Friday, September 18, 2009

Written Lives by Javier Marias

The Independent said "Marias is one of the best minds in fiction today. His is an experiential kind of writing, a thinking on the page, unlike anything else now."

What a joy it was, then, to find a work of nonfiction by this same author: 'Written Lives'. It was first published in his native Spain as 'Vidas Escritas' in 2000 but the English edition did not come out until 2006 - translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

In it he explores the real life of famous authors (as I have done also in a different way in 'American Masters'). He writes portraits - some very brief - about William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, Isak Dinesen, James Joyce, Henry James, Thomas Mann, Nabokov, Rainer Maria Rilke, and many others. Did you know, for instance, that Faulkner wrote 'As I Lay Dying' in six weeks while stoking a boiler with coal at an electric power plant. (And I thought I knew just about everything there was to know about Faulkner). Arthur Rimbaud (for another instance) abandoned poetry at a young age. As an adult he had nothing at all to do with poetry and lived on the Somali coast, employed at the worst jobs imaginable. He apparently took his own famous words seriously, "Je est un autre' "I is someone else".

He goes into excruciating detail about the death of Yukio Mishima of Japan. (Don't read it, I warn you, unless you have a strong stomach). Or Robert Louis Stevenson: "Perhaps because he died so young or because he was ill all his life, perhaps because of those exotic journeys which, at the time, seemed nothing short of heroic, perhaps because one began reading him as a child, but whatever the reason, there is about the figure of Robert Louis Stevenson a touch of chivalry and angelic purity, which, if taken too far, can verge on the cloying."

Or the Russian Ivan Turgenev, of whom Pauline Viardot said, "He was the saddest of men."

For those who are serious about writing and reading, this book certainly deserves a look.

Friday, September 11, 2009


Emily Dickinson was not a laborer on the surface of things. Her poems are concerned with death and God and eternity. She allowed herself to think and write what other women of her time dared not even whisper:

The reticent volcano keeps
His never slumbering plan;
Confided are his projects pink
To no precarious man.

If nature will not tell the tale
Jehovah told to her
Can human nature not survive
Without a listener?

Admonished by her buckled lips
Let every babbler be
The only secret people keep
Is Immortality.

When she speaks of a volcano here she is speaking not of that mound of earth one sees on the surface, but of what is inside - a hidden secret. The volcano is always cooking his plan hidden in that mound, never revealing his plan of pink eruption (projection), which will happen in his own good time. Certainly this plan is not being revealed to man, who will hear its voice soon enough and loudly enough that there will be no mistaking it. Nature hold's God's truth closely - it is not easily revealed. People could learn from this lesson in silence. The volcano doesn't wear anyone out with its babbling. It only speaks when it is important to speak. The only secret worth speaking of in humankind is the secret of Immortality. Perhaps people should not be too quick to talk it to death.

What else can I say?