Fairly disastrous individuals: Javier Marías, Written Lives

Javier Marías, Written Lives. Penguin Modern Classics, 2016. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. First published in Spain as Vidas escritas, 2000; US, New Directions, 2006

‘Writers are monsters’, said Hilary Mantel in her introduction to Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel (the VMC edition) – which I made the title of my post about that novel. Many of the 26 writers that Javier Marías includes in this idiosyncratic collection would readily fall into that category.

Mostly it’s best to read Written Lives as a collection of short stories – as the author hints we should in his characteristically witty Prologue to this PMC edition (and his regular translator, Margaret Jull Costa, deserves immense credit for her deft, elegant translation):

The idea, then, was to treat these well-known literary figures as if they were fictional characters, singling out interesting ‘snippets’ from their lives; this may well be how all writers, whether famous or obscure, would secretly like to be treated.

All of his subjects, he points out, were ‘fairly disastrous individuals’. His brief portraits – most are about five pages long – are a willed rejection, that is, of the usual solemn ‘hagiography’ usually found in full-length biographies, he suggests. He approaches his subjects with ‘a mixture of affection and humour.’

Marías Written Lives

Isak Dinesen subsisted on oysters and champagne, as this cover photo shows 

And that’s the key to reading this collection. Marías warns us of the ‘lack of seriousness’ in his texts. This is not intended to be an objective work of scholarship.

For example, that Henry James never forgave Flaubert for receiving the Master and Turgenev in his dressing gown – an outrage for which James never forgave him – is probably taken from Ford Madox Ford’s unreliable testimony, as Philip Hensher pointed out in his review of the 2006 edition of this book (see the end of this post).

Nothing in these sketches has been ‘invented’, Marías disingenuously claims in the Prologue, but it’s in ‘what is included and what omitted that the possible accuracy or inaccuracy of these pieces partly lies.’ And although nothing is ‘fictitious’, some ‘episodes and anecdotes’ have been ‘embellished’.

In case we miss the sly wink behind these words, he goes on to advise the ‘suspicous reader who wants to check some fact’ that he appends an impressively lengthy bibliography as a (surely ironic) attempt to provide an aura of academic authenticity to the portraits – that are transparently cobbled together from a range of such sources, but with more of an eye for entertaining anecdotes than for factual veracity. It’s really a work of fiction – and as such, hugely entertaining.

Largely because of the sly humour. To Malcolm Lowry Marías awards the dubious accolade of

the most calamitous writer in the whole history of literature, which is no mean feat, given the intense competition in the field.

Animals don’t fare too well. The paranoid drunk Lowry, we’re told, once took exception to a horse pulling a cart as he passed by because it gave what he took to be a ‘derisive snort’ – even the beasts were conspiring against him. His response was ‘to punch the horse so hard below the ear that the horse quivered and sank to its knees’ – the horse recovered, but Lowry suffered acute remorse for weeks afterwards.

As he did when, like Lennie in Of Mice and Men (is that where he got the story?), he inadvertently broke the neck of a pet rabbit that he was stroking on his lap, watched by the owner and owner’s mother. Like all the best comic writers, Marías is able to risk an outrageous step further after such a moment; he adds

For two days, he wandered the streets of London carrying the corpse, not knowing what to do with it and consumed by self-loathing, until…the waiter in a bar agreed to provide what promised to be a funeral as ordained by the God of all animals.

There are countless such moments of deliciously nasty insights into these…well, semi-fictitious portraits. Like Conrad, who ‘lived in a permanent state of extreme tension’; such was his uncontrollable ‘irritability’ that whenever he dropped his pen, instead of simply picking it up and carrying on writing,

he would spend several minutes exasperatedly drumming his fingers on the desk as if bemoaning what had occurred.

Conan Doyle, when he was about to become a practising doctor, once thrashed a bully who’d kicked a woman – he was an accomplished boxer, and prone to getting into brawls. The next day the man showed up at his surgery, his first patient. Fortunately he didn’t recognise his doctor.

This is what Marías says about Rilke:

It is not known what he liked, as regards food or other things, apart from the letter “y” – which he wrote whenever he could – as well, of course, as travelling and women.

This post is already becoming too long, but I must mention a trait of Marías’ inimitable style and approach that I’ve discussed in previous posts about his novels, and is also present to comic effect in Written Lives: his habit of judiciously, wryly moving from a detailed particular into a generalising aphorism of spurious portentousness: of Isak Dinesen he says that her philandering husband was the twin brother of the man she had loved from girlhood,

and bonds formed through a third party are perhaps the most difficult to break.

RL Stevenson was

undoubtedly chivalrous, but not excessively so, or rather, he was simply chivalrous enough, for every true gentleman has behaved like a scoundrel at least once in his life.

This volume includes a section of even briefer accounts of notable women (not all of them writers). Like Lowry, the quick-tempered Emily Bronte is said to have punched an animal that had caused her disgruntlement, with similarly dolorous effect (for the dog).

A final section gives Marías’ interpration of photo portraits of writers. These again are surely not intended to be read as serious, but are prompts for some good jokes – for example, he says that in his picture, Nietzsche wears an overcoat ‘that looks as if it had been lent to him by some much burlier relative.’

Philip Hensher’s review of the 2006 edition finds the book inaccurate, rather pointless and embarrassing; he’s also po-facedly critical of the wayward observations Marías offers in that final section, and offers this one of his own about the dustjacket photo of Marías in that edition; it’s just as good as those by the King of Redonda:

Given all of this, it is almost more than you could ask of a reviewer not to comment on the portrait of Marías himself on the dustjacket. Well, he has narrowed his eyes in a way which conventionally indicates sceptical intelligence; his hair could do with some attention (impossible genius); he is holding a burnt-down cigarette like a prop or a trophy, like a non-smoking actress in a revival of Hay Fever. He looks, slightly appallingly, like an author having his photograph taken.

 

A picaresque Basque: Pío Baroja, The Restlessness of Shanti Andía

Back from my summer break in Portugal – that’s why there have been no posts for a few weeks.

The books I took with me turned out not to be a judicious choice. I’ll post about them anyway; although they weren’t to my taste, they have merits worth sharing.

Last spring when I visited Portugal for the first time – a short break in beautiful, shabby Lisbon – I read fiction with a Lusitanian connection: Pereira Maintains , by Antonio Tabucchi, and the pseudonymous Fernando Pessoa’s (the word in Portuguese just means ‘person’), The Book of Disquiet (I posted about both HERE; again, my response wasn’t entirely positive).

 

The Restlessness of Shanti Andía cover

The cover of my 1962 Signet Classics paperback, bought years ago

First: The Restlessness of Shanti Andía by Pío Baroja. I struggled through the first hundred pages, skimmed some more, then, I’m sorry to say, gave up on it.

Baroja had first interested me because he was born in San Sebastián (aka Donostia) in the Basque province of Guipuzkoa – I taught English there for a year some decades ago, and was interested to see what one of its most famous literary figures had written (one of the others is the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, 1864-1936, born in Bilbao, just along the coast from Donostia).

Between 1900 and his death aged 83 in 1956 Baroja published nearly 100 novels, and numerous volumes of autobiography, essays and other writings. This prolific output perhaps accounts for the looseness in structure and general aimlessness of Shanti Andía. Balzac was also sometimes prolix (but also capable of great characterisation, a quality I found missing in this novel).

First published in 1911, it’s a sort of picaresque fictional memoir of a dashing Basque seafarer – it formed part of a loose trilogy called ‘El Mar’, the Sea. Its title in Spanish, Las inquietudes de SA is difficult to translate; ‘restlessness’ suggests a sort of pique; ‘inquietud’ connotes unease, worry; restless as in desire to be on the move, a rejection of tranquillity. That’s Shanti: he can’t bear mundane life ashore, and longs for action, to see the world.

There’s no plot to speak of, then, just a sequence of episodes reflecting those ‘inquietudes’. The first section of the novel recounts the developmental experiences Shanti had as a boy and young man growing up in the Basque fishing village of Lúzaro, such as ‘borrowing’ a boat to explore caves said to be haunted, or trying to board a wrecked ship (an exploit that ends in near disaster). In this sense the novel reminded me of Stevenson’s yarns like Treasure Island (published 1883; indeed, RLS died in 1894, when Baroja was only 23, so he could have read him, though I have no idea if he did; RLS is a much more accomplished writer).

There’s a unifying principle, however, to the narrative: Shanti hero-worships his uncle Juan de Aquirre, who, like his father, was a sailor. The family is told the uncle has died, but Shanti in adult life discovers this is untrue; gradually the old mariner’s exploits are revealed (partly via a ‘found MS’ device beloved of gothic romance) – many of them unedifying, such as his stint serving on a slave ship. I admit I’d stopped reading attentively by then, so can’t say for sure if Baroja shows any sense of immorality in such activities.

Porto tram

My picture from inside the tram to Foz from Porto

Maybe reading this salty yarn in the urban environment of Porto was a mistake. The Atlantic is only a short ride away by charming antique tram from the picturesque city centre, but the riparian environment of the city didn’t harmonise with this book.

Porto, of course, is noted for its port wine, and I loved visiting producers’ vaults and seeing the replica rabelos – the flat-bottomed boats (with curved prows like an Arabian slipper) that plied the dangerous waters of the Douro, bringing the produce of the vineyards far upstream down to the city to be vatted and bottled by the likes of Taylor, Sandeman and Cálem.

Regua

Old photo of rabelos displayed on the wall of a port producer in the upstream Douro town of Regua

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But — back to Baroja.

During Shanti’s apprenticeship to a Cádiz sea captain and his first voyages on the Philippines run, he becomes romantically (and disastrously) involved with their employer’s imperious daughter. Even more clichéd adventures and entanglements follow, with similarly implausible coincidences and complications that could have come straight out of medieval romance.

Shanti Andia title page

Title page of the Signet edition

I don’t think it was the fault of the translators, whose prose reads fairly lucidly, for the most part. It’s the boy’s-own content that I couldn’t get on with.

Maybe I should go back to Bernardo Atxaga.

 

 

 

Taylor's port caves

Inside the Taylor’s port wine caves

 

 

The demonic villain again in Galdós, Miau: post 3

That demonic villain Victor is an insidious operator. He seduces the two Villaamil sisters, Luisa and Abelarda, driving both to madness.

I’ll take just one passage in Ch. 20 where his cruel amorality is shown in technically interesting ways. Victor has managed to displace from Abelarda’s heart her insipid fiancé, Ponce, through a mixture of his dashing good looks and manners (he knows exactly how to attract an inexperienced, lonely, plain young woman), flattery and subtle alternations between fake passion and jealousy of the fiancé – all with honeyed clichés he’s picked up from trashy romantic fiction. Poor Abelarda is too innocent to recognise his falsehoods and duplicitous cunning.

She never much cared for Ponce anyway; she’s acquiescing to family pressure to marry him for the wealth he’ll inherit. She lacks the agency to resist either party.

After days, weeks of this callous campaign, in which Victor claims she’s breaking his heart by refusing him, he tells her he’s leaving the Villaamil house, so desperate is his love for her, and so hopeless his chances of winning her. He knows exactly how simultaneously to torture and lure the infatuated girl. It’s touch and go which gives him greater pleasure. The torture, in my view. He’s an emotional sadist (distant relative of Heathcliff, perhaps, who liked to see the worms writhe), an egotist, and emotionally void.

Abelarda is too smitten and naïve to ‘hide her distress’. This is Victor’s MO: he knows she’s incapable of hiding her true feelings. Her natural modesty has no chance against the passion he knows he has kindled in her love-starved soul. She has no ‘arms’ with which to ‘fight this monster of infinite resources and inexhaustible invention, who was used to trifling with deep and serious feelings.’

He’s like Milton’s Satan in his mastery of language to deceive and influence others, or at least, sufficiently so to impress ingenuous Abelarda. Readers are invited to see straight through his florid, clichéd declarations. He delights in evil for its own sake, hating innocence and goodness and trashing it simply because he can. Balzac’s Vautrin also comes to mind.

Abelarda is painfully vulnerable to his ‘brutal sarcasm’, which he deploys pitilessly, luring her deeper into his power.

So far we’re being guided by the omniscient narrator’s voice. When Abelarda can take no more and leaves the room, Victor is left alone, and the narrator takes us into his consciousness with chilling clarity. The prose style changes completely as the romantic mask drops, revealing the ‘monster’ beneath the smile (and smile, and be a villain: I’ve referred before to the Shakespearean notes).

And the minute after the disappearance of his victim, who…banged the door as if fleeing from a murderer, the wretch [Abelarda] went to bed. There, with a diabolical little smile on his lips, he indulged in the following bitter and cruel monologue. [my emphasis]

I’ve mentioned in previous posts the theatrical technique in the novel, and here again the passage works dramatically. It continues with Victor musing that his helpless victim will ‘unashamedly’ declare her love for him if he isn’t careful: he hasn’t the least flicker of sexual interest in her, as his contemptuous thoughts reveal, in terms that ironically and deliberately reflect Abelarda’s own words in the tortured and self-lacerating soliloquy that I wrote about last time – this is the verbal and structural patterning that Galdós does so well:

But what an unattractive girl she is! Utterly brainless and ordinary to the last degree. I could forgive her everything if she were pretty. Oh, Ponce, what a windfall you’ve got! A rotten apple, only fit to be thrown on the refuse heap.

Some of these interior (or spoken) monologues go on ‘endlessly’, as we saw with Abelarda’s, but here the brevity is brutal and devastating.

An afterthought:

I notice that later in the novel, when Villaamil is engaged in one of his frantic, increasingly obsessive visits to the Finance Ministry where he once worked, vainly trying to get himself employed again, one of the civil servants observes, in response to the ‘disturbed’ old man’s self-pitying diatribe about nepotism and corruption in the service:

‘You’ve got to be pretty shameless to serve this devil of a state.’ [my emphasis]

Miau shows up the capacity for devilish wickedness in individuals like Victor, as the language in my extracts above shows. He is also a kind of metonym of the state in which he flourishes while ‘honourable’ old Villaamil fails repeatedly and is destroyed in the process. The language and structure of the novel once again is carefully deployed and patterned to point up the thematic, symbolic parallels between Victor and the decadent state of Spain.

miau-cover

 

The Penguin Classics edition I’m reading was translated by J.M. Cohen. It’s a rescue book from a library that closed and jettisoned most of its books – I saved it from the skip. It seems to be a first edition from 1966, though the date of acquisition by the library is shown as 1972. It’s pretty battered, but intact.

 

 

 

 

A demonic villain: Pérez Galdós, Miau pt 2

In my previous piece on Pérez Galdós’ 1888 novel Miau I said the narrative consists largely of theatrical-style dialogue, complete with parenthetical ‘stage directions’ and asides by the narrator. I’d now like to look at some of the many interior monologues. OK, as I said before, some of these become excessively long, but at their best, they’re very good.

Villaamil’s daughter Abelarda is the younger sister of Luisa, little Luís’s mother who died when he was tiny. Neither was pretty, vivacious, accomplished or educated, but Luisa caught the eye of Victor Cadalso, a lowly, ambitious ‘aspirant’ clerk in the office of Villaamil when he was chief treasury official ‘in the capital of a third-class province…with a small but not very sparkling population…[a] sleepy little town.’ Cadalso turned up in this backwater ‘without a bean’. Handsome and endowed with ‘an attractive personality’ and ‘a lively and witty conversationalist’, he became a ‘shining star’ in his chief’s drawing-room. He rapidly excelled at ‘amusing the ladies and fascinating the girls.’

Unworldly, unimaginative Luisa fell passionately in love with this dangerous dandy. She was so infatuated she was ‘blind’ to the ‘grave defects in his character’. Despite family opposition – they’ve seen through his attractive veneer – they married. Soon after, Villaamil lost his post (he does so frequently) when there was a change of administration, and Victor was promoted to a post in Madrid. The family followed him there, now dependant on his income, and he had them in his power – where he wanted them.

Luisa was just a stepping-stone for ‘ungrateful’ Victor in his career: he used her, and when he’d got what he wanted, was serially unfaithful. Luisa’s infatuation and Victor’s cruel treatment of her caused her to go mad, and shortly before she died she attacked her baby son, Luís, with a knife. From that point her father dies inside, has ‘an inward collapse’ and becomes ‘like a mummy’. Victor has his revenge.

miau-coverAll of that happened nearly ten years before the main action of the novel. Tom in his Wuthering Expectations blog posts on Galdós’ novel Fortunata and Jacinta has drawn attention to its intricate structures and tightly woven, carefully planned patterns.

There’s some of that pleasing symmetry in Miau.

Victor returns to the Villaamil house after the patriarch has lost his post once again when political power changes hands, just two months short of qualifying for his pension. He rapidly ingratiates himself into the family that loathes him for the vicious, treacherous cad that he is, simply by buying his way into their favour. They’re broke, and need his money, as he knows.

He realises that Abelarda is easy pickings, as her sister was. Inexperienced as she too is, he’s able to use her for his own ends just as he did with Luisa. What ends, though? His civil service post  is under threat while his fraudulent, corrupt ways are investigated. He needs to find something else, and sees his opportunity in the Madrid Finance Ministry that his father-in-law haunts in the vain hope of being reinstated. By vilifying the old man behind his back, he’s able to secure the patronage of the very men whom Villaamil importunes for money and a position, at his host’s expense.

Sorry about the long preamble, but I wanted to provide context for the passages I want to discuss. Here’s Abelarda’s ‘disorderly and endless monologue’, as Galdós calls it, ironically acknowledging his prolixity, in Ch. 18. It’s prompted by her falling for the heartless, fiendish Victor; history is about to repeat itself.

‘How plain I am! Goodness me, I look like nothing at all. But I’m worse than plain. I’m stupid, a nobody. I haven’t a spark of intelligence…How can he possibly love me when there are so many beautiful women in the world, and he a man of special merits, a man with a future, handsome, smart, and with a great deal of intelligence…(Pause)’

The parallel with Luisa is exact. Both girls disparage their own charmlessness, yet secretly, romantically cherish the hope that Victor has seen through their bland exterior and responds to the passionate longing underneath. But the melodramatic, adolescent ambivalence with which Abelarda soliloquises here reveals to us, though not to herself, how fatally she’s deluding herself. Like her pessimistic father, who constantly insists he’ll never be reinstated as a civil servant while secretly hoping for the opposite, she’s reverse wishful thinking.

Her meandering thoughts continue, until she reaches the point of saying she has ‘no pride left:’

‘How stupid and unattractive I am! My sister Luisa was better, although, really and truly, there was nothing very special about her. My eyes have got no expression. The most they do is to show that I’m sad, but not what I’m sad about. No one would ever believe that behind these pupils there is…what there is. No one would ever believe that this narrow forehead and this frown conceal what they do conceal.’

Even as she tries to verbally scourge herself she disloyally denigrates her sister’s sexual allure, then veers into the hope that her mouth, ‘which isn’t too bad, especially when I’m smiling’ would perhaps look better if she painted her lips.

‘No, no! Victor would laugh at me. He might despise me. But he doesn’t find me absurd and repulsive. Heavens, can I be repulsive?…Once I believed I was repulsive, I should kill myself…I would be capable of committing a crime to make him love me. What crime? Any crime. All crimes. But he’ll never love me, and I shall stay with my crime unplanned, unhappy for ever.’

These madly polarised, ingenuous hopes and fears, with the frantic see-sawing rhythms, contradictions and wild antitheses, show that she’s headed the same way as her sister. They share the same fatal flaw: their infatuation with demonic, Byronic Victor leads them into his snare and they are lost, and lose all rational capacity. Like Luisa, when Abelarda is emotionally torn apart by his callous, calculating flirtation, she goes mad and tries to kill her nephew, Luís. The patterning of plot is precise, showing through the symmetry how the action has to move – with inevitable, tragic repetitions.

Victor’s cruel luring of the sisters into his sexual trap once more serves another purpose, apart from advancing his career, for at this point he’s more secure in his employment than Villaamil. When it comes to the crunch he doesn’t even seem to have much genuine sexual drive, and recoils from any sign of passion in either sister. Women are just useful tools to him. He cares nothing for anyone, male or female.

His real intention is to destroy the old man. He takes pleasure in destroying for its own sake. He wants to ruin Villaamil, who scorned him when he was his inferior, and tried to prevent his wooing the first daughter. Now he’s able to use a similar method to bring the father-in-law to his doom, while also ruining the second daughter’s chances of fulfilment, love or happiness.

This isn’t really an anti-bureacracy novel, despite its Kafkaesque depiction of the Spanish civil service. It’s a family (anti-)romance that approaches Shakespearean grandeur in its tragic symmetries and psychological rawness.

He’s one of the great villains of fiction. Like flies to wanton boys are these characters to Victor, who’s not godlike, but Satanic. I’ll explore his character further next time.

 

Honesty is another word for foolishness: Pérez Galdós, Miau

 

After a not entirely satisfactory encounter with 19C Spanish fiction as represented by La Regenta (I wrote about it here and here) I turned with some trepidation to an old Penguin Classics edition of Benito Pérez Galdós’s 1888 novel Miau. The experience was mixed once again.

miau-coverIt’s a sobering, depressing plot: Don Ramón Villaamil has become a ‘cesante’ – a functionary in the immense bureaucracy of the Finance Ministry of the Spanish Restoration period who has lost his post with the fall of the political administration which appointed him. After nearly 35 years of service he’s been made redundant, just two months short of the pension which would have sufficed to provide for himself and his family.

And what a family. His waspish wife, the ironically named Doña Pura, is a spendthrift, whose mania for showing off her fading finery in the Madrid opera houses eclipses any inclination to be a housewife. Her sister Milagros (ironic name!) abets her in her tyrannical control of this household. Their unattractive daughter Abelarda (another aptly ironical name) is too timid and retiring to exert any control over anyone or anything.

Only Villaamil’s grandson, ten-year-old Luís, brings him any consolation. But the little boy is a chip of this old block. The grandfather is described early on as ‘an old consumptive tiger’, now with none of its former beauty ‘except its bright skin’ – he’s still capable of grumpy growling and self-pitying sulking, but he’s toothless.

The rest of the novel relates his increasingly humiliating attempts to beg money from former colleagues by writing letters to them, or by going the rounds of his former Treasury offices, seeking to gain favour and a new position by flattering, importuning or just being seen by his former subordinates and superiors – most of whom despise and patronize him. Those who don’t, find him a pitiable, abject figure.

It’s no spoiler to say this all ends badly for him. Too passive and introspective to play the aggressive role needed to persuade the new administration to employ him, he retreats ever further into himself, slowly turning from reluctant but persistent in his efforts to re-establish himself in the bureaucracy, to obsessive and manic – in the end conceding that he has become what these corrupt, self-serving pen-pushers see him as: a figure of fun, a deluded madman.

The narrative is often painfully slow moving, and the scenes in which this plot are enacted are often far too long and drawn-out. Spoken exchanges and Interior monologues tend to ramble on for pages.

This weakness is balanced by some genuine strengths – the qualities which have brought Galdós to be compared to Balzac and Dickens. I’d suggest he foreshadows Kafka in his bleak depiction of a gargantuan, labyrinthine bureaucracy whose main desire is to perpetuate its own lethargy and corruption, and which crushes anyone who fails to serve it in the manner it needs.

I’ll show some extracts, then, maybe more in another post, which represent him at his most compelling – but these moments are not frequent, there are many more longueurs.

In Ch. 3 Pura castigates her husband for not emulating his former subordinates, who by behaving like ‘scoundrels’ have gained promotions in the Ministry, while he has been ignominiously dropped.

She seizes upon the example of Cucúrbitas, a blundering incompetent:

He may be stupid, but he knows better than you how to push himself.

She despises the man, but admires his immorality: he takes bribes for settling accounts of the state’s clients. When the husband tries to quiet her, Pura continues, getting into her melodramatic stride:

‘How innocent you are! That’s why you are where you are, that’s why you’re poor and they pass you over. Because you haven’t a grain of foresight, and because you’ve been so careful about your blessed scruples. That isn’t honesty, let me tell you, it’s just obtuseness and stupidity.

She bitterly compares ‘honourable’ but unemployed Villaamil with this ‘dunderhead’ Cucúrbitas, concluding with the taunt that this fool will end up a director or minister – ‘And you’ll never be anything.’

She’s ‘warming to it’, our wry narrator informs us in a parenthesis like a stage direction (these dialogues are often punctuated like this, with long sequences of speeches given verbatim; Galdós was also a playwright, though more successful as a novelist). Why doesn’t Villaamil blackmail this administration by ‘coughing up’ scandal he knows about them and their ‘dirty work’, she says. She’d do it, and not care who got hurt. ‘Unmask all those scamps’, she exhorts, then he’d be found a post. But she knows he won’t, and castigates him for it.

Then she returns to more scornful abuse: he’s too full of ‘finicking and politeness’, politely deferring to these people. She moves in for the kill:

‘They just reckon you’re a nobody. But’ (raising her voice) ‘as sure as this light shines you ought to be a director by now. And why aren’t you? Because you’ve got no drive and no spirit, because you don’t count for anything, because you don’t know the way to go about things. Sighing and complaining won’t make them give you what you want.’

This tirade is relentless, her wrath like that of the ferocious sisters in King Lear, or Lady Macbeth’s when she tears into her husband when he shows reluctance to take decisive (ie murderous) action to fulfill their ambitions. Her final insults are vicious:

‘You’re harmless, you don’t bite, you don’t even bark, and they all laugh at you…It’s this honesty of yours that’s your undoing. Honesty is sometimes taken as just another word for foolishness….A man can preserve all the integrity in the world and still take care of himself and his family.’

Pura is blithely unaware of the illogical movement of her argument here, and it’s this showing of her pernicious nature that’s so effectively done: the narrator doesn’t have to explain or moralise – the author trusts us to see her as she truly is. Her hypocrisy and amorality are matched only by those of the bureaucrats she expects her husband to emulate – and yet she despises him for his refusal – or inability – to stoop to their kind of self-promotion.

There’s a grim humour in her preposterous, blistering assault on the submissive, ineffective ‘cesante’. He lacks the assertiveness and spirit that she is full of – he’s a worm that can’t turn.

That early description of the ‘old consumptive tiger’ is invoked in Pura’s diatribe. The message is clear: to get on in this corrupt world a man has to be ruthless. She fails to realise that she’s urging him to become the kind of bully who terrorises their little grandson in the opening chapter and elsewhere. Like Luís, Villaamil is too introspective and passive to fight back or stand up for himself against those who wrong him – yet he spends his time complaining about his fate.

This ambiguous dilemma and the way it’s dramatised in the novel are what redeems it somewhat from the tedious narrative sprawl. The modern world is complicated, and to swim with the sharks it’s necessary to become sharklike. Yet Villaamil isn’t portrayed as some Dostoevskian saintly innocent or idiot: he really is too passive for his own or his family’s good. There’s no redemption for the likes of him, and his loathsome, unfeeling son-in-law is his mirror image, a man who knows how to succeed, and has the morality of a snake. His name is, again, highly appropriate. He’s called Victor.