- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 4, 2006

WRITTEN LIVES

By Javier Marias

Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

New Directions, $22.95, 200 pages, illus.

Why isn’t Spanish writer Javier Marias more well known in this country? Although he has published 29 books that have been translated into over 40 languages, American readers have been slow to embrace the work of the witty and stylish writer.

New Directions, Mr. Marias’ American publisher, knows this and has begun a campaign that may finally win him the following he deserves. Last year they brought out “Your Face Tomorrow,” the first installment of a three-volume tour de force in which the author has added espionage to his signature explorations of love and marriage.

Now comes “Written Lives,” a book that contains 26 mini-biographies of famous writers from around the world. The idea, Mr. Marias writes in the introduction, “was to treat these well-known literary figures as if they were fictional characters, which may well be how all writers, whether famous or obscure, would secretly like to be treated.”

He notes that he offers “snippets” of their lives, adding slyly “Far from being a hagiography, and far too from the solemnity with which authors are frequently treated, these Written Lives are told, I think, with a mixture of affection and humour. The latter is doubtless present in every case; the former, I must admit, is lacking in the case of Joyce, Mann and Mishima.”

Though he reckons that all of his subjects were “fairly disastrous” individuals, he notes that what he feels about them as individuals “does not necessarily correspond to any admiration or scorn I might actually feel for their writing.”

Joyce, he writes, was highly superstitious, afraid of storms and, at intervals, was a heavy drinker. “According to his brother Stanislaus … ‘Unhappiness was like a vice.’ He was cold and distant except with those closest to him, but when, on his mother’s death, he discovered a bundle of letters that his father had written to her before they were married, he spent the whole afternoon reading them ‘with as little compunction as a doctor or a lawyer … puts questions.’ When he had finished, Stanislaus asked him: ‘Well?’ ‘Nothing,’ James Joyce answered curtly and rather contemptuously. Nothing, thought Stanislaus, for the young poet with a mission, but clearly something for the woman who had kept them all those years of neglect and poverty.”

Mr. Marias adds a parting shot: “His own wife, Nora Barnacle, who never bothered to read Ulysses, once summed him up. She said: ‘He’s a fanatic.’”

Thomas Mann fares not much better. Mr. Marias writes, “… Mann made a clear distinction between humour and irony and judged that Dickens had too much of the former and not enough of the latter. Perhaps this explains why Mann obliges one to laugh occasionally (one senses he was smiling as he wrote it) and why Dickens makes one laugh out loud on almost every other page.

“What seems certain is that the one area in which Thomas Mann never raised a laugh (not even a forced one) was in his private life, at least to judge by his letters and diaries, which are dreadfully serious.”

Mr. Marias also observes “Any writer who leaves behind him sealed envelopes not to be opened until long after his death is clearly convinced of his own importance, as tends to be confirmed when, after all that patient waiting, the wretched disappointing envelopes are finally opened.” Mr. Marias’ parting shot for Mann?: “He died on August 12, 1955 in Zurich at the age of eighty, from a thrombosis. There were no ironic comments at his death. His family was thoughtful enough to bury with him a ring of which he had always been proud and which he always wore. The stone was green, but it was not an emerald.”

Yukio Mishima, the third of those who left Mr. Marias cold will likely repel readers. The Japanese author of more than 100 volumes of fiction committed hara-kiri, and Mr. Marias does not spare the reader the details. Nevertheless, he attempts to soften the blows by beginning his portrait this way: “The Death of Yukio Mishima was so spectacular that it has almost succeeded in obliterating the many other stupid things he did in his life.”

Having called attention to those writers who did not win his affection, Mr. Marias is a little more generous to those who were possessed of a wide range of eccentricities or bad habits. Malcolm Lowry drank too much. Arthur Conan Doyle took up spiritualism. Isak Dinesen “claimed to have poor eyesight but saw a four-leaf clover in a field from a remarkable distance away.” “Conrad wore a monocle and disliked poetry.”

Henry James “found himself equally unable to declare that an actress was frankly ugly, and had to make do with saying ‘one of the poor wantons had a certain cadaverous grace.’” The grossly in debt Oscar Wilde, on his deathbed ordered a bottle of champagne “remarking cheerfully, ‘I am dying beyond my means.’”

Rainer Maria Rilke loved animals.

Of the surpassing German poet’s rapport with animals, Mr. Marias writes, “Dogs seem to have brought out the best in the poet. On encountering a stray in Cordoba to whom he gave a lump of sugar Rilke wrote, “‘in her eyes was reflected all the truth that goes beyond the individual and towards I know not where, towards the future, or towards the incomprehensible.”

Mr. Marias adds, “On the other hand, he felt uncomfortable with children, although they adored him.”

One could make the argument that this book is little more than a feast of really very good gossip. Mr. Marias here makes no pretense that these portraits add up to some pointed contemplation of the human condition. To the contrary, one has the feeling of random and motiveless rapture. This is simply a book that’s great fun to read, made all the more so by Margaret Jull Costa’s fluid translation.

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