Thus Bad Begins

thus bad beginsI was at the library a couple of weeks ago and ran across this book — and a few others — by Javier Marías. “Spain’s premier novelist,” it said, and I discovered that he’s written about seventeen novels, only one of which (Your Face Tomorrow) I’d ever heard of. So I picked this one off the shelf, described on the book jacket as a literary thriller, and dove in — after all, if it was wonderful, I’d have sixteen more!

The book portrays what I’d kind of like to describe as the opposite of a love triangle. A hate triangle? A contempt triangle? The narrator is a young man, Juan de Vere, working as an assistant for Eduardo Muriel, a Spanish film director. His work often brings him into Muriel’s home, and he discovers that Muriel treats his wife, Beatriz Noguera, with contempt and cruelty, verbally abusing her and rejecting her timid offers of reconciliation. Juan doesn’t have any idea why the couple has split with so much vitriol on Muriel’s part, and finds himself sympathizing with Beatriz — and attracted to her, despite the shocking twenty-year age difference. (Eyeroll.)

Then, Muriel asks Juan to investigate something for him. He’s heard that one of his closest friends, a doctor Van Vechten, might have done something really awful, and he wants Juan to find out if it’s true. But he won’t tell Juan any details. Was it something horrible under the Franco regime (whose shadow is over the entire novel)? Was it something personal against Muriel? Was it something about Beatriz? What? All Muriel will say is that it was something vile, something very low, and that he wants to know the truth of the matter. So Juan, his curiosity sparked, begins to poke around, and long-buried history and relationships begin to rise out of the ashes.

I really, really did not like this book at all. For one thing, it was far too long — over 500 pages — and so much of it was just bloviating on about nothing. There were long, long paragraphs full of platitudes and supposedly-deep thoughts that I found almost insanely irritating. The title comes from Shakespeare, and it was readily apparent that the author thought he was incredibly clever for quoting Shakespeare; that reference must have come up about twenty times. Hello, we get it, it’s Hamlet, ghosts arising from the past, thank you, please move on. And the repetition didn’t stop there! There were many, many other phrases and pieces of the book that circled around and around and really could have been cut. The parts about the Franco regime could have been interesting — how does a country deal with a dictatorship after the dictatorship is gone? — but they honestly just drowned in all the terrible bits.

For another thing, Beatriz is only an object in this book. I kept waiting and waiting for her to become an actual character, and she never does. This was simply infuriating. Muriel makes a big deal about how fat she has become, and the narrator earnestly assures us that no! She’s not fat at all! She’s actually very firm and ripe and attractive! Oh my GOD shut up — and that’s not even the worst of it, which I won’t get into so you don’t have to share my pain. She never has her own voice or point of view, unlike all the millions of men in the novel, and then of course the only recourse for her is to kill herself because how else can she express herself? There is so much male gaze in this book that it was like those sheets of googly eye stickers. Ugh.

You’re probably wondering why I finished the book. So am I! I suppose I was wondering what Van Vechten did that was so terrible (by the end, it was an anticlimax, or at least not really a surprise.) I guess I can cross the other sixteen books off my list, huh?

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8 Responses to Thus Bad Begins

  1. Uh, I mean sure, cross away. Why not. But some of those books are different than this one. Better, even.

    I would point to Dark Back of Time (1998) – almost all of Marías’s titles are from Shakespeare – as his best. That novel will make little sense unless you read All Souls (1989) first. These are both novels from when Marías was more of a Nabokovian, at the sentence and conceptual level. Dark Back of Time in retrospect looks to me like the end of that period. My description of his current phase, from an old blog post: “He seems to have come to distrust the idea of precision in language.”

    You would almost certainly enjoy the little book of biographical squibs, Written Lives (1992), which is a kind of candy bowl for readerly folk.

    • Jenny says:

      His current phase looks to me like a bad imitation or pastiche of WG Sebald (even including the photographs), who of course is inimitable.

      I’d accept the idea that he had some good earlier novels. I’d try one, even. I appreciate the recommendation.

    • Are the publishers still putting the praise from Bolaño and Sebald on M.’s books? They probably did not mean this particular book.

      • Jenny says:

        No, but that’s interesting. I haven’t read any Bolaño yet — I’d like to see that influence. Marías’s history as a translator clearly makes itself known in his work.

      • I doubt there’s much influence. There are just a couple of pull-quotes from Sebald and Bolaño, irresistible to publishers and journalists, that follow M. around. But maybe now the publisher has learned to resist. Good for it,

        I have just remembered that M. has been using photos since at least All Souls, which predates Sebald.

      • Jenny says:

        In that case, I’ll just say that Sebald does it much better, and much more interestingly.

  2. Sounds like you “hate read” this one! 😁

    • Jenny says:

      I wanted to like it! And Tom says some of his other stuff is better, which makes sense; he wouldn’t have the reputation of Spain’s premier novelist with schlock like this. But I really did not enjoy this one at all.

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