'A Woman should know only how to do 3 Things: Tell the Truth, Ride a Horse, and Sign a Cheque.'

....or so said William Faulkner, according to Javier Marias' delightfully surreal 'Written Lives', which brings together a series of mini biographies of well-known writers, composed out of 'fragmentary and often...bizarre' anecdotal vignettes and tit-bits that '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.' Of course, we know this to be absolutely true (in my case anyway - I used to frequently fake name people for the hell of it, and whilst temping, would make up fictional life histories and fake siblings and uncles just to pass the time.) 

I actually read this book months ago, and have faffed around with writing about it, as, firstly, who the hell knows where to start? and secondly, my thoughts on it were heavily influenced by the Wuthering Expectations review that induced me to buy it, so the quick attempts I made all ended up as a less-funny parroting of the original review. I mean it only in tribute of course, but still..

So, rather than step into that particular quagmire of plagiarism, I'm going to list the reasons for this book's awesomeness in a curt way that leaves no room for unconscious imitation or extraneous exclamation:
  It is both wittingly, and unwittingly, hilarious. I snorted whatever liquid I was drinking out of my nose at least once a chapter. (Naturally, spirits are not advised with this book.)

  It is the reason that I was the only person in the cinema to get the reference to Djuna Barnes having to lead when dancing in 'Midnight in Paris'.. For that, I am eternally (and smugly) grateful.

  I now know that I'd never want to meet Rilke down a dark alley - due in entirety to the fact that he has the most terrifying face, not that he'd be, of course, a ghost - and that Nabokov should never wear a flat cap whilst showing his knees. I am not alone in feeling this way about Rilke's ghoulish features:

'Rilke does not have the face one would suppose him to have, so delicate and unbearable was he in his habits and needs as a great poet...with those dark circles under deep-set eyes, and the sparse, drooping moustache which gives him a strangely Mongolian appearance; those cold oblique eyes...the truth is that he could be a visionary doctor in a laboratory, awaiting the results of some monstrous and forbidden experiment.'

   Writing success does not cure neurotic and insecure writers of their maladies - age and public attention seem to exacerbate them until you cannot finish a sentence or leave your apartment (Djuna Barnes), deny all knowledge of manuscripts and articles that are clearly yours (Joseph Conrad) or decide, in the end, that 'all art is nonsense' and never write again (Arthur Rimbaud). And Rimbaud wasn't even that old. Laurence Sterne sounds like a thoroughly nice chap, and it is rather unfortunate that he ended up being recognised whilst being dissected by Cambridge medical students shortly after his death. How awkward for all involved.

  It's a veritable quote fest. Here are a few humdingers: 

'Madame du Deffand's life was clearly far too long for someone who considered that her greatest misfortune was to have been born at all.'

 'His [Arthur Rimbaud's] abandonment of poetry at an uncertain age (let's say around twenty) has stirred the timid imagination of every precocious writer since, tempting them to do the same thing at some point, normally, helas, at a rather more advanced age: by comparison, however, every other precocious writer has been a late bloomer.'

'Other photographs which he [Yukio Mishima] bequethed to the more infantile enthusiasts of calendar sex were no less comic: Mishima standing before a large mirror, gazing at his own rather puny chest; Mishima with a pyromaniac glint in his eye and a white rose in his mouth; Mishima doing weight-training in order to develop some decent biceps; Mishima half-naked and pulling in his stomach, with a bandanna around his head, a samurai sword in his hands, and an expression that verges on the apopletic; Mishima wearing a paramilitary uniform, which is surprisingly restrained given that he himself dreamed up the design for his own private army, the Tatenokai.'

(Yukio Mishima - odd chap.)

  Marias is everywhere (everywhere!) in this book, offering up his opinion quite freely and sardonically, in a way surely unbefitting to some of the greatest writers of the last few hundred years. I can't wait to read some more of his work.

For a much better review of this book, click here.


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