A Review of Javier Marias' Written Lives (trans. Margaret Jull Costa)
New Directions, 2007, $20.00, 200 pages.
Among his many other distinctions, Spain’s leading writer and Nobel Prize candidate Javier Marias can certainly be credited for having written the National Enquirer of literary biographies. A hyperbolic and often hilarious gallery of brief literary portraits, all of which clock in at fewer than ten pages, Written Lives is an addictive blend of wicked criticism and juicy gossip covering the misadventures of an eclectic selection of twenty of world literature’s most famous authors.
Neither hagiography nor a museum piece of arid academic wankage, Marias’ book is that rare treat, an entertaining, casual read that doesn’t waste your time. “Treat[ing] these well-known literary figures as if they were fictional characters,” Marias peels back the mystifying solemnity of reverence and treats them “with a mixture of affection and humour,” unearthing the alternating ridiculousness, arrogance, helplessness and in the case of Malcolm Lowry, “calamit[y]” of their situations.
We become acquainted with William Faulkner and his scholarly impression of Freud: “I have never read him. Neither did Shakespeare. I doubt if Melville did either,” as well as the absentminded Conrad whose twin habits of discarding lit cigarettes around the house and accidentally igniting volumes of literature by candlelight prove a serious hazard to his family’s well being. We are greeted with the nigh-mystical Isak Dinesen, who subsists on a diet of champagne, oysters and cigarettes, and become privy to the “linguistic punctiliousness” of Henry James who, in his unebbing “zeal for clarity” describes a dog to a servant as “something black, something canine.” There are reports of the then unknown Anaïs Nin and Carson McCullers desperate attempts to court the brilliant and enigmatic Djuna Barnes, who thought the former “a little girl lost and a sticky writer” and told the latter, after her continual unsolicited ringing upon the great author’s doorbell, to “please go the hell away.”
The bios are so quote worthy and anecdote ripe that it is impossible to enumerate anything but a remote portion here. One might anticipate that in the case of more infamously misanthropic or downright eccentric writers, such as Nabokov or Rimbaud or Wilde, Marias’ portraits might fall flat or be somewhat predictable. But Marias’ eye is always keen and he has a knack for modulating the outlandish and absurd with a pitch-perfect command of irony & understatement, as evidenced by this excerpt from “Arthur Rimbaud Against Art”: “He deeply offended a certain Lapelletier by calling him “un salueur de morts” (“a greeter of corpses”) when he spotted him accompanying a funeral cortege. This would not have been quite so wounding were it not for the fact that Lapelletier had just lost his mother.” Or witness his command in this excellent introductory line from “Oscar Wilde After Prison”: “According to all who met him, the hand that Oscar Wilde proffered by way of greeting was as soft as a cushion, or, rather, as flabby as old plasticine and somewhat greasy, and left one with the sense of having been sullied by shaking it.”
Of all the writers included, only three fail to gain Marias’ affection: James Joyce, Thomas Mann and Yukio Mishima. Intriguingly, in addition to their substantial narcissism and cruelty all three shared certain perverse fascinations with human digestion: Joyce was a coprophiliac, Mann left to posterity a series of inane diaries chronicling little other than his continual (and varying) intestinal difficulties, and Mishima had a certain theatrical flair for self-disembowelment. One can only guess that Marias felt the literary value of their works overshadowed by the shameless self-aggrandizing and unsavoury sexual tendencies of their creators; these portraits are somewhat scathing, and of a darker timbre.
Supplementing these twenty portraits are two “bonus” sections, “Fugitive Women” and “Perfect Artists.” The former consists of even briefer portraits (under five pages each) of six mostly Victorian and Edwardian female iconoclasts and is admittedly the weakest section of the book. It feels somewhat like an afterthought on the author’s part, a belated and rather half-hearted attempt to address the lack of gender parity of the bulk (17 males vs. 3 females). Worse, is that the portraits aren’t as interesting or lively as those that precede them: the delivery is somewhat flat, and the details not particularly memorable. This inconsistency is no doubt problematic, and will hopefully be rectified if there is an updated edition or sequel.
The book does, however, close on high note, with the essay “Perfect Artists” being perhaps the most engaging section of the whole. Consisting of Marias’ razor-sharp personal and psychological impressions of the gestures and faces of authors from his personal collection of portrait postcards (which are printed alongside), the essay showcases Marias’ at his best, with a precision and almost mathematical clarity comparable to Borges: “The only thing that leaps out at one is that all the subjects are writers and now, at last, when they are all dead, all of them are perfect artists.”
My admiration for Marias is great, for he is a dying breed of writer who can put erudition to engaging and novel use, the result being a work that affords generous pleasure for even the most general of readers. For all his lightness he is never glib, for all his approachability never dull, but always good-humoured and perceptive. These portraits are simultaneously moving, funny and endearing, their subjects fully-formed and intentional caricatures that are larger, but uncannily close to the bizarre flux of life.