The aging, no longer eminent writer who is the protagonist in this novel takes time out from the second draft of his autobiography for a stroll by the sea. There, he sees posterity, rising like Venus from the water: "A girl with chalk-white skin was wading out into the sea without immersing herself in it; on the contrary, she was emerging from it as she slowly mounted a sandbank underfoot. With her back turned, she hadns resting on her hips, she shook her curly hair and then stood there motionless, the water suddenly forming a calm, silent pool around about her snowy curves."
She is not, as it turns out, a painting by Botticelli, but flesh and blood -- too, too solid flesh. She drinks, smokes marijuana and takes strange pills, uses bad language and associates with young people of dubious character: "Kooks, bikers, and kids stoned out of their minds." To some of them, she gives her body. She is Mariana, the niece of the aging Spanish writer Luys Forest, on an unexpected visit. And if he sometimes feels that she has come to get him, the feeling is understandable.
She offers to help him prepare the manuscript of his autobiography, which she proceeds to pepper with irreverent parenthetical notes. And she plans to profile him for a magazine put out by her mother, his sister-in-law, with whom he has had some shadowy, ambiguous relations long ago. But above all, she is posterity -- the true audience of the serious writer -- foul-mouthed, easily distracted, believing in an alien set of values and quick to make snap judgments about the almost unknown past embodied in her uncle. She is mercilessly objective (by her own lights), almost as though the old man to whom she speaks were already dead -- a literary cadaver for calm dissection. And sometimes she talks about his life as though it were a work of fiction, as perhaps it is.
A writer who stops to think about this ideal, inevitable audience, as Juan Marse obviously has, might be tempted to throw away his typewriter and take up plumbing. But for Luys Forest, Mariana's visit -- though inconvenient, disorienting and evocative of ancient frsutrations -- is also a rare opportunity. How many aging writers have a chance to chat with posterity, in a sense to collaborate with it: to take a final work in progress, which is the writer's own life, and remodel it to hold the attention of this elusive readership?
There is, of course, the question of reality; in a sense, the whole beautifully written length of "Golden Girl" is about this question: the "interweaving of reality and desire." Forest does not exactly want to falsify his life to suit his audience, but perhaps to highlight and accent its more interesting elements, to make them easier to gasp and accept. Why else would one rewrite his autobiography?
He gives particular attention to the story of a long-ago night when Mariana's mother slept in his home, drunk, after a fight with her fiance. What happened on that night and how may people were involved? Perhaps it all depends on how you look at it. "In principle," he muses, "this second version of that obscure episode natually involved not the slightest departure from the truth, not the least trace of an alchemy of desire by virtue of which one thing might become something entirely different. But now, all of a sudden, a vision of his sister-in-law dating back to that long-ago night and still deeply cherished in his memory even today whenever he fell into his sensuous reverises of a senile old man suffering from insomnia . . . crept into his mind, inexorably prompting him to alter the course of events in some way."
Foreest has found something that we all proably seek (and find, too, in the gentle adjustments of memory): "a way of changing the past, as though nothing were really irrevocable." But posterity is not very impresed, and she tells her uncle frankly: "Taken one by one, your images are vivid enough, but your narrative as a whole isn't at all persuasive. iYour prose style has a false ring to it, Unc. Half true confessions and half limp excuses."
There are kinder ways to define what Forest is doing, and being a writer of some skill he finds them.In answer to one of Mariana's jibes, he improvises a defense of his private way of recapturing the past: "I remember the man I would have liked to be far more clearly and distinctly than I remember the man I've been. I'm not trying to mirror life as it actually is or was; what I'm trying to do is change it for the better."
And for a larger public, he drafts an eloquent, official-sounding statement for the dust jacket of his book: "Luys Forest has never sought to relate the bare facts, simply and directly . . . instead, he has used his imagination, for the products of imagination always outlive the dubious visions of reality imposed by politicians. . . [He] has gone back to the form, the tone, and the epic deeds of oral tradition, disdaining the illusory authority of the official written record."
This is all very well, perhaps; the author is in control of his material and his manipulation of reality is confined, after all, to the pages of a book. But his sense of control -- actually his sense of realty -- begins to disintegrate when little bits of concret evidence (a photo, a dusty old painting, a videotaped television program, a private conversation about that long-ago rainy night, he has falsified in his memoirs) begin to embody his illusions in tangible reality. In the book's final pages, his sense of reality (or perhaps of control) shatterd, Forest begins searching for an imaginary gun to shoot himself . . . finds it and pulls the trigger. What is destroyed is not his life but perhaps (the conclusion is ambiguos) his imagination.
"Golden Girl" is written with a kind of intricacy that recalls (although from a distance) the work of Vladimir Nabokov. Relatively unknown in the United States (this is only his second novel translated into English), Marse has won many literary prizes both in Mexico and in his native Spain. Helen Lane's expert translation should help to build a comparable reputation for him in English-speaking countries.