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.


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.

Ageing Rocker

I’d had enough of working for a living so I moved back to Oxford to be with my girlfriend. I joined Bernard’s band, together with my old schoolmate Andrew and our fellow housemate Wiff and a young drummer from New College called Paul. Then we added a female singer, a posh-sounding blonde called Jo, with a wonderful soprano voice. One For The Wall practised three of Bern’s songs and entered the Melody Maker Folk/Rock Contest in Oxford. Every other act was a parody of the Sex Pistols. We did not excel. The sound system was so basic, with no monitors, that I wrote to complain and we got a re-run at London’s City Polytechnic. (Jo later told me that one of the judges was Howard Goodall.) And we won! I remember driving back that night in Andy’s Mini up the M40 in the fog. It’s always a great feeling to win something.

Those silly love song lines have filled my head and turned my mind

One For The Wall progressed to the Melody Maker final in July at the Marquee Club. It was a filthy, sweaty dive in Wardour Street… but a legendary and iconic dive. The competition was won by Splodgenessabounds, who presently had a Top Ten hit with the epoch-defining “Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps Please”. Bern’s finely crafted, dramatic songs never stood much chance. But then again, maybe we just weren’t much good. Nevertheless, for the first and only time in my life, I briefly considered a career as a professional musician. Why not? It wasn’t that I had anything else to do, apart from chugging away at my thesis. And though I couldn’t read music or even play an instrument very well, the required standard didn’t seem to be very high. But I didn’t take that route after all. I went back to my boring thesis.

I have been rambling on about 1979. It’s now 40 years since we first got together and the band is still going (though we did take a 33-year break). Three members are now grandparents. Andy lives in Exeter, Jo and I are (by chance) near each other in south London and Bern’s still in Oxford. Life has certainly changed. So why bother driving hundreds of miles every month or so to spend two days cooped up in a studio?

The music is the obvious reason – Bernard has not lost his touch as a composer – and even though I am never going to find fame or fortune as a musician it is still a lot of fun. But for me, at any rate, it is as much about being part of a team. There is something special about that, and now I’ve “retired” it is something I would very much miss. Maybe other people are happy to be always working on their own. I can do that too, but the team ethos is something different. Here’s a studio rehearsal of “Planet of Our Dreams”. Jo: vocal; Bernard: piano and vocal; Andrew: bass; Colin: guitar.

The Scholar and the Black Spider

Until this year, I’d never written anything longer than a few thousand words (apart from my MLitt thesis, and that was more than three decades ago). But I suddenly got the urge to write a story. Its origin was an entirely uneventful trip to an art gallery in Mayfair.

spiders_au_mouse

I am a terrible typist. However, when it comes to writing fiction that doesn’t matter too much because I find it very difficult to decide exactly what I want to say and how to express it. (Typing is the least of my problems.) Even then, I will carry on cutting, pasting and tinkering. Everything is provisional. Almost every word gets changed. Often, after a faux pas, it gets changed back.

I made up this short novel or long story as I went along – surely not the way a proper novelist goes about his job? As usual, I am doing it all wrong.

I can’t draw or paint to save my life but I know people who are really good. I have friends who are brilliant songwriters, and I’ve had a go myself – but I don’t have what it takes. A former housemate of mine has won two BAFTAs and an Oscar, so I know talent when I see it. It is a little bit annoying when someone you know seems to be able to do with ease something you find impossible (I said “seems to”), but that is just how it is.

I certainly don’t subscribe to the view that you can achieve anything if you keep plugging away. It’s a stirring call-to-arms if you are a schoolteacher but patently absurd, and often peddled by people who are basking in their own fame and fortune. When should you face up to the fact that you can’t do it, pack it in and move on? Or admit that what you were once quite proud of is – at best – mediocre. Can you happily shrug your shoulders and say, “I know it’s not brilliant, but at least I had a go? It’s not all about winning”.

Or is it? I do think you can be proud of your efforts even if you don’t win a prize… but it is also important what other people think. Because it’s possible that you do possess talent, but not for what you’ve been plugging away at. I believe I can become a better writer, even at 63, and I am prepared to try a little bit harder. But I can’t claim to be motivated by a burning desire to be the best in the world or prove everyone else wrong.

Writing a longish piece was an immersive experience. It took almost a year, off and on. Where do our ideas come from and how do they develop and join up? I haven’t a clue. A lot seemed to be happening while I was asleep or half-asleep. I am not sure if or when I’ll have the energy to write another one. There are a lot of other things in the world worth trying. Maybe I should get out the watercolours after all.

I eventually managed to put together 40,000 words of tongue-in-cheek “humour”.  This is an excerpt.

NB For the avoidance of doubt: Maxwell isn’t anything like me (he went to Cambridge and lives in Stockwell, for goodness’ sake, and he’s by no means a model citizen).