In a world accustomed to in-depth author interviews in the Paris Review, lengthy New Yorker-style profiles, and obsessive Wikipedia biographies, Javier Marias’s Written Lives, a book of brief writings about dead authors (the pieces average about 7 pages in length) is a real throwback to earlier, simpler times when sources were irrelevant and footnotes an annoyance. As Marias says in his short Prologue, he wanted to go against the grain in “the age of exhaustive and frequently futile erudition” in which any “curious reader can find out absolutely everything down to the last detail.”
The idea, then, was to treat these well-known literary figures as if they were fictional characters, which may well be how all writers, whether famous or obscure, would secretly like to be treated.
The writings collected here, it should be noted, are neither profiles nor biographies. Instead, as this sampling of chapter titles suggests, Marias focuses on a single attribute or quirk and constructs a tight and usually amusing narrative that resembles something not unlike a jazz improvisational solo: William Faulkner on Horseback, James Joyce in his Poses, Arthur Conan Doyle and Women, Robert Louis Stevenson Among Criminals, Thomas Mann in his Suffering, Djuna Barnes in Silence. But although the book is about writers, don’t expect anything about their books. Marias rarely mentions or discusses their writings. And in place of erudition, Marias writes as if rumor and whisper were the chief sources of fact. Take the piece Oscar Wilde After Prison, which is full of statements introduced by “According to all who met him…”, “Others have said…”, “Many people…found him…but all agree…”, “…according to legend…”, “…they say…”, “”Legend has it…”, and so on.
Marias pretends to be a neutral and bemused observer, except in a handful of cases, most notably with Yukio Mishima, where a fair amount of vitriol finds its way into Yukio Mishima in Death.
The death of Yukio Mishima was so spectacular that it has almost succeeded in obliterating the many other stupid things he did in his life, as if his previous non-stop exhibitionism had been merely a way of getting people’s attention for the culminating moment, doubtless the only one that really interested him.
Something about Mishima, in particular, offends Marias. “Although to those who knew him, Mishima was an extremely likable man with a lively sense of humor.” Nevertheless, Marias cuts Mishima no slack whatsoever and finds him pompous, narcissistic, cunning, immodest, and guilty of obsessing on eroticism, death, cannibalism, and other unpleasant matters. Marias, who often strikes me as trying to be more English than a true Englishman, responds to Mishima by demonstrating no attempt whatsoever to comprehend Japanese culture. But that said, Marias’ writing really comes alive when he’s out to destroy someone’s character.