Regular readers of this blog may be aware of my fondness for the novels of Javier Marías, widely regarded as one of the preeminent writers of our generation. So, it was with a strong sense of anticipation that I picked up his epic trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, generally considered to be his greatest work.
That said, I wasn’t sure about this series when I read the first volume, Fever and Spear, back in November last year, so much so that I didn’t write about it at the time. While thoughtful and philosophical (perhaps more so than some of the other Marías novels I’d previously read), this opening instalment was fairly slow going throughout, especially in terms of narrative drive. Nevertheless, I preserved with the series, returning to it during my recovery from a fracture earlier this year (big chunksters being very much the order of the day at that point). Now that I’ve read the other two books in this masterful trilogy, I can see what that first volume was setting out to achieve in laying the essential groundwork for the revelations to come.
In brief, the overarching story revolves around Jacques Deza, a Spanish man who has just moved to England following the recent split from his ex-wife, Luisa, and their two young children. (Those of you who are familiar with Marias’ earlier novel, All Souls, will recognise Deza from there.) Back in the UK, Deza reconnects with various former colleagues from a previous stint at Oxford University, through which he is introduced to the shadowy surveillance expert, Bertram Tupra – a man who appears to be linked to, or possibly employed by, MI6.
Tupra believes Jacques has a particular gift or sense of intuition – more specifically, an ability to assess a person’s inherent character and predict how they are going to behave in the future. In short, by looking at a person’s demeanour today, Deza can ‘foresee’ their face tomorrow.
With this in mind, Deza is recruited into Tupra’s organisation, a nameless group whose overall objectives remain something of a mystery. Ostensibly, Deza will be called upon to assess various individuals in the public eye – typically politicians, celebrities and other figures in positions of power. However, as the true nature of Tupra’s operations become increasingly apparent, Deza is drawn into a deeply sinister world, one where violence and torture are second nature and manipulative deceptions are frequently employed.
The state needs treachery, venality, deceit, crime, illegal acts, conspiracy, dirty tricks (on the other hand, it needs very few acts of heroism, or only now and then, to provide a contrast). If those things didn’t exist, or not enough, the state would have to invent them. It already does. Why do you think new offences are constantly being created? What wasn’t an offence becomes one, so that no one is ever entirely clean. Why do you think we intervene in and regulate everything, even where it’s unnecessary or where it doesn’t concern us? We need laws to be violated and broken. What would be the point of having laws if everyone obeyed them? We’d never get anywhere. We couldn’t exist. (p. 128, vol 3, Poison, Shadow and Farewell)
Almost without realising it, Deza finds himself intimately involved in Tupra’s dirty work, both indirectly as a hapless witness to scenes of a brutal assault and more directly as an active participant. His transformation from horrified onlooker to aggressive perpetrator is one of the trilogy’s key masterstrokes. Along the way, the narrative touches on incidents from the deeply personal, such as Deza’s ex-wife and her current relationships, to the broadly political – the latter including a devastating betrayal of trust from WW2 and horrific episodes from the Spanish Civil War.
Many of Marías’ familiar trademarks are present here, from the long, looping sentences and extended meditations that form a key part of his reflective style, to the key symbols and motifs which recur throughout – for instance, the image of a drop of blood on the floor, the rim of which proves particularly stubborn to remove. (The need to erase the final traces of a ‘taint’ or ‘stain’ crops up again and again, each time in a different context, resonating and reverberating with increasing power.)
The ongoing fascination with listening and surveillance is there too – an element which appears in some of Marías’ earlier books, perhaps most notably, A Heart So White. In some ways, the art of assessing character can be viewed as a form of interpretation or translation – another recurring theme in this writer’s work. Marías’ own particular brand of humour is also in evidence, providing some nicely judged moments of levity amidst the darkness of Tupra’s empire. Volume two of the trilogy, Dance and Dream, contains a fabulous disco scene, complete with wild dancing and some outrageously indecent behaviour before the violence kicks in. in this scene, Deza is observing an associate, the licentious attaché De la Garza, who appears to be taking quite an interest in , Flavia Manoia, the wife of an important contact.
He was clearly a man who had no time for good taste, or in whom bad taste was so pervasive that it crossed all frontiers, the clear and the blurred; more than that, he was someone capable of taking a lascivious interest in almost any female being – a rather smutty interest, verging on the merely evacuative – at Sir Peter Wheeler’s party, he had been capable of taking a fancy, and quite a large fancy at that, to the not-quite-venerable reverend widow or Deaness Wadman, with her soft, straining décolletage and her precious stone necklace of orange segments. (I mean, of course, an interest in any female human being, I would not like to insinuate things I know nothing about and of which I have no proof.) Flavia Manoia, who was of a similar age, but with considerably more style and dash (a dash of her former beauty, I mean), could easily turn his head after the couple of drinks he already had inside him or was planning to drink in the next few minutes. (pp. 65-66, book 2, Dance and Dream)
(For more wild nights at the disco, see the earlier Marias novel, All Souls.)
Overall, the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy is a tremendous achievement, a thought-provoking treatise on truth, betrayal, coercion and culpability. As a whole, the narrative raises some key questions about the nature of violence, particularly whether the final outcome can ever justify the means. It also forces us to question our own likely responses were we to find ourselves in Deza’s precarious situation. How can any of us ever know just how we would react in the face of extreme adversity? How far would we go to protect the life of a loved one or the safety of our children? It’s almost impossible to tell. The prediction of future behaviour or ‘your face tomorrow’ is more challenging than you might think.
Final notes: If you are thinking of embarking on this trilogy at any point, I would highly recommend you read both All Souls and A Heart So White first – the former to gain an appreciation of Deza’s backstory and earlier time at Oxford University (many of the individuals he encountered in his academic days are referred to again here); the latter for an insight into Custardoy, a rather brash copier of famous paintings who plays a key role in YFT volume three, Poison, Shadow and Farewell.
Also, do persevere with the trilogy even if you find it slow going at first – it really does pay off by the time you get to volumes two and three, I promise!
(This is my contribution to Stu’s Spanish and Portuguese Literature month – you can find out more about it here.)
My edition of the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy was published by Vintage Books; personal copy.
Ha, like you, I struggled a little with the first volume and have put off reading the rest. But I plan to get back to it. Am reading mainly Russians this month, but have a Spanish month planned soon.
I’m glad to hear that you’re planning to go back to it. Perseverance is the key, I think – it really does repay the investment in time and effort in the end!
Okay, you’ve tempted me. I’ve ordered All Souls from the library . . .
Marvellous! I’ll be very interested to hear how you get on with it…
I’m staggering my “holds,” as they’re called here, in order to spread things out a bit, so I won’t see this one until Sept/Oct sometime.
It’s probably a good one for the autumn as the nights start to draw in. While Marias isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I do think he’s a writer that everyone should consider trying at some point, especially if they have an interest in translated fiction.
Great review. This sounds very different. Even the sentence structures as you describe them sound innovative. I think that I would like this.
I am obsessed with reading series in order so I would indeed begin with the first book.
Those long, looping sentences are trademark Marias, very indicative of his style. He has an elegant way of layering thoughts on top of one another, outlining an initial perspective or idea, followed by various qualifications or alternative theories. While that might sound rather confusing, it isn’t at all. Somehow he manages to pull the reader in. There’s almost something hypnotic about his style, a meditative quality that makes it very compelling in spite of the various rabbit holes he explores during the course of these ruminations. I would definitely recommend you give him a try!
Great post, Jacqui, and useful advice. I’ve struggled with Marias, but it may be I didn’t start in the right place. And so interesting that he has characters who run as threads through all his books like this. Glad you weren’t disappointed in the end! :D
Yes, the recurring characters add an extra layer. Recurring motifs play an important role in his novels, so the reappearance of a key character or two feels like a natural extension of that idea.
It sounds as if your perseverance paid off. The series sounds like a fascinating multi layered work.
Yes, definitely. You know, I may well have stalled at the end of the first volume of this trilogy had I not been laid up with a fracture for such a long time earlier this year. So, something be thankful for there!
More relevant than ever in this age of surveillance. What do you think about Marias as a Nobel candidate?
Yes, I agree. I’ve been thinking about the surveillance aspects quite a lot recently. In many ways, this feels like a very prescient narrative, frighteningly so given the way things have been heading over the past decade or two.
I would love to see Marias being recognised with the Nobel. it must be only a matter of time, surely?
Very tempting review as ever Jacqui! I have struggled with Marias in the past – attempted The Infatuations twice, but for reasons I can’t fathom, abandoned it both times. Maybe the timing was not right. But I am still very keen to give him another shot. I do have A Heart So White, so that’s the one I will try first and see how I get on.
A Heart So White is probably a better book than The Infatuations, certainly more accessible. As you say, it’s worth giving him another try…but if you don’t find it sufficiently engaging then maybe he’s not the writer for you? We all have our own personal preferences and blind spots, irrespective of standing or reputation. :)
This sounds epic, and very tempting! I have A Heart So White in the TBR so I’ll have to dig it out. Wonderful review Jacqui :-)
Thanks, Madame Bibi. A Heart So White is probably my favourite Marias – I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
Great summary of this wonderful trilogy. Sadly I read each volume as it was published so I enjoyed your more joined-up view. I’d love to re-read them, though I still have the two novels he’s published since to read! I think there is something slightly daunting about starting but I do find that I am soon sucked into the world of the novel by his prose style.
Thank you! It’s a challenging trilogy to write about (so complex and intricately constructed), but I’m glad to hear you enjoyed my piece. I also have Thus Bad Begins to read, but not Berta Isla. Maybe one for the future, depending on how things go. There’s definitely something immersive about his style, for sure. As you say, once you get started it’s impossible not to get drawn into the shadowy worlds he creates.
Good to read your perceptive take on YFT, Jacqui; it was one of the first topic on my blog – six years ago. I’ve just finished Berta Isla, so it was useful to return to YFT and see that he’s still dealing with similar themes, with those same meandering sentences replicating slowly shifting thoughts and philosophical musings. You have to abandon yourself to his method, or it’ll possibly seem tedious or self indulgent prose; but there’s a method, an aesthetic that resembles Proust’s and Sterne’s – a bizarre combination, it seems, but not so strange when he puts it into practice. Meditation and digression: he ‘takes a thought [not a painter’s line] for a walk’, as the translator said, paraphrasing Picasso, in an interview – I quoted it in my second YFT post, and found it a useful insight
Thanks, Simon. I’ll be interested to see your take on Berta Isla, especially if it mines similar territory to Your Face Tomorrow. (Marias does seem fascinated with various aspects of surveillance – listening in to other people’s conversations appears to be a recurring theme.) I did hear a review of Berta on R4’s Saturday Review when it first came out, and opinions were mixed to say the least. That said, I can’t recall whether the reviewers had ever read Marias before. If not, that may well have affected their responses. Submission to his method is spot on – you have to give yourself over to it, almost allowing those long looping sentences to envelop you entirely. It never ceases to amaze me how he always manages to pull back to some kind of anchoring point in the end.
I have several by this author but have yet to get to them. I say this too often but I am making progress through my unread books. Finally.
That’s good to hear. I’ve been on a bit of a mission to read some of my TBR malingerers over the past couple of years. Not an easy thing to do, especially when there are new books coming out all the time, especially from some of my favourite publishers.
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Just finished Fever & Spear. As with so many others, it took long time to get into and it is not a book for light reading (having 18month old twins reduces mental capacity significantly). I found that my interest was held so much more from the point at which Jacobo recollected his family’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War and from there (roughly halfway through), I slipped into the languid currents of the writing with much enjoyment (even if my periods of immersion were only brief).
I find that I have gone from just wanting the book to be over to wanting more, which is a great place to be. Thanks for the recommendations, I shall look back before I move forward with the trilogy
Oh, that’s really great to hear, Peter! Thank you for taking the time to drop by.
I’m glad you were able to get into it in the end. It takes a while for the story to unfold, as far as I can recall. Nevertheless, as you say, there is so much to enjoy in the writing alone that the intricacies of plot can seem somewhat secondary. The overall direction is key, I think, but maybe not all the individual points of detail. Once I stopped worrying about the micro level developments, the overall shape of the trilogy stated to make more sense. It’s a good idea to take some time to reflect on the first volume before moving forward with the rest. I think that helped me to feel ‘ready’ for books two and three…
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