Sunday, February 12, 2006

Written Lives by Javier Marias

Spanish writer Javier Marias has been celebrated around the world for decades as a master of fiction and non-fiction. His books have sold five million copies in more than 40 languages, and his weekly articles in El Pais, in which he muses on politics, art or wherever his thoughts take him, have an enormous following. This 'clandestine greatness' was profiled in the New Yorker last year, when Marias published the first volume of his tour de force of treachery and espionage, Your Face Tomorrow 1: Fever and Spear, which is set in England. So why doesn't Marias have a larger audience in Britain? Indeed, why is comparatively little of his work (a mere eight, soon to be nine, of his 29 books) available in English? Marias's passionate readers feel exhilarated when a new title arrives, then hold their breath while his skilful translator, Margaret Jull Costa, tries to keep up with the backlog.

Written Lives, which contains essays on well-known literary figures, probably won't do much to broaden his reputation, but it does prove what a beguiling, clever and original writer Marias is, and may act as a taster for the next volume of Your Face Tomorrow, due here in June. In the introduction, Marias says that his selection of writers was 'arbitrary', the only stipulations being that they were dead and not Spanish. In fact, the book is more personal than that; quite a few of the writers he's translated into his native language. The result is a survey of 26 international authors, among them Conan Doyle, Madame du Deffand, Faulkner, Kipling, Nabokov, Rilke, Sterne and Wilde, who led illustrious but primarily tragic lives. Marias knows the dangers of taking on subjects who have been dissected many times over, and his solution is to treat them 'as if they were fictional characters'. As an observer-cum-biographer, he allows himself to embellish history, filter material, omit certain facts and dwell on others, stopping short of invention. He brings these well-known faces into the light by making them seem strange, even bizarre.

You can find the full review here

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