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the Complete Review
the complete review - writing

To Begin at the Beginning

Javier Marías

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To purchase To Begin at the Beginning

Title: To Begin at the Beginning
Author: Javier Marías
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (Eng. 2016)
Length: 37 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: To Begin at the Beginning - US
To Begin at the Beginning - UK
To Begin at the Beginning - Canada
directly from: Sylph Editions
  • Translated and with a Postface by Margaret Jull Costa
  • With illustrations by Wifredo Lam

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely revealing

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       To Begin at the Beginning is a short essay by Javier Marías in which he reflects on his own writing and especially his use of "elements from reality" in his fiction. His novels contain much that is based on the real, in some way, but, as he makes clear, he is not attempting to give his fiction the appearance of reality but it's rather: "as if I wanted to dilute or infect the actual events with fiction". Even the inclusion of the actual documentary -- photos or illustrations --, something that he frequently does (and, as he notes, he's been doing from: "before a lot of other writers who are now famous for doing the same thing") is in the service of fiction rather than some attempt at grounding the text more firmly in the real.
       Among Marías' examples is also that of his great-grandfather, Enrique Manera y Cao, who was also a writer and published several novels. Marías writes about a family anecdote about him -- which, he notes, he first: "heard as if it were a story, that is, a fiction" and which he himself has since used, repeatedly, in his own fiction --, about a curse that was put on the man and which seems to have come true -- yet which, he notes, still seems to him: "a clever fiction". Marías entertainingly spins out variations on this, the anecdote and its telling.
       Also interesting is his explanation about his own writing, that:

I work without a map, I work only with a compass; that is, if I already knew the whole story I was going to tell, if I had it all in my head before I sat down to write, I probably wouldn't bother to write it. I would see it as a mere exercise in transcription and that would bore me, and I would even think: 'If I know everything from the start, what is the point of setting it down on paper when I'm not going to find anything new ?'
       While short, To Begin at the Beginning does offer considerable insight into Marías' writing, showing also some of the many connections in his body of work -- a small, intriguing glimpse behind the curtain, as it were.

       This small volume in The Cahiers Series is also appealing because it is, in a sense, a two-for-one volume, including as it does a Postface by Margaret Jull Costa, 'On Translating Javier Marías'. It, too, is an interesting exploration of facets of Marías' writing, as she describes her approaches to, for example, his often long and convoluted sentences -- complete with examples.
       She also she reminds readers that:
(W)hat makes Marías prose so exhilarating (for reader and translator alike) is the care he takes over his words and the way he shifts seamlessly between registers, from formal, very Latinate vocabulary to highly idiomatic turns of phrase.
       She also notes that as a translator:
I like to stick with an author and translate all his or her books, because, to state the obvious, that is the only way one can develop a sense of the work as a whole.
       This is something perhaps too rarely considered by readers of translations, as many authors are not so lucky as to have a single or long-time translator and the consistency (and development) that allows for.

       As always, the Cahier-volume itself is a beautiful object as well, not least thanks to the color illustrations -- by Wifredo Lam --, including a fold-out, four-page center spread.
       Nicely put together, To Begin at the Beginning should certainly be of considerable interest to anyone who engages with Marías' work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 December 2022

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To Begin at the Beginning: Reviews: Javier Marías: Other books by Javier Javier Marías under review: Books about Javier Javier Marías under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Javier Marías lived 1951 to 2022.

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