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The Truth of Others: Javier Mariás’s Berta Isla

By Andrew Griffin.

Javier Marías, Berta Isla, translated byMargaret Jull Costa (Knopf Doubleday, 2019)

Javier Marías’s new novels arrive familiar.  Berta Isla, published in English translation by Margaret Jull Costa this August, is no different, with its typically contemplative, largely first-personal narrative voices, its vacillating, languorous sentences, and its ruminative obsession with English poetry, returning again and again to lines or phrases from Shakespeare’s plays and Eliot’s Four Quartets.  The topics Marías addresses here are also familiar from previous novels, as Berta and her Anglo-Spanish husband, Tom or Tomás Nevinson, contemplate spycraft, the insularity of Oxford, the nightmare of Franco’s Spain, the claims of history on the present, and the utter inscrutability of other people.  Gesturing toward a tradition of the spy thrillers to which he clearly owes a debt—Le Carré and Deighton in particular—we even get characters from previous novels who make more or less substantial cameos.  Where Le Carré had Toby Esterhase and Alec Lemas, and Deighton had Dicky Cruyer and Warner Volkmann, Marías has Bertram Tupra, the ruthless spy wrangler, and Sir Peter Russell—thinly fictionalized as Sir Peter Wheeler—the onetime King Alfonso XIII Professor of Spanish Studies at Oxford University.

As with so much of Marías’s historically attuned writing it’s difficult to tell which characters, like Russell, are drawn from reality and which are “merely” fictional. This blurring of fiction and reality raises the stakes of the novels, which frequently seem more interested in the real worlds of history and philosophy than in their own diegetic reality. In the case of Berta Isla, this philosophical habit leads to broad discussions of personal self-fashioning and the interiority of other people, and these meditations emerge organically from a scenario that makes them seem inevitable: Berta’s husband is a curiously talented Anglo-Spanish mimic, compelled into the English secret service while studying at Oxford; he regularly vanishes from home for months (and eventually, years) at a time to adopt personae, infiltrating organizations that seem to be—in a phrase he uses both sincerely and ironically—“a threat to the Realm.”  In such a world, one necessarily begins to wonder about the truth of the people we love.

The novel’s philosophical claims cover more ground than this specific situation evokes, however, as Berta suggests by quoting Dickens near the book’s end: “every human creature is destined to be a profound secret and mystery to every other creature.”  Where she misquotes Dickens here—he thought every creature was “constituted” rather than “destined” to be a profound secret—the novel’s dark fatalism shows through.  This is a realist novel because it features individual lives within a wider social context, but it’s also a novel about realism, or about the existentially unnerving truth of realist literature in general: no matter how keenly we work to fashion ourselves, the worlds in which we live are going to determine who we are at the most intimate level.  As Tupra coldly asks Tomás, voicing the novel’s primary question in an incredulous tone: “Since when have people chosen their own lives?”  To be married to a duped spy who wears various identities is, for Marías, only an exaggerated version of the lives we all essentially live.  Every husband plays various roles and is a pawn in a larger world, and his capacity to play different roles reminds us that we can never be sure of a stable foundation behind his various personae.  The counterfeit, as Baudrillard pointed out, always fatally undermines our confidence in the legitimacy of its original.


Where it pays attention to the complicated mixture of truth and fiction in our everyday lives, Berta Isla is a comfortable home to Sir Peter Russell, a figure who was himself difficult to pin down.  An unrelenting critic of historiographical myth making, he also allowed himself the pleasure of living a life that was, by all around him, painted with mythic contours.  Typical of his critical rigor, his 2001 biography, Prince Henry, the Navigator ruthlessly undermines centuries of historiographic encomia to the Prince, and offers instead a less celebratory account of his success, his genius, and his virtue.  By the end of the book, it even begins to seem unlikely that Henry had earned his sobriquet, having designed navigational technology without doing much actual navigating. Despite insisting on the continued significance of the prince, Russell’s account of Henry lays ‘the Navigator’ clinically bare and strips him of the various aggrandizing dishonesties that historians had heaped on him and then repeated unthinkingly.

The rigor of his critical scholarship was joined to a life that is difficult to find beneath a variety of tall tales, and several biographers mention his refusal to disabuse friends and fantasists who shared stories of his real and imagined exploits.  We’re unlikely ever to know whether or not he spent a night in a Javanese tree with nothing but a short-wave radio to protect himself, but that story circulates, never confirmed or denied.  His care for this informal project of mythology seems not to have extended too far—he’d done little more than save a particularly good photo of himself for publication along with obituaries—but the project itself was successful, and it culminates in a hilariously over-the-top entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which gilds a fascinating and full life with its wild enthusiasm. Photographs show clearly, for instance, that Russell was quite handsome, but is it really the case—as claimed in the usually rather blasé ODNB—that as “he aged his noble features became more leonine, and his mane of white hair and his calm air of ‘smiling granite’ made him the object of admiration”?

Considering this eagerness to demystify history while also fostering—or at least enabling— the development of his own personal mythography, it’s unsurprising that Russell figures prominently in so many novels by Marías, who had known him while lecturing at Oxford in the 1980s.  Perennially interested in the slipperiness of historical knowledge—its hidden truths, the liars who produce its stories, the covert machinery of power, the compulsion to search for inevitably lost information—Marías found in Russell a figure whom he could readily fictionalize as Peter Wheeler because he was already, in part, somewhat fictional. Emphasizing this slipperiness, “Peter Wheeler” was the name into which Russell was born before changing his surname after his parents’ divorce in 1929. In the sort of wry turn characteristic of Marías’s novels, “Wheeler” appears to be Russell’s original name while also being a falser name, or a bit less than his true name.

This is the grey epistemological territory that has consistently engaged Marías’s attention and it’s a crucial feature of his the latest novel, where Russell/Wheeler looms.  Here, his presence serves to point up the fecund, central theme around which the novel orbits: as Tupra suggests to Berta while falsely claiming that her husband is missing, we need to tell ourselves stories about ourselves, even if we know that these stories aren’t true.  “[H]owever incomplete or vacuous,” Tupra claims, she should imagine for her absent, nominally-missing husband a story of heroism and death, to make his life meaningful and to allow her to rebuild a life for herself while her absent husband builds other lives.  At “least you’d have a story you could tell to other people and tell yourself,” he points out, and his coldly practical advice points both the specific blankness of a spy’s persona as well as the general fact of daily, interpersonal obscurities.

Unsurprisingly, this practical advice never leads to “closure,” leading instead to the sort of neurotic uncertainty that Marías captures so well in his tortuous sentences.  Here, Berta Isla’s first line draws in miniature the novel’s thematic, intellectual, and narrative concerns:

For a while, she was unsure her husband was her husband, much as, when you’re dozing, you’re not sure whether you’re thinking or dreaming, whether you’re actually in charge of your own thoughts or have completely lost track of them out of sheer exhaustion.

It’s typical of Marías to begin with an enigma—how is her husband not her husband?—and it’s also typical of Marías to worry away at the confused scene, parsing and re-parsing a scenario, attempting to narrow-in precisely on the scene’s most salient characteristics.  The turns and additional clauses here ultimately perform the sort of intellectual uncertainty that the sentence describes: from uncertainty, we get a subtle taxonomy and phenomenology of sleepy thoughts.  The sentence clarifies with real accuracy Berta’s state of mind while also preserving the enigma at the outset. We, as Berta frequently says of herself, remain “in the dark,” a condition of gradually expanding blankness as the novel proceeds.

The frustration provoked by this opening sentence expands over the next few hundred pages, where most of the novel is filled with Berta’s comments on war, history, espionage, literature, and the unknown fate of her absent husband.  Apart from an unsettling incident during which Irish counter-spies threaten her and her young son, the large middle section of Berta Isla is fascinating not for its action, but for the absence of its action, as if Marías has finally found in a marital interregnum a scenario that allows free rein to his meditative prose.  The thoughts here, spoken in Berta’s voice, are particularly engaging when read in the context of the novels and stories that Berta—a lecturer on English literature—regularly invokes.  For Marías, focusing his story through Berta, transforms familiar stories of returning husbands—the trope of Martin Guerre—into a novel closer in spirit to Ovid’s Heroides, which engages characters written by other poets but focuses its narrative through the eyes of suffering, abandoned women rather than the heroic men who’ve left them woundedWhile the closing chapters energetically and efficiently recount the story of Tomás’s lost years, the majority of the novel operates in the genre of “female complaint,” articulating the nature of a suffering that orbits around the sorts of pain generally unique to women.

The success of this cross-gendered complaint is difficult to assess, and it’s made more complicated because Berta’s voice is almost identical to the voice of Marías’ other narrators, male or female.  Whether or not Berta is “convincingly” a woman is in some ways beyond the point Marías wants to make, however, because her voice—probing, worldly, and sensitive (but never “overly sensitive”) —has already been projected through the body of a young Spanish translator working at Oxford (All Souls), a young Spanish translator enlisted into the English secret services via Oxford (Your Face Tomorrow), and a young Spanish translator working at the UN (A Heart So White).  While Berta works not as a translator but as a bilingual lecturer, she becomes, like all of Marías’s narrators, not so much a cipher as an avatar that Marías haunts.  We don’t find a woman on the pages of Berta Isla so much as we find Marías’s habit of obsessive rumination, dropped into a conventional scenario.

So to read Berta Isla on its own terms is to read the its historical and philosophical concerns that Berta raises in the novel’s central three-hundred pages.  Again, this is familiar territory for Marías, and the core of these concerns are refracted through his reading of  Eliot’s Four Quartets, with a  special focus on Little Gidding.  Like Eliot there, Marías dwells on “Women who have seen their sons or husbands /Setting forth and not returning” and explores this moment of traumatic interruption with broader, imbricated questions of time, the weight of the past in the present, and the apparent impossibility of escaping the traumatic, unresolved loss.  Berta’s life certainly continues on while Tomás is absent—she has lovers, a career, children to care for— and yet she never seems, using the language of self-help, to “grow”: “I’ve always looked younger than I am,” she explains, “[p]erhaps I resisted moving away from the age I was when Tomás disappeared, as if any change would be akin to abandoning him.”

This pronounced stasis is the “midwinter spring“ that Eliot explores in Little Gidding— “Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown, / Suspended in time between pole and tropic”— and is, as in Four Quartets, yoked to a grander set of themes, focusing on the meaningfulness or order of sublunary life.  For Marías in Berta Isla, the core of Four Quartets is its account of human ephemerality, and he consequently orbits the open of Little Gidding’s second section: “Ash on an old man’s sleeve, / Is all the ash the burnt roses leave. / Dust in the air suspended / Marks the place where a story ended.”  Ash and air become leitmotifs through Berta Isla, and ultimately seem to be melancholic matter from which the lives of Berta and Tomás are made.  In this philosophical space, Eliot’s claim (by way of Mary, Queen of Scots) that “In my beginning is my end” takes on a darker aspect.  In Marías’s world—and Berta’s and Tomás’s—Eliot’s pessimism is unleavened by any hope, no matter how faint, of redemption, and St. John of the Cross’s ten steps toward divine love don’t figure in Berta Islas ultimately poignant account of marriage and human living.  Berta Isla certainly ends, but never seems to conclude, closing on a scene of return that seems unable to compensate for the cost of the departure. In this floating, uncertain conclusion, the novel veers away—finally and conclusively—from Eliot’s gentle, ultimately poignant closing movement of Four Quartets where Julian of Norwich appears briefly to insist, both meekly and confidently, that “Sin is Behovely, but / All shall be well, and / All manner of thing shall be well.”  Berta, clearly, is not Julian.

Andrew Griffin is an Associate Professor in the Department of English.  His Untimely Deaths in Renaissance Drama was published by The University of Toronto Press in September.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 21st, 2019.