Thursday, February 23, 2006
Written Lives by Javier Marias
Two reviews of Javier Marías' Written Lives.
For many of the 25 writers Javier Marías includes in this blissful little book of biographical sketches, nothing in their lives became them like the leaving of it. Robert Louis Stevenson, on returning from the cellar with his customary bottle of Burgundy, enquired of his wife, 'Do I look strange?', before collapsing from a brain haemorrhage.
His friend Henry James was rather more rehearsed, hearing a voice not his own announce: 'So it has come at last - the Distinguished Thing!', which appears to have been a polished rewrite of Laurence Sterne's 'Now it is come', before putting up his hand as if to ward off a blow.
Joseph Conrad was heard by his wife to shout, 'Here...!', before falling off his chair. Oscar Wilde called for champagne on his deathbed, if only as a cue for his final bon mot: 'I am dying beyond my means.'
The prize for epitaphs must go to Lowry: 'Malcolm Lowry/Late of Bowery/ His prose was flowery/ And often glowery/ He lived, nightly, and drank, daily,/ And died playing the ukelele.' As for the Japanese writer, Yukio Mishima, his death was 'so spectacular that it has almost succeeded in obliterating the many other stupid things he did in his life...' (For full details of Mishima's last breath, buy the book.)
The ludicrous Mishima aside, it becomes quickly apparent from these pages that the reason most writers choose to write rather than, say, work in an office, school or hospital is because they are incapable of leading anything like a life which might involve moments of sobriety, modesty or basic politeness.
Taking for granted a state of permanent drunkenness, let's have a look at modesty. Most of the writers described in these thumbnail sketches believed absolutely in their genius. 'Kipling is by far the most promising young man who has appeared since - ahem - I appeared,' wrote Stevenson to Henry James.
You can find the full review here
Not that I don't revere the ground that Javier Marías walks on, but I do think him distinctly lucky to have been able to persuade anyone to publish this volume. Of course, on the continent there is no kind of interest in formal biography to match our own. In Spain, readers might welcome a volume of short biographical essays. Here, despite Marías's occasional wit and elegance, I can't see who would see the point.
What we have are 26 essays which, on the whole, run through a few famous stories about writers: the one about Nora not reading Ulysses; the one about Verlaine shooting Rimbaud in Brussels; Emily Brontë's comb; Nabokov's butterfly net.
Some of these stories just aren't to be trusted. In the chapter on Henry James, two long-discredited stories from the notoriously unreliable memoirs of Ford Madox Ford are included: the one about his being entangled in his dachshund's lead (too good to be true); the other about being received by Flaubert in a dressing gown and always "hating him" thereafter. That last story was disproved 60 years ago by Simon Nowell-Smith.
This book would certainly have been improved by some more extensive reading. It is slightly shocking to read an essay on Thomas Mann, for instance, which reveals not just so little sympathy with the novelist, but apparently so little acquaintance with his novels; it seems to Marías a telling point to claim that there is only one Spaniard who has ever read Joseph and His Brothers from beginning to end. I admit that is fairly amusing, but probably more amusing about Spanish readers than about Mann. And someone who says that Mann's talking about his own irony displayed "a rather extraordinary belief " can't, I think, have read The Magic Mountain with much attention.
A lot of this comes from a distinctly peculiar insistence on gathering information about writers only from their own writings, and from the writings of their contemporaries. In many cases, these are not to be trusted, as with Ford Madox Ford's often fantastical reminiscences. Where Marías has backed his reading up with a good biography - the essay on Lampedusa draws heavily on David Gilmour's classic biography - the result is noticeably better.
You can find the full review here
Buy Written Lives at Amazon.com