In 1979, at the start of my second post-graduate year in Oxford, I was awarded the prestigious and lucrative Osma Studentship. I was required to spend at least six weeks in Madrid. Not that I was complaining. I immediately spent a good chunk of the money on a Shergold double-neck guitar (so far, not a great investment), but I was left with more than enough for my needs.
One of my fellow sufferers at the Florey Building was Jan, a geology postgrad from Germany who’d done his national service in the Gebirgsjäger (look it up!) and drove a khaki Volkswagen camper van. (His father, Jan told me, had been a Panzer commander whose principal success had been to get captured by Monty rather than the Russians.) Jan suggested that we drive to Madrid at Easter 1980 via the Plymouth-Santander ferry; it would save us both money, so it was agreed. The engine had seen better days, but it did its job, chugging and wheezing over the snow-clad sierras to Castile.
I pounded the streets of Madrid until I found an inexpensive and homely pension in Calle del León (where Cervantes was born); it was run by a cheery, buxom Galician lady who would exclaim “¡Ala!” – as if the Moors had never left Spain. It was not far from the Biblioteca Nacional, the Hemeroteca Municipal (newspaper library), and other academic institutions of relevance to the subject of my thesis: Emilia Pardo Bazán’s cuentos.
Work over for day one, I strolled to the Retiro and tried to get my bearings in a city I had previously only visited en route to the airport or another town.
The following day I presented myself at the Instituto Valencia de Don Juan, where I was required to spend my time in profitable study. The librarian, Don Gregorio de Andrés, treated me to a cordial and extended welcome (more of a speech than a greeting), after which we nipped to a bar across the road for a mid-morning drink. I never got to grips with the catalogue, or discovered if anything in the archives was likely to be of use to me. Whilst the Instituto was a beautiful place full of exquisite, priceless works of art, its library remained a gentleman’s private library; with three other readers using it on a regular basis it could be a cramped and awkward space in which to work.
I very much enjoyed my time in Madrid, eating bueno y barato and making friends. My research came on in leaps and bounds, as the cliché has it. I took trips to Toledo, Segovia, Ávila and Salamanca and visited all the major museums – as well as some lesser-known ones, such as Lázaro Galdiano. I acquired, as if I didn’t have enough to think about, another amiga: a History postgrad from Newnham College Cambridge.
Taking advantage of an introduction from Félix de Azúa, a writer I’d collaborated with at Oxford, I arranged to meet Javier Marías, who had written several novels and translated Tristram Shandy into Spanish (while still in his 20s), and was now having a crack at Conrad’s The Mirror of the Sea.
This young man was obviously going places
Marías suggested some short passages I might translate into English from his latest novel, El monarca del tiempo (The Monarch of Time) for an article I had been planning. He generously wrote, in Spanish, on the flyleaf: “To Colin Wight, after a long and interesting chat, with confidence that it will be repeated”. A few days later I took the train from Madrid to London.
The day after arriving back at the Florey I set to work on the translation, which was far from straightforward (not that I was expecting it to be otherwise). Señor Marías was a master of the long, convoluted Proustian sentence, packed with subordinate clauses which lead up and away like the branches of a genealogical tree. I posted him my initial effort, to which he very courteously replied, suggesting a few “minor improvements”; in a second draft I managed to achieve something that he was apparently satisfied with. (I am not sure that I was, but in those pre-word-processor days typing up drafts was laborious and time-consuming.)
All three excerpts were published a year later in the Edinburgh-based literary magazine Cencrastus. I believe it was the first example of Javier Marías’s work to be published in English. It did not attract much, if any, attention because Marías was almost unknown in the UK – almost as anonymous as me.
In 1983 Marías took up residence in Oxford (where I was still a member of the University), the latest in a long line of subsequently eminent lectores. He was obliged, as was I, to attend the Spanish graduate research seminars in St Giles, every Tuesday at 5pm as I recall, which were graced by some “real characters” – not the least of whom was the extraordinary, charismatic Professor Peter Russell, who held court there.
On one occasion a fellow postgrad was blathering on about Lorca and how difficult it must have been to be an “out” homosexual in the 1930s.
Peter Russell waited for a few seconds, then said, with his characteristic wry smile, “I think I am correct in saying that I am the only person in this room who knew Lorca, and I can assure you that being a homosexual in Spain in the 1930s was not a problem”. There was no coming back from that. I don’t recall if Marías was present, but he would have loved it.
It was an unforgettable moment
If I may generalise, one of the things I’ve learned from my limited observation of Spanish intellectuals is that they tend to be interested in the same things that your average Spaniard is interested in, whatever his level of education or status in life. It is taken for granted that every man is a football fan, chases pretty girls (or boys), drinks and smokes too much, sings folk songs and spends the summer at the seaside – where he may enjoy the aforementioned activities ad lib. It doesn’t mean that Spanish writers don’t suffer from angst, ennui or malaise, like the rest of us. They just have more fun when they’re not suffering.
Javier Marías was and is an aficionado of Real Madrid (the Real=Royal bit is significant, as we shall see). Aware of that fact, I invited him to the house I shared in Bullingdon Road to watch Liverpool play and, eventually, defeat, A.S. Roma in the Final of the European Cup on 30 May 1984. Liverpool’s fourth competition victory, as Javier noted, edged them closer to Madrid’s sixth. (Following the exclusion of English clubs from European competition, he needn’t have worried.) That was probably the last time I saw Javier, because I was soon on my way to London to work for academic publishers Methuen-Tavistock.
Javier Marías’s 1989 novel Todas las almas (i.e. All Souls) is set in Oxford, and has as its principal characters certain fictionalised members of that Spanish seminar group; you could call some of them “thinly disguised”, whilst others are composites. A Russell-like figure is a major protagonist. Sir Peter was well aware of that, and did not protest. I don’t feature, which is both a relief and a bit disappointing. Subsequently, Javier published many more novels, now available in English (thanks to the talented and fecund Margaret Jull Costa) as Penguin Modern Classics.
For reasons that are ludicrous and too complicated to explain in a few words, Javier Marías, as well as being a member of the Real Academia Española, is the ruler of a micronation in the Leeward Islands called Redonda.
He has taken the title “King Xavier I”
He will, from time to time, confer honours upon writers and other persons he approves of, such as Philip Pullman, Umberto Eco, George Steiner and A.S. Byatt (as well as the late Professor Sir Peter Russell). Is it too fanciful to suppose that if I’d continued translating the work of Javier Marías Franco, rather than settling for a proper job, I might have become a duke by now? I think it is.