Thursday, June 03, 2010

Javier Marías: Written Lives

Jeremy M. Davies reviews Javier Marías' Written Lives.
In Written Lives, however, Javier Marías—a brilliant novelist, with one foot in the Trollopian pre-modern and the other in perfect strangeness—has managed, simply and offhandedly, to square the circle of literary biography: noting the tendency of much modern fiction to edge towards the status of the essay (Guy Davenport, Alexander Kluge, Enrique Vila-Matas), he treats the twenty-six famous (and not-so-famous) writers in this collection as fictional characters (“which may well be how all writers . . . would secretly like to be treated”), arranging the details of their lives and personalities as plot elements in perfectly formed prose portraits (accompanied by their likenesses in photographs or illustrations, and which images Marías deconstructs elegantly, like a poetic criminal profiler). Though never dramatized, never becoming “historical fiction,” these pieces are short stories in the best tradition of the form: satisfying both our base urge for juicy gossip about our betters, and the concomitant (and no less natural) desire for the rigor—and humor—of literature. Joyce, Malcolm Lowry, Djuna Barnes, Nabokov, and Lawrence Sterne all pass through Marías’s lens: some mocked, some pitied, all illuminated and enriched for their passage. Guilty pleasure or not, Written Lives is a perfect delight.
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