I just worked it out from the novel

Michael Wood

It’s easy to feel that life leaves too many traces or too few, scarcely ever the right amount: either fingerprints everywhere or total erasure. In such a mood your memory itself becomes a double agent, and you may be ready, like the hero of Orson Welles’s Mr Arkadin, to hire a private eye to explore your own past or, like the hero of Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas, to welcome the devil as your research assistant. You could also just read one of the formidably intelligent works of Javier Marías, expert in what he calls the ‘shadows’ of the untold story. He is the author of eight novels, the last three of which are available in English (from Harvill) as All Souls, A Heart So White and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me. All three are admirably translated by Margaret Jull Costa, who not only catches the meanings of words with grace and precision, but gets rhythms of thought, and even better, rhythms of afterthought to carry over into English. Marías writes the kind of old-fashioned, speculative prose we associate with Proust and Henry James, all qualifications and revisions, no assertion that can’t be infinitely embroidered or unravelled. But he also deals in violence, historical and personal, and in the movie titles, politicians, brand-names and underwear we connect with a quite different kind of writer. The King of Spain (identified only by various nicknames, Solus, the One and Only, Only You, the Lone Ranger and so on), appears in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, and Mrs Thatcher (recognisable from her lipstick, her manicure and the fact that she is called ‘the British leader’) in A Heart So White. In All Souls people die and are remembered, strange coincidences link the past to the present. In A Heart So White a remote and lurid suicide finds echoes in apparently unconnected lives. In Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me a man discovers he has a corpse in his arms and spends the rest of the novel trying to find a tellable story for this uncomfortable fact. All of these books are impressive, but the latest, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, probably offers the deepest immersion in Marías’s haunted universe.

Toy aeroplanes hang in a child’s bedroom, fighters and bombers from two world wars, German and English and Russian and Japanese machines, an imaginary international encounter in the dark.

The planes did not move or sway, apart from a very slight toing and froing – a kind of inert, or perhaps impassive, oscillation – inevitable in any light object suspended by a thread: as if above the head and body of the child they were all languidly preparing for some weary night-time foray, tiny, ghostly and impossible, which would, nonetheless, have taken place several times in the past, or perhaps it still took place anachronistically each night.

The bedroom is in Madrid, and the planes and the wars suggest still other conflicts to the man who is looking at them, the bombardment of the city during the Spanish Civil War, for example, and an ancient English battle which runs in the man’s mind because he has seen and can’t forget a famous movie. Ghosts visit a sleeping kingly figure, wishing him all kinds of ill, muttering grisly promises and instructions. They say: ‘Let me sit heavy on thy soul tomorrow,’ and ‘Tomorrow in the battle think on me,/And fall thy edgeless sword: despair, and die!’ The ghosts are those of the people we know as the Duke of Clarence, Prince Edward, Queen Anne and others. The movie is Richard III, although the man in the novel doesn’t know this, since he has caught only part of the film on television, and the time is the eve of the battle of Bosworth Field.

The toy planes and the movie run through the novel like flickering images of endless war, remembered, anticipated, simulated, transposed, hidden. The child, again, ‘dreams in blissful ignorance beneath his inherited scene of aerial combat’, and the narrator, without a break, makes the connection again: ‘Tomorrow in the battle think on me, when I was mortal; and let fall thy lance.’ This is an amalgam of several voices from the movie, a scrambled memory, a secondary haunting. On the last page of the book the narrator is still thinking about the child’s planes, half-quoting his own earlier description.

The King of Spain has also caught a film on television, shot in Spain but set in England. The King recognises various locations – Avila, Lecumberri and the Casa de Campo – and also Orson Welles. He remembers the phrase ‘partial sleep’ since he himself saw the movie in the middle of the night, and rather improbably recalls verbatim certain relevant portions of the dialogue, such as ‘God knows, my son, by what by-paths and indirect crooked ways I met this crown.’ Someone else has to tell him, though, that this movie is Chimes at Midnight.

This Spanish-English criss-crossing is important for Marías, and not only because he taught at Oxford and is the Spanish translator of Conrad, Stevenson, Sterne and others. If Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier is the best French novel in the English language, Marías’s works must be strong contenders for the title of best English novel in Spanish. ‘England’ here is a half-mythological, half-observed country and culture, quaint, exotic, sleepy, devious, haunted, an old movie. ‘The English spring is a peculiarly distressing season to those already in distress’; ‘As is well known, the English never look openly at anything, or they look in such a veiled, indifferent way that one can never be sure that someone is actually looking at what they appear to be looking at, such is their ability to lend an opaque glaze to the most ordinary of glances’. A hightable dinner in All Souls is a comic tour de force, with plenty of disorderly drinking and every kind of college bore brilliantly caught, but it is also an outsider’s bemused, admiring picture of a living ritual. ‘England’ is a state of mind for Marías, and a way of naming elusive international experiences. In Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me the narrator informs his Spanish readers and reminds us of the interesting, untranslatable meaning of the English verb haunt (and the French verb hanter).

The etymology is uncertain, but it seems that both come from other verbs in Anglo-Saxon and Old French meaning ‘to dwell’, ‘to inhabit’, ‘to live in’ permanently ... Perhaps the link was merely that, a kind of enchantment or haunting, which, when you think about it, is just another name for the curse of memory, for the fact events and people recur and reappear indefinitely and never entirely go away, they may never completely leave or abandon us, and, after a certain point, they live in or inhabit our minds, awake and asleep, they lodge there for lack of anywhere more comfortable, struggling against their own dissolution and wanting to find embodiment in the one thing left to them that can preserve some validity and contact, the repetition or infinite resonance of what they once did or of one particular event: infinite, but increasingly weary and tenuous.

The war in Marías’s world doesn’t have to be historic or dynastic, scarcely has to be recognisable as a war. There has only to be some form of human damage, foreseen or misrecognised, the violence of disease or anger or accident. There is a battle of some kind each night; therefore always a battle tomorrow. Waking or sleeping, historical or fictional, flesh or film, kings dream of past crimes and future fights. Only children sleep in ignorance of the ghostly battles taking place above their heads. The kings think now of what they will think tomorrow, and they are in this sense a model for many of Marías’s characters, who suffer curious dislocations of time and experience.

In a dizzying chapter of Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, the narrator encounters a prostitute he thinks may be his ex-wife. She doesn’t acknowledge any such thing, and the narrator perhaps doesn’t believe his own suspicions either. How could he not know who she is? How could there be any doubt on this score? He knows this is a reasonable question but reason isn’t any real help to him. ‘She still looked too much like Celia for me to feel distrustful or to decide that it wasn’t her. Anyway, it was her, even if it wasn’t.’ How could a mere fact tear apart what the spooked, obsessive mind has put together? In All Souls Marías evokes an Oxford porter who has come adrift in time:

Will literally did not know what day it was and spent each morning in a different year, travelling backwards and forwards in time according to his desires or, more likely, quite independently of any conscious desire on his part. No one could predict which date he would choose, far less why he chose it. It was not just that on certain days he believed it was 1947, for him it really was 1947 or 1914 or 1935 or 1960 or 1926 or any other year of his extremely long life.

The narrator finds himself wondering whether Will’s time-travel may extend to the future, so that he would one day greet by name, maybe the narrator’s own name, never pronounced in his presence, ‘someone who had not yet arrived in Oxford and who, perhaps, wherever he might be now, was as yet unaware that he would one day live in that inhospitable city’.

Marías’s characters live such thoroughly speculative lives that everything happens to them several times: once in fact and then as many times as the number of variants and analogues they can think of. ‘As if’ is his and their favourite trope. ‘He remained silent for a moment, as if contemplating his own funeral and imagining the future that awaited his various successors’; ‘I would become involved aimlessly and surreptitiously in the lives of strangers, as if I were a spy who doesn’t even know what it is he has to find out’; ‘this time it was raining faster, and more furiously, as if the rain had to make the most of the brief time allotted to it or as if it were an air-raid being fought off by artillery’; ‘she tried to justify what could not be justified, as if the love people bear you could wash away certain things.’ These quotations are taken more or less at random from Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me. The formula, as you can see, allows for imaginary events, elaborate similes and the evocation of impossibility. Much else besides, no doubt. At times Marías’s images take on a self-consciously Proustian flavour, the sense of a homage to the master of the exfoliating, multiple-choice analogy.

Perhaps she was crying too because she felt the kind of envy or sense of exile that afflicts children when they are separated from their siblings, when one of them is left alone with the grandparents while the others go off with their parents on a trip, or when one of them goes to a different school from the one the other children go to, or when they are ill in bed, nestling amongst the pillows with the comics and the coloured prints and the storybooks by which their world is configured (and above them, their model planes), and they see the others going off to the beach or the river or the park or the cinema and setting out on their bikes, and when they hear the first gust of laughter and the summery sound of bicycle bells, they feel like a prisoner or perhaps an exile ...

This sentence is still nine lines from its end. If you feel the style could get tiresome in someone who is not Proust (and even in someone who is), you will not be alone. Any reader of Marías needs to be ready for the prolix self-absorption of his narrators, the way they take all events, even the most melodramatic, and convert them into escalating thought.

There is a death in the first pages of Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, but we don’t learn the narrator’s occupation (‘I’m a screenwriter for the movies, but I almost always end up writing television series instead’) until p.67, and don’t learn his name (Victor) until p.191. All Souls rests on disease, death, vagrancy, suicide and the weird convergence of very different lives, but it is organised around a series of meditations on book-collecting, long English evenings, sex, time, jealousy and the not always secure distinction between living and dead souls. Yet the style doesn’t get nearly as tiresome as you might think; indeed, I mention its occasional excesses only as a warning against the idea of the quick read. Marías is a disciplined as well as an extremely fluent writer, and there is an intricate method to his narrators’ apparent garrulousness – note the casual-seeming appearance of the model aeroplanes in the quotation above. More important still, his excursions into analogy are inventive and interesting in their own right, so that even as you are wondering when you are going to get back to the story, you are enjoying the detour too much to want to return in a hurry. Particularly since the detour, more often than not, is in the end inseparable from the story. It’s not incidental to Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, for example, that a death notice in a newspaper should, indeed must, report ‘the person’s age at the moment when they ceased to have an age’. A little later Marías speaks of the surnames of the dead ‘and their now abandoned ages’.

The novel starts out, as I have said, with the shocking death of a young woman in the arms of her would-be lover. They have had dinner, have gone to bed and begun to undress, the woman just gets sick and dies among the foreplay. The child with the aeroplane above his head is asleep in another room. The lover, our narrator, tries telephoning the husband in London, but doesn’t get through, gives up his attempt. He sets out some food for the child, and sneaks off into the early morning. Some time later, he gets to know the woman’s family, her sister, her father, her husband. The father is a minor personage at the palace, and it is through him that we and the narrator meet the King, and learn of his night-time movie watching. The spectacular climax of the book depends on the narrator’s finally learning what the husband was doing the next day in London, the whole of that next day when his wife was already dead and he didn’t know. What seems like a speculation, albeit a brilliant one, about a state of mind, about the way we are likely to respond to disaster and alteration – ‘There are certain things that we should be told about immediately so that we do not, for a single second, walk about the world believing something that is utterly mistaken, when the world has utterly changed because of them’ – becomes, through the final events of the book, something else entirely. It’s not just, as the narrator thinks, that we can’t bear to believe, or to have believed, that a person is alive when she has in reality been dead for a whole day. It’s that we could, as the husband did, make on that day a series of irrevocable and calamitous moves because we don’t know the world has changed. What we don’t know can not only hurt us, it can ruin us. The novel thus becomes a kind of parable about the occlusion or intermittence of knowledge. Its repeated, obsessive worries about the traces left in the world by people and events (‘there is almost no record of anything’; ‘it’s as if nothing ever really happened, not even the things that happen to us, things we cannot forget’; ‘all time is useless ... for all time is the same, however much happens’; ‘and how little remains of each individual in time’) are not only a traditional form of grieving for the snows and other weather of yesteryear. They are a picture of the anxiety of ignorance: how can we know when what we don’t know doesn’t matter?

‘I didn’t know about it,’ the girl says in Pérez-Reverte’s clever and entertaining The Club Dumas (first published in Spanish in 1993). ‘I just worked it out from the novel.’ ‘It’ is a 20th-century meeting in the town of Meung, and the novel is The Three Musketeers. An old novel, set in an even older time, turns out to be a precise clue to the present. This is not as surprising as it seems, since much of the present, in this context, is organised by a group of Dumas fans, a secret society about to hold its annual meeting. But then what about the rest of the events in the book? The conjurations of the devil, the centuries-old conspiracy, the ancient texts with weird and possibly lethal variants? The deaths that cannot be accidents, the ensuing destruction of priceless volumes? Here, as in his bestselling The Flanders Panel, Peréz-Reverte unfolds all kinds of playful learning (about printing, book-collecting, painting, demonology, Dumas, the Battle of Waterloo) in the service of the kind of scholarly paranoid mystery we associate with Umberto Eco – who indeed makes a discreet appearance as a member of the Club Dumas (‘Look who’s arrived. You know him, don’t you? Professor of semiotics in Bologna’). A question about genre (could these strange events, in this kind of fiction, not all be connected?) turns into a question about readers and the world (could we bear it if they, or their analogues in history, were not connected, how do we distinguish between coherence and our need for coherence, between probability and desire?). If the Club Dumas is not behind everything that happens, who is?

The detective in this novel is Lucas Corso, described as ‘a mercenary of the book world, hunting down books for other people’. ‘That meant talking fast,’ we are told, ‘and getting his hands dirty.’ Corso is Sam Spade among the bibliophiles, a character out of Woody Allen as well as out of Eco. He is a pastiche of a pastiche, but he still fails to understand, until the end, that some coincidences are just coincidences, that both chance and conspiracy are features of the world we imagine we know. ‘I thought you were all omniscient,’ Corso says to the girl who worked out the meeting from the novel, mocking her reliance on a book. The conversation takes place late in the story, and Corso is now convinced that the girl, who seems to know everything and to be everywhere, is a fallen angel, the fallen angel, the devil as a woman. Perhaps she is, but the story doesn’t go the way he thinks it does. ‘Well, you were wrong,’ she says. ‘And I don’t know why you keep talking to me as if I were one of many. I’ve been alone for a long time.’ A major consequence of the Fall, as theologians have been telling us for a long time, is the uncertainty of interpretation, and even the devil is a solitary reader.