(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUL 23, 2007)
"The one thing that leaps out when you read about these authors is that they were all fairly disastrous individuals; and although they were probably no more so than anyone else whose life we know about, their example is hardly likely to lure one along the path of letters."—Javier Marías, Written Lives.
Illustrating this collection of anecdotes about twenty world-famous authors with startling photographs, Javier Marías, one of Spain's most respected contemporary authors, shares personal oddities about each of them. Here he presents individual mini-bios as if they were short stories, "enhancing" some details (though all details are said to be true) and minimizing others, bringing literature's icons to life, showing them with all their warts and blemishes. Some of these tales have the feel of secret histories, those stories that the authors' publicists (if, indeed, such animals had existed at the time) would try to suppress. Yet Marías writes with humor, not with bile—and in most cases with actual affection, the three exceptions being James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and Yukio Mishima.
Marías says at the outset that his choice of authors is arbitrary, though all subjects are dead and none of them are Spanish. They come from the United States, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Japan, Italy, Russia, Poland, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, England, and India, and they 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 the following memorable tidbits 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 son-of-a-bitch who had two cents to buy a stamp."
Joseph Conrad would often deny that he had written something that was undoubtedly his, and, when offered proof, "would simply shrug his shoulders…and lapse into one of his [famous] silences."
James Joyce was afraid of storms and wrote obscene letters (reproduced here) to his wife. He 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 "was made both miserable and happy by the same thing, namely that he was a mere spectator who barely participated in life, or, at least, not in its most sterling and exciting aspects." His "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, sickly all his life, was fascinated by evil, associating with Chantrelle, a multiple murderer, whom he considered a friend.
Among the most amazing of authors is Ivan Turgenev, whose grandmother murdered an annoying young servant, hitting him over the head with a piece of wood, dragging him over to an armchair, and then sitting on his head and asphyxiating him. 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," was the "most calamitous writer in the whole history of literature, which is no mean feat, given the intense competition in the field." One day, he 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.
The most repulsive author he describes is Arthur Rimbaud, who never changed his clothes, was covered with lice, and drank constantly. With his best friend Verlaine, he often engaged in bloody battles, once slashing Verlaine's hands with a knife, and once being shot by Verlaine.
Other authors earn great sympathy from the reader—Oscar Wilde, Lawrence Sterne at the end of this life, and the unhappy and reclusive Rudyard Kipling.
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. (Translated by Margaret Jull Costa)
- Amazon readers rating: from 7 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Voyage Along the Horizon (1972; 2006 in English)
- The Man of Feeling (1986: 2003 in English)
- All Souls (1889; 1992 in English)
- A Heart So White (1992; 1995 in English)
- Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me (1994; 1996 in English)
- When I Was Mortal (1996; 1999 in English)
- Dark Back of Time (1998; 2001 in English)
- Your Face Tomorrow 1: Fever and Spear (2002: 2004 in English)
- Your Face Tomorrow 2: Dance and Dream (2004; 2006 in English)
- While the Women Are Sleeping (2010)
- The Infactuations (August 2013)
- Written Lives (1992; 2007 in English)
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- Wikipedia page on Javier Marías
- Guardian Unlimited interview with Javier Marías
- The New Yorker on Javier Marías
- Danny Yee's review of All Souls
- Book Slut review of The Man of Feeling
- Complete review of When I Was Mortal
- MostlyFiction.com reivew of While the Women Are Sleeping
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About the Author:
Javier Marías was born in Madrid, Spain in 1951. He published his first novel at the age of nineteen. He earned his first paycheck at age twenty translating Dracula scripts into Spanish for his uncle, the movie director Jesús Franco. Today his own work is translated into thirty-four languages, and four and a half million copies of his books have sold worldwide. His many prizes include the prestigious IMPAC Dublin International Literary award for A Heart So White.
He is also a highly praised translator into Spanish of English authors, including Conrad, Stevenson, Hardy, and Laurence Sterne. He has held academic posts in Spain, the United States (where he was visiting professor at Wellesley College) and in Britain, as Lecturer in Spanish Literature at Oxford University.
He currently lives in Madrid.