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3 April 2023

Javier Marías and the mists of history

In his final novel Tomás Nevinson, the late Spanish author concluded a profound literary project built on personal and political ambiguities.

By Jeremy Cliffe

“A mist often descends over Ruán, or perhaps rises up from the river, I don’t know,” observes the eponymous narrator of Tomás Nevinson, “but it does hover on the surface of the waters, mingling with them or wrapping about them or almost replacing them, and then you can hardly make out the people crossing the bridge and it becomes hard to tell whether they’re heading north or south, if they’re facing you or turning away, if they’re moving off or coming closer.” The image provides a motif to which Javier Marías returns repeatedly in his last novel – published in Spanish in 2021 and now in a magnificently evocative English edition by Margaret Jull Costa, his longstanding translator. Spain’s greatest modern writer died on 11 September last year. In more senses than one, his legacy is one of mists.

Marías spent much of his life in the spotlight. Born in 1951, he was the son of Julián Marías, a celebrated philosopher who supported the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and, subsequently betrayed by his best friend, narrowly escaped Franco’s firing squads. At 17, Javier ran away to Paris to live with his uncle and began writing his first novel, The Domain of the Wolf (1970), which he published aged 20. But his breakout success – besides a national award in 1979 for his Spanish translation of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy – was the novel All Souls (1989), based on his spell as a lecturer on Spanish literature in mid-1980s Oxford. That time in the “city preserved in syrup”, as he called it, cemented a lifelong Anglophilia. Several of his books take their titles from Shakespeare quotes, like his next work: A Heart So White (1992), a phrase uttered by Lady Macbeth. It was this novel, interweaving themes of marriage, death and memory, that definitively propelled Marías into the literary stratosphere.

His works broadly fell into two categories. There was the “Oxford Cycle”, tales of espionage drawing on characters and themes from All Souls: most notably Your Face Tomorrow, the sprawling novel published in three parts between 2002 and 2007 and widely considered Marías’s masterpiece. And there were tales of love and violence in the vein of A Heart So White, mostly set amid the educated upper-middle classes of his native Madrid, such as Tomorrow In The Battle Think On Me (1994), The Infatuations (2011) and Thus Bad Begins (2014). The two categories merged in the final two of his 16 novels: Berta Isla (2017) and Tomás Nevinson, which are loosely linked narratives telling two sides of a marriage marked and ultimately broken by the husband’s career in espionage.

[See also: The best fiction books for 2023]

It seemed only a matter of time before Marías would win a Nobel Prize in Literature. But then, late last summer, came the shocking news that time had won. At the age of 70, Marías had succumbed to a pneumonia brought on by Covid-19. A chain smoker, he had been in a high-risk group. Whether writing his novels or his self-consciously curmudgeonly column in the centre-left newspaper El País, he could not do so without a cigarette in hand. He worked at his desk in his book-filled flat in the oldest part of Madrid, its balconies looking on to the 15th-century Plaza de la Villa. Marías loved a balcony. “It’s a good metaphor for being a bit inside and a bit outside – that is, taking a look at the outside without leaving the inside,” he told the Paris Review in 2018. “Looking at the world, but from outside the world, is something my narrators do very often. They peep from their corners, as it were.”

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Often that was a function of their professions. Several of his narrators manipulated words for a living: translators, interpreters, ghostwriters or editors. Others were in espionage. Marías considered these vocations related: in Your Face Tomorrow, spies are referred to as “interpreters of lives”, “translators of people” and “anticipators of stories”. Such narrators are essential to his novels, which typically advance slowly through circuitous Sterne-esque digressions, building layer upon layer of allusion and motif without breaking the tension of the narrative. That Marías routinely veers off for a dozen or more pages into ruminations on history, literature, morality or human nature in novels accurately described as “thrillers” is a mark of his skill. It was a method that further deepened the ambiguity at the moral and aesthetic core of his novels.

[See also: Thus Bad Begins confirms Javier Marías as a master of the novel form]

Past and present, self and other, memory and forgetting, guilt and innocence, truth and lie, fiction and history, agency and fate: in Marías’s world opposing forces are unresolved and nothing is entirely “set”. As the narrator of A Heart So White puts it: “The truth is that nothing is affirmed and everything is constantly in the process of being lost.” Marías eschewed what he saw as the trend towards novels that, as he told an El País interviewer in 2021, “are increasingly expected to carry their manual of moral instructions inserted in their pages and images and, worse, in their prose, in their planning, in their style”. His affinity for grey zones was also displayed in one of the more frivolous, but also proudest, achievements of his career. In 1997 the King of Redonda, Juan II (the author Jon Wynne-Tyson), abdicated in his favour. Redonda is an uninhabited lump of rock in the Caribbean ironically claimed by a chain of literary figures dating back to the 1920s. Marías took his role as King Xavier quasi-seriously, doling out aristocratic titles to associates including the film-maker Pedro Almodóvar (the Duke of Trémula) and the German novelist WG Sebald (the Duke of Vértigo, who described Marías as his “twin writer”). Half a year after his death, the Redondan throne still awaits a successor.

Marías’s literary world was swathed in the diaphanous mists he describes in his final novel. Like Berta Isla, Tomás Nevinson plays out in the universe of the Oxford Cycle. Its narrator-protagonist, Berta’s by-now partly estranged husband, is the son of an English father and Spanish mother who was blackmailed, as a young Oxford student, into working for British intelligence. It is 1997 and he has been out of the service for several years when Bertram Tupra, his suave spymaster and a character first introduced in Your Face Tomorrow, reappears in Madrid on a sunny January day to present him with a new mission. He is to adopt a fake identity and move to Ruán (a sleepy university town seemingly based on León) to identify which of three women is an undercover Eta terrorist, with IRA connections, involved in gruesome car-bomb attacks in Barcelona and Zaragoza a decade earlier.

Typically for Marías, the book picks at the moral and aesthetic conventions of the spy-thriller though a succession of (often historical) digressions; the style is Sebald meets John le Carré. The novel opens with reflections on the act of killing, including the case of Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, an anti-Nazi writer who had the chance to assassinate Adolf Hitler in a Munich restaurant in 1932 but did not take it, later rued the day, and went on die in Dachau. “Killing is not so extreme or so difficult or unjust,” muses Nevinson, “if you know who you are killing, what crimes he has committed or announced he is going to commit, how many evils you would save people from…” When, Marías invites us to reflect, does the defence of order and justice rest on the exercise of violence? When is such a calculus fanatical and when is it rational? And when must such past acts be swept under the carpet in the interests of future peace? The novel concludes in May 1998, in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement.

[See also: “Our sense of who we are is constantly shifting”: novelist Katie Kitamura on Agatha Christie and being a reluctant critic]

In certain respects, Marías dwelled in the age of the generation above his own. He did not use email, wrote his novels on an electric Olympia Carrera de Luxe typewriter, and grumbled in his El País columns about unwelcome novelties such as cycle lanes and smoking bans in restaurants. He venerated older men shaped by the great clash of ideologies of the mid-20th century, including his father Julián Marías and his literary mentor Juan Benet, with their past run-ins with the Franco regime. Another hero was Sir Peter Russell, the great British historian of medieval Spanish literature (and former intelligence officer during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War), whom Marías had encountered in 1980s Oxford, and on whom he had based the unforgettable character of Sir Peter Wheeler, a protagonist of his Oxford Cycle.

Yet this fogeyish, backwards-looking demeanour also made Marías a superb chronicler of his own generation, the one born in the middle of the century and most influential around the “end of history”, in the final years and immediate aftermath of the Cold War. His Spain was one of rapid democratisation, modernisation and Europeanisation following Franco’s death in 1975. It was a land of gleaming new motorways and high-speed rail lines sweeping young Spaniards between hedonistic boom-cities, past the ageing, shrinking small towns and villages of “deep Spain” such as Ruán, with its “bells and mists… its monotonous, cosy routines”. A land of the “pact of forgetting”, whereby parties of left and right both declined to relitigate the furies of the country’s hyper-polarised past. “The promise of living in a normal country was far more alluring than the old quest for an apology or the desire for reparation,” observes the narrator of Thus Bad Begins.

Marías’s wider world was that of Western-led multilateralism; a setting particularly relevant to A Heart So White, parts of which play out between interpreters in the United Nations, and which leaves the older mid-20th century generation at a loss. “Many of the people who had spent decades studying the Soviet Union found themselves not unemployed exactly, but surplus to requirement,” observes Patricia Pérez Nuix, a young intelligence analyst in Your Face Tomorrow. She reappears in Marías’s final book as a sometime lover of Tomás Nevinson, whom she views “as an occasional and eccentric trophy… from what she considered to have been heroic times, those of the Cold War”. The narrator-protagonist adds that “looking through her eyes, I watched my life being converted into history, antiquity, the past, and when that happens, we cannot help but question ourselves bitterly as to the usefulness of what we did”. Later in the book he notes how even the most horrifying Eta atrocities are quickly forgotten, especially by the young.

Yet in typically ambiguous fashion, Marías also weaves a rival argument through the narrative: of how as history rushes forward, old crimes dwelling below the surface can erupt many years later. “There is no East and West there now: you’ve run out of adversaries,” Nevinson tells Tupra at their reunion on that crisp Madrid day in January 1997. Tupra replies sceptically: “Well, time will tell, who knows how the more bureaucratic part of society will evolve, authoritarianism is always the thing people miss most… Besides, you and I both know that nothing ever goes away entirely, and what does appear to have gone away always returns sooner or later… with renewed rancour.”

This theme of dark passions below seemingly placid surfaces also defines Marías’s portrayals of romantic and family relationships. A Heart So White, Tomorrow In The Battle Think On Me and The Infatuations all open with deaths (in two cases, violent ones) that trigger processes of peeling back the respectable exterior of bourgeois lives. Private conflicts and scandals rumble on amid the ghosts of older ideological struggles in the apparently confident, consumerist Spain of the post-dictatorship decades. “This is a grubby country,” the ageing film director Eduardo Muriel tells the young narrator of Thus Bad Begins, plunging that novel’s narrative into secrets of the Franco-era against a backdrop of “La Movida Madrileña”, the wild explosion of countercultural creativity in 1980s Madrid.

A running theme here and throughout Marías’s oeuvre is how little we know even those closest to us. “Perhaps it’s the mist brought on by being too close to the situation that’s preventing you from seeing clearly,” Tupra chides Nevinson: “Or perhaps it’s the mist brought on by unacknowledged affections, the kind you don’t even know you feel, and which are always the worst and the most paralysing.”

In a typically ambiguous detail, Marías put one of the most resonant passages of his final novel into the mouth of one of the terrorist suspects that Nevinson encounters in Ruán, “the one I had grown most fond of”. “We are easily deceived and not only by stories,” she tells him. “There are people who promise us happiness or stability or security for our children; or who declare their unconditional, eternal love, swearing that they will always be by our side whatever happens, that they will protect us from persecution and threat. These are convincing promises, but, however well intentioned, impossible to keep, and yet we believe them when we hear them.

[See also: How Anglo writers stole the story of the Spanish civil war]

Nothing would be more alien to the spirit of Marías’s work than an attempt to distil a straightforward moral or message from it. But one can perhaps tease out a broader ethos: the recognition that we all dwell in mists and must accept that fact. That applies to politics and history, in an attitude of scepticism towards wide-eyed visions, great monoliths of blood and stone, and sweeping narratives proclaiming absolute ends or beginnings. And it applies to our personal relationships, in an acceptance that human beings are fundamentally mysterious and mutable beings. As Jaime Deza, the narrator-protagonist of Your Face Tomorrow who also goes by the forenames Jacobo, Jacques and Jack, puts it: “It’s hardly strange that we should be reluctant to know anyone’s face today, tomorrow or yesterday.”

One does not have to squint too hard here to see the mark of José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), the liberal Spanish philosopher who heavily influenced Julián Marías. He had advocated a middle way between idealism and pure realism, one centred not on inherited beliefs or doctrines but on the only reality anyone can truly know: their own (“I am I and my circumstance,” as Ortega y Gasset put it). It is a demeanour of reasoned humility. Often we cannot clear the mists. In a 2009 online interview Marías made that point by invoking a similar but distinct metaphor: “I think it was Faulkner who once said that when you strike a match in a dark wilderness it is not in order to see anything better lighted, but just in order to see how much more darkness there is around.”

“Life is complex and ambiguous,” he went on to tell the El País interviewer in 2021. “It constantly presents us with moral dilemmas, and most of it is food for thought, to say the least. Today too many people do not think, do not pay attention, they do not perceive the contradictions and inconsistencies of their positions taken.” Tomás Nevinson had just appeared in its Spanish original. The pandemic that would cost Javier Marías his life the following year was already dragging on.

Citing the anti-vaccine movement among other examples, the King of Redonda argued that Covid-19 had exposed a “plague of credulity”: “I don’t know if the day will come when humanity will come out of the spell. Today a good part of it believes the fantasisers, the brutes, the irrational, the ghouls and the wicked, without even realising what these things are.” One cannot always know, in other words. But one can be judicious about when to believe. “This foolish time will pass, but I don’t know if we will live to see it. I hope you do, at least.”

Tomás Nevinson
by Javier Marías
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Hamish Hamilton, 656pp, £22

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[See also: From the NS archive: Heroes in Spain]

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