Gossip has had a bad rap: it has been made out to be an inferior order of communication, petty and vindictive, underhanded even; the word itself, with its double s's hanging in the middle like empty meat hooks ready for the next flesh to skewer and expose, suggests aggressive intentions; yet as a devotee of gossip I am sure that nothing is further from the truth: ah, truth, the essence of gossip; anything less is slander, or lies, or libel, or plain maliciousness. Gossip is about truths that people would prefer to keep hidden precisely because it may render and reveal the true image that exists behind the phony coverings. Gossip can be, and often is, the magic key that opens a person's soul for all to view. It is anti-spin material and, at its best, it yields, in shorthand, exquisite revelations about a person's character.
Javier Marias's WRITTEN LIVES is superbly gossipy. Its subject is a group of 20 writers chosen by the author in a manner "entirely arbitrary." This (arbitrariness) adds an additional layer of variety and surprise to the list, which includes Conan Doyle, James Joyce, Henry James, Nabokov, Lowry and Kipling. Or, more precisely, three Americans, three Irish, two English, two Scottish, two Russian, two French, one Polish (Conrad), and one each from Denmark, Italy, the Czech Republic, Germany and Japan. Absent are any from the author's own country of Spain, an absence extensively and obscurely explained by the author in his prologue. The type of gossip profusely seeded throughout the book cannot be easily tabulated, but includes (of course) sexuality and perversity, bowel activity, wit, suicide and other aggressive acts, drunkenness, travel, and an assortment of peculiarities of mind, soul, habits, and body, as well as death itself. The exact date, and sometimes the manner of death, form part of this tableau of little anecdotes.
Javier Marias, himself a perennial candidate for Nobelizing (or so gossipy Spaniards believe), is a master of subtlety and indirection; and while he would never reveal his intense regard for Nabokov, he remembers the event of his death not unlike those who experienced the news of Pearl Harbor, or of Kennedy's assassination, or of Nine Eleven: "...I learned about his death in Calle Sierpes in Seville, when I opened the newspaper as I was having breakfast in the Laredo." He has an obvious fondness for most (but not for all) the writers he gossips about.
WRITTEN LIVES will delight and amuse anyone with a fondness for writers, books, and the creation of literature.