Javier Marías, who is Spanish, may be the best novelist you've never heard of. People say this, though they never get around to explaining why you've never heard of him, and whether the fault is yours or his or somebody else's. Other people, who have heard of him, say that Marías needs a Nobel Prize; Orhan Pamuk is one of those. Margaret Drabble has confessed to reading one of Marías's novels and then, when she wanted to forget it, well, guess what, she couldn't. Which is strange praise, I have to say, and even a little bit spooky.
Or - sorry: The most important intellectual figure is what they say, not best novelist. Which sounds daunting. It sort of dusts his novels with daunt too, if I can say that - as if they weren't already physically imposing, which they are, the three novels that stretch out over 1,200 pages to make up his sinuous, seductive trilogy Your Face Tomorrow.
Never fear. That's the first thing I'd like to say about these novels, or at least the third: sinuous, seductive, not to be feared. Beyond that, I don't quite know how to classify the kind of fiction Marías writes. Highbrow noir historical pointillist existential thriller? Stendhal said a novelist takes a mirror for a walk down a main road. Donald Barthelme wondered whether the aim of literature wasn't to create a strange object covered with fur that breaks your heart. Somewhere between the two might be where you'd have to situate Your Face Tomorrow.
If this were a Marías novel rather than a Marías review, the man himself might wander in here, or maybe it would be one of his characters. Though there's no guarantee that either one of them would want to talk about the novels at hand. They'd discuss maybe marriage and betrayal or the Spanish Civil War or Botox or what Sophia Loren may have thought of Jayne Mansfield's bust, also taking the time to parse an odd Spanish idiom or discuss paintings in the Prado, all of which figure over the course of these books. After a bit, the character might threaten you with a medieval sword or a small pistol. You'd have to be prepared for that.
Marías loves this kind of thing, the play between fiction and reality: Which one tells more of the truth and, maybe more important still, how do you ever separate the two? It's one of Marías's major preoccupations as a writer, the warp and the weft and the defining joy of his 1998 novel Dark Back of Time, where the narrator calls himself an imposter and the very book he's in a false novel, and also of Written Lives, from 2006, a collection of literary biographies crafted as if they were short stories.
Ppart of the thrill of these books [is]the sheer smarts of the writing that challenges and entertains and feels as electric, as immediate, as breaking news
There's more of this in Your Face Tomorrow. Jacques Deza, if you want to call him that, is the Marías-shaped hero. If you prefer to call him Jacobo, Jacobito, Jack, go ahead, feel free. People also call him Jaime, which is what I might do here. He has left his hometown, Madrid, which happens to be home to Marías too, if you're keeping score. His marriage has dissolved - Jaime's - and, as Marías did before him, he ends up in Oxford teaching translation and Spanish. He befriends Sir Peter Wheeler, a famous Hispanist and former spy, who (just so you know) has a biography borrowed from Marías's good friend, the late Sir Peter Russell, actual titan of Hispanic studies and legendary intelligence officer whose life was spared in Civil War Spain by order of Francisco Franco himself.
Got that? Jaime has a gift that he also calls a curse. Either way, it's hard to define, he'd tell you that, I'm sure. Let's just say he's extraordinarily perceptive and very good at studying people, their tics and tendencies, for the purpose of predicting future behaviour, just like a - well, like a novelist, really, someone like Javier Marías.
It's Wheeler who introduces Marías to Tupra. Sorry, Jaime meets Tupra, the sinister imperious Tupra, who hires him to work for a shadowy British operation that may or may not be associated with MI-6. And the job? "Our indefinable work," Jaime calls it. He meets certain people and talks to them, reporting back to Tupra. Interpreting, this is called, stories, people, lives. You won't be surprised to learn that the building where they work has no name.
Fever and Spear begins the way The Catcher in the Rye ends, with Jaime echoing Holden Caulfield: Don't ever tell anybody anything, mum's the word to keep in mind, guard all your stories with care. But where Holden's reasoning is grumpy sentimentalism (telling stories makes you miss the people in the stories), Jaime's is coldly cautionary (telling stories leads to betrayal). It's a bravura opening and, frankly, pretty funny, given that Jaime is about to tell everyone everything, spill all the beans he has to spill, for 1,200 glorious pages.
The pace takes some getting used to, I'll say that. And I'll be honest, the first time I started in on Fever and Spear, I felt like I had turned down a detour, while everybody else had carried on along the main route, here I was taking the long way around. And as much I was enjoying myself, among the asides and annotated observations, the interesting glosses on language, the footnotey anecdotes, the seeming haphazard of memories conjured by a glance, a noise, an object - it made me anxious. I confess, longueur is a word I had standing by, and I was prepared to use it on Marías too, along with lacuna, it's true, I had no compunction whatsoever in laying on those l-words, which is what I guess I have done, after all - if only to say forget I ever mentioned them, they don't apply. Your Face Tomorrow is all detour, all the time, and once you've adjusted to this, that's when you start to revel in the density and detail of the thing - that's when I did, anyway.
Tupra knows what all the interpreting is about, that's what we assume. Maybe it's for the greater good. Or maybe he's just a charismatic manipulator with his own cruel agenda. By the end of the second volume, that's what Jaime starts to suspect, at the very least he starts to wonder, Tupra having made the emphatic point that merely interpreting somebody, studying their personality and habits so as to draw conclusions about their potential responses, that's not enough. At some point, action has to be taken, that's what life demands, doesn't it, that you act? Jaime learns this lesson in a handicapped washroom when Tupra draws a sword on an odious Spanish diplomat and to Jaime's horror - but obviously, I can't tell you any more than that. Marías himself wouldn't leave you hanging like that, and doesn't, though fully 12 pages pass from the moment Tupra raises the sword before he actually lets it fall. What I can say is that the scene with the sword and the Spaniard in the washroom is a crucial moment in the trilogy, and a turning point for Jaime.
Eventually, in volume three, Poison, Shadow and Farewell, Jaime returns to Madrid. It's only a visit, and if not exactly settled or comfortable, at least he's on familiar ground. These scenes are, for me, the strongest, the most vivid, which may have something to do with seeing him shift from the passive to the active. His father is dying, his wife has a new, dangerous boyfriend, the city doesn't care he has been gone. Is it too late for him to alter the course of life and events? Has he receded too far into the shadows of theory, memory, history to make a difference?
Marías has a line about the sensuality of intelligence, or at least Jaime does, and that's certainly part of the thrill of these books, the sheer smarts of the writing that challenges and entertains and feels as electric, as immediate, as breaking news. I was going to say more too, but you know what? The time for interpreting always does come to its end. If you're going to read Marías, maybe now is the time to act.
Stephen Smith is a journalist and author in Toronto. His first novel will be published next year.