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Written Lives Hardcover – Feb 16 2006

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Hardcover, Feb 16 2006
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 200 pages
  • Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd (Feb. 16 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1841955752
  • ISBN-13: 978-1841955759
  • Product Dimensions: 14.3 x 2 x 18.8 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 259 g
  • Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #2,931,718 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

The writers whose lives are sketched in this quirky and appealing book by the world-renowned (though less so here) Spanish writer Marías are familiar to any avid reader: Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Djuna Barnes and William Faulkner, among others. Marias says his aim is to examine writers about whom "absolutely everything" is already known and portray them "as if they were fictional characters." He distills each writer's salient personality traits to outline definitive if idiosyncratic portraits: thus "Nabokov in Rapture"; "Ivan Turgenev in His Sadness." Almost all of these essays display Marías 's dry humor and affectionate tolerance for his subjects' eccentricities, but the portrayals of Thomas Mann, James Joyce and Yukio Mishima bristle with Marías 's disdain. And sometimes the title phrase is tailored to an idée fixe rather than intrinsic to the subject ("Robert Louis Stevenson Among Criminals"). The book is distinguished by supple turns of phrase and bon mots ("every true gentleman has behaved like a scoundrel at least once in his life") and by the photos of each writer from the author's own collection. Reading these portraits is addictive; one keeps turning pages in anticipation of Marías 's keen and amusing analyses. (Feb. 28)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"This absorbing tale, reminiscent of a Henry James novella, is open to multiple interpretations. The predominant impression is of consistent inventiveness." Times Literary Supplement (on The Man of Feeling) "The work of a supreme stylist... Brilliantly done." The Times (on A Heart So White)"

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.1 out of 5 stars 8 reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Literate and witty biographical sketches May 21 2008
By R. M. Peterson - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
WRITTEN LIVES is a compendium of about two dozen brief (four to eight pages) biographical sketches of writers, for the most part relatively well-known writers, including Faulkner, Conrad, Stevenson, Nabokov, Kipling, and Oscar Wilde. A few of the subjects were unknown to me -- for example, Madame du Deffand and Yukio Mishima, who was so bizarre and self-centered (more so than even Joyce and Rilke, who also are profiled) that I don't know why anyone bothers to remember or write about him.

The premise of the book, according to Marias, "was to treat these well-known literary figures as if they were fictional characters." "This book, then, recounts writers' lives or, more precisely, snippets of their lives." "And although almost nothing in them is invented (that is, fictitious in origin), some episodes and anecdotes have been 'embellished'."

The style is light and engaging, marked by much wry humor. The portraits themselves are somewhat uneven -- though that opinion probably is influenced at least in part by my differing personal responses, favorable and not-so-favorable, to the various subjects. Still, the better sketches are very good. Overall, the collection verges on literate fluff, unlike, oddly, Clive James's "Cultural Amnesia", to which it is somewhat similar (although, thankfully, not in length). The sketches would almost certainly come off better if read one at a time, and indeed twenty of them were first published in twenty separate issues of a Spanish magazine.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Master of Gossip March 4 2006
By Fernando Melendez - Published on
Format: Hardcover
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.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "The one thing that leaps out when you read about these authors is that they were all fairly disastrous individuals."--J. Marias July 16 2007
By Mary Whipple - Published on
Format: Paperback
Illustrating this collection of anecdotes about twenty world-famous authors with startling photographs, Javier Marias, one of Spain's most respected contemporary authors, presents individual mini-bios as if they were short stories, "enhancing" some details (though all details are said to be true) and minimizing others. He brings literature's icons to life, showing them with all their warts and blemishes, and though some of these tales have the feel of secret histories, Marias writes with humor, not with bile--and in most cases with actual affection, the three exceptions being James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and Yukio Mishima.

Marias's choice of authors is arbitrary. They come from all over the world and reflect a variety of time periods. Lawrence Sterne exists side-by-side with Yukio Mishima and Emily Bronte, Joseph Conrad with William Faulkner and Isak Dinesen, Malcolm Lowry with Rudyard Kipling and Oscar Wilde. Here one finds memorable tidbits such as the following from among hundreds of such tidbits:

William Faulkner was fired from working at the University of Mississippi post office because he hated having his reading interrupted: "He told his family that he was not prepared to keep getting up to wait on people at the window and having to be beholden to any SOB who had two cents to buy a stamp." James Joyce was so egotistical that he once asked, "Don't you think there is a certain resemblance between the Mystery of the Mass and what I am trying to do?"

Henry James's "linguistic punctiliousness" was so great that "the simplest question addressed to a servant would take a minimum of three minutes to formulate." Robert Louis Stevenson was fascinated by evil, associating with Chantrelle, a multiple murderer, whom he considered a friend. Ivan Turgenev's grandmother murdered an annoying young servant, and his mother drowned all the babies of the serfs on their estate so that their parents would not neglect their duties. Malcolm Lowry, described as "drunk, drunk, drunk," once told about seeing elephants in the street, a hallucination so ridiculous that his friends would not believe him, even when presented with the steaming evidence on the sidewalk.

A fascinating accumulation of oddities about revered authors, this collection is vibrant in its depictions of their personalities and perceptive in its assessments of how these authors came to be the people they were. Lovers of literary fiction and students of world literature will be delighted by this treasure trove of lesser known facts about the Great Ones. n Mary Whipple
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Eccentric orbits May 28 2007
By Jay Dickson - Published on
Format: Paperback
Javier Marias has said that of all his books this one gave him the most pleasure in the writing, and it's easy to see why. It consists of a series of very slim mini-biographies of international writers who were famous either in their own time or today, and it consists mostly of a collections of their oddest peccadilloes and habits. This could be easily done for anyone alive, but fortunately writers are the quirkiest of species, and the most indulgent of their own eccentricities. What emerges, too, is a sense of what the writers are like as characters, most of whom Marias admires with just a few exceptions. (As he admits in his introduction, the only ones for whom he does not care are the ones who took themselves too seriously: Joyce, Mann, and Mishima.) As a joke, it never, ever palls: the lives of the writers whom we already knew were odd types (such as Arthur Rimbaud and Emily Brontë) are of course great fun to revisit, but it's just as much enjoyable to discover the odd quirks of the great authors whom we think of as less strange (such as William Faulkner or Djuna Barnes), or discovering writers who are pretty much forgotten today (such as Vernon Lee and Violet Hunt). I look greatly forward to re-visiting this book again and again in years to come after I've forgotten the details and want to see them again. Marias adopts an ironic Stracheyan tone that's of course a proven winner for the subject matter.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brightness Falls Feb. 7 2006
By Charlus - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A marvelous series of biographical vignettes on famous writers, each a meticulously crafted essay. These short pieces (most only several pages long) encapsulate a personality far more than it tries to evaluate an entire oeuvre. But in doing so, the reader is privy to a beam of light, briefly but brilliantly illuminating what was once merely a name. As the reader turns the pages, joy piles upon joy and one is left delighted to have spent time in the company of a writer who is both entertaining and enlightening.

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