Tomás Nevinson — Javier Marías’s last great novel

There is, surely, a great book to be written about final novels. These last works are imbued with meaningful finality, even when, as with the great Spanish author Javier Marías (who died in September last year), the writer doesn’t know that the novel will be their last.

Final novels can be grouped into distinct types. There’s the vast masterwork after which the author expires, of which 2666 by Roberto Bolaño might be an example. There’s the conclusive text after which the writer retires — see Philip Roth’s lapidary Nemesis. Sometimes the last book seems, in readers’ minds at least, inextricably linked to the author’s death — David Foster Wallace left printed chapters and detailed notes for his unfinished novel The Pale King before taking his own life. Then there’s the disappointment of a novel in which the dying light of the author is all too evident — think Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein or Norman Mailer’s lamentable The Castle in the Forest.

Tomás Nevinson, Marías’s 15th novel, seems to contain a little of all of these types. It is enormous — over 650 pages — but that’s nothing new for Marías, who has always been capacious, both at the level of the sentence and in the length of his books. It’s occasionally enraging, beginning with an extended disquisition on the morality of political assassination that leaves the reader begging for the story to begin. Again, though, that’s what you come to Marías for — the tangents, the longueurs, the sense of spending time in the company of a prolix but fascinating mind. There’s also a feeling of (perhaps accidental) finality. Tomás Nevinson is almost a reflection of Marías’s previous novel, Berta Isla; or rather, it fills in the blank spaces from that book.

One of the most acclaimed Spanish authors of his generation, Marías has always been interested in the spaces between genres. His spy trilogy Your Face Tomorrow showed a fascination with the British secret services, Oxbridge and class. Under the layers of intellectual posturing and theorising, you have a writer who loves the propulsiveness of the thriller, the page-turning compulsion that drives a reader through Eric Ambler or John le Carré.

Marías never approached the spy novel in a predictable way. Berta Isla was about what happened to those left behind when a spy went off on his adventures. Berta’s husband — Tomás — was recruited at Oxford (by Sir Peter Wheeler, whom we first met in Fever and Spear, volume one of Your Face Tomorrow) and then disappeared for more than a decade, presumed dead by Berta. In Berta Isla, Marías explored the position of the abandoned wife, Berta’s worry that her story “did not merit being told by anyone, or only as a fleeting reference when recounting someone else’s more eventful and interesting life”.

In Tomás Nevinson, Marías picks up the story of the couple in 1997, a few years after the end of Berta Isla. Here, he asks what happens to spies in retirement. “I had been retired for some time,” Tomás tells us, “or ‘burned out’ as people say of someone who was once useful and no longer is, who has exposed himself to danger over many years and exhausted himself in the process.”

The problem is, though, that Tomás knows too much. Retired spies begin to long for their place at the secret centre of things: “[T]hey cannot bear the fact that their deeds have gone unrecorded, and in the end, their secretive existence begins to weigh on them.” Working in the British embassy in Madrid, Tomás recognises the strange dichotomy at the heart of the spy’s life: “We are in the hands of people who know us of old, those who can most harm us are precisely those who knew us when we were young and who shaped and moulded us.”

Tomás reflects on his time in the secret service as he is, inevitably, drawn back into it, given a job by the oily Bertram Tupra, his old boss. Now the reason for the extended consideration of the morality of assassination at the beginning of the book becomes clear. Tupra wants Tomás to take out the Basque separatist terrorist responsible for the deadly Hipercor bombing 10 years earlier. He has the photos of three possible suspects — all women — who live in the (fictional) city of Ruàn in the north-west of the country. Tomás must leave the doughty, phlegmatic Berta once again and set himself up as an English teacher in Ruàn. From here, he finds himself drawn into a complex web of espionage and detective work as he attempts to ascertain which of the three women is guilty. Meanwhile, the politician Miguel Ángel Blanco is abducted and murdered by Eta, and the stakes are raised ever higher.

Yet the plot of a novel by Javier Marías is never quite the point — what you get is philosophising, smart conversation and cerebral game-playing. There’s always a profound interest in the human condition in Marías, the sense of an author who uses the tools of postmodernism to ask deep questions about the way we engage with each other and perceive ourselves. For Marías, much like Marilynne Robinson or JM Coetzee, the novel is a vital and powerful vehicle for philosophical inquiry.

I have a friend who works for the security services who says that Marías gets closer to the truth of the spy’s daily life than any other writer, le Carré included. Sir Peter Wheeler references a line from Milton when he first meets Tomás: “We always stand and wait.” Tomás Nevinson is brilliant on the daily vexations of the spy’s life, the boredom, the way the career destroys relationships, eating away at the spy’s sense of self.

The novel ends with a touching afterword from Margaret Jul Costa, Marías’s longtime translator. She is doubly bereaved, she says, to have lost the writer and the friend. At least, with Tomás Nevinson, we are left with a great last novel by which to remember him.

Tomás Nevinson by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jul Costa, Hamish Hamilton £22/Knopf Doubleday $32.50, 656 pages

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This post was originally published on Financial Times

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