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.