YFTS: Some Thoughts After Finishing the First Volume of Your Face Tomorrow

One starts Your Face Tomorrow filled with foreboding. How else to read the opening segment, a section that lets us know that everything we will read in this book has all been said and done, that it has all already happened to our protagonist, one Jacobo Deza (or Jacques, or Jaime, or . . . like Deza, so many characters in this book have multiple names). Moreover, the book begins with Deza telling us that, knowing what he knows now, he rues the act of opening one’s mouth. And then, were that not enough, the opening section ends on a particularly melancholy note: the narrator evokes the experience of the elderly, who feel their remaining time like “slippery” snow “sliding from their shoulders.” It is an image evoked by a man who has witnessed a catastrophe that has left him old before his time and feeling helpless.

This opening section warns about the dire consequences of loose talk, and volume one goes on to talk about two of the most significant examples in 20th-century European history where loose talk had the potential for mayhem. Those would be the Spanish Civil War, where we are told a word in the wrong direction would lead to an execution, and World War II in Britain, where we witness a nationwide campaign to instill into citizens the fear that loose lips could lead to battlefield deaths.

There is also the great personal risk one runs by talking: one’s words can be appropriated and used to any end so desired by other people. At more than one point Deza tells us that the great ambition of all people is to efface themselves from this earth, but this is impossible, as we all speak and we all leave traces. Yet in volume 1 we also hear the sentiment–powerfully expressed–that most talk is a complete waste of time. How to square these two views?

Volume one also casts Deza in a curious job for a man so aware of the consequences of speaking: listener, and then, creator of realities through the simple act of speech. First Deza listens to people say things, and then he is given the privilege of determining who they are, that is, he gets to give reports to a powerful mysterious employer who will se them for who knows what ends.

It is an immense power granted to Deza, and what makes it even more immense is that Deza is not just listening to anybody; he is listening to the wealthy, the powerful, and the potentially dangerous. He is rendering verdicts on these people–in effect, he is creating interpretations of their personality that have the weight of truth–though he is not permitted to know why he is giving these verdicts, nor what use, if any, they will be put to. This seems like the setup to a great tragedy, something almost Faustian: a man with the great power to know other people intimately just through a single conversation, yet also a man who will never be able to confirm if this great power that he is told he has is actually real, or if he is just spinning stories that have no basis in actual fact. Powerful or weak, wise or pompous? I suspect we will begin to find out in volume two.

And then there is the odd historical angle to volume 1. The relationship between Britain and Spain is perhaps not a relationship that many of the great 20th-century writers have paid much regard, but it is inscribed everywhere in volume one. Deza’s good friend Wheeler, the man who gets him mixed up in this business of telling lives, was a British operative in Spain during the Civil War, and his work there seems to have left a great impact on him. He is a devoted Hispanist, he speaks Spanish fluently and breaks into colloquialisms that only a speaker who is very familiar with the language would know. Likewise, Deza’s new employer in this business, Tupra, seems to have one foot in Britain and one foot somewhere else on the European continent. We witness firsthand a budding member of Spain’s kleptocracy making an ass of himself at a British party, Deza’s coworker, the beautiful Perez Nuix (whom it seems we will almost certainly hear more about), is half Spanish, half British.

Beyond characters, volume one is scarred by the memories of Britain’s and Spain’s mixed past; it has the feel of a book that is reckoning with the legacy that the great political strife of Europe in the 20th century has left on each nation, as well as the cultural sediment left behind by the things the populations of each were forced to accept because of politics. To no small extent Deza’s job–the wellspring, it seems, of the whole series of events that makes this story worth telling–is built on institutions that were built during the wars against fascism in Europe.

How does Deza’s work relate to this legacy, why does his friend Wheeler seem so intent on having him take it up? Marias is invoking matters of huge moral weight, historical questions of great responsibilities that have guided the destiny of nations; he is invoking them and insinuating Deza’s job with their gravity, yet he never quite tells us that Deza’s work is in fact this weighty, in a geo-political sense. However, it is completely clear that Deza’s work will be hugely important for his personal sense of morality, his personal destiny. Yet in volume 1, to take on Marias’ parlance, the point of the spear has pierced, and Deza is beginning to make his own fever.

And lastly, how does Deza’s work relate to Deza? Will this man ever attain self-knowledge, or can he, believing what he believes? I keep coming back to two quotes, the first: “How can I not know your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged beneath the face you show me or beneath the mask you are wearing, and which you will only show me when I am least expecting it?” It is perhaps a question Deza asks himself. And then from a report Deza happens to find about himself: “He knows he doesn’t understand himself and that he never will. And so he doesn’t waste his time trying to do so. I don’t think he’s dangerous. But he is to be feared.”

Perhaps, as we move into volume 2, these words will begin to sound more prophetic.

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Now that’s what I call fever and spear…thanks for such an intriguing overview of the major questions raised by Vol I and the ways in which they are already being interwoven–and the strings made taut–in Vol II.

I know a few readers have gone back to From Russia With Love–both book and movie–and I wanted to also begin an at least partial compendium of quotations from and allusions to other writers that have popped up throughout Vol I…

I was so taken by the repetitions and variations upon “Strange to no longer desire one’s desires…” and so I was tormenting myself until suddenly it struck me that it was Rilke, from the Duino Elegies…I reached out to the bookshelf, and lo and behold, there it was, which sent me spinning off on a minor tangent into the rest of the Elegies…then there were the quotations from/allusions to Eliot–both The Four Quartets and the more obviously presented Prufrock…the multiple references to Cervantes…the even more multiple allusions to Shakespeare (not only the influence on the title of the novel, of course, but it seems in some way much of Shakespeare’s intrepid spirt and own obsessions with spying and lying and words, words, words are integral to the movement and development of this book)…and so of course now I find myself re-reading the Henry plays (IV 1, IV 2, and V) as well as bits from multiple sources about Elizabethan politics and spying and how those things affected the language of that period’s English writers…and then, for a lark, I made a truly lovely and enjoyable (and ultimately chilling) detour into Marias’ own recently published in English Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico…which was just fantastic! Has anyone else read it? What a pleasurable hour I spent with that text…and so, now back to Vol II I shall turn, with Scott’s overview above as my guide, so intrigued to see how things develop for our friend Jacques and the others…and already a bit in love with (or at least infatuated with) the mysterious Perez Nuix and admiring the mystery and complexity of Sir Peter…This is such a great read, and it really has put me into a kind of fever and begun to penetrate my very sleep and dreams…(and finally: thanks, Scott, for reminding of that repeated reference to the snow, which always stops falling…what a beautifully poetic image he has threaded throughout this novel there…)

One more thing: how could I forget the references to The Odyssey pointed out to me (one-eyed oblivion, and how it returned later in Vol I…)?

I’m late on this reply and the discussion may have already moved on to the new posts on volume 2, but I did have a couple of random thoughts on finishing the first novel of YOUR FACE TOMORROW.

The very end of this novel, the long discussion between Wheeler and Deza about the silence campaign, is the first time I really felt a pressing need to have read the section faster, that my slow pace was actually hindering my enjoyment of the novel. It just seemed to turn the same idea over and over again, except for the strangeness with the helicopter —

But I have been thinking about Deza’s conversation with Wheeler over and over for the last week. That Wheeler had kept all these posters, wanted to give them to Deza, yet still wanted to keep a few for himself stuck with me, especially the moment where Wheeler lost his ability to speak again and kept pointing emphatically to one of the posters.

Wheeler is one of the harder characters to understand in the novel — he is one of the bigger mysteries although he is Deza’s guide and mentor, or really the replacement for Deza’s guide and mentor (Wheeler’s brother). Wheeler himself is deeply involved in the intelligence division now run by Tupra and has many more pasts than Deza will ever be able to discover. I wonder if there wasn’t a subtle warning to Deza in the repeated lesson of Wheeler’s lecture: are there times Wheeler himself regrets talking instead of staying silent? Does he ever worry about the fate of an individual he interpreted? Does he ultimately feel he’s a patriotic hero, or does something about his service leave a bitter taste in his mouth?

Since we know Deza is on a path to disillusionment with this career, I’m interested to find out where Wheeler actually stands. Especially since there isn’t a long history of British dissent against the government… maybe it will take a Spaniard to point out England’s flaws. Does Wheeler have this intent when he introduces Deza to Tupra? Or does he have genuine and pure motives?

Fantastic review of Fever and Spear Scott. I really appreciate the way you express the full capacity of the novel, how Marias’ shifts the narrative, seamlessly, between so many levels, from Deza’s wounded ego and lack of agency, to the broad historical and political context. I really love the relationship between Deza and Wheeler, the perspective it gives upon historical change and the way the novel forces you to see the present differently and to question it both as radically different, yet also continuous with the past. RJH. I must say I like what your getting at regarding Wheeeler’s digressions, and his knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare and Cervantes. Of literature generally. I like the emphasis you place upon reading literature in relation to literature, as opposed to politics or history, and how great literature is very much like an ongoing conversation across time within its own history.

I wrote a review late last year on YFT – thought I would share it.

Marias has written three very strong previous novels – ” A Heart so White”, “All Souls”, and “In the Battle Think on Me”. And, obviously, reading them allows you to get to know his style, his methods, his concerns. Like Proust and James, he specializes in long paragraphs of perceptiveness. It is interesting that insight into human interaction can take the form of the very brief: the aphorism, or, as in done in the novel, the long slow treatment. Marias has spoken about how the novel can do this uniquely – slow life down to its minute-by-minute langueurs; a protest against mere remembered fragments . Marias does not care much for objects, landscape, or color – he concentrates almost entirely on the varieties of human deception. Shakespeare’s influence extends beyond the novels’ titles; it is everywhere apparent in Marias’ project: gorgeous bleak psychology. A recurrent theme is that the present is inadequate – after enough time goes by it ceases to matter whether something did or did not happen. The important things are always misplaced and wrongly categorized, whereas what we think will be forever imprinted decays into insignificance. A related repeated sub-theme concerns the speed with which the near past becomes the distant past. A second recurrent, and seemingly contradictory, theme is secrets and the lasting influence of the past, both personal and historical. The tension between these two themes is what Marias seems to be obsessed with: the present in the form of the future past is more real and does more harm. His motif for these two kinds of memory is a blood stain: the central part that is easily washed away and the stubborn rim that persists. So even though he has is own way of treating the subject, it is once again about memory and the strange curse that it inflicts whereby we seem to be able to slow down our thoughts and impressions about people and things once they have moved into the past but everything is just too fast when it happens. “Einmal ist keinmal”.
In his previous novels, this repeating, echoing, meditative style is applied to near ordinary life, albeit through the lens of a highly educated contemplative spanish protagonist with a bad case of anglophilia. The interest in English culture and literature is a curious thing. Marias seems to have developed both his digressive prose style and penchant for jumping about in time through translating English authors into Spanish – Lawrence Sterne in particular has had a lasting influence. In addition, he seems to see something in educated Englishness that is lacking in Spain and for which he yearns, not unlike Borges. Stoic secretive dons with murky pasts fascinate Marias. They are like Oxbridge versions of Indiana Jones. This ongoing England/Spain comparison feels interesting but never amounts to anything that can be summarized.
In a strange mannerist move, Marias took all these elements and enlarged them for his trilogy, that is he made his form the content. I could not help thinking of the difference between the first Matrix movie and the sequels. The opening film was more local and character-based, the pretentious philosophical bits were kept in the background. The sequels were dreadful mush because they tried to bring the background into the foreground. Somewhat analogously, Marias took his effects and made them the subject: what if there were a murky British intelligence organization made up of previous oxbridge spies who now get paid to be perceptive about people. In essence, an organization made up of people, who were they to decide to write novels, would all read like Javier Marias. The result is very impressive, often powerful and disturbing, but nevertheless a self-indulgence.
In the trilogy, violence is central. There are the powerful people in the world and they can use violence with impunity on almost everyone – because the vast majority of people are stupid clueless cowards with no taste. We are saturated with media-based violence but are less equipped to deal with the real thing than any of our historical forebears. We would collapse helplessly if the violence of The Real were to erupt in our living room; if the Hellmouth under us were to open. This is made explicit in volume 2, when the satanic character of Bertram Tupra (also called Reresby, Dundas- the devil is known by many names) terrorizes a shallow moron with a medieval sword in a London nightclub. The moral seriousness that ordinary people lack in everyday life is more likely to be expressed during wartime (along. of of course, with the mirror capacities to commit atrocities). There are frequent flashbacks in the three volumes to the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, which concentrate, respectively, on two characters that Marias obviously admires most: one based on his late father and another based on the late Oxford don, Sir Peter Russell. What is going on here? Clearly we are meant to understand that we are no where near as safe as we think we are. That the cruel deceptions of ordinary life and the tricks of time have their analogs in the political world at large, and so can be treated in the same way novelistically. OK but it is hard not to detect some pseudo-Nietzschean, dare I say Ayn Rand-ean, hauteur here. There is a whole book to be be written about how sophisticated thinkers/artists, in their intellectual despair, seem to zero in on violence as philosophical aporia. Alan Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Cormac McCarthy, Ernst Junger – to name some at random. As if somehow the best people have war minds even in peacetime, which does not exist anyway. The trilogy is full of brilliant things. It is like what often happens in science: wonderful experiments with interesting empirical results but the accompanying interpretative theory fails to convince.

I’m curious about how you, the reader, felt on completing V1. I finished it yesterday and felt terrible. I attributed my feeling to all the weighty considerations of motivations, of silence and speech, of intentions, and trust. I felt weighed down and heavy. So much of the interiority and consideration of interpersonal relations and communications (intended and unintended) are so dark and so unsettling. Anyone else?

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