Javier Marías: Thus Bad Begins

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There’s a place in all our reading lives for the author who keeps writing the same book. I enjoy Robert Goldsborough’s continuation of the Nero Wolfe series, with the same wise-cracking narrator, the same idiosyncratic detective and the same general trajectory of the plot (and they’re free on Audible). But my interest starts to flag when I find myself thinking, as I did reading Thus Bad Begins, “He’s done all this before and he’s done it better.”  The characters are interesting and strikingly-drawn and the story is intriguing, but  A Heart So White had that and more. Thus Bad Begins has many reminders of the previous books.  There is the background of the secrets, crimes and betrayals of the Franco era, the plays of Shakespeare, the Oxbridge academic world, an intelligent but rather ingenuous young narrator under the influence of an older man, and a marriage poisoned by something unforgiveable in the past. There is the constant questioning of what we can know of others and what they can even know of themselves:

When many years or even not so many years have passed, people tell the facts as it suits then to and come to believe their own version, their own distorted view of the facts. They often erase them altogether, banish them, blow them away like a piece of thistledown…they convince themself that nothing happened, or that their role in events was quite different from what it actually was.

Coming from his admired employer, Eduardo Muriel, a once-celebrated film-maker, this rather commonplace observation makes a big impression on the narrator, Juan De Vere.  He’s intrigued when Muriel asks him to cultivate his old friend Dr Van Vechten, of whom Muriel has heard something “unforgiveable, the lowest of the low”, to boast of his own sexual exploits to encourage Van Vechten to do the same and thus confirm Muriel’s suspicions. At the same time Juan is fascinated by Muriel’s unhappy wife Beatriz, who is constantly pleading for love and for forgiveness for something she describes as “a little thing” in the past. Muriel seems to loathe her and find her repulsive even though she’s a very attractive woman that Juan himself lusts after. Juan’s pursuit of Van Vechten’s secrets has a fairly predictable outcome; his attempt to understand Beatriz and Eduardo’s relationship ends, as Marías’ stories often do, in the narrator himself being implicated, having done something that can’t be atoned for, something that can’t be told even to the woman he loves best.  In this emotionally-mined world, of course, it’s quite possible that she already knows and chooses not to speak.

We look at each other without saying anything, and perhaps what we’re saying to ourselves is something on which we both agree: ‘And no, no words.’

I saw an experiment recently that demonstrated the primacy effect, in which people’s judgments are affected by the order in which they do a task.  Perhaps there’s something of this in my reaction to Thus Bad Begins.  I loved A Heart So White, which was the first Marías I read, and I haven’t liked any of the subsequent books as much. I did feel that at times his style was almost a parody of itself, which can happen to celebrated authors as time goes on.  But Marías fans might be happy just to immerse themselves in his world yet again, and they won’t be disappointed.

8 thoughts on “Javier Marías: Thus Bad Begins

  1. Thanks. I have a few of this author’s books on the shelf. Sort of sad though when you don’t enjoy their books as much as you used to. IMO it’s a rare author who can maintain a reader’s interest for the writer’s entire career.

  2. Funnily enough, I haven’t read anything by Marias for a few years, partly because I’d seen muted reports of both this novel and his most recent one, Berta Isla. Those long, looping sentences are wonderful, and like you I find his style very immersive, but there’s definitely a sense of him revisiting the same themes…

    1. There’s a bit too much of the long looping sentences here – as I said, at times it almost reads like a parody. “Immersive” is a good word for the reading-Marias experience.

  3. I have read only Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, and loved it. I have so many other books on deck at the moment that I will use this review as an excuse to wait to read another Marías. Thank you.

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