“Written Lives” by Javier Marias

Reviewed by Alex Wenger

Image of “Written Lives” by Javier Marias

It is a small but unmistakable invitation to chaos in the prologue to his newly translated Written Lives when Javier Marias deadpans that he has made up "almost nothing" in the content of this book. Written Lives is a collection of biographies of canonical authors, and making up anything would constitute an act of mischief upon both the reader and literary history as a whole. In fact, the whole project reads like a gentle prank: to treat the greatest writers as if they were short story characters. Marias thankfully has a masterful touch, and his toying with the tradition has a purpose.

Most readers will be excited by the notion of William Faulkner and Henry James as short story characters, a well-founded faith. The stories are irresistible. James, we are told, was fussy as a guest, never forgiving Flaubert for his host's having received him in a work-shirt. But he found it the height of civilization when Guy de Maupassant greeted him for lunch in the company of a masked and otherwise naked woman. Is it true? The reader will certainly want it to be true. Indeed, the deliciousness of the stories—did Malcolm Lowry really break the neck of a friend's pet rabbit while petting it and then lug the corpse about with him for two days?—often threaten to appear impossibly fanciful. They suggest the work more of a confectioner than a gardener.

This doubt and the anxiety it produces seem central to Marias's project. At some point, a great writer becomes a necessary appurtenance to his own pages, and his absence creates a problem for his readers. Is there any more biographied personage than William Shakespeare, a man about whom almost nothing is known? So slender is our dossier on the man that we would throw it out entirely, deny attribution of authorship, and give him a new identity more easily documented, perhaps Sir Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe.

Larry McMurtry once wrote that the lives of writers are almost always more interesting than the works they produce—a useful, if bizarre, overstatement. Writers can become ultimate characters, in a way. It isn't that we compare Nabokov directly to Dolly Haze and judge the relative excitements of their stories. It is rather that Nabokov is all at once attendant with, subordinated to, and in possession of Lolita and all of the rest (Humbert, Kinbote, Pnin, Quilty, etc.), with the added benefit of being credited with a corporeal existence. That the author can be photographed makes this addition of a body only better.

Pictures play a major role in Written Lives. Each biography is preceded by a portrait of its subject, and the final chapter of the book is an essay on author photographs. In this essay, Marias describes the "perfect artist." A perfect artist is an artist who both has been photographed and has died. Marias chooses not to explain this perfection, but implied is the idea that in leaving behind an image after a death, a transfiguration is possible. Having sailed for Byzantium, the writer is rendered into his own bust and set alongside his creations, the artifice of eternity his reward. Without the image, the bust would be impossible—and the artist without a bust could hardly be perfect.

Perhaps oddly, then, it is a fixation on eternity or the eternal that most draws Marias's ire among his biography subjects. He admits in his prologue to having failed to generate affection for three men—James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and Yukio Mishima. The self-seriousness of each man is highlighted and his dreams of posthumous celebrity ridiculed. None of these three biographies are much fun, coming across as mean-spirited and not a little puzzling. For what writer, let alone what great writer, has ever been utterly free of the sins of vanity and self-seriousness? Such invidious distinctions seem especially curious coming from a writer such as Marias, whose ambition and accomplishments make him a yearly candidate for the Nobel Prize. But these minor dissonances detract little from the overwhelming effervescence of the book. The past becomes all text and image, as has been said in one form or another by Derrida, DeLillo, and countless others. Marias offers us one of the sunniest upshots yet of that formulation without sacrificing intellectual depth. And we can all be grateful to him for the image of Isak Dinesen at a dinner party, casually menacing her boyfriend with a revolver.