Ah, Javier, you wonderful bastard—so well-read, so capable an author, so Marías-ish—so capable of doing what you write about (I’ll come back to that).
In Written Lives, Marías paints brief portraits of many well-known authors, weaving in information that is less well-known, creating wonderful stories that supplement the biographies most of us will never read. Aspects of lives are emphasized, humanizing (or dehumanizing) these artists, in forms that will linger, haunt, and inform our reading of said authors, probably, forever.
But, you don’t care about that…the beauty…you’re anxious for the salacious, the morbid, the gossipy, and, honestly, that’ll be more fun to write about anyway.In the book’s Prologue, JM states:
"Far from being a hagiography, and far, too, from the solemnity with which artists are frequently treated, these Written Lives are told, I think, with a mixture of affection and humour. The latter is doubtless present in every case, the former, I must admit, is lacking in the case of James Joyce, Mann, and Mishima."And with that in mind:
James Joyce and His Poses:
As a young man, he was already rather pompous and full of himself, concerned with what he would write and with his early (and, later, perennial) hatred of Ireland and the Irish. When he had still written only a few poems, he asked his brother Stanislaus: “Don’t you think there is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the Mass and what I am trying to do? I mean that I am trying in my poems to give people some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of daily life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own…for their mental, moral, and spiritual uplift.” When he was older his comparisons may have been less eucharistic and more modest, but he was always convinced of the extreme importance of his work, even before it existed.“Even before it existed”—nice, huh? He goes on to say:
”James Joyce appears to have been one of those artists who so ostentatiously adopt the pose of genius that they end up persuading their contemporaries and several generations more that they not only are geniuses, but that they always—indubitably and irremissibly—were. In keeping with this pose, he was famous because he did not care whether people read him or not…”Now I’ll wager you thought JM was going to dredge up Joyce’s coprophilia, in fact, there’s merely a mention of it. If you absolutely must know more about JJ’s interest in Nora’s dirty knickers, you’ll just have to read the Letters.
Thomas Mann in His Suffering
What seems certain is that the one area in which Thomas Mann never raised a laugh (not even a forced one) was in his private life, at least to judge by his letters and diaries, which are dreadfully serious. The latter, of course, were only published in 1975, twenty years after his death, and once you have read them, there seems to be only three possible reasons for their delay: to keep people waiting and give himself airs, to prevent people from knowing too soon that he couldn’t keep eyes his off young men, and so that no one would know the trouble he had with his stomach, and how fundamental to him these vicissitudes (his stomach’s, I mean) were.As one might imagine, JM then seems to have some fun giving multiple examples of TM’s boy fetish and intestinal turmoil documentation and proving that TM was a gasbag both figuratively and literally. ‘Nuff said.
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 getting people’s attention for the culminating moment, doubtless the only one that really interested him. That, at least, is how we must see it, as coming from his deep-rooted fascination with violent death, which—if the victim was young and had a good body—he considered to be the height of beauty.Following a description of Mishima’s incredible paranoia of being poisoned, even while fantasizing of cannibalizing a young, athletic friend (apparently his friend wasn’t perceived as poisonous), we learn:
This erotic fascination with manly bodies tortured, dismembered, flayed, butchered or impaled had marked Mishima since adolescence. He was immodest enough as a writer to ensure that posterity was kept au fait with his ejaculations, from which one must deduce that he lay great store by them, and so we are obliged to know that he had his first ejaculation while contemplating a reproduction of St. Sebastian whom Guido Reni had painted pierced with arrows.JM goes on to relate the contortions YM went to when he heard that the Nobel had finally been awarded to a Japanese writer.
He organized his return from a tour to coincide with the date on which the decision would be announced, and reserved a VIP suite in a downtown hotel. However, when the plane landed and he was the first to emerge, laughing and smiling, he found the airport plunged in gloom because the prize had gone to some wretched Guatemalan. A year later, his depression only deepened: the Nobel prize did, at last, go to Japan, but to his friend and teacher Yasunari Kawabata. Mishima opted for a bit of reflected glory; he rushed to Kawabata’s house so as to be the first to be seen congratulating him and at least appear in the photos.Poor bastard.
Lest one think all the entries in Written Lives are author bashing, legend busting diatribes, most are favorable even while exploiting some of the authors’ individual quirks. Among the authors included: Faulkner, Conrad, Dinesen, Henry James, Conan Doyle, Turgenev, Nabokov, Rilke, Lowry, Kipling, Rimbaud, Djuna Barnes, Wilde,Sterne, Emily Brontë, et al. Additionally, there is an essay including a sequence of author portraits which JM interprets in the manner that Deza might in the Your Face Tomorrow sequence (I said I’d get back to that). Very nice.
4.5 stars, rounded down, because there weren’t more authors, covered or exposed.