I came to ALL SOULS having read Marias' "Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me" a month ago and being very impressed with it. My lukewarm assessment of ALL SOULS is no doubt in part a product of frustrated high expectations; ALL SOULS (published in 1989) is a comparatively pale and shallow fore-runner of "Tomorrow" (which was published in 1994).
In ALL SOULS, the un-named first-person narrator recounts what he wants to share with the reader about his two years as a visiting don at Oxford in Spanish literature. (The story is told more than two years after his tenure at Oxford, when he is back in Madrid and recently married, to Luisa, and more recently a father.) The back cover blurbs portray ALL SOULS as an "Oxford novel", marked by "wit and humour." While the novel may well realistically portray a young don's life at Oxford, it is not so much a send-up of Oxford or a particularly funny novel (although the first few pages of a chapter on dinner at "high tables" are quite funny) as it is a novel about purported relationships that end up being shallow and virtually inconsequential, and as such could be set in virtually any contemporary cosmopolitan spot. The narrator goes through the motions and conventions of friendship but through it all he remains emotionally and psychologically withdrawn and very self-absorbed. Here, the narrator's principal friends are two other Oxford dons and Clare Bayes, with whom the narrator has an adulterous affair of convenience for most of his two years in Oxford. The other principal character in the novel is a long-dead, actual historical figure from English letters, John Gawsworth. In the novel, Gawsworth may or may not have played a prominent role in Clare Bayes' life; in real life (and query how "real" this is) he also was the King of Redonda, a post that is today occupied by the "real"-life Javier Marias. (Christopher Marlowe also makes an intriguing cameo appearance, albeit unnamed.)
All in all, the novel is slow going. Very little happens, and unlike "Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me", there is very little psychological suspense to carry the reader forward. The narrator in ALL SOULS is even more self-centered and the other characters, as a group, more bland and one-dimensional. As in "Tomorrow", the writing is baroque, marked by lengthy parentheses-laden sentences and pages-long paragraphs. Much more often than in "Tomorrow", I found that I had lost my way in a meandering sentence or paragraph and I had to go back and find and pick up the thread. Likely that was due not so much to the elaborate writing, but more because large stretches of ALL SOULS (unlike "Tomorrow") are, frankly, boring; too little happens and we care too little about the self-absorbed characters.
Many other similarities or parallels between ALL SOULS and "Tomorrow" could be enumerated, but here I will mention only two: In both, the narrator embarks upon an affair with a married woman with seemingly no qualms for her husband, which indifference ends up appearing to be in a sense justified in the closing pages of the novel when the narrator learns that the husband also is carrying on outside his marriage. Second, some of the serious themes discussed so gracefully and engagingly in the later novel, "Tomorrow", also appear in ALL SOULS -- for example, personal identity, death, and the weaknesses and vicissitudes of memory -- but the treatment here is so light and casual that I can't characterize ALL SOULS as an intellectual novel, as I tend to regard "Tomorrow."
I read ALL SOULS because of the serendipitous good fortune of having first read "Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me." If, instead, my introduction to Marias had been ALL SOULS, I doubt that I ever would have gone on to read "Tomorrow".