Book review: Until August, by Gabriel García Márquez

Although this “lost” novel by Gabriel García Márquez was never really lost, perhaps it would have been better to leave it unpublished, writes Stuart Kelly

It is common currency to bemoan the declining standards in the book world, but this one really is a corker. The book by Nobel Prizer winner Gabriel García Márquez is subtitled “The Lost Novel”. How it can be described as “lost” when everyone knew of the existence of the manuscript and where it was is beyond me. More accurate descriptions would be “posthumous” and “unfinished”, but “lost” has the cachet of something esoteric. Similar rhetoric flurried around Vladimir Nabokov’s posthumous, unfinished The Original of Laura. Comprised of index-cards and begun in the 1970s, there was even less of it than of Until August, but it not being in the public domain invested it with a certain fascination. Was this the skeleton key to Nabokov’s interest in pre-pubescent sexuality? It was published and it wasn’t.

There are plenty of books in the same kind of limbo, so the question is really about whether or not it is any good. Of Sir Walter Scott’s final works, The Siege of Malta and Bizarro, John Buchan hoped, with customary insight and kindness, “that no literary resurrectionist will ever be guilty of the crime of giving them to the world”. (The dubious honour of being the bibliographical Burke and Hare goes to Scottish Academic Press in 1977 and Edinburgh University Press in 2009). Until August is pretty bad, but it is not that bad. It is not even as bad as the endless scraps of Tolkien-iana that are drip-fed to the gullible. But it’s not good, and puts the critic in some ways in the unenviable role of conducting an autopsy.

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The facts: García Márquez died in 2014. He had been suffering from dementia. His last novel had been Memories of My Melancholy Whores in 2005, the reviews of which had been more respectful than enthusiastic. García Márquez always thought of himself as a journalist, so it seems better to think of his last works as being either The Scandal of the Century (2019) – a volume of collected journalism – or the start of an autobiography, Living To Tell The Tale (2003). Nevertheless, García Márquez read part of this fiction in 1999, and it was published in El País, with a comment from the author that it was part of a series of “love stories between older people” featuring Ana Magdalena Bach, which he estimated to be around 150 pages each (the entirety of these six stories runs to 110 pages). At the end of his life, having revised the manuscript as it stood, García Márquez told his sons “This book doesn’t work. It must be destroyed”. You may insert famous stories of ignored last wishes from Virgil to Kafka at this point; mind you, The Aeneid and The Trial are masterpieces. The sons say it was “better than we remembered it” and claim García Márquez’s dementia might have blinded him to its merits. This edition includes a longer piece by the Spanish editor Cristóbal Pera with facsimile pages: these show that García Márquez was competent enough to query writing “the verge of the third age” to describe a female protagonist of forty-six. (He might, given time, have afforded less prominence to describing her breasts as well).

The plot is quickly described. Ana is happily married with a son and a daughter. After the death of her mother, however, she travels from an unnamed city in South America to a Caribbean island every year to lay gladioli on her mother’s grave, and have sex with a stranger. These brief encounters are vignettes: one leaves her money, one is a gigolo and maybe a murderer, two don’t happen, and one is a boring man who is not boring in bed.

What stymies the reader is a subjunctive sense. Everything is might have been. For example, on her first trip “the piano began a daring bolero arrangement of Debussy’s Clair de lune, and the girl sang it with love”. On the last trip, “another, more ambitious band began to play Debussy’s Clair de lune in a bolero arrangement, and a gorgeous young woman sang it with love”. My old maths teacher drummed into me that with only two points one cannot tell if they are in a geometric or hyperbolic relationship: here one cannot tell if this is a slip that would have been edited or a deliberate repetition that means something. Likewise, Ana is a musician, but is it significant she shares her name with the second wife of JS Bach (although she was Anna and had 13 children)? She reads science-fiction on her annual visits (John Wyndham, Ray Bradbury, Bram Stoker) except when she reads Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. Is the reader to infer escapism, monstrosity, or nothing very much at all?

This extends to the other scraps of plot. Ana’s daughter is gadding around with a jazz musician, but has had a coil implanted (her mother calls her a whore) and is determined to enter the enclosed order of the Discalced Carmelites. The upshot of all this is nothing. Portentous, aphoristic pronouncements are as problematic. We are told “male doubts… are not easily provoked but almost always infallible”. I suppose among the exceptions to the almost always would be Othello and Pozdnyshev in Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata.

Scott’s Siege of Malta is melancholy reading. He had had several strokes, and although there are flashes of the old self, it is written as if he had forgotten what he wrote yesterday. Until August, alas, is the same.

Until August, by Gabriel García Márquez, Viking, £16.99