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Written Lives Hardcover – 16 Feb 2006
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"This absorbing tale, reminiscent of a Henry James novella, is open to multiple interpretations. The predominant impression is of consistent inventiveness." Times Literary Supplement (on The Man of Feeling) "The work of a supreme stylist... Brilliantly done." The Times (on A Heart So White)"
From the Back Cover
EMILY BRONTË, THOMAS MANN, JAMES JOYCE, IVAN TURGENEV, ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON, ARTHUR RIMBAUD, JOSEPH CONRAD, RAINER MARIA RILKE, HENRY JAMES, WILLIAM FAULKNER . . .
Told with a mixture of affection and humour, these brief 'written lives' throw an unexpected, and very human, light on authors too often enshrined, or entombed, in the halo of artistic sainthood. Here, Javier Marías ingeniously revisits the lives and personalities of twenty authors, humanising them and in the process bringing them alive.
'[Marías is] one of the best contemporary European writers.'
'Brief, playful, charming and insightful.'
Alan Chadwick, Metro
'Sprightly and entertaining . . . Literary scholars will no doubt frown upon this sort of carry-on, but these essays are often as evocative of their subjects and as full of illuminating little nuggets of information as a well-written obituary.'
Peter Parker, Times Literary Supplement
'An artful antidote to the "exhaustive and futile erudition" of biography . . . Mann, Mishima, Joyce and Rilke get short, damning shrift. Marías sups from the marrow of their bones with a very long spoon.'
Iain Finlayson, The Times
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa.
Cover illustrations © André Carrilho
Cover design by James Hutcheson
Top customer reviews
Marias's choice of authors is arbitrary. They come from all over the world and reflect a variety of time periods. Lawrence Sterne exists side-by-side with Yukio Mishima and Emily Bronte, Joseph Conrad with William Faulkner and Isak Dinesen, Malcolm Lowry with Rudyard Kipling and Oscar Wilde. Here one finds memorable tidbits such as the following from among hundreds of such tidbits:
William Faulkner was fired from working at the University of Mississippi post office because he hated having his reading interrupted: "He told his family that he was not prepared to keep getting up to wait on people at the window and having to be beholden to any SOB who had two cents to buy a stamp." James Joyce was so egotistical that he once asked, "Don't you think there is a certain resemblance between the Mystery of the Mass and what I am trying to do?"
Henry James's "linguistic punctiliousness" was so great that "the simplest question addressed to a servant would take a minimum of three minutes to formulate." Robert Louis Stevenson was fascinated by evil, associating with Chantrelle, a multiple murderer, whom he considered a friend. Ivan Turgenev's grandmother murdered an annoying young servant, his mother drowned all the babies of the serfs on their estate so that their parents would not neglect their duties. Malcolm Lowry, described as "drunk, drunk, drunk," once told about seeing elephants in the street, a hallucination so ridiculous that his friends would not believe him, even when presented with the steaming evidence on the sidewalk.
A fascinating accumulation of oddities about revered authors, this collection is vibrant in its depictions of their personalities and perceptive in its assessments of how these authors came to be the people they were. Lovers of literary fiction and students of world literature will be delighted by this treasure trove of lesser known facts about the Great Ones. Mary Whipple
The most interesting and light-hearted section is the last, where Marias speculates freely on the personalities displayed in photographs of Edgar Alan Poe, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Baudelaire, Henry James, Gide, Djuna Barnes, Yeats, and many others. The photographs are well reproduced on the page and most are interesting and suggest something of the personas represented. An interesting curiosity, this small, short and readable little book has much to recommend it. I particularly enjoyed the sections in the main book on Robert Louis Stevenson Among Criminals and Laurence Sterne At The End. However, I wasn't much moved by the way a section on Fugitive Women were all lumped together as if undeserving of separate chapters. In particular, the piece on Emily Bronte was something of a travesty. Shameful waste of an opportunity in her case.
There are two further brief sections dealing with "Fugitive Women" and "Perfect Artists"- commentaries on picture postcards of famous authors, which, for me, seem less astute than the brilliant appreciations of the twenty famous authors. All in all, though, an almost perfect collection of pithy observations.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
The premise of the book, according to Marias, "was to treat these well-known literary figures as if they were fictional characters." "This book, then, recounts writers' lives or, more precisely, snippets of their lives." "And although almost nothing in them is invented (that is, fictitious in origin), some episodes and anecdotes have been 'embellished'."
The style is light and engaging, marked by much wry humor. The portraits themselves are somewhat uneven -- though that opinion probably is influenced at least in part by my differing personal responses, favorable and not-so-favorable, to the various subjects. Still, the better sketches are very good. Overall, the collection verges on literate fluff, unlike, oddly, Clive James's "Cultural Amnesia", to which it is somewhat similar (although, thankfully, not in length). The sketches would almost certainly come off better if read one at a time, and indeed twenty of them were first published in twenty separate issues of a Spanish magazine.
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, Kipling, Lampedusa, RL Stevenson, James) to our day (Nabokov, Lowry, Djuna Barnes, Mishima). Never striking out for straight mini-biography, his special interest is in their obsessions and perversions -- such as Nabokov's crankiness, Mishima's frequent stupidity, Joyce's coprophilia, Barnes's exhausting intensity, the way Rimbaud drank and stank and offended everyone, etc.
For the most part, he writes affectionately about his characters, or never with bitterness. The only other feature of all 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; may be Marías' own quirk.
His quirky approach to these writers, and a few other artists, makes for an interesting read presented in an idiomatic translation ...except for the occasional lapse (e.g. "true facts", on p 158) Recommended.
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