Written Lives

Written Lives

Book - 2006
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In addition to his own busy career as "one of Europe's most intriguing contemporary writers" (TLS), Javier Marías is also the translator into Spanish of works by Hardy, Stevenson, Conrad, Faulkner, Nabokov, and Laurence Sterne. His love for these authors is the touchstone of Written Lives. Collected here are twenty pieces recounting great writers' lives, "or, more precisely, snippets of writers' lives." Thomas Mann, Rilke, Arthur Conan Doyle, Turgenev, Djuna Barnes, Emily Brontë, Malcolm Lowry, and Kipling appear ("all fairly disastrous individuals"), and "almost nothing" in his stories is invented.

Like Isak Dinesen (who "claimed to have poor sight, yet could spot a four-leaf clover in a field from a remarkable distance away"), Marías has a sharp eye. Nabokov is here, making "the highly improbable assertion that he is 'as American as April in Arizona,'" as is Oscar Wilde, who, in debt on his deathbed, ordered up champagne, "remarking cheerfully, 'I am dying beyond my means.'" Faulkner, we find, when fired from his post office job, explained that he was not prepared "to be beholden to any son-of-a-bitch who had two cents to buy a stamp." Affection glows in the pages of Written Lives, evidence, as Marías remarks, that "although I have enjoyed writing all my books, this was the one with which I had the most fun."
Publisher: New York : New Directions Pub. Corp., c2006
ISBN: 9780811216111
Branch Call Number: 809 M3111v
Characteristics: 200 p. : ill. ; 22 cm
Additional Contributors: Costa, Margaret Jull

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Jan 07, 2013

You'd think a small book of sketches of famous writers would be just a quick earner or something of a pastime for Spain's Javier Marías, perhaps during a dry spell between novels. After all, he's one of the world's most highly-praised and -circulated living authors. Yet in closing this book the unmistakable impression is that he is really enthralled by the people he's encountered, by their quirks and eccentricities, and that this was no lark for Marías.

Each of these short pieces is only a few pages long, and tries to encapsulate facets of known artists without attempting to evaluate their achievements. Marías explores strange angles about famous writers, including from Victorian times (Wilde, RL Stevenson, James) to our day (Lowry, Nabokov, Djuna Barnes, Mishima). Never striking out for straight mini-biography, he takes a special interest in their obsessions and perversions -- such as Nabokov's crankiness, Mishima's frequent stupidity, Joyce's coprophilia, Barnes's exhausting intensity, etc.

For the most part, he writes affectionately about his characters, or at least never with bitterness. The only other feature common to these bio-sketches is his invariable focus on precisely how his subjects died. No pattern but the frequent banality of these final moments seems to emerge, so this may be Marías' own quirk.

All of this is presented in a translation into idiomatic English, but for the occasional lapse -- as with the redundant "true facts" (p 158) Recommended.

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