United States. Exactly one week later, the country elected a Twitter-obsessed businessman — Donald J. Trump — as president. After a brief reading tour that brought Mr. Marías to receptive audiences in New York and Philadelphia, the author quietly returned home to Spain. News of the publication of Thus Bad Begins ­— as was the case with nearly everything else that tried to find oxygen in November 2016 — disappeared into an abyss darker than the bleak black Manhattan tower that bears the president’s surname in gold lettering.

Back in 2013, with the US publication of his previous novel, The Infatuations, Marías appeared poised to finally gain some traction among American readers. Certainly, more took a chance on that slimmer standalone novel touted as a “mystery,” than those who had been scared off by his 1,300-page novel-in-three-volumes, Your Face Tomorrow, considered by many to be his highest literary achievement. Yet, for every unexpected American success of a novelist in translation (Roberto Bolaño, Elena Ferrante, Karl Ove Knausgaard), there are countless writers such as Marías, for whom a large and loyal US readership remains elusive.

On its own, this would not be news. Marías himself is aware that Americans do not flock to translated fiction in droves. But given that Marías’s name is perennially mentioned on short lists for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and that his work has been translated into 43 languages in 55 countries, and that he has sold more than eight million books worldwide, it’s hard not to wonder: “What’s wrong with the United States?” Though even that question evokes a much different specter today than it did just a few months ago.

The strange case of a social-media-addicted celebrity businessman and television personality ascending to the office of president of the United States is not what Thus Bad Begins is about. Still, as with much of Marías’s fiction, it’s difficult not to sense the presence of Francisco Franco — Spain’s dictator for 36 years, who shares some characteristics with Trump — in the very marrow of Marías’s elegant, serpentine sentences. (Marias’s own father was betrayed after the Spanish Civil War and imprisoned by the Franco regime.) And this is especially true of his latest novel.

Thus Bad Begins concerns Juan de Vere, a 23-year-old man navigating his way through Madrid in 1980, five years after the death of Franco. He lands a post-graduate apprenticeship to the filmmaker Eduardo Muriel and witnesses the director’s unraveling marriage to his wife Beatriz up close, amid rumors (always rumors) both romantic and political. It is a novel that takes place in between historical eras, when Spain was coming to terms with its own recent transgressions — trying to restore trust between its citizens, divided by leftover secrets from during the civil war — and deciding whether or not to give in to the urge to lay blame, turn knowledge into blackmail, or to simply forgive, forget, and dream of a better future.

This is why Thus Bad Begins is a book to be read right now. When the United States currently sits (impatiently) in between its own historical eras — post-Obama; pre-Trump — Marías’s new novel arrives (if on the wrong day) just in time.

The 65-year-old author eschews most technology and writes with a typewriter, and this interview was conducted via his fax machine. Although Marías’s notes instructed me to “not hesitate to improve” his English, this is, after all, a man who has translated Vladimir Nabokov and Shakespeare for Spanish readers. So, to avoid the risk of inadvertently altering his meaning — with a few minor edits — his answers appear here as originally typed (and faxed) from his office in Madrid this past December.


GREGG LAGAMBINA: The narrator of Thus Bad Begins — Juan de Vere ­— considers himself to be “fully formed and finished” and that he knows “his own character.” But, he is only 23 years old and is coming of age after the death of Franco and Spain’s long dictatorship. He doesn’t know enough about the past, he spends his time with older companions that have deep historical ties to the old regime, and he is awaiting an unknown future. This probably describes a lot of 23-year-old men and women in the United States currently, but in reverse. Considering your own perspective and experience, what would you have to say to that young American right now about what you see in Donald Trump and how he or she might prepare for the future?

JAVIER MARÍAS: I do not know what I might say to an American young person after Trump’s election. Probably that, according to my experience with a dictatorship — I was 24 when Franco died — you can always survive bad times more than you think you can when they start, when “thus bad begins.” Though the predictions are terrible, I suppose we must all wait and see what Trump does, once he is in office. It looks ominous, indeed. And [Vice President Mike] Pence does not seem better, perhaps even worse. It is hard to understand that voters in the United States have gone against their own interests and have decided to believe unbelievable things. One of the most ludicrous interpretations of Trump’s victory is that he represents the poor, the oppressed, the people “left behind.” A multimillionaire, and a very ostentatious one to boot? A man who surrounds himself with gilded stuff? A guy whose favorite sentence is, “You’re fired!”? A bloke who has scorned blacks, Mexicans, women, and of course, Muslims in general? He is the elite that he is supposed to fight. Indeed, it is a big problem that nowadays too many people (not only Americans, I’m afraid) don’t know anything about history, and therefore cannot recognize dangers that are obvious for the elder ones (those with some knowledge of history, of course, be it first- or second-hand).

In Thus Bad Begins, I thought of this historical limbo in terms of the characters Dr. Jorge Van Vechten and filmmaker Eduardo Muriel, who exist in the same social orbit, even after knowing what they know about each other both before and after Franco. Their secrets keep them bound to each other. Fascism has a lingering effect that continues on for a while, even without the fascist in place. This made me wonder if those of us throwing the words “fascism” and “fascist” around, after our own election, are misunderstanding fascism. More to the point: Is fascism coming to the United States, or are some of us just using the wrong word?

You can be certain about one thing: With Trump and Pence, fascism would come to America if they could just do what they wanted. That would be their wish, their aim. My hope is that they won’t be able to bring it in full, partly because of the clear separation of powers in the U.S., partly because there would be a very strong opposition to that. Your hope, I gather, is that even an unappealing candidate such as Hillary Clinton got more popular votes than Trump. A dictatorship is only possible if: a) It is installed by a reign of terror, and suppression of dissidents, as was the case in Chile and Argentina in the 1970s, or in Germany, Italy, Spain, and the U.S.S.R. in the 1930s and ’40s; b) Most of the population, either by conviction (Hitler) or by fear, do support the dictator. That can happen, though, more easily than you think. But, while that does not happen, there is still hope. And, at least for the moment, I don’t think it may happen in the States. Of course, we must accept democracy even if we dislike what our fellow citizens vote for. But we must be on perpetual guard, fight back against what is abusive, unfair, or anti-Constitutional. Unfortunately, you may not be using the wrong word — fascism — but it is perhaps premature to use it now.

A lot of critics in the United States (unfortunately, I might be one of them) make reference to your so-called, signature “digressions.” But the term is not correct. You delve, you do not digress. The spot of blood you write about for pages and pages in the first volume of Your Face Tomorrow, for example, is perhaps the opposite of a digression. Is this a term you’ve come to accept as a description of your work? Does it matter? Isn’t writing itself a form of digression — a way of straying from the “topic” of life to create a different one?

I think I both delve (as you say) and digress. But I think it does not matter, or count. I mainly reflect on the characters, the situations, the words used, the details that we usually do not notice in real life, but which stay in our memory (sometimes surprisingly), the ways we relate to each other, the impossibility of knowing anything with absolute certainty, et cetera. But I do not forget I am writing novels, not essays. In the former, you usually have a story, characters, dialogue, a certain progression. I have adopted Laurence Sterne’s motto ever since I translated his Tristram Shandy when I was around 25 (not much older than Juan de Vere): “I progress — as I digress.” Many of the things that look like mere digressions in my novels happen to be an important part of the story, afterwards. And, yes, you are right: writing itself is a form of digression. You can sum up — in a few sentences — even the longest novels, Don Quixote or Anna Karenina. In a few sentences, they all sound rather silly, while in their own words they are not. Literature does not explain, but it shows the world, and how we work. Shows the mystery, as it were, and helps us to understand a little better. At least we see, with some clarity, how things evolve and learn behaviors as well. A description is also a digression and so is dialogue. You could do without any of those things. To write is precisely that, to delve and to digress.

Your novels traverse the fine line between spy fiction and literary fiction. Is there a difference between these genres? Does the MI6 or the FBI have to be invoked for it to be a spy novel, or are The Infatuations and Thus Bad Begins both spy novels?

The same could be said about spying. The simple fact of reading a novel is an “act of espionage,” I think. A purposeless one, perhaps, just in order to understand ourselves better, and the world. But, of course, the novelist does spy on his or her characters, as does the reader, too. Now, if you come to think of my novels, the narrators, and some of the other characters too — they are people who precisely do not want to know, as it is said in the very first sentence of A Heart So White. Knowing is usually imposed on them, and then, sometimes they decide not to tell what they know (as does María Dolz in The Infatuations). So there is in my novels a constant struggle between the desire to know and the convenience of not knowing, the temptation to tell and the wisdom of not telling. Most of them could be termed “spy novels,” but they are rather “anti-detective” novels. Generally, people in them are not interested in finding out.

Within the previous question, is another question. Do you ever work with genre in mind? Do you aim to write within one genre, or to play with all of them at once within the same story?

The latter, no doubt. I have written “genre short stories” (ghost stories, for one), but, perhaps with the exception of my first two (published when I was 19 and 21, respectively, and used parody) never a “genre novel.” Too much effort for that. Too many authors already writing that. I never despised “popular culture,” and I have used it at my pleasure. Hitchcock did that, and yet his films are among the most profound ever made. In a way, I am aware that certain reflections are not acceptable to readers unless they are in an attractive wrapping, so I may take advantage of the wrapping in order to say what I want to say, and make people think a little more than usual. Oh, yes, I might be drier, and renounce humor too. But then my novels (not easy ones, in any case) would not have found over eight million readers, but just a few thousand. Of course, all of this I did intuitively, not as part of a plan. I was hugely surprised when A Heart So White sold 1.3 million copies in German, alone. So all this, I have come to think a posteriori, only afterwards. On the other hand, the unexpected number of readers comes also from the rhythm, the pace of the prose. I am as sure as I can be of that. And that has nothing to do with genre, but with style — that now almost discarded and unprestigious word.

Thus Bad Begins is about many things, but movies play a central role. Cinema and fiction have been able to find successful ways of telling each other’s stories (films about writers; novels about filmmakers) and filmmakers and novelists often envy each other — wishing to do what the other does instead. Do you think fiction will find more and more interesting ways to write about the internet and social media, which threaten to supplant both it and cinema? Can fiction survive this new entertainment too, or will storytelling begin to drift from people’s interest? Will there be no attention left for the concentration it takes to read a novel (or watch a feature film) because, as you write about smartphones in Thus Bad Begins, “they’re in such a hurry, that they tell us things that haven’t happened”?

I don’t know. I can’t know. Surely we are creating some people who are illiterate. They read a short piece (you know, I have been writing a Sunday column for over 20 years in Spain) and they are unable to understand it or summarize it, or they think it says the opposite of what it says, or they decide it says what it doesn’t. That is something very worrying. But I always remind people that literature was always a thing for minorities. The initial print-runs of early 20th-century classics were sometimes 2,000 or 3,000 copies, and it took them years to go out of print and then be reprinted. In a sense, no doubt, there are many more readers nowadays than there ever were. So, no, I don’t think fiction shall perish. We need to be told something, now and then, that is definitive and cannot be contradicted or denied. Everything in real life can be contradicted or denied. Not in fiction. Madame Bovary died the way she did. That is inarguable. That is fact, even if she never really existed.

Novelists are having a much more difficult time with the internet than some other artists. It seems to resist being written about interestingly in the actual work or it interferes with getting the work done. Zadie Smith has admitted that she does not own a smartphone and that her relationship with her writing and reading versus spending time understanding and interacting with online culture is an “either/or” scenario. Will writers and literature ever find a way to co-exist with this new, global trove of information and distraction, truth and disinformation, seriousness (WikiLeaks) and games (Pokémon)?

Well, I don’t have this problem at all. What can I say, then? I don’t own a smartphone. I don’t even use a computer, but go on with my old typewriter and correct and amend by hand. I am not interested in knowing the equivalent to what was in the past just telephone conversations or remarks uttered by someone in the tavern or pub, as it were. Why should I be listening to private conversations? The fact that they are not private anymore does not make them more interesting or important. As for Pokémon, video games — I am not sure I know what they are. The world has become childish to an incomprehensible extent. Even adult readers read novels for young people or kids. I am sorry, but I am interested in adulthood, as I devoted my childhood to childhood, as it ever was the custom. Nowadays too many people want childhood — and its lack of responsibility — to last until death. A serious limitation to humanhood, I think.

Herbert Lom. Of all the film directors and stars — both real and imagined — in Thus Bad Begins, we get a cameo from Herbert Lom. As he plays with his handkerchief in the novel, it’s hard not to think of him in his Pink Panther mode. But he also played Napoleon twice in his career and has the face of a villain. His ability to be taken seriously was sabotaged by his ability to be so convincingly comic. What interested you about him enough to have him speak in the novel and play a larger role than some of the other actors and filmmakers mentioned in passing?

Well, I happened to see him (and Jack Palance) for a while when he was at my uncle’s orders. My uncle, Jesús Franco or Jess Frank, actually made about nine films for British producer Harry Alan Towers, who also features in my novel and worked with Lom, Palance, George Sanders, Christopher Lee, Mercedes McCambridge, Shirley Eaton, Klaus Kinski, among many others. I visited the set when I was 17 or 18 and observed Lom and Lee and Palance for a while. I always liked Lom. He was very short, but scary when he wanted to be. Also comic when he wanted, as you say. He was also an intelligent man and wrote a couple of books. Someone educated, who could take part in the other characters’ conversations without sounding unlikely or false. I feared him (as the narrator in Thus Bad Begins does) in films like El Cid or North West Frontier, seen in my childhood. Also in the unforgettable The Ladykillers by Alexander Mackendrick. In his way, he was great.

Unfortunately, I know very little Spanish. Yet, I intuitively feel that the translations of Margaret Jull Costa are good and as close as I, or any English-language reader, will get to your original writing without being fluent in Spanish. As a translator yourself, is there a universal standard by which all, or most, translations should be judged?

Margaret is fabulous. I think she improves my novels. When I see her work, I still recognize what I wrote in Spanish. Not only the words and sentences, also the pace, the rhythm of the prose, even if Spanish and English are very different. But, having been a translator myself in the past, I know that with patience and skill, everything can be translated, even what is supposed to be “untranslatable.” I recall that some authors I did into Spanish mounted me on a wave — as it were — and cradled me with their particular musicality. That is very helpful. Sterne, Conrad, Sir Thomas Browne, Ashbery, Faulkner did. Yeats, Dinesen, Hardy, Auden didn’t. It has nothing to do with quality. I like to think my prose cradles the reader, also the translator, and helps him or her. Margaret Costa, anyway, is miraculous, and I have been very lucky to count on her.

There is a consensus among your fans in the United States that you should be more widely read here. You are also mentioned perennially as a strong candidate for the Nobel Prize. Do readers (and critics) in the States think about things like success too much — and with the wrong measuring stick — and is your readership as wide and far as you could have ever hoped or wanted it to be?

In general, my readership is far wider than I would have expected, and I consider myself very fortunate. I have written the novels I felt like writing and have never felt any pressure about being successful, or things like that. If I have been successful, it has been unwillingly, so to speak, or by mistake. The United States is not very curious about things not written in English, as you know (only three or four percent of the total output are translations in your country). So, I think I have been lucky to have so many of my titles published in the US. If a wider readership there ever comes, it shall come by itself. I can’t do anything about it. As for the Nobel Prize, the word “perennially” makes me laugh. I never knew anyone with real knowledge of the Swedish Academy’s doings or preferences mentioning my name. Yes, the English betting houses, for instance, had me this year at 16/1 odds, exactly as Bob Dylan. But English bookies are crazy, as everybody knows. Mainly people betting on racehorses. Not many of them have become rich.

In this particular political and historical moment in the United States, what would you recommend people read now, over the next few years, to better understand some of the upheavals we’re experiencing now?

My advice is to read things not having to do with politics. Pauses are necessary, even in the worst of times, and you realize, in them, the world is never just politics. But, if you want to read something vaguely related to the present situation, Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen. He died, as so many others, in a concentration camp. But he was not Jewish, if I remember well, not even a leftist. He saw very soon what Hitler meant, when Hitler was not even “Hitler.” There is an incredible scene in which he recalls he had the opportunity of killing him then, at a restaurant. Good that he didn’t, anyway. As I said, you can’t call someone a fascist until he or she have proved to be so.


Gregg LaGambina is a writer living in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Gregg LaGambina is a writer living in Los Angeles.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!