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.

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