Written Lives Hardcover – Feb 16 2006
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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)
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"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)"See all Product Description
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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