Easter 1980: having been awarded the lucrative De Osma Studentship, I was obliged to spend at least six weeks in Madrid on a study trip. Not that I was complaining. I immediately spent most of the money on a Shergold double-neck, as you would.
Another of my fellow sufferers in 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, he told me, had been a Panzer commander whose greatest victory had been to get captured by Monty rather than the Russians.) Jan suggested that we drive to Madrid, via Plymouth-Santander; the van was on its last legs, but it chugged over the snow-clad sierras from Cantabria to Castile.
I pounded the streets of old Madrid until I found an inexpensive and agreeable-looking pension in Calle del León (where the great Cervantes was born), not far from the Biblioteca Nacional, the Hemeroteca Municipal and other academic institutions of possible relevance to Emilia Pardo Bazán’s cuentos, the subject of my thesis. The next day I presented myself at the Instituto Valencia de Don Juan, where I was required to spend my six weeks in quiet and profitable study. The librarian treated me to a nugatory welcome speech, after which we nipped to the bar across the road for a bracing mid-morning drink. I never understood the catalogue, or discovered if anything in it was likely to be of use to me.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Madrid, eating bueno y barato and making friends. I took short trips to Toledo, Segovia, Ávila and Salamanca, and visited all the major museums. I acquired, as if I didn’t have enough emotional problems, another lover.
Taking advantage of an introduction from Félix de Azúa, a Spanish novelist I’d worked with at Oxford, I interviewed Javier Marías, who had written several novels and translated Tristram Shandy into Spanish (he was still under 30), and was now having a crack at Conrad.
This 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 was planning. He generously wrote, in Spanish, on the flyleaf: “To Colin Wight, after a long and interesting chat, with the confidence that it will be repeated”. A few days later I took the train home.
As soon as I got back to 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 is a master of the interminable convoluted sentence, packed with subordinate clauses which lead up and away like the branches of a genealogical tree. I sent him my initial effort, to which he courteously replied, suggesting a few “minor improvements”; in a second draft I managed to achieve something that the author 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.)
The three excerpts were published a year later in an Edinburgh-based literary magazine called Cencrastus. I am sure that this is the first example of Javier Marías’s work to be published in English. I don’t imagine it attracted a great deal of attention because Marías was then unknown in the UK – almost as anonymous as me, in fact.
A few years later, Javier Marías arrived at Oxford (I was still a resident member of the University) as the latest in a long line of eminent lectores. He was obliged, as was I, to take part in the dreadful Spanish seminars in St Giles, which were attended by some “real characters” – not the least of them, the extraordinary, charismatic Professor Sir Peter Russell. On one occasion an American postgrad was blathering on about Lorca, and how difficult it must have been to be an “out” homosexual in the 1930s, etc. Peter Russell waited for a few seconds, then said, “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”. I don’t recall if Marías was present, but he would have loved it.
It was a devastating, unforgettable moment
If I may generalise, one of the things I’ve noticed about 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 everyone is a football fan, chases pretty girls (or boys), drinks too much, sings folk songs and spends the summer at the seaside – where they undertake 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 while they’re suffering.
Javier Marías was/is an aficionado of Real Madrid (the Real=Royal bit is significant, as we shall see). Knowing that, I invited him to my flat 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 dangerously close 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 Methuen.
Javier Marías’s 1988 novel Todas las almas (All Souls) is set in Oxford, and has as its principal characters certain members of that Spanish seminar group – you could call them “thinly disguised”. A Russell-like figure, of course, is a major protagonist. As far as I can tell, I don’t feature, which is both a relief and a little disappointing. Subsequently, Javier published many further novels, now available in English (thanks to the clever and fecund Margaret Jull Costa) as Penguin Modern Classics.
For reasons that are ludicrous, and too complex 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
Thus he may, from time to time, confer honours upon writers and other persons he approves of, such as Philip Pullman, George Steiner and A.S. Byatt (and the late Professor Sir Peter Russell).
Is it too fanciful to suppose that if I’d continued translating the novels of Javier Marías Franco, rather than settling for a proper job with a pitiful salary, I might have become a duke by now? I have not entirely given up hope.