Fairly disastrous individuals: Javier Marías, Written Lives

Javier Marías, Written Lives. Penguin Modern Classics, 2016. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. First published in Spain as Vidas escritas, 2000; US, New Directions, 2006

‘Writers are monsters’, said Hilary Mantel in her introduction to Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel (the VMC edition) – which I made the title of my post about that novel. Many of the 26 writers that Javier Marías includes in this idiosyncratic collection would readily fall into that category.

Mostly it’s best to read Written Lives as a collection of short stories – as the author hints we should in his characteristically witty Prologue to this PMC edition (and his regular translator, Margaret Jull Costa, deserves immense credit for her deft, elegant translation):

The idea, then, was to treat these well-known literary figures as if they were fictional characters, singling out interesting ‘snippets’ from their lives; this may well be how all writers, whether famous or obscure, would secretly like to be treated.

All of his subjects, he points out, were ‘fairly disastrous individuals’. His brief portraits – most are about five pages long – are a willed rejection, that is, of the usual solemn ‘hagiography’ usually found in full-length biographies, he suggests. He approaches his subjects with ‘a mixture of affection and humour.’

Marías Written Lives

Isak Dinesen subsisted on oysters and champagne, as this cover photo shows 

And that’s the key to reading this collection. Marías warns us of the ‘lack of seriousness’ in his texts. This is not intended to be an objective work of scholarship.

For example, that Henry James never forgave Flaubert for receiving the Master and Turgenev in his dressing gown – an outrage for which James never forgave him – is probably taken from Ford Madox Ford’s unreliable testimony, as Philip Hensher pointed out in his review of the 2006 edition of this book (see the end of this post).

Nothing in these sketches has been ‘invented’, Marías disingenuously claims in the Prologue, but it’s in ‘what is included and what omitted that the possible accuracy or inaccuracy of these pieces partly lies.’ And although nothing is ‘fictitious’, some ‘episodes and anecdotes’ have been ‘embellished’.

In case we miss the sly wink behind these words, he goes on to advise the ‘suspicous reader who wants to check some fact’ that he appends an impressively lengthy bibliography as a (surely ironic) attempt to provide an aura of academic authenticity to the portraits – that are transparently cobbled together from a range of such sources, but with more of an eye for entertaining anecdotes than for factual veracity. It’s really a work of fiction – and as such, hugely entertaining.

Largely because of the sly humour. To Malcolm Lowry Marías awards the dubious accolade of

the most calamitous writer in the whole history of literature, which is no mean feat, given the intense competition in the field.

Animals don’t fare too well. The paranoid drunk Lowry, we’re told, once took exception to a horse pulling a cart as he passed by because it gave what he took to be a ‘derisive snort’ – even the beasts were conspiring against him. His response was ‘to punch the horse so hard below the ear that the horse quivered and sank to its knees’ – the horse recovered, but Lowry suffered acute remorse for weeks afterwards.

As he did when, like Lennie in Of Mice and Men (is that where he got the story?), he inadvertently broke the neck of a pet rabbit that he was stroking on his lap, watched by the owner and owner’s mother. Like all the best comic writers, Marías is able to risk an outrageous step further after such a moment; he adds

For two days, he wandered the streets of London carrying the corpse, not knowing what to do with it and consumed by self-loathing, until…the waiter in a bar agreed to provide what promised to be a funeral as ordained by the God of all animals.

There are countless such moments of deliciously nasty insights into these…well, semi-fictitious portraits. Like Conrad, who ‘lived in a permanent state of extreme tension’; such was his uncontrollable ‘irritability’ that whenever he dropped his pen, instead of simply picking it up and carrying on writing,

he would spend several minutes exasperatedly drumming his fingers on the desk as if bemoaning what had occurred.

Conan Doyle, when he was about to become a practising doctor, once thrashed a bully who’d kicked a woman – he was an accomplished boxer, and prone to getting into brawls. The next day the man showed up at his surgery, his first patient. Fortunately he didn’t recognise his doctor.

This is what Marías says about Rilke:

It is not known what he liked, as regards food or other things, apart from the letter “y” – which he wrote whenever he could – as well, of course, as travelling and women.

This post is already becoming too long, but I must mention a trait of Marías’ inimitable style and approach that I’ve discussed in previous posts about his novels, and is also present to comic effect in Written Lives: his habit of judiciously, wryly moving from a detailed particular into a generalising aphorism of spurious portentousness: of Isak Dinesen he says that her philandering husband was the twin brother of the man she had loved from girlhood,

and bonds formed through a third party are perhaps the most difficult to break.

RL Stevenson was

undoubtedly chivalrous, but not excessively so, or rather, he was simply chivalrous enough, for every true gentleman has behaved like a scoundrel at least once in his life.

This volume includes a section of even briefer accounts of notable women (not all of them writers). Like Lowry, the quick-tempered Emily Bronte is said to have punched an animal that had caused her disgruntlement, with similarly dolorous effect (for the dog).

A final section gives Marías’ interpration of photo portraits of writers. These again are surely not intended to be read as serious, but are prompts for some good jokes – for example, he says that in his picture, Nietzsche wears an overcoat ‘that looks as if it had been lent to him by some much burlier relative.’

Philip Hensher’s review of the 2006 edition finds the book inaccurate, rather pointless and embarrassing; he’s also po-facedly critical of the wayward observations Marías offers in that final section, and offers this one of his own about the dustjacket photo of Marías in that edition; it’s just as good as those by the King of Redonda:

Given all of this, it is almost more than you could ask of a reviewer not to comment on the portrait of Marías himself on the dustjacket. Well, he has narrowed his eyes in a way which conventionally indicates sceptical intelligence; his hair could do with some attention (impossible genius); he is holding a burnt-down cigarette like a prop or a trophy, like a non-smoking actress in a revival of Hay Fever. He looks, slightly appallingly, like an author having his photograph taken.

 

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13 thoughts on “Fairly disastrous individuals: Javier Marías, Written Lives

  1. OK, I think my favorite part of this essay, Simon, is Phillip Hensher’s description of the author’s book jacket photo!

    Maureen

  2. As you probably know, I am a Marias fan (although I’ve yet to read any of his non-fiction). This sounds like a great book for dipping into every now and again – the sly humour you mention is definitely evident in some of the quotes.

  3. I love this book. “Dipping”! I remember blasting through it, having to restrain myself from reading too much at once. You describe it well – its appeal, and what some people will I suppose find irritating.

  4. This sounds like a very fun read, perhaps Marias was channelling ‘fake news’ before it’s recent resurgence! The review by Henscher is also clever and fun. Lovely review, Simon,

    • Thanks, Belinda. It is great fun, affectionate and humorous, as JM says in his Prologue – but pretty uncompromising on that trio of egotists. Even in more benign portrayals he can be sharp; this is him on Conan Doyle: ‘[ACD] was convinced of his own importance, which is an agreeable way to go through life for those who manage to believe such a thing ‘

  5. I particularly like writers writing about other writers when they are ‘indiscreet’!
    You will be pleased to know that there is a collection of Marias’ essays coming out later this year.

    • You got me thinking about JM’s ‘indiscretions’; I liked this little passage, about Rilke, who had a ‘brief marriage to the sculptor Clara Westhoff:they married in the spring of 1901 and separated in May 1902, and perhaps because of this remained on excellent terms.’

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