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.

Right Time, Right Place?

It was Valencia, summer 1972: my first time in Spain (it now seems odd that I had already sat my Spanish A Level). I was on a three-week language course organised by Liverpool Poly, as it then was, and there were school students from all across the UK. One was at Eton, another was from Ilford; they were both equally exotic to me. Spain was a very different country back in the day: patrolled by armed police and rather poor and backward in my eyes. Despite Valencia being a major city you had the impression you were the first foreigner they’d ever come across. Exciting but scary.

I’d been there all of two days before I fell for a Northern Irish girl. I noticed a pretty blonde during our morning breaks at the university, but couldn’t think up an excuse to start a conservation. One night at a fiesta, I and the other lads I was with ran into a bevy of girls we recognised as fellow students on the course and, under the pressure of the moment, I came out with “Would you like to join our group?” It was excruciating, even at the time, but I had learned from experience that if you didn’t ask, you didn’t get. The Irish girls came over to say hello, and I started talking to Jan before anyone else could get in.

Audentes fortuna iuvat

A couple of days later we invited them over to the university residence we boys were billeted in. Jan and I saw each other every day (since we were in the same class) and in the evenings we talked about our different lives, which made me realise that I probably knew more about what was going on in Spain than in Ireland.

All too soon we were on the plane back to Blighty. When we arrived at Heathrow her boyfriend Ronnie (who had long hair and a moustache, and was obviously older than me) was waiting to collect her, and off they went on holiday. I knew I would never go to see her. I couldn’t afford it, and in any case my parents would not have let me. Belfast was on the news every night, and what was happening was invariably frightening.

Jan and I corresponded for about 18 months. I went to Oxford and she went to Trinity College Dublin to study French and English. Her letters were very articulate and entertaining, and she was mature for her age – unlike me. She struck me as being tough and resilient; above all, she was a realist. She was from a Catholic family – in the course of writing one letter she heard that an acquaintance had been shot dead: “There will certainly be reprisals. It’s obviously not safe to go out any more.” What a thing for a 17-year-old girl to put in a letter. Yet for many young people all over the world (including parts of our own country even today) that is reality. Sadly, I now think, we lost touch… because I stopped writing. I can’t even remember her surname or address, apart from the fact that she lived in Holywood, Co. Down. I have one very bad photo of her, taken at Valencia Airport. Stylish, but note the stubbed out fag-end.

***

As a middle-aged Cambodian gentleman said to Anne and me exactly a year ago, “You were born at the right time in the right place, but for me it was just the opposite”. That he survived the Khmer Rouge is almost miraculous. Jan was unlucky to grow up at the height of the Troubles, but on the plus side she attended a good school and had two loving parents who were obviously well off. I had it much easier; as long as you avoided being beaten senseless by a gang of skinheads from the Woodchurch Estate, nothing terrible was going to happen to you in Birkenhead. Almost everybody from my school went on to university, and that was in the early 70s when less than 6% of school-leavers did! Life was set out before me on a plate.

With all the teen stabbings going on in London and elsewhere, I’ve been thinking about how fortunate I was as child. It’s easy to congratulate yourself on your achievements or – even worse – look down on those who haven’t done so well in life, as if it were all their fault. A little bit of humility is no bad thing but here, as so often, I rarely practise what I preach.

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!