Best Fiction of 2016?
Thus Bad Begins Javier Marias:
I hope he gets it. He’s being lobbying for it, and for some this should doom him, but I think deserves it. The Nobel committee is full of surprises, but I do think Javier Marias’s body of work has earned him serious consideration. His trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, combines poetic detail, the best elements of English spy novels, Shakespeare (the title is from one of the Bard’s plays,)a biographical portrait of one of Marias’s mentors at Oxford, and sentences which twist and turn and circle back and unravel in ways that stretch our minds in marvelously dark ways. Marias’s sentences have been compared to Henry James’s labyrinthine prose. But Henry’s rarely funny or even witty. Marias’s characters and his prose style almost always has a telling details which brings a gravedigger’s smile, sometimes grim, despite the horror that may be unfolding within the plot. His newest book is yet another chance to travel down the rabbit hole of sentences that twist normal neural pathways in an effort to get at the subtle and seemingly bottomless self-consciousness of the narrator looking back on his actions when he was just 23. The book is told from a sadder and wiser Juan who has come to know too much and yet also falls into what most would see, from the outside, as a success.
Marias’s narrators are always far smarter than just about anyone I have ever met, in fiction or in life, yet they are often a flawed in ways I hope I and anyone else I know, are not. Juan De Vere, a shadowy Hamlet/Shakespeare has the gift of words or at least as they flow through his mind as he appropriates the words of others. De Vere, not a typical Spanish name, is linked to a historical figure , Edward De Vere — one thought to have been, by some people, to be the ‘real’ Shakespeare. The title of the book comes from Hamlet.
I do repent; but heaven hath pleas’d it so
To punish me with this, and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him. So again good night.
I must be cruel only to be kind.
Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.
Hamlet Act 3, scene 4, 173–179
Bad begins and ends Maria’s book. And there are many cases throughout in which being cruel to be kind is what some characters tell themselves. And here and in other works, there is the ever present undercurrent of moral decay — the stinking of Franco’s Spain instead of Denmark. Relationships between husband and wife are beautifully disrobed to reveal the horrible scars of internal hurts from years of the painful thrusts of parried words. Marias is capable of making his plots fit into the thriller genre while also focusing on the ways humans do not communicate in remotely healthy ways, even in the closest of relations. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say it is in the closest relationships in which psychic wounds are deepest and, for some, unending or overwhelming.
Juan’s role as narrator, who, while not a spy, is more than just a snoop. In doing so he is drawn into and participates in the web of what Freud called the family plot. His employer, Eduardo Muriel, a B movie maker, wants him to find out more about a scoundrel who might be about a rival for his wife’s affection. If this is a retelling of Hamlet in any way then the ghost of a husband is looking to see if another man has taken his place. But Juan is not above some erotic thoughts for Eduardo’s wife Beatriz (an allusion to Dante’s muse no doubt). Juan is assigned, by Eduardo, to take on an antic disposition (a young man who loves clubs and the erotics of the young crowd freshly free from the iron bonds of Franco — the main action takes place in 1980, five years after the death of Franco) to draw out Eduardo’s dark adversary. As one should expect of a psychological thriller — things happen. (No concrete plot spoilers here.)
His characters seem to prove Lacan’s famous phrase: “There is no sexual relationship”. There are, however, mind games that are also a part of the way we act toward one another with our bodies in passion, feigned or real. But this book is introspective in ways that incorporate the endless pensiveness of the melancholy Dane. The plot takes time to unfold and there are sudden additions that come in that quote the words and echo the deeds of Hamlet. There are multiple psychic ghosts — each character seems fated to have at least one and for the narrator he is inhabited by voices, as he is gifted with a Funesian-like memory (Jorge Luis Borges) for words spoken to him by others. There are not many soliloquies but there are confessions and speeches given to interlocutors and there are many scenes in which overheard conversations or acts move the plot along its tragic path.
For those looking for a quick read, Marias is about the last place to start. His meditative characters and sentences take time, but they do celebrate the complexities and contradictions of Being and Seeming that is slowly and teasingly pleasurable even amidst the darkness visible. This book represents another addition to his magisterial survey of the failures that happen all too often to people who live together, but in doing so he also seems to describe something that may be, in the fallen world we inhabit, the best we can get. We are all actors and we are all on stage, some of us deserve Oscars and some will not convince anyone except themselves of the truth of their character. Is there anything underneath the rehearsed lines the hand placed inside another’s, the couplings and uncouplings? That is a question that may be as central to our lives as To Be or Not to Be.
Note 1: If Marias deserves the Nobel then his translator, Margaret Jull Costa, deserves an award too. The sentences read beautifully in English. The long and winding roads would seem to me to be a challenge few could trace without mishap.
Note 2: It is unfortunate that Maris’s book was only just released in the US. It has not been reviewed in any of the big media outlets and has not appeared on any best of lists. On the other hand, it has been out for a while in the UK and it did appear several times on the Times Literary Supplement best books list.