Javier Marías, Berta Isla

Javier Marías, Berta Isla. Hamish Hamilton, 2018. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Spanish novelist Javier Marías deals in what grammarians (and philosophers, probably) call epistemic modality: the degree of certainty in a belief or knowledge upon which a proposition is based. Things are left unresolved, indefinite, vague (as Berta tells herself, resignedly, towards the end of this intriguing, sporadically brilliant novel). From the opening words of Berta Isla this is apparent:

For a while, she wasn’t sure her husband was her husband…[next sentence] Sometimes she thought he was, sometimes not, and at other times, she decided to believe nothing and simply continue living her life with him, or with that man so similar to him, albeit older.

On the next page:

She had discovered how boring it was to live with absolute certainty, and how it condemned you to just a single existence, or to experiencing the real and the imaginary as one and the same, but then none of us ever quite escapes that.

This gives an indication of that unmistakeable Marías style, brilliantly translated (another act of interpretation, a central Marías theme) by Margaret Jull Costa. Long, looping sentences, multiple clauses, often loosely (paratactically) linked, as here with ‘or…’ Often the parallel possibilities proposed culminate with a generalisation seeming to come from the omniscient narrator, who invites the reader into complicity with the propositions stated, with a teasing air of certainty that’s at odds with the ambiguities and equivocations within those propositions.

Javier Marías, Berta Isla coverAmong the first posts I wrote on this blog was a series on Marías’ superb trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow. This tendency to cloud certainties, the (un)knowability of a person or situation, was a central feature there, and in subsequent novels I’ve posted on (list of links at the end). Hence his interest in espionage, surveillance and secrecy, fluidity of identity, interpretation (and interpreters – of other languages, and of other people’s natures), predictability of possible outcomes.

Several characters depicted in earlier novels in this context feature in Berta Isla. Most notable is Peter Wheeler, Professor of Hispanic Studies at Oxford University when this novel is set – from 1979. He’s also a recruiter of spies for MI6, dipping into the talent available in the student body.

Here his target is Tomás Nevinson, aka Tom (Marías habitually gives his central characters several names to match their multilingual skills.) Tom is half Spanish, half English, has an extraordinary capacity to acquire and speak foreign languages, and is a prodigy in mimicry: talents that make him ideally suited to the espionage work into which Wheeler recruits him (with typically nasty duplicity and subterfuge – the first of many treacheries).

The other main character also seen in earlier works is Bertram Tupra. He’s an elegantly louche, sinister, and as Berta finds when she meets him, seductive field operative who handles Tom and keeps him (and Berta) in line.

This is the trade of ‘dirty tricks’, made up stories. Because what Marías is usually about in his novels is telling stories about…well, storytelling. Marías’ novels thus become reflexive artefacts, halls of mirrors in which it becomes impossible to tell what is ‘real’ and what is reflected – or simply told. Here’s Tupra, a little patronisingly explaining to Tom soon after he’s lured into their world, what they’re about:

We both exist and don’t exist. We both act and don’t act, Nevinson; or rather [even the characters ‘speak’ like Marías’ own narrative voice – there’s that “or” clause again], we don’t carry out the actions we carry out, or the things we do are done by nobody.

Yes, it’s meant to sound like a riddle, a paradox. Like prose fiction, where what is usually intended to recreate truth and a real world – verisimilitude – is all lies, made up, fabrication and fabulation. Berta reflects (p. 369) on Tupra’s words (he’d told her much the same as he had Tom): ‘only what we’re told, what succeeds in being told, exists.’ That inserted qualification is telling.

This is Tupra a little later in that early speech to Tom, getting into his stride (it takes time; nothing is rushed in a Marías narrative; the reader has to yield to its leisurely, accretive flow):

‘We’re a bit like the third-person narrator in a novel, and I’m sure you’ve read a few novels, Nevinson,’ Tupra went on didactically. ‘He’s the one who decides what will happen and the one who does the telling, but he can’t be challenged or interrogated. Unlike a first-person narrator, he has no name and he’s not a character, therefore we believe and trust him; we don’t know why he knows what he knows and why he omits what he omits and keeps silent about what he keeps silent about and why it is that he can determine the fate of all his creatures, without once being called into question. It’s clear that he exists and doesn’t exist, or that he exists but, at the same time, cannot be found. He’s even undetectable. I’m speaking about the narrator, mind, not the author, who is stuck at home and is not responsible for anything his narrator says; even he can’t explain why the narrator knows as much as he does…’[and so on for another half page!]

That’s classic Marías: playful, witty, cerebral, didactic and knowing, teasing his characters, narrator(s) and readers with what’s apparently going on – or not. What exists and does not exist: this novel’s mantra – along with key enigmatic lines from TS Eliot. And there’s crucial reference to Balzac’s story ‘Colonel Chabert’ (also featured in The Infatuations), of a husband (or is it really him?) returned to his wife after a long disappearance. Ulysses and Martin Guerre are also invoked: revenant spooks, or real?

Omissions and known (un)knowns. For example, we learn that Berta studies for a doctorate, but the narrator withholds its topic or subject. We deduce, from her later career in academia, that’s in English literature. Another self-relexive feature in a novel of reflections. As I noted in my previous post, about a painting by Caillebotte in which a character looks out at the viewer, his back to a mirror in which we see reflected the other occupants of the café who both exist yet don’t exist. This is that ‘mise-en-abime’, epistemic self-referentiality, in which a person is both the knowing subject (as Foucault puts it) and the object of his own study. This stuff may not be to every reader’s taste, but I find it works a treat. Though I did find this novel flagged a little halfway through, then picked itself up again with a flourish for the final part.

As I’ve said in earlier posts about Marías, his work is clearly influenced by some of the authors he translated (interpreted) himself: Laurence Sterne, Nabokov, Faulkner, Stevenson and Conrad, all great fabulists and innovative manipulators of fiction; Sir Thomas Browne, with his labyrinthine style and eclectic, arcane subjects. Borges is in there, too, with his labyrinths.

Links in addition to Your Face Tomorrow: 

The Infatuations

 Thus Bad Begins

The possibility of happiness: Rebecca West, This Real Night

Rebecca West, This Real Night (Virago Modern Classics, 2000; first published 1984)

This is volume 2 in the trilogy ‘A Saga of the Century’, about the Aubrey family in early 20C England. The story resumes where The Fountain Overflows (about which I posted here recently) left off. Once again its hallmark is the offbeat perceptions of young narrator, Rose, who can be ‘sometimes savage’ as she’s allowed to grow up with minimal parental intervention, and with some unconventional views on life:

A pretence already existed in those days, and has grown stronger every year since then, that children do not belong to the same species as adults and have different kinds of perception and intelligence, which enable them to live a separate and satisfying life. This seemed to me then, and seems to me now, a great nonsense. A child is an adult temporarily enduring conditions which exclude the possibility of happiness.

She and her twin sister Mary have taken up their places in music academies in London, while beautiful eldest sister Cordelia, now resigned to the fact that she has no musical talent, has abandoned her ill-advised career as a concert violinist.

Rebecca West, This Real Night VMC edition coverIn This Real Night we see the twins maturing into young women, and beginning to recognise the unromantic harshness of life as professional classical pianists. Richard Quin, the adored baby brother of TFO, is slightly less cloying in this novel, as he too grows up. By the close, Mamma says of Rose and Mary that they’ve changed, like Cordelia: ‘Much of the original brutality has gone’, she muses placidly.

Money troubles are over now that profligate father Piers has deserted them. Mr Morpurgo, their kindly benefactor, plays a larger role in this novel, but his geniality is soured by his catty wife, who presides over an awkward lunch party with the Aubreys with vindictive, graceless spite.

There are more charming, heartwarming scenes as the girls develop slightly more sophisticated insights into the turbulent world of mysterious adults. Their idyllic visits to Aunt Lily, now established in a friendly Thameside pub, enable a measure of stability and peace to enter their lives after the heartache of their father’s disappearance. There is a dramatically violent scene there involving Lily’s genial landlord friend, Uncle Len, and a gang of desperado gipsies, which profoundly shocks the girls and teaches them yet another harsh life lesson.

Along with the often unreliable insights of Rose, this novel’s main strengths lie in the portrait of her Mamma, a saintly, eccentric and hugely gifted woman. She has taught her children to play and appreciate music with rare sensitivity, but has failed to show such insight into her feckless husband – who she continues to adore even when he’s abandoned her and the children.

Rose’s view of this marriage is characteristically skewed and partial, but it provides another opportunity to learn about life’s vicissitudes, especially for girls and women:

Indeed, marriage was to us a descent into a crypt where, by the tremulous light of smoking torches, there was celebrated a glorious rite of a sacrificial nature. Of course it was beautiful, we saw that. But we meant to stay in the sunlight, and we knew no end which we could serve by offering ourselves up as a sacrifice.

The tone of this novel is darker and more melancholy in some ways than TFO, published nearly thirty years earlier. Mamma’s frail hold on life becomes increasingly tenuous. Death’s shadow lengthens over the family, darkened ever more ominously by the onset of World War I.

It reads very like a spirited, unconventional autobiography, and perhaps reveals the author’s unfinished editing process. Rebecca West died in 1983, and This Real Night (like the final volume, Cousin Rosamund) was published posthumously. It would have benefited from some judicious pruning – but still contains delights.

Once again there are some dazzling descriptions of music and art, and serious reflections on the nature of creativity and its redemptive place in a secular, commercial, largely artless and dull modern world.

It’s not a great novel, but it is seriously good. Rose’s increasing awareness of the importance of moral rectitude and decency in human relations is developed without too much tub-thumping or piety, and is offset by the sometimes spiky humour and bizarre incongruities, especially about Cordelia, who lacks the other siblings’ artistic sensibility and zany imagination. Her desperate need for normality and urge to escape this (to her mind) crazy family is finally realised when she marries an equally uninspired man. His wealthy family views the Aubreys as quaintly plebeian and ‘humble’, while they, viewing his family,

were feeling towards them like unscrupulous horse-dealers who have sold a dangerous horse to an urban simpleton.

Rohan Maitzen wrote a detailed, perceptive review of this novel at Open Letters Monthly in Dec. 2013