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Monday 18 January 2010

Inspector Proust

At Christmas, my husband gave me the last part of Javier Marías’ three part novel Your Face Tomorrow, translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

I have now read the three volumes of the novel first in Spanish and then in English. As an editor said to me – ‘awfully good but an awful lot of words’.

And it is true. As Marías has aged, he has written very much longer. More to see, more to describe.

When younger he could almost be brief. A Man of Feeling – it always reminds me of Nabokov’s novel about a chess player – and All Souls – a mercilessly witty account of Oxford University - are both short, almost novellas.

In his mid-period, when he began to sell very well in Spanish speaking countries and Germany, and attract the attention of Impac librarians, he began to write longer books, but would inject a folletinesco or penny shocker element, beginning a novel with a bang.

In A Heart So White – yes, Javier Marias has a fondness for Shakespearian titles – the novel opens with a young woman rising from a dining table, going to a bathroom, and shooting herself. It also contains one of the funniest scenes in recent literature when someone not unlike Mrs Thatcher, and another person not unlike King Juan Carlos of Spain, begin a conversation instigated by a (mis-) translator simultaneously trying to seduce the other translator.

In Tomorrow in the Battle, Think of Me the narrator wakes up to find his partner in a love affair is dead beside him. Her 9 year old son is in the house and the narrator has, very quickly, to learn that he is an unknown, if sexually intimate, interloper in the rest of her life.

Marías has often used parallels from his own life – he did teach at Oxford, for example – and mixed real names in with invented people, but was most definitely not writing a roman à clef.

In Dark Back of Time he moved this on and wrote much longer still. And in Your Face Tomorrow, he makes use of real people and perhaps even words they really said.

Javier Marías has a point. His father Julián was a philosopher, and in real life was betrayed by a friend who turned on him, invented stories and reported him to Franco’s thugs. Julián Marías was briefly in prison, but escaped with his life and had to move his family to the US to be able to teach.

In the first part of the novel there is a wonderful section in which the narrator’s betrayed father argues that his son’s questions – the whys, why would a friend do this, did you have no inkling of what he was capable of, etc – do not help understanding but tend to bring the enquirer down to the bitterness, envy and fear of the betrayer.

For the son it’s not so simple because his mother’s life, his siblings and his own, have all been changed and to some extent twisted by someone who is just a name. Julián Marías never gave that name. In this book, Javier Marías has.

In a sense the book is a monument to his father – and to Sir Peter Russell, a hispanist and, during World War 2, a spy. Sir Peter was born with the surname Wheeler – the name he is given in the novel. Both died fairly recently.

But anyone who has seen Javier Marías gleefully pronounce the narrator’s surname Deza (Death-a) knows he has much more in mind.

Marías is frequently compared to Proust by reviewers. This refers to the quality of the fiction, and to an apparent discursiveness and sometimes long sentences. He can also sound pernickety, but that is only if you deny that we all speak different languages, even when we speak the same one. The comparison with Proust may also be because Marcel had the notion that writers translate the world for the reader.

There is that amusing story by Harold Nicolson of Proust asking him how his day had gone at the Versailles negotiations after World War I. Nicolson tried to respond briefly. Proust stopped him. ‘Begin at the beginning,’ he said. ‘What was your motor car and what was the driver wearing?’

There is some of that sense of detail in Your Face Tomorrow , a careful leisureliness – but it is of an insidious sort. It makes the shocks leap when they come.

You are warned, however. The first volume of the novel opens with a discussion of Miranda – the “anything you say, may be taken down and used against you” Miranda, rather than Prospero’s daughter in the Tempest. The extraordinary thing about the Miranda warning is that it implies words are truly dangerous and can betray you or be made to betray you.

Is Your Face Tomorrow a crime novel? No. Is it a spy thriller? No. That would not be fair. It is not a genre book. But it is about the dark arts of espionage, character reading, prediction of how people will react, misinformation, power, loyalty, betrayal and trust.

I found it almost hypnotic.

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