Don Javier Marías Franco

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.

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 manage to be 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 use for the study of 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 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 help to me.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Madrid, eating bueno y barato and making many 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 problems, another lover.

Taking advantage of an introduction from Félix de Azúa, a Spanish novelist whom I’d worked with at Oxford, I interviewed a young man called 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

Javier 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 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 magazine called Cencrastus. I am sure that this is the first example of Javier Marías’s work to be published in English. But 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 least them, the extraordinary, charismatic Professor Sir Peter Russell. On one occasion an American postgrad was dithering on about Lorca, and how difficult it must have been to be a homosexual in the 1930s, etc. Prof Russell waited for a few seconds then said, “I believe 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 when they’re not 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”. As far as I can tell, I don’t feature, which is both a relief and a little disappointing. Subsequently, Javier has 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 Phillip Pullman, George Steiner and A.S. Byatt.

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 salary, I might have become a duke by now? I have not given up all hope.


Messages from the Other Side

I hadn’t seen Alison for quite a while but we had stayed in touch over the years. In was 1982 and she was back from Tokyo or Beirut or Damascus, or wherever. For someone who had to resit her A levels, she was heading for a distinguished academic career, which was more than I was. Her parents had acquired a place in Blighty for when they would eventually leave Bahrain and she invited me over for a few days. It was a big terraced house in Preston Drove, a little bit out of Brighton. She had swapped the octagonal pebble glasses for contact lenses and you could see her pretty face and big brown eyes.

Next door lived a gent in his 60s called James Hay-Kellie, who invited us round for a drink. Aly seemed a bit wary but we went anyway. It was one of the most bizarre evenings of my life. Kellie liked to talk, particularly to me; Aly had probably heard it all before. He claimed to have known “The King”, as he referred to him (Edward VIII /David/Duke of Windsor, not Elvis), and “that little tart Wallis Simpson”. Kellie was a yogi and medium whose powers, as Alison noted, seemed to increase as he got stuck into his homemade pear wine. But those powers were unsettling.

“I can see a street sign. Plaza del Sol, in Madrid,” he said, sipping from his murky glass.
“Puerta del Sol?”
“You are standing outside a church. Your name is… Estrada. You are going to the New World but… you will drown on the way. But next time you will go by air because it is the Age of Aquarius not the Age of Pisces and all will be well because you are an Aquarian. But beware of the South American girls because they all have syphilis.”

I’d always fancied being a conquistador, though Estrada is a common enough name. He then asked me a few questions, such as did I speak Spanish or Portuguese? (Both, and pretty well too, because I’d studied them for my degree.) Could Aly have mentioned it by accident and not remembered? In retrospect that seems possible. And my “Aquarian” birthday? (I was born on 14 February.) How the hell could he have known that? I did go to the New World: to Cuba in the 1990s, and to Mexico more recently. And I travelled by aeroplane, of course, and made it home safely.

I wouldn’t say you were a womaniser but…

“There are three women in your life. The truest has brown hair and blue eyes.” He was right to guess that brown-eyed Alison and I were never going to be an item again. There was one lass who fitted his description, such as it was, though that relationship seemed to have run its course. Anyway, it was small beer after the Estrada revelation.

You are a deep thinker, too deep for your own good

He showed me a crucifix he claimed to have found on the Drove, on which Christ was shown crucified upside-down. It had been dropped by a band of satanists on the run, hundreds of years ago. Then he moved into his Indian mode and gave me a mantra to meditate upon. Then he explained how I could clear the phlegm from my nasal passages by inhaling saltwater. I think that would be called bathos in Europe… but maybe not in India. He seemed to be running through his repertoire. It was entertaining, not to say exhausting for all of us.

It’s important to bear in mind that Kellie was not a professional medium (at least not in my case). He claimed he was getting his information from an Indian spirit he called Sadhu. Was he showing off to me? He clearly had always been an exhibitionist, as this photograph shows. Perhaps he could just not help himself?

* * *

I turned round and saw an old man behind me talking but the sound was very muffled. Then I realised I was going deaf. Instead of leaving I followed the woman to the front of the class. Suddenly I knew only she could help me, although I didn’t know if it was her fault that I couldn’t hear in the first place. I heard myself (horrid sound, I knew I was shouting in a desperate voice) say “what’s wrong with me?” She drew on a piece of paper. “Is it like a high whine? A distant motor-bike,” she wrote. I nodded. “Will it go away?” She wrote “blood circulation motor noise” on the paper, then suddenly I could hear again. I turned round and everyone had left. I said “So it will come and go like that?” She said “No. The next time it happens it will be for good”. I said, “But I love music!”

It was late 1983. I was keeping a diary, and now and again I scribbled down a description of my dreams as soon as I woke up. This is, word for word, what I wrote at the time. I was inclined to see it as a metaphor for some emotional turmoil I was going through – which I usually was.

Maybe it was a premonition instead. In those far-off days I didn’t have tinnitus, but I do now. It disappeared for a short time but soon returned, and every day I wish I could be rid of it.

Does any of this make me believe in the paranormal and suchlike? Frankly, no. But I thought I’d get it off my chest.

Moscow in the Dark

October 1979: I was still, or again, (depending on which way you looked at it) studying at The Queen’s College Oxford. The college offered me the exalted and ridiculous-sounding position of Vir Probatus (Junior Dean) if I abandoned the slum that was 41 Bullingdon Road and moved into James Stirling’s (in)famous Florey Building on St Clement’s. As I’d have the biggest room in the building, rent-free and with a free phone line to boot, it was a no-brainer. And the underfloor heating and huge windows offered an excellent environment for cultivating aromatic, jagged-leafed plants. I’d lived there as an undergraduate, so the building itself did not come as a shock. Much has been written about its shortcomings so I’ll move on…

One of the mature students at the Florey was Denis, who was writing a DPhil on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina manuscripts. He was amusing, kind and very urbane, and became like an uncle to me. There wasn’t much he did not know, in particular about human nature. He had two teenage children by his first wife and a little boy by his second wife, who taught History of Art at the University of Essex. (Later they created an author called Natalya Lowndes and wrote a series of novels together.) Denis and I spent many an hour in the poky-cosy Half Moon in St Clement’s, at that time managed, if that is the right word, by the Leaves brothers. Regular patrons included Steve, owner of Winston’s, the night club next door, and Pat, manager of the Private (i.e. dirty mags and videos) Shop in Cowley Road. It had real ale, no fruit machine or jukebox, and hosted live music on Sunday afternoons.

October 1982: I’d moved on to a flat in Temple Cowley but Denis, my regular drinking partner, was still at the Florey. He needed to do a week’s research in Moscow libraries, and the cheapest and easiest way of doing it was to book an Intourist package, which meant sharing a room. Never having been to Russia, I was happy to tag along. A couple of years earlier the BBC had launched a series called Russian Language and People. It boasted a fantastically beautiful brunette presenter called Tanya Feifer and a fantastically beautiful blonde interviewer called Tatyana Vedeneyeva. (By one of life’s strange coincidences, another presenter, Edward Ochagavia, is a near neighbour of mine in Herne Hill.) Into each episode was inserted a snippet of the tacky love story До свидания, лето with Victor the ordinary-looking taxi driver and a fantastically beautiful student, Olga.

It was early November, and snowing in a picturesque way, when we cleared passport control. My visa was numbered 007, but I didn’t think it was a good idea to make a joke of it. Just grimly stare ahead. At last we arrived at our shabby hotel, a few minutes’ walk from Red Square. The next evening I went on my own to the Bolshoi Ballet: something most Muscovites could never afford to do. The plan was to meet Denis afterwards at his friends’ flat. I hailed a taxi at the Palace of Congresses, indicating the address Denis had written out neatly in Russian. Victor grunted and I got in, trying to make small talk in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish …  to no avail. There didn’t seem much point trying Portuguese, Latin or Greek. I stuck with the few words of Russian I’d learned. He didn’t want my roubles and I had no dollars, so I paid with a BiC pen. 

Хорошо, спасибо, До свидания!

I found myself in an ill-lit street of run-down tenements, like the half-remembered Glasgow of my childhood. I climbed the staircase in trepidation; what would happen when someone opened the door? What if Denis wasn’t there or I’d come to the wrong place? But Denis did come to the door. In the little flat were a middle-aged couple and a girl of about 20. She was slim with long dark hair like Tanya and, I couldn’t help but notice, very pretty. Everyone was smoking black Georgian cigarettes. I took a chair, and a large Столи́чная was poured for me. So began an interminable evening of music, “conversation” and toasting. Their favourite record was “The Sideboard Song” by Chas and Dave, which Denis had brought with him on his last trip. Perhaps the A-side, “Rabbit”, was played out. I contributed “Things We Said Today” by The Beatles, on a very bad, untunable guitar. More beer and vodka and picked cucumbers. More songs.

Luckily for me the pretty girl, Katya, was fluent in Spanish. Uncle Yuri would tell a joke and everyone would laugh; so did I, out of politeness. Denis would explain it to me in English and I’d laugh again. Katya would then ask me in Spanish what he’d said. I would explain it to her and she’d translate for her mother. She’d tell Denis, in Russian, who would then tell me, in English, that he’d said something quite different. One joke could keep us going for 20 minutes. When they did get through, the Russian jokes were good: they exhibited a bitter sarcasm that we Britons found familiar.

What we didn’t know was that more or less as we’d touched down at Sheremetyovo airport, Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was giving up the ghost. Soon the city-centre was in lock-down. It was snowing hard; the Kremlin was shut, the national museums were shut, and taxis could not get across town. The USSR was in mourning and all you got on the radio and TV was Chopin and Beethoven. We were moved out of our characterful old hotel with its tea-ladies and into a soulless one near the VDNH exhibition centre. Every available room in central Moscow would be needed for the dignitaries coming to pay their respects. We were on a full board deal, but most evenings Denis and I took the metro to the flat, bringing food we’d bought for hard currency at the Beriozka. The two grateful women cooked for us. In the afternoons Katya showed me the sights, and we trudged through the snow, rain and gloom for hours on end. She really was very attractive, if a bit skinny — probably because she wasn’t getting much to eat. I kissed her once, in Spanish.

Obviously Katya and I would never meet again

Except that a couple of years later Katya managed to get a job in Riga as a translator, then met and married a solid Englishman called Smith, and made her escape to London. News of her arrival filtered through to me. One evening they joined us for dinner round the kitchen table in Brixton. Then she lost her aura of mystery and I lost her address.

Cold War: best film of 2018?

In 1983, as previously confessed, I was living in east Oxford grinding away slowly at my thesis. One of the other post-grads I got to know was Paul (a Pole with a German passport), who was studying at Wolfson and rumoured to be writing a thesis on Hölderlin. We became good friends. He had a finely-tuned sense of irony (something I’d previously seen at work in Russia) and saw that in every tragedy there is usually an element of farce and vice versa. I tickled him with my one-liner, “Life is like a school dinner: it’s vile, it’s disgusting and there isn’t enough of it”.

We both appreciated black humour. He joked that going to Tesco’s at 6pm on a Saturday (back in those days supermarkets shut on Sundays) reminded him of home: all those empty shelves. He observed that the expression “to sweep something under the carpet” could never have caught on in Poland, because not only did few Polish people have carpets, but if they had, they’d think that their primary purpose was for covering up dirt. He was keen, too, on the corniest of puns. Once we “Polished off” a bottle of bison grass vodka. On another occasion it was Finlandia: “It said Finnish on the label, so we did.” That sort of thing.

I had too many girlfriends whereas Paul didn’t seem to have one – not that he wasn’t interested in girls (quite the reverse), but none seemed to have really taken his fancy. It was odd, because he was tall, slim and handsome, as well as multi-lingual and multi-talented. His principal love was the cinema, and he spent a lot of time with like-minded people. Eventually he packed in his thesis, like so many before and since, and ran off to Italy to teach English. It amused him that none of his students seemed to notice, or perhaps care, that he had a Polish name. His letters suggested that he found Italian women, and the way Italian society just about held together, interesting.

Italy is a country of experts…

In June 1984 the peripatetic Pole returned to Oxford from Turin. We drank vodka into the wee hours. A little later his mother, almost crippled by her early career as a ballerina, came for a brief visit. She seemed a lovely and dignified lady.

A few weeks later I got my first job in London and I went on my way full of misplaced hope and excitement. Paul was also heading for The Smoke. He found a house in “Befnall” Green belonging to a film director called Tomasz Pobóg Malinowski; we could lodge there while Tomasz was away for six months in Poland (or somewhere). That September we duly moved into Beck Road, London E8, which was to set us back all of £100 a month.

Most of the street had been annexed by an artists’ housing association. (It was “Bohemian”, not to say pretentious. The Miners’ Strike was in full swing and everyone seemed to support working-class hero Arthur Scargill.) I’m grateful that I met some interesting and talented people, like Rachel Portman and Mikey Cuddihy and Helen Chadwick, but I never really fitted in. Mikey sent me this lovely Christmas card: Paul’s on the right.

Autumn 1984 had been fine and warm but the following winter was the coldest in London since 1963; we were frozen stiff and reliant upon a single portable gas heater. Disconcertingly, Paul turned up at 3am on 3 January from Wuppertal, where he’d been visiting his mother in hospital. I thought we were being burgled. I found living with Paul a mixed blessing. He was a lovely bloke: funny, warm and generous, but untidy and forgetful. (Mind you, I was not without fault. On one occasion I came home late and grabbed a glass of water that happened to be sitting invitingly on the kitchen table; in the morning I discovered I had drunk Paul’s contact lenses). To be fair, he had a lot on his mind and he was highly creative; whereas I got bogged down in menial tasks like putting out the bins and remembering to buy food and gas for the heater. (I become obsessed with physical neatness whenever my emotional life is a shambles, which it certainly was.) We were both quite intense and worked long hours but, intellectuals or not, we used to relax by giggling at Minder and Only Fools and Horses. We fantasised about casting Nicholas Lyndhurst in a film – surely he could not have commanded a huge fee. When funds allowed, we would go to Daquise in South Kensington and splurge for not much money, or head to the Cat and Mutton round the corner and enjoyed a traditional East End lock-in. Today it is a noted gastropub in super-trendy London Fields.

While we were shivering in Beck Road, Paul was writing for an excellent (and now defunct) cinema magazine called Stills, edited by Nicolas Kent who, like me, had been at Queen’s. I contributed the occasional short film review, whilst Paul was despatched overseas to interview Miloš Forman or Federico Fellini or Krzysztof Zanussi. His breakthrough came in February 1985 when he landed a General Traineeship with the BBC. By one of “those coincidences” he was soon working with Paul Campbell, virtuoso drummer in an Oxford band I’d played in a few years before, called One For The Wall. In due course the BBC (somehow) let him make documentaries and he began to get noticed.

The following incident gives an insight into an aspect of Paul’s character. One fine evening in May 1985 we were at my new flat in Clapham in front of the TV to watch Liverpool vs Juventus in the Final of the European Cup. The match was being played, for some reason, at the run-down Heysel Stadium in Brussels. However, kick-off was delayed, and it soon became clear why… The death toll eventually reached 39. Everyone watching was shocked but it affected Paul to the extent that he had to rush off to the toilet to be sick. He could see that real people, albeit people that he didn’t know, were dying.

Paul is fiercely intelligent and articulate, but also a kind and gentle person

Some years later, after marrying Irina, Paul and his family moved from north London to Boars Hill, Oxford (an opportunity for more punning) so we saw very little of each other, although I followed his career with great interest. His BBC documentaries continued to get screened on TV. Then he won a BAFTA in 2000 for his first feature, Last Resort.

In 2004 I went to a pre-release screening of My Summer of Love (the film that launched the career of Emily Blunt), and finally had the chance to see Paul and congratulate him on his huge achievement. Another BAFTA followed. Then he moved to France.

In 2013 he moved back to Poland and made Ida, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

With Cold War (2018) – inspired by his parents’ passionate and self-destructive relationship – his reputation is established as one of the most talented auteur directors (along with Alfonso Cuarón) at work today. The awards are piling up and he has another Oscar nomination. I had the pleasure of seeing him again this week (for the first time in 15 years) at a Q&A session at the Curzon Bloomsbury. I had to remember that he’s no longer the German/English/French “Paul” we used to know him by, but Paweł Pawlikowski, as his parents intended. It suits him and it sounds better too.

The Lost Thesis

A couple of months ago I was introduced to the new Chair of the Camberwell Society, who also teaches Modern Languages at a local school. It turned out he had studied Spanish at Exeter University; we talked about the former professor, Maurice Hemingway, who had examined my MLitt thesis many years ago. A few days later I found myself reading an email in which I was described as “Colin Wight, who has done much work on Pardo Bazán”. Had I really?

Last week I found my thesis on Emilia Pardo Bazán. It wasn’t actually lost; I knew it was knocking around the house somewhere. For the first time in three decades I read the whole thing, expecting it to be deadly boring. In fact it was about as lively as the subject-matter could allow. As for the scholarship, it sounded convincing but I can’t say for sure.

It was another life in another world

I had been living and working in Essex, and not really enjoying it. I had no burning desire to do postgraduate research, but for personal reasons I wanted to return to Oxford. My former Spanish tutor at Queen’s suggested a research subject and I said OK, as long as I can get a grant. In October 1978 I left my job in Upminster and moved back to Oxford.

***

I felt a bit of a charlatan since I was surrounded by extremely intelligent people who were (or appeared to be) more motivated and productive than I was. The years rolled on and the finishing line was still not in sight. The more I found out the harder it got. It may well be different for science post-grads but I saw a lot of humanities students pack it in. They had lost interest in their subject and faith in academia, with its cliques and bitchiness; their grants ran out and they needed a job; they became neurotic, depressed or plain bored. It wasn’t just me who’d lost his way… but I was never totally committed in the first place. But I refuse to give up on something once I’ve started on it so I carried on, like an actor in a play he already knows is a turkey. I was now 28 years old.

By hook or by crook I had to finish the damned thing and get away

By early 1983 I was, at long last, working flat out. At night I wrote; at noon I delivered a sheaf to my typist, Stephanie, and she handed a sheaf back to me; in the afternoon I corrected it; at night I wrote some more. I hardly had time to eat and I was running hither and thither like a lunatic. By the time I’d handed in my thesis and managed to get a couple of job interviews I was pushing 30 and pretty well skint. Then came my viva: a gruesome meeting of minds with my two distinguished examiners, conducted in academic dress: one of them had never examined a thesis while the other had never passed one. The inquisitors decided to “refer” mine over a few minor infractions. My supervisor was furious and made a complaint. But I had to rewrite two paragraphs (I can’t remember what they were about) and have it retyped, photocopied and rebound, and then resubmitted. I could ill afford the expense at the time, and it took me six months to get round to it. I felt very sorry for myself. But whatever.

Post-graduate study may be the hardest thing I have ever done, although that is not saying a lot. It’s not the thousands of hours of research and the laborious writing process; it’s the fact that you have to do it on your own. The people who are doing what you’re doing aren’t part of your team. If anything, they are in competition with you. Some people may love it, but I wasn’t one of them.

Was it worth it? Financially… no, not at all. It did little to help my subsequent career, but I suppose it all worked out OK in the end. And, to be honest, it wasn’t all bad at the time either. I spent a lot of time in Spain and I was able to indulge my passion for film, books, music and girls. But the worry about how and when I was finally going to earn a living cast a shadow over everything.

When I finally moved to London to begin work on the bottom rung of the publishing ladder (starting salary: £6,000 per annum), it was with an enormous sense of relief. My colleagues were sociable, normal human beings; I was learning new things, and I even got paid at the end of every month. I never stopped being grateful for that.

So there it sits, back on its shelf: unloved and unread… but maybe of some use to someone, somewhere!