Friday, July 8, 2011

Written Lives, the Javier Marías book that is most like a bag of potato chips or season of 30 Rock on DVD or whatever your metaphor for compulsively readable might be

Another bad idea – I got a million of ‘em! – is to write about a book I read five years ago and do not have in my possession.  A critic must be flexible.  The book is Written Lives by Javier Marías, published in Spanish in 1992, Englished by the heroic Margaret Jull Costa in 2006.  On the surface a collection of little biographies of famous writers, it is a stranger book than it appears, but still a good possibility for the skeptical reader, the one who suspects Marías of postmodern twaddle.

William Faulkner, Isak Dinesen, Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Conrad, Emily Brontë, and so on, twenty-six total biographical sketches, each accompanied by a photograph of the individual – Marías, in an additional and somewhat dull essay discusses his collection of photographs of authors.  The pieces are idiosyncratic and incomplete, meaning that they cannot substitute for encyclopedia entries.  Marías stitches together whatever anecdotes or oddities or stray facts strike his fancy.  He is always interested in an author’s last words, for example, and bad habits, and hobbies:

Isak Dinesen claimed to have poor sight, yet she could spot a four-leaf clover in a field from a remarkable distance away, and could see the new moon when it was not yet visible.  When she saw it, she would curtsy to it three times, and, she claimed, you must never look at it through glass, because that spelled bad luck.  She played the piano and the flute, preferably Schubert on the first and Handel on the second, and in the evenings, she would often recite poems by her favourite poet, Heine, and sometimes by Goethe, whom she detested, but nevertheless recited.  She loathed Dostoyevsky… (20)

Marías, in Written Lives, has no interest at all in his subjects’ writing (or, really, he takes the value of the writing as given), but is fascinated by their reading:  “The author he hated most, though, was Dostoyevsky…  the mere mention of his name would provoke a furious outburst” (13) – this is Joseph Conrad.  “He read Don Quixote every year” (8)- that’s Faulkner.

The underlying concept of Written Lives is “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” (1-2).  Here we have the germ, it seems, of Dark Back of Time, published six years later, in which Marías treats himself like a fictional character.

I am able to indulge in this post, these quotations, because of the generous excerpts available through Google books.  The entire Faulkner piece, all four pages of it, is available there, and should be a good guide for any curious reader.  Too bad the cruel, hilarious Thomas Mann essay is not online.

I have some doubts about the value of Written Lives, which at times seems like biography as gossip.  When I had it in my hands, though, it was too compulsively fun to stop reading.


  1. "When I had it in my hands, though, it was too compulsively fun to stop reading."

    I love know what great novelists read and what they think of other writers.

    Love it.


  2. The next best bad idea will be to write reviews of books you've never read. And then, a la Borges, you can write reviews of books that have never been written.

    I enjoyed your post yesterday, tying together a bunch of Marías' work into one metanovel. David Mitchell has something similar (but far more slight) going on in his books: they're all connected (or maybe "connectable" is better) by blood-ties of some of the characters. Not to the level of Faulkner; I think it's just something Mitchell does for his own amusement.

    -scott bailey

  3. Kevin - Oh me, too. I can dismiss my doubts by considering that each of the four or five page pieces in this book condenses and one hopes, for most readers, replaces an 800 page biography. Marías has pulled out all of the best curiosities.

    Scott - You have made me realize that Marías is making an anti-Borgesian gesture. The books are real - his own books, books he mentions in his own books - and everything else is invented.

    My little series on Alberto Caeiro was perhaps my most Borgesian gesture, writing about real poems by an imaginary poet.

    I did not know that about David Mitchell.

  4. I relished this one. The "biography as gossip" is really a fun genre. Also loved his scathing entries on Joyce, Mishima, and Rilke. Perhaps making an entry on himself ("Marías and I") would be too beholden to Borges. So the Dark Back of Time is perfect realization of this double existence as writer and character.

    (Your quote yesterday: "I said I no longer know if there is one of us or two, at least while I am writing. Now I know that of those two possible figures, one would have to be fictitious." is a hat tip to Borges - "I live, I let myself live, so that Borges can plot his literature and that literature justifies me.... I don’t know which of the two writes this page.")

  5. I have had this on my shelf and, thanks to you, I am now reading it—compulsively, of course. It's wonderful! Read this in the section on Lampedusa and thought of you and your as-yet-nonexistent boredom project:
    "He had not only read all the important and essential writers, but also the second-rate and the mediocre, whom, especially as regards the novel, he considered to be as necessary as the great: 'One has to learn how to be bored,' he used to say, and he read bad literature with interest and patience."

    Okay, I thought of myself a little bit too.

  6. I remember the Lampedusa piece as a favorite. Or as a positive favorite. The slash jobs Rise mentions are a scream.

    I had not noticed that the Marías quotation was so clearly modeled on "Borges and I." Muy bien.

  7. Hilarious. I just went straight from here to Amazon. Bravo!

  8. Good, good. It's a most enjoyable book for bookish folks.