Sunday, December 25, 2016

Book Review: "Thus Bad Begins" by Javier Marías

Thus Bad Begins (2016)
Javier Marías
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

444 pages

Why do we tend to react so harshly in response to relatively minor deceptions that happen to us personally, while often shrugging off or at least failing to generate sustained indignation over barbarous behavior that we learn has been perpetrated against others, even against friends? This feature of human psychology lies at the heart of Javier Marías’s novel Thus Bad Begins.

Though nominally set in modern day Spain, the story develops as an extended flashback of Juan de Vere, a young man just out of university in the early 1980’s. De Vere works as an assistant to the film director Eduardo Muriel, and, as the novel opens, Muriel has a special request for him: to begin observing closely a friend of Muriel’s, Dr. Jorge Van Vechten. Muriel has apparently learned some disturbing news about Van Vechten, and wants de Vere to help him discover whether it’s true. In answer to de Vere’s repeated attempts to begin his assignment with more details, however, Muriel will only say that he has heard that “the Doctor behaved in an indecent manner towards a woman or possibly more than one,” (43). Thus Muriel leaves de Vere to perform his investigation in the dark --- leaving him at the mercy of his imagination in guessing what the truth might be.

De Vere works at Muriel’s apartment, eventually spending so much time there that Muriel provides him a cubbyhole room in which to sleep. As a result, de Vere gradually becomes a little noticed witness to life in the apartment, where Muriel lives with his wife Beatriz and their three kids, as well as a housekeeper.

De Vere’s intimate view into Muriel’s family life only heightens his curiosity at what Van Vechten could have done to inspire such misgivings in Muriel. Though de Vere generally finds Muriel “one of the most upright, charming, fair-minded men [he] had ever met,” (47), he also observes Muriel regularly behaving coarsely toward his wife in private, often disparaging and belittling her verbally. As de Vere begins his pursuit of the truth about Van Vechten, he struggles to square Muriel’s indignation over what he has apparently learned about the doctor’s “indecent behavior towards a woman”, with his dismissive and derogatory conduct toward his own wife.

Out of this seemingly simple mystery, Marías creates the kind of intriguingly intricate and thought-provoking meditation on human behaviors and idiosyncrasies that runs through so much of his work. His characters exhibit a convincing mélange of good and flawed qualities --- able to demonstrate kindness in some situations while succumbing to temptation in others --- and so provide fertile ground for Marías to elaborate on our human condition. And what Marías sees deep inside us, what he reveals to us about ourselves, can arise suddenly in his telling, a moment of self-awareness for a character that for the reader comes with a jolt of recognition, hitting far too close to home:
… one of those griefs that you put off because you don’t want to confront or plunge into it and which, nevertheless, always comes back, recurs, grows deeper with each attack, having failed to disappear during the period you were keeping it at bay or far from your thoughts. (14)
Characteristic of so many of his novels, Marías mixes fiction and reality to great effect in Thus Bad Begins, including historical figures and places throughout the story. Marías places the fictional director Muriel in a context of real-life members of the film industry; these include director Jesús Franco --- famous for horror and sexploitation films --- and his frequent producer, Harry Towers, along with several popular actors.

Though Franco and Towers may be known to some readers, the pair clearly don’t have the fame that typical real-life figures who appear in novels might; also, only Towers actually appears in the story, and then only for a brief moment. Rather than use his fictional characters to illuminate historical figures and their times, Marías’s inclusion of historical people into the novel seems intended to provide a degree of verisimilitude to the fictional story he tells. The outlandish and stylized films of Franco that Marías refers to, and the strange and immoral stories he describes from Towers’ life have the effect of making the fictional characters and their situations and actions feel more realistic, more plausible.

Marías’s approach also introduces ambiguity about where the fictional elements of his story end and true history begins. That uncertainty leads to surely the most unsettling part of the novel for a reader: whether Marías has drawn from historical reality the disturbing secret of Van Vechten’s past that de Vere ultimately uncovers. Early on, de Vere guesses that this secret might be tied to the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent dictatorship of the fascist victors; Muriel essentially confirms de Vere’s assumption, pointing out a weighty reality of Spain, particularly in the 1980’s:
Almost everything [in Spain] has to do with the [Spanish Civil] War. … A war like that is a stigma that takes one or even two centuries to disappear, because it contains everything an affects and debases everything. (37)

The roles in Spain of individuals and the actions of society at large during and after the war in fact play a central role in Marías’s telling. Given Marías’s style, one cannot help but fear that the uncovered details of Van Vechten’s past are historically accurate, even if he himself is a fictional character. More broadly, Marías’s story provides a look into the complicated, post-dictatorship social situation in Spain in the early 1980’s. Less than a decade removed from Franco’s death and the initially tenuous transition to democracy, Marías points out ways in which social behaviors changed much more rapidly than the political situation managed to keep up with, demonstrating the impact this had and some of the behaviors it led to.

Sometimes, admittedly, Marías takes the liberty to descend to more concrete commentary, offering through his characters pointed statements on mannerisms he dislikes. A bit like product placement in a movie, characters will suddenly make critical comments that seem likely to represent Marías’s personal views, such as de Vere pointing out while listening to a friend relating a story: “He made that awful gesture imported from America that people use to indicate quote marks”. (342)   Such comments pop-up up occasionally, and generally seem a bit gratuitous --- often not quite fitting the manner of the characters saying them.

That is a mere quibble, however: in exchange for such isolated moments, the reader is rewarded with Marías’s wonderful observations of our inner lives and complexities. In Thus Bad Begins, he examines the fluid range of justice people have, leading us to respond to perceived personal wrongs with harsh revenge, while being able to look past, ignore or simply not pursue knowledge about more brutal crimes committed against others. As readers, we are left to wonder about our own reactions in such situations --- though hopefully for all of us, with lower stakes than the characters here.

Other reviews / information:
The books title, Thus Bad Begins, comes from a Hamlet. The story also contains a long quote from Henry IV Part 2 on how easily rumors spread, that Marías later refers back to in a comment that seems particularly apt for our current environment:
… our level of credulity has reverted to what it was in the Middle Ages, with rumor stuffing our ears with false reports … and we refuse to ask for proof, accepting everything as credible because everything has already happened, or so we believe. (285)

Other works I have read by Marías, though I read all but three of them before I began this blog of reviews:
  • The Man of Feeling: An opera singer sees a couple on a train; they all disembark in the same city, and he meets them in a hotel, eventually falls into a complex relationship with the woman, who is unhappy in her marriage. My review here.
  • The Infatuations: A woman learns that the male half of a couple she has seen repeatedly at a café has been killed, and she becomes involved in trying to understand what happened to him; my review here.
  • While the Women are Sleeping: A collection of short stories; my review here.
  • When I was Mortal: A collection of short stories.
  • A Heart so White: A novel of a man who upon getting married reconsiders his past.
  • Dark Back of Time: A novel written as a kind of imagined biography; a study of human nature that will pull you in deeply and force you to consider ideas and fears you had tried to leave buried in your subconscious.
You can find quotes from some of these works, and from Thus Bad Begins here.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Book Review: "Pond" by Claire-Louise Bennett

Pond (2016)
Claire-Louise Bennett

195 pages

When I read or hear a review of a book that piques my interest, I add the title and author to a list on my phone, as a reminder for some future visit to a bookstore. Generally, even if months or years pass before I finally come across the book, reading the summary on its cover provides me a sufficient reminder of why it had caught my interest in the first place. Some entries on my list, however, have a question mark at the end of the title and author’s name: my notation for a review that intrigued me, but didn’t necessarily convince me. These are the cryptic entries on my list; when I finally encounter one of these titles in the bookstore, I have generally forgotten what had earlier caught my attention --- and, more importantly, what hesitations had tempered my interest.

So it was when I came across author Claire-Louise Bennett’s book Pond in the bookstore a couple of months ago --- it was on my list, but with one of those enigmatic question marks tacked on. Reviewing the summary on the dust jacket convinced me to go ahead and buy it, but left me with little clear notion of what I was wading into when I later opened it to begin reading. In particular, though I read the book as a novel, once I’d finished and sat down to write this review it dawned on me that perhaps it actually consists of a collection of short stories.

Ultimately it can be enjoyed either way, as a set of loosely related stories, or a kind of impressionistic and meandering novel. Bennett has structured the book as a series of vignettes, narrated by a young woman recalling and reflecting on moments in her life, from the mundane to the dramatic. Many of the woman’s recollections center on events in and around a small cottage she leases near the Atlantic coast of Ireland, a dwelling and landscape that she seems to inhabit deeply, with all her senses.

In one story she watches a storm pass over the mountains outside her window as she takes a bath, meditating on the storm’s relationship to the mountains which she imagines it to be revisiting. In another, after spending days sick in bed, she pulls on a coat over her nightgown and walks up a hill from her cottage to get some air; when, as she leans on a gate to enjoy the view of the countryside, a young man with the hood of his jacket pulled up walks toward her up the path, her initial, instinctive fear suddenly gives way to a fevered eroticism as she finds herself bridling again her natural caution and introverted passiveness.

These remembrances seem to pour out of the Bennett’s narrator --- stream of conscious accounts during which she veers off onto non sequiturs, gets distracted by details she can’t quite recall, and jumps back to fill in information that suddenly occurs to her, just as someone sharing a story with you over a cup of tea or a beer might do. In many of these recollections, she broods on the hidden meanings and implications in her relationships with neighbors, friends and boyfriends, meditations that verge on the obsessive as she sorts through her feelings.

In others, she paints lush, impressionistic portraits of the physical world in and around her cottage, exquisite and engaging descriptions that demonstrate an intimate and almost anthropomorphized perception of her surroundings and their impact on her life. Within her remarkable hyper-awareness, the boundaries between her inner musings and the world she inhabits can become fluid and uncertain:
There was a storm, an old storm, going around and around the mountain, visiting the mountains again perhaps after who knows how long, trying to get somewhere, going nowhere. And to begin with nothing, just a storm, nothing original, nothing I hadn’t heard before. I went about my business for a while until it struck me I should disconnect the cables and thus the lights went out on those small matters I endeavor to attend to and I didn’t mind very much because the matters were straightforward and already composed and yet were at the same time quite beyond me at that moment. It was of no great consequence really. I got into the water which had been waiting for some time, the temperature loosening, and then I had the idea about opening the window wide, which I did with no difficulty despite the rigid appearance of the clasp.

And then, from there, it was possible, unavoidable really, to listen to the storm going around and around, and I knew it was an old one that had come back --- it seemed to know exactly where it was and there was such intimacy in its movement and in the sound it made as it went along and around and around. Yes, I thought, you know those mountains and the mountains are familiar with you also. No --- it was not raging, it was not simply raging --- I heard no element of anger in fact. How loud it was and yet so fragile, stopping and starting for a long time --- it didn’t know where to begin, but it was by no means frantic, either, not at all. I moved a web of lather about the roots of my hair and became immersed in the body of the storm; I knew its structure, saw its eyes, felt its past, and I empathized with its entreaty. It had style, it was experienced; and it came back, and it came back again.

Going around and around, trying to get somewhere, going nowhere. And even though the mountain did nothing the mountain was not impervious to the storm and in fact dreaded its retreat and longed for it always to come back, and to come back again. (65-67)

Resist the temptation to try and tease a concrete plot out of Bennett’s tales in Pond. Instead, surrender to the meandering sensibility and colorful imagery of her story-telling, and so delight in her narrator’s keen, if often ambivalent, meditations on the fundamental ties that bind us to the natural world and the many people in our lives. And perhaps, as a reward, find yourself encouraged to look more deeply and intensely at even the most apparently quotidian details of daily life.

Other reviews / information:

Read quotes from this book here.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf